Embracing the slope

2014_05260038Sometimes you happen upon a speaker or hear a talk which causes you to have one of those light bulb moment.  Such an occurrence happened this weekend at the Alpine Garden Society annual conference in Stratford.  The majority of the speakers talked about a particular genus – who knew there were so many species of Meconopsis about particularly parts of the world.  For me the speaker of the conference was Keith Wiley who gardens with his wife at Wildside in Devon.

I have known of Keith for some years now and the whole time my youngest was a student at Plymouth University I tried to visit his garden but its openings never coincided with my visits to the area and sadly it will be closed next year.  I have seen his work at The Garden House and read his book Gardening on the Wild Side.  I knew that he had created vast ravines in his new garden but I had never really understood the reasoning why.

Keith’s talk was about a broader view of the woodland border.  Oh good thought I, lots of nice ferns, epimediums and erythroniums which will make a nice change to all the cushion and scree loving plants in the talks so far.  However, Keith’s talk was more than that, it was about creating an environment to grow ‘woodland’ plants and how you do this when you are presented with a flat field with no trees and you have a love of many woodland plants.  The solution is to create the hills and troughs, banks and ravines that many of us saw him building on The Landscape Man and now it makes sense.  By taking this approach Keith has created borders which face north, south, east and west and by planting trees and shrubs on the tops of the mounds and banks he is creating shade.  As he explained woodland plants don’t need to grow under the tree canopy just in the shade created by the trees and shrubs.

As many know I have a sloping garden.  It probably slopes at 45 degrees.  I am so used to it the slope doesn’t bother me to work on but I do struggle with how the plant it and achieve the best results. I have never yearned for a flat garden but I have to admit having a garden sloping up from the house has, and continues, to challenge me.  Sometimes I almost feel paralysed by the borders and this leaves to dithering and inertia and dis-satisfaction in the result.


So what has changed? Well Keith talked about mirroring nature in the borders and how he used inspiration from sights he had seen around the world and indeed in others gardens to create vignettes and views.  Admittedly his vignettes are equal to a substantial size of my garden and when I asked him later what he followed the erythroniums with in his magnolia glade he admitted that the interest in the garden moved to another area.  This is a luxury I don’t have, every part of my garden has to work hard to give as much interest as possible but talking with others and looking carefully at Keith’s photos I can see how I can use many of the plants I already have in a better way with the shorter geraniums underplanting the taller and more vase shaped woodlanders such as Maianthemum racemosum. I am also going to think about how I position some of my shrubs in order to create more shaded areas for my favourite woodlanders.

It is interesting as many of Keith’s ideas weren’t particularly revolutionary and I had heard and seen various elements that he was using in various places but somehow it was how he brought it all together, and of course his infectious enthusiasm, that really struck a chord with me.  As he said to me when we discussed his talk this morning – slopes give you so much more scope and interest and why would anyone want a flat garden!

So here I am home ready to plan and scheme over the coming winter and learn to love and embrace my garden taking into account how the slope and positioning of taller plants can provide different environments for my favourite plants.  Roll on the spring.


*The photos are of the Big Border back in May which actually looking back isn’t too bad and I need to do more looking back at photographs before I make any rash decisions.


16 Comments Add yours

  1. jenhumm116 says:

    I too was lucky enough to hear Keith Wiley speak recently at West Dean (http://duverdiary.wordpress.com/2014/09/29/wonderful-wild-wiley/) he really is just so enthusiastic and knowledgeable. A fabulous speaker.

  2. Cathy says:

    Look forward to seeing troughs, banks and ravines appearing in your garden, Helen…!

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Oh there won’t be any of those Cathy I have enough slopes to be dealing with but a different mindset is good

  3. rusty duck says:

    Which way does your slope face? Mine faces south, with most beds viewed from both sides. So I could maybe plant shrubs in the middle of these borders.. the woodlanders could go to the north side of those and create a completely different feel to the same bed when viewed from the south.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      I am rubbish at directions but I think it faces south because things like dahlia face towards the house so I only see the back of them from the top path!

    2. rusty duck says:

      I have that problem with the terraces, the house is to the north of them. Infuriating!

  4. Yvonne Ryan says:

    Hi Helen – Yes slopes can be rewarding, tho’ hard work. As I have told you before we turned a large clay slope north (sun) facing into a Bird Bush with NZ natives with a path meandering thru’. Thank goodness our two Wooffers were so marvellous. I can’t believe how fast the plants are growing – must be several inches a week an bulking up. We only lost one plant a sick native toi-toi grass in all the storms over winter. The NE and N wind crashes in if in that direction. Not cold wind but viscious! Rex, when mowing on the ride-on is no longer in danger on that slope! Absolutely gorgeous day yesterday and walked around 9 beautiful gardens and houses in the Matakana area yesterday as a fund raiser for Warkworth Hospice.

  5. Anna says:

    Isn’t it great when you have one of those ‘Eureka’ moments Helen? I can still see Keith whizzing around on a mini – digger when we visited ‘Wildside’. You were most fortunate to hear him speak. Have fun with making those plans.

  6. CathyT says:

    Inspired by your inspiration, Helen, as I also have a sharply sloping garden, facing south. To me, your garden always looks beautiful (you are right about the May photos – ‘not so bad’, you say – I’d go much further). I love woodland plants too, and trying to grow them with no shade has been a struggle. But I am noticing that every tiny bit of shade is appreciated by plants that need some respite from the sun. Even sweet peas with more afternoon shade here do better! I can’t hear Keith speak, but could certainly read his book … thanks

  7. I was also fortunate to hear Keith’s talk about Wildside back in September when he was invited to speak at the Norfolk Plant Heritage Group’s Autumn Gala…I agree Helen, it was inspiring. I also spent more than I should have on the fabulous plants that he brought with him! I look forward to seeing how you progress with your own garden….by the way your border looks great in the photo that you’ve posted. My garden is the reverse in as much that it has a little too much shade from overhanging trees….this winter’s project.

  8. Pauline says:

    He is a marvellous speaker, isn’t he, so inspirational. I was so sad to hear that the garden will be closed next year, did he say why? I have been to his garden and was blown away by some of the planting, such a pity if it doesn’t open again, I was hoping to visit at different times of year.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Pauline
      I think it is because they are having a new house built

    2. Pauline…I think the main reason that they are not opening next year is because they are going to be building a house. He also said that the garden would be changing…possibly to make it easier to manage.

  9. How wonderful, I love those “ah hah!” moments, and I can really see how you can use that as inspiration in your garden. And yes, those borders looked mighty fine, it is very easy to forget how good something looked when thinking about how to revamp later in the year. Enjoy playing on your slope with renewed inspiration! Can’t wait to see the results.

  10. It’s always a thrill when one has an unexpected light bulb moment. Sounds like a good talk. I am not familiar with Keith so I am off to learn about him.

  11. rickii says:

    It’s so great when a speaker can infuse you with new enthusiasm and inspiration…especially heading into winter’s contemplative time. I spent a good deal of time creating berms in my last garden and the next person to come along promptly flattened them all out.

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