Falling for a view

I may be a Yorkshire-woman by birth, but my heart has been in the West Country since I first visited 40 years ago. Living close to the coast has always been a dream, not only for the beauty and the wildness; but also for the opportunity to grow some more unusual plants in the milder coastal conditions. IMG_1343.jpgSo excitement was high in June as I left behind what had been my base for most of my adult life and headed to the South Hams of Devon to set up a new home and garden design business. What is more, for the first time in my life I owned a garden bigger than a postage stamp! One third of an acre of garden, orchard and woodland perched high above the Avon Valley near Kingsbridge. The sensational views across the valley which put us on birds-eye level and make me sometimes feel I am living in a tree-house, also come with a very steeply sloping garden in places. IMG_1356.jpg

The garden finishes just beyond the lonesome Pine in this photo, most of which is hidden as the slope drops off quickly beyond the Rose hedge which is just coming into flower in this photo taken the week after we arrived.IMG_1142.jpg

We started with the veggie garden which had been rather neglected.DSC_0132.jpgLevelling an area to build a greenhouse and shed, and turning over the soil ready for creating a fruit and veg garden as soon as possible

IMG_1158.jpgIMG_1253.jpgNote the water butts and the compost bins, crucial elements of sustainable gardening. I are committed to gardening organically and always encourage my clients to do the same. Other improvements have included building new steps to the main lawn using sleepers and slate chippings

.IMG_1323.jpgIMG_1365.jpgThe borders either side will become a tapestry of ferns, Hellebores, and other textural woodland perennials. Here are a mixture ready to be planted.IMG_4520.jpg

We have also started to renovate the mini orchard by mowing paths through the rough grass and planting apples, pears and plums. Wild flower plugs and spring bulbs for naturalisation will also go in this autumn.IMG_1327.jpg

The moist, mild west country climate is perfect for Hydrangeas and here are a few that have graced the garden for the last 3 months. I think I might just have fallen in love with their generosity of flower as they tumble down the slopes; some a little blowsy, others very elegant. They will need a little extra pruning in spring to bring them back under control as you can see!IMG_1207.jpgIMG_1206.jpgIMG_1205.jpgRoses also seem to thrive in the conditions here. The previous owner of our house trained these Ramblers beautifully over a low fence.IMG_1148.jpgI purposely did not deadhead the Roses as they faded as I knew we would have an amazing show of hips too if I left them alone.  And we have.

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The joy of my new garden is the mixture of habitats and conditions, each suiting different types of plants and planting styles, and the wonderful countryside surrounding us. Creating a garden which acknowledges all of this and sits comfortably as a foreground to the view is going to be a lot of fun. Oh, and here is my neighbour, Fudge. He keeps an eye on what I am up to over the fence!

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Keeping your balance

One of the joys of a garden for me is that it will never be the same from one year to the next. It will grow, change, mature and eventually decline and the fun is to manage that development and create a balance between the plants so that each can fulfill its potential. Whether your garden is five years or 25 years old it will need ‘editing’ if you want to keep it looking at its best.

I am often brought in by clients who have inherited a mature garden and know that although they don’t want to dig up the whole thing and start again, there needs to be a process of revision to bring back the balance to the garden. This imbalance can happen because trees and shrubs have grown bigger than their allotted space and are competing for space, light and nutrients. They might be creating shade where once there was a bright, sunny space and smaller plants beneath the canopy are suffering. Spontaneous plant purchases often result in a plant growing too big for the only space available  when it was bought or not suitable for the soil or aspect. If you only visit the garden centre in the summer then your garden may be full of plants that look good at that time but with nothing for the rest of the year!DSC_0135

1.REVIEW THE BORDERS

Winter is an excellent time to look critically at the borders. Try to be objective and plan to keep only those plants that contribute throughout the year to the overall picture. If something has outgrown its space but you love it then try giving it a renovation prune in the spring to within 60cm of the ground. Look at the RHS website for advice on which plants you can safely do this with. If two shrubs have grown into each other make a decision about which to keep and which can go based on performance and shape. Widening a border may make it easier to manage as shrubs can be allowed to reach their natural girth rather than having to be constantly pruned back. Think about the shape of the borders. Sweeping curves look better than bitty wiggles and are easier to maintain. If formal is more your style then make sure lawn edges are straight and crisp. Like humans, plants do have a lifetime which varies enormously so don’t be afraid to replace those that look tired and leggy. Would you choose the same plant again today? If it does’t earn its keep in terms of flowers/foliage/bark then harden your heart and take it out! Look at photos on Pinterest and Instagram as well as in magazines and books for inspiration and for a fresh view.

Take photographs of the border, cover with tracing paper and try sketching a visualisation of how you would like things to look like when you have removed/pruned shrubs or perennials. Mark the new shape of border edges on the ground with a hose-pipe or sitcks and string.

2. RENOVATE 

Spring is a great time to actually start work on renovations. Remove those plants that are dead, diseased or you have decided will not fit into the new border. Roots need to go too or you won’t be able to replant in that space and unwanted new growth may spring up. Prune those shrubs that you have decided to keep either by cutting right back or removing one third of the oldest branches referring to RHS website. Consider raising the canopy of shrubs so that you can plant perennials and bulbs beneath for an extra layer of interest. Keep stepping back to asses how the shrub looks as you prune. If the crowns of perennials are infested with weed then you could dig them up, shake off the soil and remove every scrap of weed root. Dig out weeds in the border by hand or, as a last resort, carefully spray really invasive weeds such as ground elder or bindweed with a glyphosate-based weedkiller.   It is so important to get as much weed root out as possible otherwise they will compete for light, water and nutrients with your new plants.

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Perennials benefit from being dug up regularly in spring or autumn and splitting into smaller pieces, getting rid of the less vigorous centre pieces, and replanting further apart with space to grow.20150511a

3.FEED AND CONDITION

Feeding and conditioning the soil with organic matter is much more beneficial (and better for the environment) than feeding the plant with artificial fertilisers. It improves the structure of the soil as well as feeding the plants. I specify digging in garden compost/well-rotted manure/green waste compost/leafmould/spent mushroom compost whenever I am renovating a border or planting a new one from scratch. A couple of bucketfuls per square metres dug into the top 30cm of soil will be an enormous long-term benefit. Many councils sell green waste compost created from the garden waste they collect from us.

4.RESHAPE

Cut the new shape of the border into the lawn and lift unwanted turf with spade or a turf-lifter. Stack this turf upside down in a corner of the garden as it will rot down to produce excellent compost.057

5.ASSESS AND REFRESH

Now the fun bit! Choose your new plants carefully having worked out the type of conditions you are going to be providing them with. Ask yourself what the aspect of the border is….sunny, shady or a mixture of both? Soil type is also key in choosing plants. Is it heavy clay which sticks to your boots or sandy soil which dries out quickly? Get a soil testing kit from the garden centre to work out pH (acidic, neutral or alkaline?). All these factors should guide your choice of plants. Next think about successional interest through the year. Choose some plants which look good in autumn and winter as well as spring and summer. This can be leaf or bark colour or structure from dead seed heads or the tracery of branches. Make sure you provide pollinators with nectar for as long season as possible. Research height and width of plants at maturity to make sure they will fit the space. One-third evergreen to two-thirds deciduous is a formula that works well for shrubs. And lastly, of course, decide on a colour scheme which helps to focus the choice of plants further. Remember this needs to fit in with any plants that remain from the original scheme. Phew! Now you know why planting plans take so long to create!

6.DIG IN

Take a tip from designers and place all the plants out in their pots on the border before you start to plant and move them around until  you are happy with how they combine. Plant perennials in groups of at least 3 to avoid a fussy,spotty look. Make sure all plants are at the same level in the soil as they were in the pots. Too high or too low may spell disaster for the plant. Water them in well so that each plant gets a couple of bucketfuls of water. Repeat once a week for the first season, a good soaking once a week is better than a sprinkling every day. Consider mulching with 75mm of pine bark nuggets which will help retain moisture and cut weeding by two-thirds. If you do, make sure mulch is kept away from the stems of shrubs.

All done! Pour yourself a well-deserved cup of tea or glass of wine and sit back and enjoy your fresh new garden!IMG_0503.jpg

Oudolf Field, Hauser and Wirth, Somerset

How exciting to hear that there was a major new contemporary garden designed by Piet Oudolf opening in Somerset in September 2014 around the Hauser and Wirth Gallery.      www.hauserwirthsomerset.com/garden  Luckily, I had plans to attend a couple of workshops run by Thornhayes Nursery in Devon at the end of September so could visit on my way down there, shortly after it had opened.DSC_0003

Hauser & Wirth Somerset is a pioneering world-class gallery and multi-purpose arts centre, which acts as a destination for experiencing art, architecture and the Somerset landscape through new and innovative exhibitions of contemporary art. (So say H & W!) And I have to say it is a remarkable place and well worth a visit. Beautiful grade II listed farm buildings which had fallen into disrepair have been converted into various stylish galleries and public spaces, bar and restaurant and surrounded by gardens designed by Piet Oudolf. I loved the whole concept, which was that the buildings, garden and exhibition spaces expressed the spirit of the old farm. Agricultural drinking troughs were used as containers for perennials around the restaurant and metal sheep feeding troughs found new life as a sink in the ladies loo!DSC_0037

Oudolf’s Field lies at the back of the complex and blends with the surrounding Somerset countryside beautifully. It covers 1.5 acres and is billed as a perennial meadow.

DSC_0005As you can see when I first emerged from the gallery this is the effect given by the dense planting. Once I began to explore, however, I discovered that the planting is divided into interlocking borders with gravel paths between. I felt as though I was disappearing into the tall, airy planting; a lovely feeling of seclusion. A shallow pond references the dew ponds that would probably have been created to water the livestock on the farm in the past.DSC_0009There are around 26,000 herbaceous perennials of over 100 varieties and my camera was snapping away capturing the best  of Pete’s tasty and tasteful plant combinations. DSC_0012 DSC_0023 DSC_0046A fascinating exhibition of Piet Oudolf’s planting plans was running in one of the galleries. I think all garden designers love to see how other designers present their plans particularly for gardens that they have seen,DSC_0003 so that was a real opportunity to gain insight into how Piet puts his schemes together. I am glad to see he is a pen, paper and drawing board man!

I was lucky enough to encounter the Head Gardener whilst I was strolling around and had a chat about what it is like to look after a garden like this. Within 2 or 3 years he will be digging up, dividing and replanting three quarters of the perennials. They were planted densely for instant effect so will soon become congested and need thinning out. That will be quite a task!DSC_0015 DSC_0016 DSC_0017Within the gallery is a more intimate cloister garden planted with Deschampsia ‘Goldtau’, Molinia ‘Moorhexe’ and Seslaria autumnalis woven through with Baptisia and Astrantia ‘Venice’DSC_0031 DSC_0032

It is free to visit the gallery and garden which is open again from the 12th of January 2015. I plan to follow it through the year to see how the planting looks in each season. Hundreds of bulbs were going in for spring, and if you look at photos on the website now you will see how well the borders look in winter. This garden is a real inspiration for anyone who enjoys contemporary and informal planting.

Gardens on the drawing board

DSC_0012It really is time I dusted off this blog after an embarrassingly long period of neglect. The end of the year is rushing to meet me so this seems a suitable time to take a look at what has been on my drawing board over the last few weeks. But first, I wanted to share photos I took of my garden this very frosty morning. The structure in winter is created by leaving the seed heads on all the perennials and grasses until they become battered or flattened. I also have some evergreens in there to contain all that froth.DSC_0021Some stalwarts such as Rudbeckia and Stipa gigantea are still looking perky in March, but with most things I have a careful chopping-back session towards the end of February. Watch out for over-wintering beneficial insects as you go…they will often have made a cosy bed amongst the papery stems.DSC_0019I also left some apples on the espaliers around our tiny veggy patch for the birds. Their cheerful orange glow lights up that part of the garden like christmas decorations!

So back to the drawing board. Actually that should be ‘boards’ as I have two. One is a massive A0-sized board which is reputed to have been used by BAC at Filton in the 1960’s to design Concorde! It certainly is a serious piece of vintage equipment which lives out its retirement helping me design my larger garden projects. For the last couple of months I have been working on a North Bedfordshire country garden surrounding a stone cottage undergoing major renovations. In its time, this garden must have been very well loved and cared for (and will be again once building work is over) with some interesting shrubs and trees still surviving. One of my favourites is this Clerodendron trichotomum var fargesiiDSC_0026Coppery young foliage, fragrant white flowers and these crazy metallic blue berries in autumn. The owners have worked very hard to reclaim and maintain the best of the original garden and it is my job to help them enhance these fragments and turn them into a coherent design. This will be a family garden of four main parts. A sunny, contemporary courtyard enfolded by the two main wings of the cottage will be built first.

DSC_0006Here is my Concept board for this area of the garden. The ‘before’ photo and the ‘after’ sketch along with the ‘mood’ photos help the client to visualise my ideas. This was presented along with a scaled Concept Plan. This contemporary design will contrast with the character cottage and with the more traditional style of the remaining garden. Three other areas include the main dining terrace with stone-faced raised beds at sitting height, a large area of grass for children’s play behind a curved Beech hedge and a small area of woodland.DSC_0007I presented the Concept before christmas so am waiting whilst clients consider the detail over the holiday. Once I have the go ahead, then the Master Plan and the specifications will be drawn up and quotes can be obtained from Landscape Contractors for construction of stage one.

On my smaller A1 drawing board I have been working on a garden in West Yorkshire that wraps around three sides of a modern stone house. It is very important that this garden is accessible to a powered wheel-chair with some awkward level changes to contend with. Raised beds will bring plants up to nose height and make gardening less challenging. Although we are in the suburbs of Huddersfield here, attracting wildlife into the garden will be important with a small pond, a Silver Birch, feeding stations for birds and a wide variety of bee-friendly plantsDSC_0004DSC_0003I plan to complete Master Plan and Specifications by mid-Jan and we hope to have the build completed and planted up by early summer.

Beyond this, I will be making site visits to inspect the progress of the building of a water-garden in SW Northants and looking forward to planting up a cottage garden for a very talented Leicestershire designer-maker in April. Bring on the New Year!

Off Season

I am often asked what I do in the winter as a Garden Designer. People imagine that because the weather is cold and grey there is nothing to do but wait for the spring to arrive.

Infact the winter is the best possible time to be planning a new garden or the overhaul of a mature garden. The process of planning and constructing a garden can take six months or sometimes longer with a large project. So the message is, if you are dreaming of relaxing in your beautiful garden on a summer’s evening with a glass of something chilled in your hand, then start planning now!

Landscape contractors often become booked up very quickly once the weather improves, the clocks go back and people start to look critically out of their windows at the garden. So it pays to be ahead of the crowd and commission a Master Plan as early in the year as possible. A Master Plan allows you to get quotes from Ladscape Contractors, confident that each will be quoting for the same job and knowing exactly what the finished garden will look like.

Here’s some things to think about before you call in  a Garden Designer to help with your garden:

  • How do you want to use your garden? Relaxation, entertaining, growing tasty fruit and veg, children’s play or maybe a mixture of all of these?
  • What do you like most about the garden now and what do you hate?
  • Is low maintenance important or would you enjoy caring for your garden?
  • Any special features that you would like to incorporate…… a summerhouse, a pond for wildlife, a wall fountain for the sound of trickling water for example?
  • What styles of garden do you like?….it might be fun here to look at some magazines and books and stick post-it notes on the images that appeal to you.
  • Favourite plants?
  • How large will your table and chairs be? Do you like to sit in the sun or the shade?
  • And finally, and this is the tricky bit, how much budget do you have for the project? As a very crude guide, investing in a new garden will be a similar cost to a new kitchen.

You are all geared up now to get the most out of your first meeting with a Garden Designer and that dream of relaxing with a glass of wine next summer in your own little Eden is one step closer!