The inspiring gardens of Southern England

It is well known and widely accepted that the English are fanatical about their gardens. There are countless theories, speculations and legends as to why this might be, ranging from socio-political processes through colonialism (especially influences from "more natural" oriental gardens) to the mild, but humid Gulf Stream climate. Unfortunately, we have neither the time nor the space here to further investigate why this might be.

What we do know is that there is no other country that can come even close to England for cleverly laid out and well tended gardens ranging in size from expansive to postage-stamp sized. What I mean by clever here is that everything looks very "natural", unforced, almost random, sometimes even slightly overgrown ("perfected neglect" or "harmonious chaos" (Alexander Pope 1688-1744)), but in fact they require meticulous planning and a great deal of expertise for the difficult and usually very complex care!

In particular, it is the exuberant use of large numbers of perennials and their many cultivated breeds in precisely coordinated colour combinations as well as high grasses (in other words perennial but not woody plants) combined and arranged so skilfully with trees and shrubs, stones, walls, water, natural stone paths in whose crevices bluebells are allowed to spread, secluded pergolas and the fabulous lawn that produces an unmistakable whole in which there is something blooming almost all year round or other splashes of colour drawing attention to themselves. Most of us in Central Europe can only dream of this, however we can travel to England, visit gardens, enjoy them and soak up inspiration like a sponge soaks up water. Gardens should awaken feelings, arouse emotions, keep memories alive – they should appeal to all of the visitor's senses, not just the eye.

I want to tell you below about some well known and less well known gardens in Southern England, starting in the South West:

Near Land's End, on the southern coast of Cornwall, is the MINACK THEATRE "garden theatre", an amphitheatre with garden terraces in a spectacular setting and the life's work of Rowena Cade.

ST. MICHAELS's MOUNT is a small tidal island just off the town of Marazion in Cornwall, crowned by an imposing 15th century castle. The steep slopes to all sides are covered in countless plants and easily accessed by paths. The island is less than 100 metres from the coast and can only be reached on foot at low tide and by ferry at high tide.

The Eden Project is a botanical garden in Bodelva around 8 km to the North East of St. Austell. It was conceived by the English music producer, archaeologist and garden lover Tim Smit and built in a disused kaolinite pit, where it accommodates what are currently the world's largest greenhouses (23,000 m²) designed as extraterrestrial looking dome tents where completely different climate zones are simulated. Around 100,000 plants of approximately 5,000 species are grown here.

Not far from the Eden Project awaits another attraction: The Lost Gardens of Heligan (approx. 8 km to the south of St. Austell). These extensive gardens are typical of the English nature park style with a valley garden, an ornamental garden over 200 years old, a kitchen garden, a wild area called The Jungle and the Lost Valley, which merges seamlessly into the extensively grazed landscape of the surroundings.

Hestercombe House and GARDEN is close to Cheddon Fitzpaine and to the north of the town of Taunton in the county of Somerset. The gardens include three individual gardens from different stylistic epochs (16 hectares of Georgian landscape park, Victorian garden with the so-called "Grey Walk perennial garden" and the formal Edwardian garden dating from around 1905). A jewel of a garden!

The garden at Stourhead in Wiltshire around 180 km to the west southwest of London is a good example of media transfer from painting to the garden, where the painter takes the place of the architect as a garden artist, whose qualifications are complemented by those of the "landscapist", a term that has merged the garden artist with the painter and the poet since the late 18th century.

Groombridge Place is near Tunbridge Wells in the county of Kent and is one of the few gardens from the 17th century that survived the later landscape park movement, which is why it is so interesting.

The "Royal Horticultural Society" maintains a garden in Wisley (county of Surrey) that is used as a testing ground for all current garden standards. The RHS trains gardeners, has numerous fields of activity around flowers, including studying their quality characteristics, awarding prizes for them and selling them, and provides a number of different show gardens and greenhouses as well as garden centres and exhibitions for the public.

The Derek Jarman Garden in Dungeness, Kent in the very southeast of England is certainly the "quirkiest" garden, which the artist and film director Derek Jarman designed from flint stones, driftwood, rusted pieces of iron, glass shards and a small number of salt-tolerant plants, which thrive in this setting, following his diagnosis with AIDS. He saw this as an attempt to heal a landscape dominated by the nearby nuclear power station.

It goes without saying that a visit to the gardens of Hampton Court Palace and Kew Gardens (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew) in the very south west of London in the borough of Richmond upon Thames is a must for every garden lover!

If you have now been inspired to tour some English gardens, then my lines have achieved their aim. Enjoy these gardens, even if only in your dreams!


Prof. Karl E. Schönthaler
VIKING garden expert