by Kendra Wilson
PROBLEM: I don’t know where to begin
SOLUTION: Start by the door
The advice of seasoned gardeners to newcomers is reliably the same: wait. Hold back and observe as a whole year plays out its seasons. What have you got? What grows well in the neighbourhood? Trees, hedges and wild flowers along the road are as instructive as the plants that occur and recur in other people’s gardens. There will be a reason why ferns pop up everywhere, for example, or why nobody in your district is growing vines or figs.
PROBLEM: My garden is too small
SOLUTION: Think big, be ruthless
‘The tiniest garden is often the loveliest,’ wrote poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West from her writing tower at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent (nationaltrust.org.uk). ‘How much I long sometimes for a courtyard flagged with huge grey paving stones.’ With her impassioned style, she claimed to dream of it day and night. This is encouraging – forget the castle and love your small space.
The feeling of the house and its surroundings will help to suggest a theme or atmosphere for the garden. Pay attention to the space around you. Whether the topography is leaf-filled or densely built up, it’s important to keep the main concept of your garden simple. A dark courtyard could become a garden of pale plants, for instance; a walled, sunnier space would trap scent. Edit your plants towards this central idea.
Keeping new plants in pots for their first season will allow you to study them at close quarters while deciding slowly what to do with them. They will help you to keep the garden in mind. Beyond the back door, a young garden in its early stages can look very bare. Sowing annuals in these gaps will give you a quick, temporary substitute and help to suppress weeds.
A courtyard garden means no lawn and many plants. It must be permeable, with cracks for flowers to self-seed into, sending their roots under the cool shelter of the stones. There are plants that love to be walked on, such as creeping thyme, which also has the advantage of being aromatic. Away from foot traffic, there are leafy plants that hold dewdrops on their surfaces, such as alchemilla mollis or succulent sempervivum houseleeks, and spiky verticals and tall flowers, including sisyrinchium striatum and iris, that might seem counterintuitive, but which remind you that this is in fact a garden, not just a yard. These are all available in most reputable garden centres during the summer months.
A small garden does require more focus. Choose only the best trees and shrubs, as they will provide much-scrutinised height and volume. Think about their silhouettes and leaf shapes. Simplify materials (for paving, paths and seating areas) and make sure they relate to the house. Likewise, choose simple colours and pots and use garden furniture that can be folded up and put away. Use it to your advantage.
PROBLEM: My garden is a passageway
SOLUTION: Think of it as a stage set
A passageway potentially gives two vistas; neither one should be of a collection of plastic refuse bins. If bin storage is the main purpose of your outside space, construct a fence with a door to keep them behind, shortening the length of the passage. The quality of walls and paving is important. In this garden, cleaned brick complements the painted pale grey walls at either end, which also close the space.
The grey wall shown here is covered in climbers. This kind of enclosure, near a table and chairs, is ideal for trapping scent. On the ground, french doors lead out on to paving slabs, but otherwise, it is a gravel garden. Gravel has the advantage of providing not only a welcome environment for self-seeding plants, but also security for the homeowner as it’s a challenge to walk quietly on.
A narrow passageway is bound to have at least one window looking out on to it, so make sure the view is good. Here, the windows look out on to plants arranged as a ‘theatre’ of different levels. These elements are framed with columns of hornbeam (carpinus betulus), which fares better on urban clay soil than beech. Like beech, hornbeam is good value in autumn, sporting yellow, brown, orange and green leaves, before it dries out in winter. New leaves in spring push the old ones off.
PROBLEM: I don’t like weeding
SOLUTION: Change your position from defence to attack
A garden that is in good heart will not have a significant problem with weeds. There is nothing onerous about pulling out the odd interloper as you go about your business. A pair of stout gloves will do for a dock or nettle that has planted itself in well-conditioned soil and, for weeds with deep roots (such as dandelions), a sharp-pronged tool will make their excision a pleasure. Adding plenty of mulch to a border creates a thick layer that annual seedlings will struggle to get through. Compost makes a moisture-retaining mulch; less nutritious alternatives can also be effective.
Notorious weeds that thrive on neglected soil should be approached with a plan. Infested surfaces must be cleared of such things as ground elder, bindweed and couch grass, so that the soil can be made ‘clean’. A rotavator will only chop the roots into bits and cause a population explosion. If you are keen to avoid glyphosate (which some no longer see as the ‘acceptable’ herbicide), you will have to consider the long way round; carpet, plastic sheeting – anything that will keep light off the greenery – for a year, at least. Even when the drastic treatment is over, it won’t be properly finished for a while.
At Gravetye Manor in West Sussex (shown above), a weed problem had been allowed to develop over decades. Even now, having tackled the situation, the head gardener prefers to grow annuals in places where new weed shoots might appear, so that the soil can be reached easily and stray pieces of root can be taken out. The noxious weeds are burned, rather than put on the compost heap. Finally, since weeding is good exercise and generally useful, it is an excellent excuse for work avoidance. In the words of author Robert Louis Stevenson: ‘Nothing is so interesting as weeding.’
PROBLEM: My garden is too long and narrow
SOLUTION: think of it as vertical and divide it horizontally
Upstairs windows are an important part of the relationship between homeowners and their gardens, especially from November to March. They are perfect for planning purposes. It’s useful to stand and think, looking at the effects that light and weather have on the space. This is what landscape designer Chris Moss did when he moved into the property shown here. He knew that he wanted to create a curving path to make the garden seem wider, and also wanted one place to sit and another to eat. Be clever with your space.
Chris already had a plan to grow vegetables, and they naturally went into the ground towards the back and in pots closer to the house. Light dictated that he grow food and most of the flowers on the sunnier side of the path, while curving, cloud-pruned box (buxus) takes the place of a flower border on the shady side.
Dividing an imperfectly shaped garden is a way of obscuring its shortcomings while creating a workable space. You must be bold, though: a series of low box hedges will not dramatically transform your garden. An arc across a rectangle creates drama; a square within a rectangle creates a breathing space.
PROBLEM: My garden is not relaxing
SOLUTION: Make a quiet area, preferably in the middle
Some people relax by deadheading and weeding, but for others, their garden is so alive with things that need doing that they are unable to settle down. If you fall into the latter category, invite people round – you may be forced to listen to compliments and accept that the cup is more full than empty.
A garden layout benefits from calm spaces. Take Hidcote Manor Garden in Gloucestershire, which is divided into compartments, each with a unique and sophisticated character. Or Sissinghurst in Kent, which, like Hidcote, has gardens of a single colour. Both also have this in common: an open, empty space in the centre. No flowers, just turf and hedges. Grass and trees work just as well.
It takes guts to leave things out, especially if your wish list is ever-growing. A successful garden has more editing than a plant enthusiast feels naturally comfortable with. So map out areas for different densities of plants while reserving a quiet place, which can be as fundamental as terrain or shelter.
This is an edited extract from Kendra’s book My Garden is a Car Park and Other Design Dilemmas, which is published by Laurence King, price £12.99. To order a copy for £10.39 (a 20% discount) until 25 June, visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640, p&p is free on orders over £15