Plans are afoot

Beth Chatto's gravel garden
Beth Chatto’s gravel garden

My garden for the last 9 years or so has become my identity to many people particularly as I have been a serial blogger on the subject.  Even recently at work people have started to ask about my blog and I’ve heard the expression “Helen writes a gardening blog you know” more and more.  Something in me twitched at this.  I have always hated being pigeon-holed and railed against it.  But I also think I twitched as I felt guilty for not blogging much and because I have hardly been in the garden properly for some 6 weeks or maybe longer – a niggle of guilt has been eating away at me. I’m not so worried about the blog as I know my lack of interest is because with a new demanding job I am too tired to spend more time looking at a PC when I get home.  This assumption is backed up by my desire to blog today when I am on leave – I obviously need some sort of vehicle for my mental output.

 

As for the garden it has troubled me that I can’t get interested in it. I have struggled since the new neighbours cut down their new overgrown garden and left me with little privacy. I have also come to realise that my creative side needs projects to keep it interested and whilst there is plenty of maintenance needed which I enjoy most of the time I really need a project to get me properly engaged.  Having dug up the front lawn earlier this year and replanted the space I have been left wondering what to do.  I have even spent time looking at new houses but again my heart wasn’t in moving as I do like living here.

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Then something changed, it wasn’t a light bulb moment or any sort of revelation and I actually suspect that because I had had a quite week at work allowing me to catch up properly before a week’s leave that my head had cleared and allowed me space to think about the garden.  In addition I was home alone last week and found myself wandering around the garden with my morning cuppa  which led to pondering.

And you guess right a new project has come about and I am a happy bunny, itching to get going and suddenly enthused to tidy up and regain control of a garden which seems to have embraced its neglect far too quickly for my liking.

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I want to sort out the Big Border.  It has never been quite right since I created it and I have struggled to work out why it isn’t right and what I should do with it.  To give you some background the Big Border was created when I lifted the back lawn.  This was partly because a large shed/workshop was going in part of the garden and I needed to re-house the plants, partly because I think lawn is a waste of time in a small garden and partly because the garden slopes so much that cutting the lawn was hard work.  This latter reason also explains why I have struggled with how to plant the Big Border that was created.  As my fellow sloping gardeners will know, and there are a few of them out there in the blogasphere – check out Rusty Duck, a sloping garden can be a real challenge.  No only do you get weary lugging things up and down the garden but you realise that you see the plants differently to in a flat garden.  So if your garden slopes up from the house as mine does and you choose to plant tall plants, as I have a habit of doing, you find yourself looking at leggy stems.

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I am sure that there are clever garden designers out there who would dismiss my frustrations and in no time at all create something magical with tall plants.  However, I am a simple amateur gardener whose plant knowledge has been on a steep learning curve over the last 9 years and whilst I know far more about plants than I did when I planted the border initially some 4 years ago, I am still learning by trial and error – mainly error!  In addition my tastes have changed a lot in recent years.  This was brought home to me back in June on a garden visiting trip when I found my yearning for something more exciting than roses, alliums and geraniums – I wanted something with movement; something different; something with textures, foliage; something that wasn’t an English Country Garden.

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So when I was wandering round the garden last week, cuppa in hand, pondering the Big Border I started to ask myself what I wanted and I went back to beginnings with asking what plants do I like – ferns (no too sunny), bulbs (yes), actually tiny bulbs (more troublesome).  I knew I didn’t want a rock garden as I loath them, they are so depressing with all that grey stone but there was a germ of an idea here.  How to create a space for my little bulbs and alpines without creating a rockery and how to merge it into a bigger border.  I faffed around on the internet, messaged my virtual friend at the Scottish Rock Garden Society who shared some photographic ideas; I pondered and spent time standing and staring at the border.  Then the creative juices started to peculate and slowly the ideas started to drip through.

Firstly, the long thin border along the top of the wall (opposite side of the path) which houses my roses, which I adore, would be beefed up with the removal of the disappointing geraniums and the addition of perennial herbs such as sage and lavender giving all year round substance.  Then I would accept the fact that there was bright light to the Big Border now and the slope gave good drainage, but in warm dry weather, could cause the plants problems, and I would plant the space with plants that actually enjoy this environment – what a novel idea!

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For the astute of you who will have been looking at the photos on this post you will have twigged that they give a clue to the inspiration behind my idea – Beth Chatto’s gravel garden which I visited in June and was the highlight of the trip for me.  Now I know that I can’t replicate this as I have considerably more rain that Beth and my soil is clay based so more fertile but I want to use the approach she has taken and select plants that will enjoy the more exposed site and which are crucially not that tall.  The focus will be on foliage strong plants to give interest all year so I plan to use bergenias (I have many in the front garden that need a new home), grasses (I fancy another Stipa gigantea), things like agastache, agapanthus, lots of bulbs for throughout the year, agave, etc.

My disappointing border
My disappointing border

I am excited by the prospect and there is already a programme of clearing and relocation planned which will not only free up the space but will help with producing a screen along the exposed boundary line.  Of course being August and warm and dry I will have to wait until the weather cools but in the meantime I am thrilled that I am finally rediscovering the garden.

 

End of Month View – April 2016 – Hugh’s Border

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Hugh’s Border has really filled out in the last month especially with the hostas planted under the Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’ emerging. I am determined to crack this border this year.  It looks Ok but in previous years there has been something lacking and it has felt bitty and not really me.  Over the last month I have added some lupins with red/orange flowers and also Rosa ‘Hot Chocolate’.  These will add to the red and orange theme that seems to be the emerging in this area.

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Here’s the other end of Hugh’s Border (Hugh is the owl).  This part of the border is more woodland/shade planting.  The Pulmonaria are beginning to go over which I am sure will disappoint the bees.  Just behind them are some trillium and lots of Onoclea sensibilis as it seems to have decided to spread after sitting quietly for years – I presume due to the mild wet winter.

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Here is the other end of the woodland bit of the border (nearest the bench).  The big round leaves are Cardiocrinum giganteum which has reappeared this year and hopefully will flower. The lime green strappy leaves are Iris sibirica, I think it is a pale blue variety but it hasn’t flowered for a few years due to being moved so maybe this year will be the year when I discover which variety they are.

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This is the front of the border and the area of the border which has been really perplexing me.  I have moved a couple of hellebores here from near the bench as it was difficult to see their flowers in their old location.  It seems hellebores like to face the sun so from the bench you just saw the back of the flowers in their new location you can see the flowers from the grass path.  I am trying to bulk up the planting and foliage textures in this area so plan to add to it as the year progresses.

So that is the border at mid Spring, lots of new shoots appearing and promise of things to come.

If you would like to join in with the monthly meme you are very welcome.  All I ask is that you add a link to this post in your post and leave a link to your post in the comments box below.  You can use the meme however you want – to focus on one area in particular, to look around the whole garden, whatever suits you.

 

End of Month View – February 2016 Hugh’s Border

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Ok so the quick-witted amongst you will have spotted that this isn’t my front garden which I said last month was going to be the focus of the End of Month Meme.  And you are right. I had fully intended to focus on the front garden in the meme this year but having written last month’s post, received lots of inspiring comments and done much pondering I think I have decided to dig up the front lawn and re-design the space.  Now I am sure that would be very interesting to follow on the blog month by month but as I don’t know when I will have the time and/or energy to start the work and as I am pro actively working on reducing unnecessary pressure on myself to compensate for the pressures of my new role at work it seemed silly to me to set myself up to feel like I was failing every month. No doubt when I do get my act together I will be showing you the progress on the front garden but I’m afraid you will have to settle for another year of the main garden this year.

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Having made that decision I was then perplexed about what to focus on this year.  My garden isn’t that big and there certainly isn’t anything new to showcase but I was determined to focus on something I hadn’t focussed on before so I have ended up with the border you can see in the photographs.  This is what has been known as the former bog garden and you can locate it if you look at the garden plan.  When I first started blogging a large portion of this border was a pond put in to the convenient hole left by a huge inherited conifer that we had removed.  It was a foolish place to put a pond as it was under the Prunus and Willow so I spent my life, or so it seemed, fishing leaves out and really putting a pond near the top of a sloping garden is just fundamentally wrong.  Some years back I decided to fill it in and create  bog garden.  To be honest this was a very lazy approach to dealing with the pond liner and not the best idea I had especially given that I become a little over enthusiastic in puncturing holes in the liner and inadvertently improved the drainage so well that the likelihood of a bog garden was remote.  So now it is just a border which is mainly in the shade but with the shed end in the sunshine.  Interestingly, when I took the photographs for this post I was struggling to find a good view, which is why it has rarely featured on the blog, but then I stumbled on the view from the shed (top photo) which I really like.  It’s almost as if I designed the border deliberately to be that shape!

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Like I have said the border has a sunny end, just in front of the bench and when we put the bench and gravel in a few years back we cut into the border to create a bigger gravel area where I could also put some of my pots.  Not a very prepossessing collection I know but these are the remnants of my dabbling in alpines and they need to be sorted and tidied.  My intention when I put the bench in was to try to create an area which would be surrounded in plants in high summer like a hide away.  I haven’t achieved this as I have been just too conservative in this area and I need to throw caution to the wind and go for it.  You will see there are a number of hellebores in this bed.  These are last year’s hellebores acquisitions and I was looking for a new location, rather than group all my hellebores in one area.  The only trouble with this location is that, just like dahlias, hellebores face towards the sun (well they do in my garden) and consequently when I sit on the bench I am looking at the back of the flowers.  I have decided to move these plants further along the border to the shady end near the grass path  so I can actually see the flowers.  Then I need to start thinking about how to achieve the feel I want here.  I think some big leaved plants would be good….more pondering will now take place.

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This is the view of the shady end from the grass path.  Again I have struggled with this area – in fact I have struggled with all this border.  I am trying to get a more cohesive feeling and move away from the bittiness that predominates so much of my garden;  the downside of having a magpie approach to plants.  In the back of the border there is a paulownia, which I am growing as a tree rather than pollarding, and lots of ferns.  I think I need to start incorporating some hostas in this end and the hellebores will also add interesting foliage when I move them but I feel it needs something maybe a bit more architectural or striking to give it some sort of focus…. maybe the fatsia japonica Variegated that found its way home from today’s HPS meeting would be a good starting point.

As for what I call this border, well the ‘former bog garden’ doesn’t trip off the tongue so I am think maybe I will call it Hugh’s border as that is the name of my willow owl.

If you would like to join in with the end of month view meme you are very welcome to.  There are no rules but I do ask that you link to this post or blog from your post and if you leave a link to your post in the comment box below then we can all find each other.

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.

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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.

The Fence Border

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I have mentioned in recent posts that I have been clearing the border along the fence at the top of the bottom steps.  The fence has been stained as dark as possible and my eldest son has run his electrical cable along it which is going to take power to his workshop – the cable just needs pulling taught now.

In this border are two unknown roses that were in situ when we moved in about 9 years ago.  I previously had a Ceanothus planted against the fence.  It dominated this space but produced few flowers and ever winter got cut back by frosts.  I needed to cut it back so the cable could be run behind it but I decided that enough was enough if a plant doesn’t perform as it should the it should find its way to the great compost heap in the sky.  Removing the shrub turned out to be an excellent idea.  I realised how much it over powered you as you came up the steps.  As you can see the border is very narrow here and this is dictated by the placement of the bottom steps and path.

Having removed the shrub and appreciated the space it left I decided that I didn’t want anything large here.  I wanted to show case the roses, one is a deep pink and very pretty and the other orange/yellow and less pretty, but even so I wanted to give them a chance to look their best.  I  have an increasing fascination in combining plants to give interesting textures and I have decided that the borders along the fences will be more focussed towards foliage whilst the interior Big Border and the Cottage Garden Border will have flowers as their focus.

I have cut back my neighbours shrubs which was causing a rain shadow over the border.  The shrubs on the other side of the fence take enough of the mositure so I needed to do everything I could to help the plants I was planting out. As you can see I have planted out a range of plants that should  do well in the conditions.  I have added a dwarf bamboo that has been residing in a pot on the patio  for years and seems to have thrived on neglect so I am hoping it will cope well with the dryish conditions in this border.  I also think the light foliage contrasts well with the dark fence.  I wanted to have a dark and light theme so added a dark-leaved Saxifraga ‘Silver Velvet’, a Japanese Painted Fern, a dark Sedum, a variegated Origanum.  The Saxifraga will be dug up for the winter and the fern will die back so I have added some double Snowdrops, Flora Pleno which hopefully will add a sparkle early in the year.  I am really pleased that all of the plants, bare one, of the plants I have included were residing in pots around the patio so it hasn’t cost me any money and I now have some empty pots to fill.

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I now have to continue with this style of planting beyond the Choisya ‘Sundance’ which has had a brutal prune to try to make it grow more compact and less straggly.  My neighbour has been clearing some of the shrubs on his side of the fence so I am hoping that the increased light will encourage the Choisya to grow more evenly.  The border leads up to the workshop and now all the upheaval is finished I can really focus on it.  I have a few ideas for the plants I want to include but I need to do some more research first.

 

Japanese Fern Border

Athyrium 'Burgundy Lace'
Athyrium ‘Burgundy Lace’

I mentioned in my last post that I had created a new border – the Japanese fern border.

My patio is quite shady on the garden size and is edged with a long narrow border which is backed by a 4ft wall which holds up the rest of the garden.  The border is divided in two by the greenhouse.  The longer section is my spring border which was featured in last year’s  End of Month View.  I haven’t really mentioned the shorter border as I have been unhappy with it.  The short section is also overshadowed by a prostrate rosemary which is growing on top of the wall and this makes the border quite shady.

The soil in the border is excellent due to 9 years of me adding compost, wood chip and other stuff.  It is also very free draining but doesn’t dry out quickly which actually means that I have some of that elusive moist free draining soil that all the plant books talk about.

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Anyway, back last January I visited Ashwood Nurseries and was lucky enough to have a tour of John Massey’s garden.  There was a small fern border by his front door which looked great despite it being January and this planted a seed of an idea.  Then I was chatting with Victoria about ferns and she suggested I plant them in the short border.  It is after all just the right conditions.  I already have many ferns in the garden which I wanted to add to and I decided I needed a focus for the ferns in the new border.  A bit of research lead me to decide that it should be planted with Japanese ferns.  I already had a Japanese Holly Fern in the border so this made sense.  Also my favourite ferns – Athyriums or Painted ferns  – are Japanese so it was a no brainer.

Buying plants for this border has led to some interesting and amusing conversations with nurseryman at Malvern Spring show and Spetchley plant fair.  Asking for recommendations of Japanese ferns was a good opening of a conversation and that I find is often the hardest bit when talking to nurseryman.  Once you show more interest than where do I plant this you can have some fabulous conversations as they know you are really interested.

Polystochum Tsus-simense
Polystochum Tsus-simense

Anyway, I have now added Cyrtomium fortunei, Polystichum Tsus-simense, Polystichum polyblepharum and Athryium Burgandy Lace to the border.  Also in the border are some perennials which I haven’t decided whether to relocate yet including: Disporopsis undulata, Impatiens omeiana and Cautelya spicata ‘Arun Flame’.  I think they will add a nice contrast to the ferns but we will see.  I might do a bit of research to see where they originate from to see if they nicely fit my theme but I know that the Cautelya is from Nepal so this is already going off target!

Interestingly my youngest doesn’t like this border as he says it is dull and lacking height and variety.  I am wondering if he is right.  Whilst there are differences in the textures and colours of the foliage the structure of the plants is still the same so there is possibly not enough variety but we shall see how it pans out.