Garden design is a fascinating area of culture and personal expression. From the Edwardian period to the end of the 20th Century, the British have worked and reworked their outdoor spaces to display wealth, create areas for relaxation or, quite simply, to grow food.
The 20th century opened with strong influence from the Arts and Crafts movement. One Arts and Craft horticulturist in particular, Gertrude Jekyll, made an enormous impact with her Italianate grottos and subtle painterly arrangements, influenced by dreamy Impressionistic landscapes. Jekyll’s eye for detail and sensitive compositions made her incredibly popular, and her gardens can still be seen today at some of the Country’s greatest estates. Amongst her accomplishments are the grounds to Lindisfarne Castle, Hestercombe House and Upton Grey Manor House – all of which still display her colour-themed gardens punctuated with her signature borders.
WWI hamstrung the finances of many great country estates and highly stylised gardens therefore fell out of vogue for several decades. The great English Garden became a romantic memory and, as WWII loomed, British priorities shifted to the practical applications of outdoor spaces. ‘Dig for Victory’, the campaign created by the British Ministry for Agriculture, encouraged Brits to turn their gardens over to growing spaces. Open spaces across the country were transformed into allotments – from domestic gardens to public parks; even the Tower of London’s lawns were turned into vegetable patches.
The mid-to-late Century saw a strong swing away from such pragmatic land use. Aspirational gardens in the 1960s were filled with great beds of flowers, offset by ponds, and the 70s embraced conifers and giant grasses in a big way. Both aesthetics were largely a reaction to the wartime practicalities of previous generations – the gardens of the 60s and 70s were gardens to have fun in; gardens to enjoy without having to eke every atom of nutrition out of them.
Interestingly, the 80s and 90s saw the middle classes return to Gertrude Jekyll’s earlier influences, particularly in the case of lawn borders. In fact, lawns generally became a central obsession with great swathes of available outdoor space given over to immaculate grassed areas. Whether the owners knew it or not, the competitive green squares in front of every house were the success story of improved lawn mowing technology and accompanying aggressive marketing campaigns. As a result of these advertising campaigns and televisual influences (‘Ground Force’ attracted an enormous 12 million viewers per week in 1997), British gardens became dominated by lawns and water features.
Amazingly, the start of the 21st Century went against all space-age predictions and saw an unprecedented boom in ‘grow your own’. ‘Rewilding’ entered the vocabulary too, as Brits gave over large sections of their land to unchoreographed wildflowers and weeds in the face of dwindling bee population figures.
As we begin to approach the 2020s, we can see that our contemporary gardens are a real mixed bag with emphasis given to individuality. It’s possible to see a rewilded garden stuffed with fluffy meadow flowers and beehives, whist next door might have a chic Brushed Basalt Millboard deck complete with tasteful Moroccan lamps and designer lighting. We’ve rediscovered the joy of growing our own produce, an art lost by baby boomers, and we’ve developed a taste for extravagant blooms and architectural accents.
Essentially, the closer you get to the concept of the English Country Garden, the more difficult it becomes to define. The UK’s tastes have swung from aristocratic and louche to stoic and sober before taking an unexpected detour into eco-warrior terrain. We like to add our own personal touches with decking, expensive planting and ponds, but we’ve also gained an appreciation for natural balance. The 2020s look set to be an incredibly exciting era for garden design, as all these elements combine to create endless possibilities.