English Garden Design Basics: What is a Ha-Ha?

January 14, 2024

The Naturalistic and picturesque landscapers of England’s 18th century (Humphrey Repton, Capability Brown and Co) gave us one of the most clever garden features. The Ha-Ha. If you need a wall – but don’t want to see the wall – for purely aesthetic reasons, the ha-ha fence is your answer.

What is a Ha ha garden feature?

A group of cows standing in a grassy area.
Cows up against a ha-ha ditch that keeps them out of the cultivated garden closer to the house. This cleverly disguised garden wall preserves the pastoral view -with its below-ground position.

According to Wikipedia,  A haha or was a variety of sunken borders used in formal European gardens and parks of the 18th and 19th centuries. They typically consisted of a garden wall set in a trench or dry moat, with the top of the wall at the garden’s ground level. This would prevent cattle or unexpected guests from entering the garden without disrupting the sightlines.”

“You will hurt yourself, Miss Bertram,” she cried, “you will certainly hurt yourself against those spikes – you will tear your gown – you will be in danger of slipping into the ha-ha.”

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

According to a retired professor J. Tatter at Birmingham Southern College At very insightful and in-depth description found here (click through to read a lot more about the ha-ha’s history):  “The ha-ha, or sunken fence, was the principal means to join artfulness and wildness because it allowed the neater and more regular garden visually to blend with the larger countryside while at the same time allowing the countryside visually to seem more ordered by association with the garden. Hence the boundary formed by the ha-ha is actually more of a means of connection than a means of separation precisely because it is invisible to those standing inside the garden.”

A man jumping over a wall in a grassy field.
Titsey Estate view over the Ha Ha from info Britain.

Ok – so this very practical and clever device makes sense – but the name… why not call it a sunken wall? Or a ditch fence?

Why is it called a haha? 

Actually, the origin of the expression ‘ha – ha’ in the English language is thought to be from this garden feature. (Not the other way around). It is of French origin and is so named because of the ‘ah ha’ or ‘haha’ sound you might make when you surprisingly come across or fall into such a feature.

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  1. Michelle D. says:

    that last photo of the cows staring at the garden beyond is priceless ! ha ha !

  2. Dirt Gently says:

    The word origin sounds dubious, if only because I would probably exclaim “Merde!” rather than “Ha Ha!” if I fell into one of these death traps.

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