So what kind of garden are you making? Introducing: A Modified English Garden

“What kind of garden are you making?”  It’s the question I hear most.  (Well, maybe tied with “When will it be done?”)   English…  American… New American…Dutch… Japanese?   So lately, while I’ve been designing the perennial borders I’ve been mulling the possible answers.  In some ways the answer to all of the above is “yes, yes and yes”.  But the real answer is, it depends what you mean.

So here is what I mean by each of the above labels and how the Timshala gardens fit – or don’t fit.

English Flower BorderTo me the essence of an English garden is that it is plant-focused.  Whether it is a tiny front-of-the-house cottage garden or an estate with acres of lawn, trees, meadows, flower borders, an important part of an English garden is the plants themselves.  The plant-obsessed English gardener knows the Latin names of the plants, thrills to see and discover the way an unfamiliar plant grows and flowers.  That describes me!  But the difference is that to the English gardener the plan, design, layout is of secondary interest at best.  That does not describe me.

 The American garden?   I find that Americans often want a garden (or ‘yard’) that looks cared for, neat, and is a place for children to play and have occasional cook-outs.  The idea of a  master design or plan — or design at all —  is quite alien.  The selection of plants is often based on what is commonly available.  And what is commonly available usually depends on what local nurseries have found will do well in a particular locale.   Plants found in a California nursery are nothing like plants found in New Hampshire.  The habitat is therefore very important here.  I too choose plants based on habitatBut also based on a design.

 What is now called the New American Garden was probably begun by Oehme &  Van Sweden, a firm of Landscape Architects, whose brilliant, original design technique was to use plants – largely massed perennials and grasses – to create and define spaces within a garden.  This definitely resonates with me.  There is a passion for plants, and for design.  But I love a complex mixing of plants, within the spaces created by the massed plants and structures.

Oudolf Garden autumn I added the Dutch style because of the great designer Piet Oudolf.  He has created gardens in a kind of  ‘prairie’ style, using brilliant, complex perennial and grass combinations.  Unlike in the English garden, the changing appearance through the seasons is important.  He treats the whole plant, year-round, as part of the design.  So the seedheads, stalks, dried leaves are all part of his design, and give year-round interest.   And I intend that some areas of Timshala will give that experience.  But not all.  I am trying to create a series of gardens which are different one from another…have different views from different places in the house and as you stroll in the garden…yet work together.

Japanese stroll garden Which is why I include Japanese style in my list.  Because the idea of a Stroll Garden originated there.  As you move through a Japanese garden the experience changes and the paths draw you in, from one area to the next.


And what I’ve come up with, as a description of Timshala is: the Modified  English Garden.

– An English passion for plants, with the opportunity to examine and study, close-up, the individual plants.

– Plants chosen by the American habitat they need to thrive.

– Spaces shaped by masses of plants, including trees and shrubs, as well as by the shapes of the house, the paths, the arbors.

– Complex interplantings of plants.

– Seeing and using all the qualities of the plants as the seasons change.

– And a changing experience at each stage of a stroll.

One  final comment: There are a lot of other ways to answer the same question.  Many years ago, when I was just beginning to make gardens, an acquaintance asked me the question.  “What kind of garden….”.  I answered in considerable detail, outlining some of the qualities I’ve just described.  I finally stopped for breath, and my now glassy-eyed friend said, “I meant are you growing vegetables or flowers”.

A Stroll Garden

With about six acres to play with, I feel free to create spaces with so many different kinds of experiences.   From open and expansive, to sheltered and comforting, to exuberant or relaxing.  We can have places to play; to sit quietly and read; to dine; to enjoy the changing displays of plants for their own sake.  There will be vistas to enjoy from inside the house and views back to the house.  Stopping places to sit on a comfortable bench.

A great book by William H. Frederick Jr, The Exuberant Garden and the Controlling Hand, gave me the name for this kind of garden.  Timshala will be a Stroll Garden.  As he says, “The visitor there strolls about …enjoying a series of experiences, primarily aesthetic.  The route taken is usually a circuit, with the same view or activity never repeated.”

And so I’ve begun by laying out a schematic plan.  Here a woodland walk.  Then a grass meadow.  A flowering orchard.  Pergolas leading from the house to guide the beginning and direction of the stroll.  There are walks along the shrub borders that frame and screen one part of the garden from another.

There are some choices as you stroll – forks in the road – that let you choose to walk toward a sudden, sunlit opening or toward the flowering exuberance of a perennial border.  The moods change.  And of course the seasons change.  So one area is designed specifically for colorful winter interest – berries and bark – to be seen from the house.  There are trees and shrubs that retain the shape of the gardens, and continue to show the pathways, even in the leafless winter.