Why are English gardens so fascinating to many Americans?
Angela of North Oxford, Oxfordshire, England, believes it might be the sense of history that accompanies anything British.
In truth, she feels, tending the soil is likely quite similar in Belmont, as it is in the mother country. When alerted of the questions a few Belmont Patch readers had for her, Angela pointed out there’s no magic formula for English gardens relative to any others.
Gardens are organic things and so much can alter one’s plantings over the years, she said in reference to those she has nurtured for the past 16 years.
“I’ve had to keep moving things around as things have changed including animal behavior, the influence of neighbors and the change in climate,” she said.
In particular, Angela’s neighbors put up a fence which means part of her grounds are now in shade so she had to move sun-loving plants to a different location; climate change has affected the season for fruit so that she now picks up plumbs at least one month earlier than in the past; and there’s a noticeably dry patch of lawn in her backyard due to lack of rain this summer.
Answering questions from Belmont gardeners
Anne May, whose garden was part of the Belmont Garden Club tour earlier in the summer, asked if Angela had any tricks or suggestions to pass along such as one she shares with fellow gardeners. Anne tells those are trying to get pachysandra to spread that if when they first plant it they make use of the U-shaped bobby pins and fasten the stalk with the pin one-half way between the roots and the tip into the earth, the spreading process is speeded up.
See Angela answer Anne May's question via video.
Angela said she is far too humble to presume she has any tips for gardeners but did offer that she makes use of free materials and employs what she has – including wood from her roof after she re-did it and bricks from knocking through two rooms after she restored the inside of her house – to create visual structures in her garden.
Miriam Weil, chairman of the Conservation Commission who tends a vegetable and flower garden in different parts of her outdoor space, wondered what grows best in this part of England.
“It’s impossible to say,” Angela replied, pointing out that there’s a diversity of climate and soil type even in a small community and one’s own garden from year to year.
Hear Anglea video answer of Miriam and Mark's question.
For example, Angela once had a vegetable garden in the far end of her plot of land. One year, the squirrels ate all her courgettes – something they had not done so aggressively in previous seasons.
Consequently, she put gravel over the vegetable patch and no longer grows things to eat except for a few pots of herbs.
Mark Saidnawey, owner of Pemberton Farms Garden Center in Cambridge and also a participant in this year’s Belmont Garden Tour, was curious to know how plants stay healthy and free of fungus, if it is always so wet.
Contrary to popular belief, Angela explained it is not always wet in British gardens and that each area of the island – just like the various regions of the United States – has different climate patterns and amount of rainfall.
Mark also wanted to know what are the best months in England for blooming plants.
In Angela’s garden, this time of year is the least prolific. Her lavender is going by and there’s very little color right now.
“This is actually the dullest month in my garden because I usually have one or two degrees of focus,” Angela said. “The Sedum spectabile will come out with a bright pink hue in a few weeks.”
Making the most of what she has
Angela explained her outdoor space is “abnormally long” for a town garden and, with her training in three-dimensional design, placed her plantings in such a way as to maximize width.
“This house was owned by a plumber and a condition of sale was for him to get the builder’s rubbish piles away from the garden,” she said. What was left in the space was like a field – thoroughly overgrown and bramble-ridden.
The house needed re-claiming so Angela didn’t even start to renovate the garden until a few years after moving in.
She kept wood left over from the re-furbished roof as well as bricks that were free after breaking through two rooms to create a pergola outside that now holds a prolific grape arbor. In the autumn, when the grapes turn red, Angel presses them with a potato masher to make a sweet drink.
“I like making the most of free materials,” Angela said. “I wanted to punctuate the space with structural forms but had limiting factors – no money, having to do most of the work myself and working full time while caring for two children.”
With art training, Angela explained, one perceives the world differently.
“I’m highly aware of form, color and texture,” she said.
Holly trees were already in her garden so Angel just “stamped her vision” by cropping them so they now look like “lollipops on a stick.”
Creating the arbor helped her break up the long, thin garden into segments. “Having the arbor half-way down creates the sense that the garden is wider,” Angela said.
Eclectic influences in her garden
Her motto for the garden is “less is more” and, over time, Angela has simplified her flora. At one point, she had several plantings in tubs but has cut back to reduce her work load that she also lightened by getting rid of one border so she doesn’t have to weed as much and does not bother with perennial plants.
While traveling in Thailand, Angela said sights had a subliminal influence on her that she became aware of later.
She noticed that some of the botanical areas in Thailand are shaped in a controlled manner which led her to shape the holly trees in her Oxford garden. In Italy, Angela saw metal tubs with plantings outside a restaurant and now has some in her side garden.
“I store images in my head and then use what I have to create the look,” Angela said. “There’s no particular style in my garden – just individual with eclectic influences.”
What she wanted, Angela explained, is a structure and form that would last.
“It’s controlling nature without being too manic,” she said of her garden. “I definitely need a sense of form and it would upset me if it’s too raggedy in the garden but I don’t want it to be unnatural.”
And Angela does not use the word “beauty” for her garden because it’s not perfect.
“I don’t like symmetry,” she said. “I find it too contrived and it would not look right to have things in pairs.”