Articles on the English Garden by Peter Longley

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The Quintessential English Garden
and The English Garden at Close Memorial Park
are superb articles written by Peter Longley, novelist, theologian, master gardener, and horticultural interpreter for the Springfield-Greene County Botanical Center in Springfield, Missouri. We reproduce them here with the permission of Peter and the Friends of the Garden.
      Peter knows whereof he speaks, as he is the creator of the English Garden, one of the loveliest and best-loved of the city's botanical gardens. It can be viewed in Nathanael Greene/Close Memorial Park, 2400 S. Scenic in Springfield


by Peter Longley

Posted on the Friends of the Garden Blog on February 5, 2011 by George Deatz

        Some of our brochures at the Botanical Center describe the English Garden at Close Memorial Park as The Quintessential English Garden. What does this mean?

        Botanically, it is hard to replicate an English Garden here in the Ozarks. The range in climate differences between the United Kingdom and Missouri is considerable. Missouri summers are some twenty degrees warmer than England and our winters about fifteen degrees cooler. So, what is quintessential about the English Garden at Close Memorial Park?

There are certain design elements that go into most English gardens that are steeped in the history of the development of typical English gardens.

        Most European gardens have their origins in the monastic gardens of the middle ages. In England, however, the herb garden became personal as early as the sixteenth century with the development of an independent landowning yeoman middle-class. This did not happen in Europe until the French Revolution in 1789 or as late as the Russian Revolution in 1917.

        In Europe, gardening remained either monastic or on the grand baroque pattern of Europe's feudal and aristocratic ruling class. It was very formal, culminating in the massive parterres of Versailles duplicated in the myriad of European principalities.

        In England, from the sixteenth century, gardens grew from the independent cottage garden. The yeoman grew his herbs, and later, decorative flowers and herbal cultivars, around his cottage in a somewhat haphazard way that was informal and practical. The garden thus became a combination of spikes, mounds, foliage, and climbers. The herbaceous border—the formalized version of the cottage garden has become the backbone of most English garden design. It is this juxtaposition of spikes, mounds, shrubs and foliage that I tried to incorporate in the skeletal design of the English garden at Close Memorial Park, but by using plants suited to our Missouri climate.

        There are three other characteristics of the garden at Close Memorial Park that are quintessentially English—the use of a statue on a plinth, a meandering path, and the retaining wall fronting the garden. Longley admits that the statue is a substitute for the more quintessential English sundial that he has so far been unable to obtain locally.

        Walls and sundials have their origins in the monastic garden. The growth of a landowning middle class in sixteenth century England was a direct result of the dissolution of the English monasteries in 1536 as a fundraising casualty of King Henry VIII's break from the Roman Catholic church during the Reformation. Sundials were essential as timepieces in the working herb gardens of the monasteries in a society that called the monks and nuns to their abbey for prayer nine times a day. Some dials were mounted on walls, but many were standing on plinths very similar to that in the middle of the English garden at Close Park. Likewise, many of the old abbey walls or much of their stonework was used in the design of later English gardens. You might find it interesting to note how many of the great houses and gardens of England were carved out of monastic lands by observing how many of their names end in Abbey, Priory, or Friary. (A Jane Austen example – Northanger Abbey or a recent TV PBS production example Downton Abbey).

        Another reason for quintessential retaining walls is because so many yeoman cottage gardens are village gardens fronting a roadway that has passed through the village for centuries. Until twentieth century paving, these roads were mud tracks that over centuries created a lower and lower roadbed. The retaining wall of many English cottage gardens is merely supporting the original garden level rather like a raised bed as the roadbed has lowered. I have tried to replicate this feature at Close Park, too, where the garden borders the South Creek Greenways Trail.

        Meandering paths add that sense of informal mystery that is also quintessential in the interpretation of English garden design.


Part One

by Peter Longley

Posted on the Friends of the Garden Blog on July 19=20, 2011 by George Deatz

      King Henry VIII has often been painted as the villain who married six wives, two of whom he divorced, and two whom he executed, but he was a king with a need. England had been ravaged by a civil war between rival branches of the Royal family for over one hundred years before his father seized the throne in 1485 on Bosworth field.

      The Battle of Bosworth, in theory, ended the War of the Roses, this feud between the royal houses of York and Lancaster. The peace was sealed by the marriage of Owen Tudor, as Henry VII, the victor of Bosworth, to Elizabeth of York—a political marriage that founded the House of Tudor. Prince Henry Tudor was their second son, their eldest son being Prince Arthur Tudor. A strong political marriage was then arranged between Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon of Spain.

      The Tudor dynasty looked secure, but shortly after this teenage marriage, Prince Arthur fell ill and died. Prince Henry became heir to the throne. He was never meant to be king. He was educated to be a renaissance prince. Now, however, the future of the Tudor dynasty, still in the shadows of the War of the Roses, lay on the shoulders of this redheaded boy. Swiftly, he must be married, and quickly he must have male heirs to secure the dynasty. Henry VII made arrangements with the Pope to allow Prince Henry to marry Prince Arthur's widow, to keep the strong political alliance with Spain. This was necessary, as in church law, according to Leviticus 20:21, it was impure to marry one's brother's wife: If a man takes his brother's wife, it is impurity; he has uncovered his brother's nakedness, they shall be childless. It was in Royal circles fairly easy in the late Middle Ages to gain papal blessing for such arrangements, however, and a papal annulment of the original marriage of Prince Arthur to Catherine of Aragon was quickly gained on the grounds that their teenage marriage had never been consummated. Prince Henry married his deceased brother's wife. In 1509, on Henry VII's death they became King and Queen.

      One might well ask, what in the world does this have to do with the founding of the garden phenomenon known the world over as 'The English Garden'? To understand, we must consider the times—a highly superstitious era despite burgeoning renaissance learning. At first, Henry VIII had no qualms about his marriage, but after a succession of stillborn children he began to wonder. Was the papal annulment of the earlier marriage of Catherine of Aragon to his elder brother Arthur, sufficient to counteract the church law of Leviticus 20:21? At length, the couple were blessed with the birth of a girl, the Princess Mary, but in order to assure the Tudor succession without a return to the dynastic strife of the previous century—still easily in living memory—a strong male heir was essential. Mary was a disappointment, although one day she would reign as Queen—the infamous 'Bloody Mary'. By 1527, Henry VIII was becoming desperate for that male heir, and although his personal relationship with Catherine of Aragon was appreciative and fair, he sought to leave her with his eye on a young courtesan, Anne Boleyn, whose older sister was a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon. It was hoped that in her youth, Ann Boleyn would provide the dynasty with a male heir. Henry VII's papal legate in London started negotiations to arrange for an annulment of the marriage, again fairly easily achieved in Royal circles for a fee. Unfortunately, the Papal States in Italy had recently been invaded by Charles V, the King of Spain, Catherine of Aragon's nephew, and the Pope in Rome was now the King of Spain's prisoner. All requests from Henry VIII's papal legate were turned down. At length, after four years of trying, Henry VIII took the matter into his own hands. He would remove the kingdom from the authority of Rome by placing himself as head of the English church through acts of parliament. Then, he could legitimately divorce Catherine of Aragon, marry Ann Boleyn, and, hopefully, the marriage would produce the strong male heir to save the dynasty.

      At this point, we should examine the European medieval structure of society. About one third of all land in most countries, including England, belonged to the monarch. About one third, belonged to the barons, or aristocracy. The remaining third belonged to the Roman Catholic Church. No land belonged to the people. The peasants were serfs or virtual slaves of their barons. The greater part of what they grew in strip farming around their villages went to the local baron or feudal lord. One tenth went to the church as a tithe, and only a subsistence amount did they keep for themselves. Now, in separating England from the Roman Catholic Church, Henry VIII knew that he would antagonize Roman Catholic Spain, and in divorcing Catherine of Aragon he would enrage her powerful nephew, the Spanish king, Charles V. Real fear of a Spanish invasion needed costly defense of the realm, and there was an obvious source for that revenue in the massive church lands that now, through Parliament, belonged to the king. In 1536, through act of Parliament, he dissolved the religious houses—the monasteries, abbeys, priories, convents and friaries that were on the church lands—and started to sell off the lands in part to the barons, but also as rewards to retainers. This raised the necessary income to defend the realm, but it also radically changed English society and the look of the English countryside. Barons followed the king's example, selling off land they acquired from the king to their retainers. A middle class of private ownership grew up, largely as a result of this dissolution of these monastic lands. This was a subtle English revolution, and its residue can still be found in the many fine manor houses with their beautiful English gardens that bare the name, Priory, Abbey or Friary.

      Ecclesiastically, the Reformation that created, through Parliament, the Church of England was not a cause for a change in religious beliefs. Indeed, on English coins to this day can be seen the title 'Defender of the Faith' that was actually bestowed on King Henry VIII and his heirs by the Pope in 1520 in gratitude for a treatise that the renaissance king wrote against the up and coming German heretic Martin Luther. The Reformation, through the dissolution of the monastic lands, however, radically changed the social order of England separating it from feudal Europe forever, so much so that Napoleon refers to England during the Napoleonic wars as "a nation of shopkeepers". Baroque Europe was still basically feudal, although Napleon himself was a product of the 1789 French Revolution that was the first thrust of Europe's change from the 'Ancien Regime'. That revolution spread through the Italian and Germanic states in the nineteenth century and rocked Spain, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland and Russia in the early twentieth century, the Russian Revolution not taking hold until 1917. The fact that England, by the accident of a Royal divorce, had a subtle revolution in society three and a half centuries earlier than feudal Europe, caused a completely different pattern in garden development in England, apart from the creation of the Anglican Church.

      Prior to this independent land ownership, most medieval gardening was centered around monastic gardens, creating a self sufficient livelihood for the monks and friars of the various Roman Catholic orders spread throughout Europe and extensively in England. They were essentially herbal gardens, along with fishponds and agricultural produce to feed each individual community of 'religious'. After the dissolution of the monasteries some of the early Tudor gardens followed the same ideas, creating compartment wall gardens growing various herbs, not just for food and palate, but for medicine, too. Some of these have survived in restored form like the world famous Tudor garden at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent—a grand address that is in reality little more than a series of walled gardens around a yeoman's house and quaint tower.

      The new class of independent landowners that acquired their first land after the dissolution of the monasteries were known as yeomen. They were not of the nobility and their homes were simple, but independent, cottages, which, with prosperity, became farmhouses, manor houses, and even suburban villas. Around their cottage they grew their herbs and soft fruits, not in a formal manner but in a practical way, for their independent needs. Thus, in England, essentially the English Garden that we know of today grew up out of the cottage garden. Gardening rose from humble origins upward, so that the cottage informality of yeoman gardens became the hallmark for all garden development. In England, to this day, the mixed border is always referred to as an herbaceous border, reminding us of its origins as a jumble of herbs grown around the cottage.

      As the yeoman class grew in strength, becoming for the most part the professional class of the nineteenth century, it created its gardens from the cottage upward, the exact reverse of garden development in continental Europe. There, without a yeoman class, great gardens were created in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to match the formality of the aristocracy, and garden design filtered down from the chateau to the cottage rather than up from the cottage to the castle, so much so that European suburban gardens today still have that formal feel. Statuary and parterres, fountains and formal plantings—plants lined up like soldiers against a backdrop of marble or topiary—become the norm with grand avenues of trees. Some of these elements can be found in the great houses of the English aristocracy, or in the Dutch Royal influence of William and Mary, but the quiet revolution of the yeoman class still remains the hallmark, so much so that it influenced almost all nineteenth and twentieth century English garden design. The aristocracy of England planted out their parks and great estates like the yeomen, creating on a vast scale, what the yeoman had created around his cottage. Even, their great landscape artists like Capability Brown in the eighteenth century or Lutyens and Robinson in the twentieth century, followed the natural pattern, bringing the landscape into their park vistas, by use of such tricks as the ha ha, or sunken fence, rather than creating a formal vista of parterres, balustrades, artificial reflecting pools, and avenues modeled on the ultimate Royal Residence of Europe, La Palais de Versailles.

      So the English garden becomes unique in Europe, and because of the wonderful English climate, unique in the world. Moist and cool, herbaceous plants thrive, roses grow wild, vegetables are not hidden away, and grassy areas remain green. Soft fruits are espaliered against old brick walls just as they were in those monastic gardens long ago, and the monastic fishpond becomes the water garden or lake. From Ann Hathaway's cottage in Stratford-on-Avon to Buckingham Palace, the elements of cottage gardening are brought together in varying degrees, creating a profusion that I sometimes describe as the juxtaposition of spikes, mounds and foliage. The music of the garden is that of the birds and the buzzing of the bees, and perhaps the whirring of a lawn mower on a long summer's eve—not that of a military band among the statues of a formal terrace under the façade of a baroque mansion awaiting the revolution. In the post revolutionary world of the latter twentieth century, and today, the much-admired English garden now finds its devotees around the world. It is for this reason that I have tried in various venues to create its likeness outside its realm. It was for this reason that I was asked to design a small English garden at Close Memorial Park—a juxtaposition of spikes, mounds, and foliage.


Part Two

      The site I was given for the English Garden at Close Memorial Park was at the bottom of the vista looking down to Drummond Lake and running beside the South Creek Greenway Trail. There was a small lily garden there that was suffering from very poor soil, almost all topsoil, if it ever was there, having eroded downhill toward the lake. What was not gravel was hard pan clay.

      I decided that the best way to create a garden there, following an example I had used elsewhere in Missouri, would be to build a Cotswoldian-style, dry stone, retaining wall, so that at least half of the garden would be in a reasonable depth of soil behind the wall like a raised bed. I also imagined the wall to allow for over-spilling plants in the English cottage style. I extended the length of the lily garden area behind this retaining wall allowing space midway for an inset and garden seat. However, there was little I could do, beyond excavation, to improve the soil in the upper half of the garden.

      I then decided that there should be a meandering path separating the two halves with an English sundial as a focal point in the center. I was not able to find a traditional English sundial locally, so substituted this with a small statue on a pedestal. That was the concept, but now for the reality.

      There is a vast difference between a climate that ranges on average from 40 degrees in the winter to 75 degrees in summer, and our Missouri range of 8 degrees to 105 degrees! There is also the continental climate to contend with in the Midwest, where from July to October rainfall is rather scarce. In England, a gentle rain falls almost year round! The short answer is that to create an English garden with English plants is unlikely to succeed. So, what constitutes this garden to carry the title The English Garden? The reality is not in the accuracy of English plants, but in the overall design—that skeleton in shrubs and perennials of spikes, mounds and foliage.

      In the deeper soil, I chose to build this skeleton with a framework of magnolias, to give spring color and bright summer foliage, buddleia that I grew up with in the bombsites of London and that thrives in stony soil, and crepe myrtle that I had become accustomed to in Georgia where I had lived for forty years before moving to Missouri. It is interesting to note that Buddleia that is commonly known here as butterfly bush was actually named in England after the eighteenth century English botanist, Adam Buddle. 

      In between, as a wall-like filler, I planted large clumps of Russian sage, an invaluable plant that thrives in the summer drought and grows blue spikes of flowers that last over a period of four months without ever really losing much intensity. I then added four clumps of maidenhair ornamental grasses, giving further height and plumes to this mix. The skeleton has now given us spikes, plumes, and foliage.

      It was time to create mounds. In the English herbaceous border the mound effect is often created by large clumps of helleniums or daisies, and the blue spikes often represented by delphiniums and larkspur. Here, the Russian sage gives the tall blue spikes, and rubekia in large clumps creates the desired mound effect, especially the most common variety, the black-eyed Susans. These are complemented with clumps of purple coneflowers, and marguerites, the traditional white European daisy.

      One of the things that I wanted to achieve in the English Garden was a continual appearance of blooms from April to October. The earlier mound effect was achieved by equally large clumpings of yellow yarrow. It is interesting when passing the English Garden the casual observer will barely notice that the mound effect has moved from the yarrow in May and June to the rubekia in July and August. In the mound area, too, especially on the poorer soil side of the garden, I covered large areas with blue flowering catnip. Contrasting with taller clumps of bee balm or Oswego tea, which being of the mint family, substitutes for English mints. Day lilies provide a contrast in foliage along with Japanese blood grass that looks magnificent with its red tips in the fall.

      I have tried a number of trailing plants to line the paths and tumble over the retaining wall, including various colored verbena, vincas and petunias, all of which proved valuable fodder for Drummond Lake's geese! The best results have come from lantana, which despite its temperate to subtropical origins, has the decided look of an English wall plant, seems immune to geese, and steadily grows out over the sides of the paths, and trails the retaining wall with rapid growth and consistent blooms throughout the high summer and into the fall. For contrast, I also find light and dark sweet potato vines do an excellent job resembling English creepers. Splashes of light yellow feathered coreopsis also give an English look to these foreground areas. Lower spikes are formed by speedwell in May, and salvia—Victoria blues, whites and coral pinks—during the high summer. Although listed as annuals, and easy to replace each year, most the salvia actually survive the winter and come back earlier and stronger through a second, and in my experience, even a third year.

      In the earlier part of the year, creeping phlox and dianthus bring purples and pinks to the foreground, the perennial bed well planted with daffodils behind. May brings out the blue and purple Iris whose leaves I try to cultivate in the high summer to give contrasting foliage both in shape and color between the lower area and the central skeleton. Then, of course, there are roses, both mediland and knockout varieties. It would not be an English garden without a rose or two, along with lavender, giving off that smell of an English walled garden.

      The effect of this planting has been to achieve a spring to fall garden that has an English character. It is not a botanist's English garden, but when photographed it has the feel of a Cotswold cottage garden, and one can almost hear the birds and the buzzing of the bees. Another fact that observers note is that the garden is not mulched. Living in England in my childhood, I never heard of mulching. The advantage of mulch is of course to retain moisture in the soil, especially during our hot summer months. In England, the soil rarely dries out. The frequent rain is one reason for this, but the way the English border rapidly covers all visible earth is another. The plants themselves keep the soil cool. The second reason that we use mulch heavily in the Midwest is our belief that it helps to keep down the weeds. To some extent this is true, but personally I find it much easier to fork the weeds the old fashioned way as I was taught in the English gardens of my childhood. It is with some pride that I say to passers by in April who ask about mulching: "It won't be necessary in three weeks time. You will not be able to see the earth for the growth of the perennial plants." It has proved to be true. The garden is thickly planted and it would be hard to mulch. However, there are days when I wish it would rain! Fortunately, the garden is irrigated with a sprinkler system.

      Even though from time to time I have to replace plants or experiment with new ones, the skeleton of this English garden remains the same. It is that juxtaposition of plants in spikes, mounds, and foliage just as was first formed in those cottage herb gardens around the yeoman's home. The garden is dedicated to the memory of Ruth Wolf Burkey, and I hope it will give pleasure to all that pass by along the South Creek Greenway Trail in Close Memorial Park for many years to come.

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