Three ways to design an English country garden (plus ample inspiration from the House & Garden archive)

From rural cottage to grand estate, country gardens should be tailored to the house and landscape they occupy. Clare Foster talks to three garden designers about the elements that give a garden that all-important sense of place and we've included loads of inspiration to help you design your English country garden to perfection

Large, historic country houses call for a garden with the same patina and sense of age as the building – even though the original garden may have to be remodelled if it has become rundown or neglected. Traditional topiary gardens or parterres bring a sense of symmetry and formality, and can be as simple or as elaborate as you like, from chess-board yew topiary to elaborate swirls of box hedging. Wide herbaceous borders and a good old-fashioned kitchen garden will also be the right fit. The surrounding landscape can be as important as the house itself, so consider opening up and framing views, perhaps with an avenue of trees, or creating focal points with statuary or a beautiful specimen tree.

The garden designer Xa Tollemache created at her former home, Helmingham Hall in Suffolk, is widely admired. Her advice for anyone making a traditional country garden is to get to grips with the topography, climate and possible limitations of a site before starting on a design. ‘On a first visit, I look at the features of the landscape, the house and surrounding buildings, and note things that jar. Often the removal of these elements clears the path for a good design.’

Hard landscaping should be sympathetic to the environment, using local or reclaimed stone or brick, and fencing unobtrusive and subtle, such as estate railings or traditional chestnut paling. Xa takes a tiered approach to planting: ‘I would start to plant trees as soon as possible, then look at structural plants such as clipped shrubs for architectural interest. Roses and climbing plants come next, followed by the fluff – beautiful perennials, lavender, grasses, bulbs and annuals to fill in the gaps.’ An old country house should have a garden that feels as though it has been there for years. The skill of a garden designer is to evoke this feeling, working with a light touch and creating subtle interventions, and then to tiptoe away and pretend they were never there.

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Vanessa Bowman

Modern country

Carefully considered planting set against a geometric framework can add contemporary style to a tired space

A barn conversion or newbuild house is often left with a blank canvas of a garden, inviting the creation of a new contemporary-style plot. Modern planting schemes are ideally suited to this 21st-century approach, with bold drifts of perennials and grasses that link the garden to the landscape beyond. Often, designers juxtapose these modern meadows with a strong linear framework, comprising metal-edged beds, geometric infinity pools and square-cut yew or box. Surrounding topiary with ornamental grasses can instantly lift it into a more contemporary realm.

Debbie Roberts and Ian Smith of Acres Wild have designed hundreds of country gardens, using a clever mix of plants and hard landscaping to create gardens that look modern and smart, yet rooted in their surroundings. ‘Bringing a more contemporary feel to a garden is all about the materials you choose, the way you use them and the way you plant,’ says Debbie. ‘Bigger, bolder planting generally feels more modern, and in country gardens, where the landscape is often part of the scene, the foreground planting needs to scale up to the larger canvas. Deep borders allow for some self seeders to blur the outlines, providing a sense of naturalism that we think is important in a country setting.’

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Hard landscaping elements that convey a sense of modernity are key. ‘We use materials that complement the house and are often local and reclaimed,’ she adds. ‘They should weather well, enhancing their character over time. Locally sourced stone, brick and gravel are favourites, and we also use timber and mild steel that is allowed to rust.’ Whether a garden is traditional or contemporary, giving it a sense of place is vital to make it feel comfortable in its setting. ‘Every location is unique,’ says Debbie. ‘It’s important to reflect this in the garden design so that the house, the garden and the landscape all work together as a complete entity.’

Inspiration for your English country garden from the House & Garden archive