Two Styles Of English Garden: Cottage and Formal

Yellow, apricot and blue cottage garden

If every garden (and every human) was the same, the world would be a pitiful place. These very different gardens seem to suit their respective home perfectly. Viewed together, each accentuates the other’s beauty.

The first, a private cottage garden in the grounds of Dorothy Clive Gardens, is super colourful, flower-filled and just a little laissez-faire. Flowers in shades of apricot, yellow and blue gaily tumble over each other above the unifying green, partly obscuring the view from the home and creating a feeling of privacy.

Formal garden with topiary cones

The second garden, Levels Hall in The Lake District, is grand, formal and manicured. Mullioned windows of a centuries-old stately home overlook topiary cones, tall yew hedges and garden benches. A stone urn acts as a centrepiece above a circle of bedding plants. Gravel makes the area pleasant for visitors to stroll through and continues along the same neutral vein as the benches and stone building. Our eyes, naturally alert to colour and variation, find interest in the different greens while noting the feeling of harmony and restraint.  

It’s tempting to frame these styles as opposites, but that would be missing the point. Styles don’t ever oppose, they are only more or less true to themselves. Casting never a backwards look, pure style revels in itself completely. By hedging its bets (no pun intended) style becomes diluted.

In these two gardens I seem to see wholeheartedness. A sense of what they are, and pleasure taken in being so.

As visitors to gardens, we never have to choose, not really. Even if we love formality and tidiness at home, we can suspend our inclinations long enough to appreciate the vibrancy of the wildest flower garden. And if our gardens tend towards the dishevelled, we can still admire control – while thanking our lucky stars we aren’t responsible for the pruning, watering and tending.

24 thoughts on “Two Styles Of English Garden: Cottage and Formal

    • susurrus says:

      Luckily the gardeners at Levens Hall are cheery sorts, if a cartoon I saw finger-drawn on their greenhouse shading is anything to go by.

  1. tonytomeo says:

    I still prefer the formal, and I can get away with it in such small gardens. Most of my garden is full of vegetables in very regimented rows. Anyway, no one else seems to like formal style, and it is very difficult to maintain such style in large gardens like the arboretum. Even the gardens at Filoli are no longer as formal as they were designed to be. (I think it would be possible there, but no one knows how to do it anymore, or just does not care to do it properly.) The arboretum is very informal and relaxed, and perfect for the rhododendrons and azaleas it displays.

    • susurrus says:

      I’m sure it helps to have plenty of staff to keep a formal garden neat. It’s always nice to see a productive vegetable garden, laid out in rows.

  2. Oddment says:

    “Wholeheartedness” — now there’s a word to garden by. I take your point about style, and I’d agree that each of these is true to itself. And, it would appear, true to its home. For me, the first, but I’d love to have a close relative who lives in the second so I could visit!

  3. The Schulz Blog says:

    My vegetable garden at home is always manicured, with clean rows and a border of boxwoods. My flower gardens, however…that is where my free spirit roams. 😊

    • susurrus says:

      I much prefer to see flowers in gardens and can overlook almost no end of other impediments or eccentricities of style in those that have them.

    • susurrus says:

      I’m sure there’s a joke along the lines of Gertrude Jekyll and Hyde, but it’s just eluding me… Hyde Park, perhaps, if it was all formal.

    • susurrus says:

      The more flowers the merrier for me. We recently stopped to take pictures in an old cemetery that was covered in golden coreopsis. I can’t imagine ever forgetting the sight.

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