The Special Relationship

– Posted in: Garden Design, Garden Visits

About a month ago the leading flag on the ‘flag counter’ on my blog finally tipped from the Union Jack to the Stars and Stripes. So perhaps this is a good moment to reflect on Anglo-American relations in the garden. With the recent visit of Mr. Obama (who we Europeans by the way all adore) there has been yet another spate of politicians and commentators discussing the so-called ‘Special Relationship’. There certainly is one in gardening, and like the political version, it is complex, constantly changing, and sometimes controversial.

During my first few visits to the US (1990s, early 2000s) the special relationship resembled nothing more than a rather quaint colonial hangover. Americans may have flung the tea into Boston harbour in 1773, and then to add insult to injury dropped the ‘u’ from harbour, but so many gardeners seemed to be still so stuck to the English garden as a model. Grande-dames of the UK garden world like Penelope Hobhouse and Rosemary Verey sold vast piles of books to the US. The latter (who remembers her now?) spent Christmas one year with Ross Perot (yes, really, and who remembers him now?)

When you have a native flora as rich and colourful as this, I don’t understand why the goings-on around English manor houses have any appeal.

The English model, all rose-decked, lush green lawned and topiaried, seemed to be the model to emulate. Needless to say, this did not appeal to me; I don’t travel to see my own culture imitated in inappropriate surroundings. It wasn’t just Olde Englande that gets (badly) imitated, classical Italy does too – in fact there are few things that I loathe more than mock-classical pillars infesting a landscape where they so patently don’t belong (which rules out a lot of California).

I remember being in a garden in New England (1994), one of those really really fantastic autumns, having been driven there by an English colleague who kept on driving on the wrong side of the road (by the way I have never yet done this). The garden had been modelled on Madame Verey’s Barnsley House, and I remember thinking …. this just does not belong here, it looks like it’s been airlifted in…. you guys have got a fantastic native flora, far richer than ours, and a massive, varied, epic landscape and you do this!!!!

James van Sweden's garden in Maryland - a stylised response to local landscapes helped me to read more into a range of semi-natural habitats in the US, such as appreciating wild grasses along highways.

A later trip (1996) saw me as part of a Horticulture Magazine lecture tour, with James van Sweden, the late Wayne Winterrowd, Bob Procter and Rick Darke. We started off with two gigs in the Midwest. No-one here was very interested in the Olde Englishe garden but instead were very receptive to my talking about naturalistic planting (Dutch and German in origin) which segued into what James van Sweden was doing with Wolfgang Oehme (German by origin). The Midwest has fascinated me ever since, at least the bits that aren’t covered by corn and soybeans (which I can actually appreciate, when in agricultural genetics mode, but that’s a different story). The gentle role of the land, the big skies, the incredible variations in flora wherever there is some nature left.

Zany junk gardens - this one is Nancy Goldman's in Portland - good to see people having fun with their gardens, which not enough do over here.

When asked by fellow Brits about “what is the American garden scene like?”, I give a deep sigh and reply “patchy”… which means there are places with an incredible garden culture (like part of Oregon and Washington, San Francisco), those with a lot going on (much of the coastal north-east) and others with only isolated pockets (much of the rest). The USA is not a nation after all but sub-continent; like India, anything you say about it, the opposite is also true. Just as there are in politics, lifestyle and spirituality, there are several very different cultures here – some of them garden and some of them just mow the lawn.

So much better than the mown stuff. A suburban garden grassland on a frosty morning in Colorado - Lauren Springer's garden in Fort Collins.

The great American lawn. Let’s not go there.
One of the really good things over the last twenty years that I have visiting the US (about once every 18 months on average) is that more and more Americans are getting up and denouncing this monstrous thirsty fraud.
And discovering that you can rip it up and replace with some incredible native floras: Neil Diboll of Prairie Nursery and Roy Diblick of Northwind have been two people who have shown, albeit in very different ways, how you can do this. And yet it still lives on, I remember driving from New Orleans to Monroe, LA, wondering why so much effort to grow just flat grass? in a climate where you can practically see plants grow, and how if a family of Vietnamese moved in, they’d be growing enough vegetables to feed the entire neighbourhood in a matter of months.

A prairie in the Sheffield Botanic Gardens, northern England, planted by Prof. James Hitchmough (the row of brick terraced houses proves its location) - it makes a great resource for butterflies.

It’s time to look at the other side of the equation, the current interest in prairies which seems to be affecting European gardeners, and which is helping tip the Special Relationship more in the USA>UK direction. I’ve written about this before. Not real prairies of course, but the word is a useful one for those of us who want to do big, expansive perennial and grass plantings, which are wildlife-rich and don’t take too much work; and which incidentally, can to some extent, incorporate our natives too. For those of you who would wish to remind me what I have just said about inappropriate plantings in landscape halfway across the world, what actually appeals to us is that the prairie stuff fits into our landscapes far better than the (mostly) Southern Hemisphere spikies that have become popular over the last few years: phormiums, yuccas, kniphofias. A prairie planting in front of a range of British hills, woods and hedge-divided fields does not look that out of place.

Great Mulch - Marcia Donahue's Bowling Ball Border - from one of the most original garden makers. Berkeley, California.

To go back to the Horticulture Lecture tour …. that included my first trip to Portland, OR, a place I fell in love with and went back, maybe 6 times. I loved it, peopled with the sensible end of the California sixties dream, an incredibly rich, inventive, adventurous and often whacky garden culture. Portland itself was so beautiful and the trams made me feel I was in a well-run European city. But I haven’t been back for years. Somehow I have become someone who lands in New York, hangs out for a couple of days in the district around the Highline (I love the Chelsea Hotel) and then heads out to Chicago. Chicago is so not-Europe, it’s a place where you can feel somewhere that is really different. Its garden culture still feels new and uncertain, but much more locally-rooted and down-to-earth than Portland’s Pacific eclecticism. There are people there who are really making a difference to horticulture public and private, which is important to me: Marcus de la Fleur’s amazing rain-garden house, and landscape architect Terry Guen, to name but two.

So, to sum up, the Special Relationship is much more balanced now, thanks to new perennial varieties coming our way and prairie planting. It is good to see distinctive regional American styles developing, less reliance on ‘Old Europe’, more commercial use of natives – I would rather visit a country where I see something different than a pale reflection of a tradition grown too familiar.


I am now publishing e-books through Amazon, for Kindle, smartphones, iPads etc. There are currently two available, both collections of writings for Hortus magazine, from the early 2000s. Click here for Amazon North America and here for UK.

Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury is a gardener and writer based in the west of England. Author of over 20 books, including four collaborations with Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, he is passionate about wild-style planting and bringing nature into the garden.

Noel Kingsbury

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Susan in the Pink Hat June 23, 2011, 8:51 am

I would think the English garden is borrowed from so heavily because it’s such a successful model: symmetry, hedge walls, deep border next to mown grass. Prairie planting styles and use of native North American are still considered a nascent style, even experimental. Retrofitting urban and suburban gardens designed to fit the English gardening model of grass and hedges is slow and difficult as changing a culture’s aesthetic preference can take a generation or longer. It doesn’t help when gardeners bent on “green” and “native” disregard aethetics towards these ends. I’m thrilled that English and European gardens are adopting the American native style into their gardens. But, I just hope that we can have more American gardens of this type to look towards for inspiration than European ones.

valentine June 23, 2011, 12:14 pm

Thank goodness for this column! I wish it were printed everywhere in the US!

Alison June 23, 2011, 2:03 pm

I really enjoyed reading this. I totally agree that part of the joy of gardening is seeing what other cultures/environments call a garden. The James Van Sweden garden is just stunning.

Sometimes a version of one country’s style by another can work well, especially if it is an interpretation rather than just a strict copy.

and yes, I am thinking seriously about creating a prairie area in my garden.

allanbecker-gardenguru June 23, 2011, 4:34 pm

I find east coast American, and many Canadian gardeners too, strongly tied to tradition. The English style garden is still alive and well on this side of the pond, wherever the climate allows it to flourish.

Byddi Lee - We didn't come here for the grass... June 23, 2011, 7:48 pm

What an interesting article! I agree with so much of what you said. Living in California but coming form Ireland gives me a similar perspective as you have described. It is so nice to see natives used in garden both sides of the Atlantic.

Greggo June 23, 2011, 8:05 pm

very thoughtful and interesting. enjoyed the read! and I am in complete agreement…

Rob (OurFrenchGarden) June 24, 2011, 4:46 am

Umm, Prairie is a French word I think.

Cathy June 24, 2011, 6:22 am

I likewise found the article very enlightening. It’s always interesting to see how we American’s are perceived by our British, Canadian, and European cousins.

I realize it’s oh so American to have that Green Monster (a lawn) but I never understood the attraction either. We dug up our entire lawn and replaced it with gardens.

Living in the coastal Northeast (Massachusetts), our colonial American roots account for much of the English tradition reflected in our gardens — the early colonists planted what they knew, albeit with what they had here to do it with. And for the most part, it works with traditional New England architecture as well (which is also more reflective of English style than not).

Although we live in a very quaint, historic small city, our contemporary style home is an architectural anomaly for the area and our garden is a mongrel. You can see Gertrude Jekyll’s influence in some of the cottage beds and the more formal beds reflect the symmetry, hedges and walks of the English style, although the two perennial beds are full of mostly native plantings.

In the woodland garden, we have almost all native plantings in a very casual style, but in the tree grove we borrowed heavily from the Japanese. None of it is authentic anything (authentic American, maybe, at least in part?), and the influence of any one style or culture gets increasingly blurred as the whole thing evolves.

I make no apologies for taking my inspiration from the Brits and the Japanese. I didn’t attempt to recreate Hampton Court here but I find the cobbled walking paths very wheelchair friendly and that was my primary motivation. We planted what we like and I do believe that the garden reflects our own personal voice.

Christine June 24, 2011, 11:50 am

really its amazing. It is interesting, to see natives used in garden both sides of the Atlantic.

Laurrie June 25, 2011, 4:52 pm

Why is the American garden that is based on traditional British designs so tacky and sadly derivative, but the prairie garden in England (with brick row housing behind it) okay? This article struck me as “same old – same old” class snobbery: if it is British, even imitations of native New World plantings are classy. If it is American, imitations are just so pathetic. I despair.

Noel Kingsbury June 25, 2011, 11:50 pm

Taking inspirations is what it is all about. I find the Japanese impact on US gardens interesting and very appropriate, you guys have so much woodland, which we don’t have so much and ours is often so poor ecologically. I have often felt that the Japanese aesthetic enables garden makers to celebrate their own plants and landscape very effectively. Whereas their aesthetic always feels oddly out of place with us.

Noel Kingsbury June 25, 2011, 11:52 pm

mais oui! C’est confusing. Une example de ‘Franglais’ peut-etre? Am currently hanging out with an Argentinian who uses the word too to describe meadow, comme en Francais.

Rob (OurFrenchGarden) June 26, 2011, 5:16 am

Laurrie, You have some beautiful gardens over in the states. I didn’t read this post and think it in any way “same old-same old” class snobbery.

You want to see a fine, naturalistic garden? visit James Golden’s wonderful creation over at


Hoover Boo June 26, 2011, 5:38 pm

“some of them garden and some of them just mow the lawn.” And some of them don’t do either, unless you count the old-cars-up-on-blocks as gardening.

Interesting how complete ignorance plays into all this. Here in California, the “California” Pepper (Schinus molle, from South America) and Eucalyptus globulous, (from Australia) are commonly believed to be native trees. The UK with its longer established culture may at least be more educated in regards to plants.

I remember though, visiting the UK for an extended period in the early 90’s, and discovering that snapping off newly-planted trees was apparently a popular after-the-pubs-close activity.

Barbarians everywhere, I guess.

Pam/Digging June 26, 2011, 10:39 pm

Noel, there’s a lot more going on in the American gardening scene than just in the Pacific NW, coastal northeast, and Chicago. Come to Austin and see.

UrsulaV June 28, 2011, 4:53 pm

There’s some surprisingly good stuff going on in the American Southeast, I promise! Although I admit, you’re gonna run into a lot of random pillars….

Noel Kingsbury June 29, 2011, 4:53 am

yes, i have heard very good things about Austin, i would very much like to come and visit

rainymountain June 29, 2011, 3:21 pm

I thought your remarks about Rosemary Verey were boorish and uncalled for. Three cheers for Grande Dames, there are plenty in North America too. I notice that although you show some women’s gardens, your fellow travellers were all men.
In addition, it is not surprising that some North American gardens resemble British gardens, after all a lot of the plants used in British gardens are North American in origin. We continue to grow our natives whether you recognise them or not.

Thomas June 29, 2011, 3:55 pm

I greatly enjoyed seeing America through your eyes. It’s true how obsessed we still are with a vision of the British manor. But at the same time, the European garden scene seems pretty obsessed with plants from the American prairie now. Perhaps we all want a piece of what we can’t have.

There’s really not an American gardening scene now. Not in the European sense of it, anyways. Certainly some fascinating patches, as you say, here in the states. But I’m optimistic that’s beginning to change . . .

Noel Kingsbury June 29, 2011, 4:10 pm

I suspect that you didn’t know the late Rosemary Verey the way some of us did…. wait for my memoirs!

Chookie Inthebackyard June 30, 2011, 7:14 am

Fascinating to hear about garden cultures rather different (and yet similar) to my own.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there were plenty of Aussies who thought Peppercorn Trees (as we call Schinus molle) were our natives; you find them aplenty in old country gardens as they are shadier than most gum trees.
I’m also intrigued by the American Lawn Culture. Lawns are ubiquitous in Sydney, but we don’t ever actually *water* them — not in the last twenty years, anyway. They go a bit brown and crispy in drought weather and come back when it rains. I have the distinct impression that this would be Considered Wrong in the US!

balsamfir July 6, 2011, 11:07 am

I felt that your perception of gardens was a bit simplistic as well. I too admire the prairie gardens, in prairie country. They look contrived where I live, and many prairie natives have caused great ecological damage in my northern New York region. They out compete local wildflowers when they get higher moisture levels and have taken over miles of the river banks in mono-cultures that we can’t get rid of now.

I do, cautiously, imitate the British, or American colonial style because I have a house built of brick in the American colonial period. I also have meadows, but only as much as my neighbors can stand. We don’t have many walls here so most gardens are visible to the public; community goodwill and tradition becomes an important part of a town garden. Another factor in my garden is that we have very long dark winters, and I prefer masses of color and sunlight when I can get them, although my native flora would be forest. The farther north you go, into northern Canada, the brighter the gardens get; so I suspect I’m not alone in this.

No one I know waters or fertilizes a lawn even when brown, and the most popular local form of garden around here is a vegetable plot. Lawns, however can be maintained relatively quickly by machines, while the professional gardener is a luxury beyond purchase for most Americans and the average acreage much larger than Europeans imagine.

I suspect, however that if we stopped subsidizing farming, more lawns would go back to vegetables locally, since it might become profitable again.

Long rambling response, but regional/cultural differences are always more complex if looked at closely rather than through the eyes of an airplane or car.

Noel Kingsbury July 6, 2011, 11:40 am

That’s very interesting.Good to be reminded of subtlties of regional landscapes.
I was intrigued to hear about prairie spp. outcompeting locally native spp. It would be enlightening to know which ones. Obviously since the ice age, even nearer in time for you than for me, there must have been a constant northern push of spp. from further south, so perhaps a combination of human habitat disruption plus species importation is speeding the process up.

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