Thursday, 14 February 2013

Hacking Season

No, I’ve not joined News of the World, but still, a ruthless spirit of ‘editing’ has permeated my work this week. Perhaps I have some Viking roots that my parents kept quiet - this week has been a full-on gleeful spree of hacking, cutting, slashing and burning [although fortunately not much raping or pillaging].

It’s that time of year when the garden is at its very barest and one can be most objective. Every leaf that’s going to fall has fallen, nothing has grown much in a couple of months, and the garden’s structure is at its most visible. Standing back looking at the rockery, it suddely struck me how overgrown the Rosa banksiae were. Cue hard pruning - the removal of a whole truckload of ‘geriatric wood’ - what I call the overgrown old stems that look a bit gnarly and seem to have forgotten what they’re there for, producing neither flowers nor leaves in any great quantity.

Sometimes when you see a plant every day it’s difficult to realise when it needs a damn good seeing-to. Pruning saw in hand, roses sleek and rejuvenated, I felt flush with the achievement of doing something that had so sorely needed doing for such a long time. And so procedeed to set about three hugely tangled wisterias and the doddery old roses along the front drive - plenty of geriatric wood there.

The most fun part I saved till last, the ornamental grasses. Now is the time to cut the deciduous ones right back, down to absolutely nothing. Noel Kingsbury advocates strimming, raking then using a lawnmower on the highest setting.  The wonderful Paul and Pauline McBride at Sussex Prairies have an even easier, nature-inspired solution. A match.

Most grasses have evolved with fire (it keeps landscapes open, preventing dense forests from shading them out), regrowing rapidly from ground level. Here’s a small bed of Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ doing what it does naturally:

Thursday, 7 February 2013

A new year and two new terraces, cold frames bursting with unusual and interesting plants ready to go; utter joy for a confirmed plant geek like me.  But geekery does not a garden make... and herein lies one of the biggest problems keen gardeners face.

Growing as many different plants as possible - and let’s face it there are literally thousands to choose from - poses a huge challenge in terms of design. The ‘one of everything’ approach gives a garden a haphazard, unsettled appearance, spotty like a Monet viewed at too close range.

The answer lies, in my opinion, in giving the garden what Penelope Hobhouse (everyone do the cross sign over your heart, for she is the patron saint of gardeners) calls ‘good bones’. A structure from which to hang all the loose diaphonous planting, billowing perennials and interesting little Phlomis that would otherwise just sink into the general woolliness. “Good bones” can involve hard landscaping and sometimes even earth contouring, but tends to mean hedges and topiary.

Newly planted Phillyrea wedges
For the two terraces I’ve chosen two different plants and taken ideas from two very different gardens. The lowest, the so-called ‘Mediterranean Terrace’ has “wedges” - differing triangular sections of Phillyrea latifolia that slice into the garden almost as if they were the fins of a school of sharks swimming underneath. Their glossy leaves are a particularly handsome shade of dark green which will contrast well with the many grey and silver-leafed plants. 

The inspiration for this came from a garden I looked at a few years ago for BBC Gardeners’ World; Weir House in Hampshire, England. Here the designer Jill Billington gave a beautiful 18th century house a modern yet sensitive garden. She doesn’t seem to have designed that many gardens, but that one really struck a chord with me, elegant yew wedges giving a contemporary twist to an idyllic English idyll of green lawn, apple trees and clear lazy stream running along the boundary. It’s open a couple of days a year for the National Gardens Scheme.  

The second, higher plot is the so-called ‘Southern Hemisphere Terrace’ (waiting for a more elegant name to present itself). Here lots of the plants will be darkish evergreen shrubs so the whole contrasting colours thing won’t work as well. Instead I’ve decided to work more on the shapes - using hedges as a unifying element, adding planes of light to otherwise again fluffy mass of foliage. Inspiration here came from a much better-known garden, Hummelo in the Netherlands, home another garden guru, Piet Oudolf. Good old Piet, he’s already spurred us to plant a Prairie Garden on the other side of the property, and now here he is among the Grevilleas and Leucodendrons.

Hummelo, October 2010
A big part of Hummelo’s genius is the fact that Piet’s wonderful, airy planting has a great backdrop in the large and undulating series of yew hedges at its periphery. 

These catch the light, adding wonderful shapes and solidity, amplifying infinitely the impact of the plants in front. 

In my own small way I have imitated this in a series of low, wavy hedges made from the dwarf myrtle - Myrtus communis subsp. tarentina.  They’re still small and sparse, but already they give a good idea of what’s to come. I can't wait to see them thicken up in the springtime. 

In the meanwhile here's a picture of the Grevillea 'Winpara Gem' bursting into flower just as the year gets to its coldest month. God Bless the Aussies! 

Grevillea 'Winpara Gem'