What you think of as an English garden is typically a cottage garden known for riotous color, assorted plant textures and an unstructured, rambling character that appears natural rather than planned. Early cottage gardens, born of necessity, included vegetables, herbs, fruit trees and a few fragrant flowers to help mask unpleasant odors that were a by-product of harsh living conditions. Today's English garden exists not to feed the family but to please the eye.
No English garden would be complete without roses, and this one has historical significance. Commonly known as Shakespeare's rose, deciduous Rosa eglanteria, or sweetbriar rose, dates back to the 1500s in England. Unassuming, apple-scented flowers have single petals and are pink with white centers. Hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 8, this simple rose requires full to partial sun and prefers moist sites. Mature size is 8 feet in height and width; bloom time is May. Sweetbriar roses are an asset to the English garden because they attract both birds and butterflies.
Delphiniums are another staple of the English garden. Hardy in zones 2 or 3 to 7, these perennial garden giants reach heights of 3-to-8 feet in clumps that extend to 3 feet in width. Suitable for the back row of a bed or border, delphiniums grow best in well-drained soil with plenty of sunlight. In all likelihood, they will require staking. Impressive spikes of spurred flowers top lush stalks of glossy leaves from late spring to early summer and make outstanding specimens for vase arrangements. Deep, rich blue is the favored color, but delphiniums also come in red, white and yellow.
A useful cooking herb, aromatic Rosemarinus officinalis emits an extra burst of fragrance if you brush its leaves in passing. Rosemary is an essential component of an herb garden but is useful as an ornamental shrub for the English garden as well. A hardy evergreen, rosemary has stiff, needle-like leaves. Pale blue flowers bloom in the spring. Rosemary bushes can reach a height of 6 feet with a spread of 4-to-5 feet. Hardy in zones 8 to 10, rosemary does best in relatively poor sandy soils. It requires a well-drained site with at least six hours of sun. Once established, plants should not need much water other than rainfall except in desert areas.
Ornamentation is another element of an English garden. After your plants are in place, choose a few accessories to complete the scene. If your garden is fenced, an old garden gate or an arch for the entrance will add a charming touch. A trellis for cascading vines around a door or window is an authentic English addition, as is a rose-covered arbor. A rustic bench or vintage table and chair tucked away in a corner or under a tree will provide a restful spot for contemplation. Small statues, birdbaths and vintage garden tools make appealing accents.