Before determining the exact components of your English garden, you must know what an English garden is. The charmingly rampant garden centered round the cottage only one style, popularized by famed Victorian garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. On larger estates, the English garden style usually depended much more on the studied “natural” look of wide open lawns surrounded by parks of carefully-manicured woodlands interspersed with small lakes or manmade streams -- a style most often associated with the 18th century landscaper Capability Brown.
Cottage-Style vs. Naturalistic
In many ways, these English garden styles are similar. Both strive to emphasize a natural look and merge an easy, unstudied grace upon the landscape. However, the cottage style is essentially a plant lover’s style which observes a natural harmony but emphasizes individual plants through textural, color and size differences, creating interesting contrasts and diversity of species. The naturalistic style focuses less on individual plants and more on the overall theme, spreading over a large area to create an appealing, romantic tableau in broad strokes. The cottage garden invites closer inspection, while the naturalistic garden tempts a wide ramble.
The Naturalistic Garden
Though essentially a manmade creation, the intent of a naturalistic garden is to mimic nature in a highly idealized way -- a kind of “ultra nature.” Where nature may have placed a meadow filled with grasses and wildflowers, the naturalistic garden creates vistas of manicured lawn. A forest with randomly arranged trees and shrubs in every stage of growth and decay, complete with brambles and undergrowth, becomes a picturesque, park-like setting designed for strolling. Seemingly spontaneous views are carefully staged to take in remnants of ruins -- also usually artificial -- or man-made lakes surrounded by meandering paths.
The Cottage-Style Garden
The English cottage-style garden is exuberant and colorful, and although it may look unplanned, it really does have reason behind its layout. Authentic country cottages are often small, with limited garden space, and historically each plant worked for its keep. Most were culinary or medicinal, though some were planted for pleasant perfume or attractiveness to pollinators. Today, the main rule for an authentic look is to provide diversity in color, texture and height, while planting species that you love.
Achieving a Style
You can imitate the effect of an authentic English garden with climate-compatible plants where you live. Unless you have a large property to work with, the cottage garden is the more practical of the two styles. Cottage gardens have little or no lawn but do incorporate grassy paths, so lay out the areas you want as walkways, then plan borders and beds. Cottage gardens center on the home, so begin by choosing vines and climbers to clothe and soften harsh architectural lines, walls and fences -- especially those of materials such as chain link or concrete. Brick, stone and stucco structures and stone or grass paths enhance the look. Cottage-style gardens fill spaces, hold a lot of plants and need near-constant maintenance. You must truly love gardening to pull this style off well.
English ivy (Hedera helix), hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 to 9, and roses (Rosa spp.), varying in cold hardiness from USDA zone 3 and above, are good choices to place in front of walls. Old favorites like foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea), hardy in zones 4 to 9, hollyhocks (Alcea rosa) hardy to zone 4, carnations and pinks (Dianthus spp.) hardy in zones 3 to 10, and English primroses (Primula vulgaris), hardy to zone 6, are excellent perennial choices. Varieties of all these plants are available for most of the U.S., but if you live where any do not grow well, substitute similarly-shaped, colored and textured plants adapted to your climate. Local garden centers often have suggestions for selections adapted to your area.