Welcome to English Garden Farm!



Well, the obvious answer is: when you’re looking at it! But I know that is usually not what folks mean. What they mean is: when does everything bloom all at once and look stunning? I keep a small sign over my desk that says, “My garden peaked last week. Sorry you missed it.” That’s my standard answer when I’m feeling miffed! But, in fact, it’s a great topic that needs to be taken seriously. I have told this story before but it bears repeating. Helen Dillon, probably the most famous Irish gardener of our day, whose garden in Dublin was a mecca for serious gardeners and plant-people tells the story of a visitor who stood in the middle of the garden and asked: “When is a good time to see the garden?” This dear soul was standing in the middle of perhaps the finest private garden in Ireland, surrounded by hundreds of rare and incredibly well-grown plants and she wants to know a good time to see it? Holy mackerel, kingfish! Ms. Dillon said she’d never felt so notched-down in her life! While it is obvious to the (at least somewhat) knowledgeable that this dear lady had no idea what she was looking at, she was apparently looking for something else!

Photographs of gardens can be terrifically mis-leading: we have no idea how many hours or days the photographer watched and waited for just the right combination of plants newly emerged or in flower, or in full fall color with just the right sky/cloud/sun conditions to produce the most advantageous light in order to get the picture we’re drooling over in the magazine or book. But, of course, this is but a unique and passing second that the enterprising photographer has been able to capture for print (then in film, now in pixels).

Now, truth be told, some gardens are planned to ‘peak’ at certain times of the year, like mid-spring (any garden with lots and lots of spring bulbs, for instance), or mid-May to early June (roses in the mid-west), or even fall focused gardens heavily relying on chrysanths and asters. These are, however, fairly rare in our part of the country. This is less so in the south which warms up so much earlier and then gets so much hotter. Gardens there are often the showiest during the rhododendron/azalea/camellia/magnolia season of mid-late spring.

My own belief is that unless you purposely want the garden to be a showplace during one time of the year and merely passable the rest, there is really no reason the garden can’t be interesting year ‘round. Now notice, I’ve said interesting. Gardens need to be about plants and sometimes they are in flower and sometimes they are not. Even if they’re not, their foliage, structure, and outline as well as bark, berries and other see pods can be lovely to look at. I have often said that if you plant for foliage, the garden will always look good. I’ve reached the conclusion that the statement would be more accurate if it focused on interesting plants and not just foliage. Now let me justify this statement. I know some folks think a garden should be all about flowers and they want color, color, color all the time. But that is obviously not realistic in the midwest. You may have such during warm weather without too much strain, but what are you looking at the other six months! As temperatures continue on the rise, that season may be stretched a bit, but it will also strain a bit more. We will still have a winter and unless you can afford to do the entire garden in annuals and hie it to Florida (which does mean something like: flowering place) or the Mediterranean (I think I’d prefer the latter) for the winter, you ought to be giving some consideration to the plants’ qualities beyond just flowers.

I have a great example to share: last year, a group of professional hybridizers/growers came to visit the garden. One was wearing a sweat-shirt that said ‘Plant Geek’ on it. I told them I thought the label was un-necessary; their visit had already labeled them all. It was early December!

So this screed is simply a lengthy way a saying: visit the garden and visit often! Half the fun is in seeing how things change and the plants in their various stages. For example, I’m not sure there’s a lovelier sight on the planet than the emerging foliage of sprouting hostas. There something particularly refreshing and encouraging and beautiful about the variety of colors and textures that the new growth displays in the spring; that is true in general for all herbaceous plants, but especially so for hostas (we grow roughly 160 different varieties). And it is certainly apparent that they like water; they have been simply outstanding this year. They are often advertised as drought-tolerant and that they are, but they’d rather be kept watered, especially from now through fall because this is when they are forming new crowns. And they have been spoiled by the rain so far this year. So keep them well watered for the rest of the year and they will repay the effort next year! You won’t be sorry.

The View from above (2015)


Notes: the above was taken by Bill Gardner, photographer aided by Tom
Esper, pilot. The obvious line of tall trees on the left side, parallel to the road, is gone: victims of the emerald ash borer. They have not been replaced but the plants there were under them have stepped to the fore and are fulfilling their new role admirably.

1) a private garden which is now open to the public on Sunday afternoons from noon to five during growing season, roughly mid-April through mid-October (and at other times for small groups of five or more by appointment);
2) a place in which one looks at plants;
3) home to over 500 different kinds of trees and shrubs, including about 120 different kinds of conifers and over 80 different roses and nearly 500 different kinds of perennials including over 150 kinds of hosta and 50+ different daylilies.
4) a place for wandering, chatting, looking and generally immersing in a garden which, we hope, is full of interest, beauty and inspiration.

Honkin Hostas


Since 2003, Ashdowne  (which is the garden name,  English Garden Farm is the location) has been a work in progress and like any good garden, always will be. Prior to 2002, the property was approximately 2.5-3 acres of grass with a few ‘weed’ trees scattered about and a line of mature (50-70′) ashes along the roadside. There is also a 6 acre hayfield which we use as ‘borrowed landscape’. Otherwise, we are surrounded with industrial corn, soybean and some wheat farming.
(Comment on Ashdowne – the garden was originally named Ashgrove as a nod to the 18 very large, as noted above, ash trees which formed the northern border of the property, parallel to the highway. There were also several others, much smaller, scattered around in the grass surrounding the house; they were removed early on. In winter of 2017, all of the large ash trees had to be removed as the emerald ash borer had been doing its thing and these trees were either going to end up across the road or in the garden – neither a welcome development, so they were turned into firewood before they fell on their own. It completely changed the look and feel of the front of the garden as well as appearance from the road. If you had been here when the ash trees reigned and came now, you could easily drive right past it. It will be interesting to see how the plants which were formerly in the ‘rain and food’ as well as light shadow thrive now that such a huge source of competition has been removed. The absence of shade created some minor issues in another section of the garden, but the plants there seem to be adapting and the new, smaller shade trees that have been added for sun-protection seem to be doing just fine as well. The spelling of the garden’s name is just an affectation – what the heck.)

So-called ‘anchor’ trees were planted first, walk-ways outlined, and general overall shape determined. Over the course of the next 6-8 years, smaller trees and shrubs were added, areas between plants were made larger and, ultimately, large beds (we call them borders now) were established and the grass restricted to pathways. That process continues, with addition of many perennials with many, many more to come and several ‘hardscape’ projects in the works. Nearly all of the planting is in a mixed style for year-round interest and the pathways meander and wander in ways to pique the eye’s interest while presenting different views of each section.


Our approach to the garden has been governed by a number of principles to which we have tried to remain true:

1) if you can see dirt, there’s room for another plant;

2) if it doesn’t want to live here, we won’t try to force it;

3) every plant needs to earn its own keep, and each plant should play well with others;

4) we plant things because we like them;

5) every view of the garden should be visually pleasing, there should be a surprise around every corner; and you should never be able to see everything from any single vantage point;

6) we work in the dirt because it feels good and keeps us grounded (no pun) in reality;

7) the whole effort should be as sustainable as possible and function, except in emergencies, with the moisture provided by nature;

8) pesticides will not be used unless absolutely necessary to save a valuable plant (and then only in a very limited amount and space);

9) we need to share the results because that’s how we learned and it’s fun!

And lastly (not a guiding principle but a truism):

10) the size of a garden is inversely proportional to one’s distance from the ground (Craig’s maxim).


HOURS: The garden is open to the public on Sundays,

from 12:00 – 5:00 PM.

(Please see Garden Clubs and Workshop sections for other arrangements)

We have never charged a fee for visiting the gardens on Sunday afternoons when it is always open to the public; HOWEVER, beginning with 2017 we are asking for a contribution of $5 per person to visit the garden and $10 per person if you join one of the scheduled and guided tours (at 2:00 PM and 4:00 PM). 

We welcome you to come and visit.

You are welcome to wander at your leisure.

We are also happy to walk along, answer questions, and hold forth on gardening during guided tours that are available at 2 and 4 PM.

Please plan to visit when you can take the time to look at details as many of our plants are rare and unusual and deserve more than a cursory glance.

We ask that you keep animals in the car park area and small children under control.

We ask that you not smoke on the property (except downwind, on the periphery).

The grounds are not level and all the pathways are grass or gravel and therefore uneven.

Most of the garden is not wheelchair accessible although we will make every effort to assist anyone who wants to see it to do so.

We ask that you keep to the pathways; you never know what may be waiting under the soil in the blank spot you were ready to step on.

Most of the plants are not labeled; this is neither a botanic garden nor do we want to resemble a pet cemetery, but we do provide plant lists and are happy to identify plants for you.

The garden is, we hope, as any decent garden – a work in progress and planting, replanting, moving, trimming, etc. are happening throughout the season.

Wear comfortable walking shoes, bring a bottle of water for yourself, and some mosquito repellant is not a bad idea (they are usually not bad, if at all, but you never know).

We ask that you respect the privacy of the home.

Thank you in advance for visiting and your cooperation.