Designing and Planning A Garden
Designing and Planning A Garden
Understanding Your Soil
Ultimately, the soil is the main dictator of your choice of plants. Although it is possible to create whatever soil conditions you fancy by making up special composts to suit particular plants, it is very much better to work with, rather than against, your existing soil. Happy plants, that enjoy your soil conditions, should make up the most part of . However, some plants are worth every effort to accommodate, either by planting them in a specially prepared bed, or, if they are slightly tender, by trying them out in different parts of the garden. Most gardeners are true speculators at heart, and there is nothing more tempting than an unsuitable plant, either because it prefers, or hates, lime, or because it is generally acknowledged to be too delicate for the local .
If you are unsure what type of soil you have, take a look round neighbouring gardens and see what is doing well — in lime-free areas you will see Rhododendron, Pieris and other ericaceous plants. If they are not in evidence and you want to grow them, you can always plant them in a container filled with an ericaceous compost.
A fertile, well-tilled soil is all important. Even if it means waiting to plant up the garden, it is short-sighted to rush preparation of the soil. Nothing you do to the surface of a bed at a later stage, with feeding and, can replace initial thorough digging with liberal additions of manure or compost.
How well-drained is your soil? Few plants will stand soggy conditions round their roots. Without enough air in the soil, plant roots may rot and the soil organisms essential to healthy growth do not survive. Good cultivation of the soil by deep digging will break up the layer of compacted soil below the topsoil and lavish additions of bulky organic matter will also help. If you are concerned about the drainage, dig a hole and see how quickly the water runs away. If it has not gone by the following day, you may manage to rectify matters by digging a soakaway; this basically consists of a lined, square hole, filled to three-quarters of its depth with rubble. If the situation is more serious, you will have to take advice on laying a series of land drains, leading to a large soakaway or ditch.
Next to weigh up are the existing features of your garden which, good or bad, you cannot change. Have a look out of the windows of the main rooms of the house and stand in the garden at the major viewpoints. You might get a better idea if you took some photographs, for whereas the eye will conveniently filter out what it does not want to see, the camera is not so easily fooled, and will soon spot a pylon or television aerial in the distance that you will want to screen from view.
There may be a pretty outlook that you want to include in the overall picture of your garden, like a good tree next door, and you should draw attention to it in the planting plan. But there may equally well be some ugly feature that will have to be disguised with plants. The instant solution would appear to be a coniferous hedge of fast-growing leyland cypress ( x Cupressocyparis leylandii) but this is rarely a good solution, for two reasons. Firstly, from a design point of view: it is far more effective to plant a tree near to the house, in the foreground, that will draw the eye and screen the distance. This was brought home to me in a garden in New York, enclosed on all sides by skyscrapers: groups of silver birches had been planted near the house and their white stems, tracery of branches and delicate foliage both attracted the eye and veiled the hard lines of the surrounding buildings. Secondly, more applicable to the smaller garden, by the time the hedge reaches a suitable height, it will have starved the area of plant foods, moisture and light.
Deciding which plants to keep
‘Existing features’, in the garden sense, usually includes plants. More than likely you will already have inherited plants of every sort, from mature trees and shrubs toand . If you have just moved and suspect there may be good bulbs you will have to wait until spring to see what comes up. If it is a long-established garden, there may be some good old cultivars of herbaceous plants that will need to be propagated and looked after.
Cast the cold eye of discrimination over the existing trees and shrubs. If the garden is neglected there may be some fine specimens that just need rescuing from the undergrowth. If there are any misshapen, take them out, since they are never going to improve. Old yews and hollies will stand hard pruning to shape and are worth preserving as they are slow to grow. Lilacs, berberis and many other shrubs can be cut almost to the ground and will start again. If you are wondering whether to take out a tree or shrub, bear in mind that it will cause less upheaval to take them out to begin with than to disturb the garden when it is established.
The working area
If you want to grow plants well, you will need a place for the compost heap,, topsoil, , sand and grit. And you must have somewhere to keep the tools and the lawnmower. It may be a good idea to tuck all this away at the end of the garden, but think carefully before you do this. Do make sure that it is really easy to get at, so you never skimp on adding a little bit of extra goodness to your soil. Also, when it comes to tidying up in autumn and there are huge amounts of vegetable matter to transport to the compost heap, you do not want it to be too far from your centre of operations. But if you are short of space, do not let your working area occupy any valuable planting areas.
Sometimes the more you try to disguise some ugly, permanent feature in the garden, the more you seem to draw attention to it. It is often better to pretend that an ugly old shed was the very thing you always wanted, and to turn it into an attractive feature in itself. Planting around the feature gives it a proper setting in the garden.
The time factor
The choice of flowers you are going to grow greatly depends on how much time you will be able to give to the garden. If you have not got time to grow a plant well and give it all the extra attention it needs — for example, to stake your delphiniums, prune your large-flowered roses and cluster-flowered roses, feed your clematis, support your sweet, bed out your , split up your primulas from time to time, not to mention dividing your bearded every few years — you can simply grow alternative plants instead.
Choosing the plants
There is a wonderful diversity of easy plants that need no staking, can take considerable drought, will go for years without division, require no regular feeding and are not particular as to soil or position. You can concentrate on making a good garden out of these plants alone if your time is limited. There is nothing that really compares with the vivid blue spires of large-flowered hybrid delphiniums, but they must be immaculately staked, fed and watered to give of their best. Rather than suffer the reproach of seeing their lovely flowerheads bespattered in mud, or lolling from broken stems, those with only a few hours to spare on the garden might replace them with one of the monkshoods, such as Aconitum ‘Bressingham Spire’, ‘Newry Blue’, or A. x cammarum ‘Bicolor’, a charmer in blue and white. If you still crave brilliant delphinium blue, try larkspurs or one of the smaller species, such astatsiense, that grows to only 60cm (2ft), does not need staking and seeds itself freely.
Many of the old roses and nearly all rose species do not insist on pruning and will forgive you by blooming just the same if you neglect to feed them, provided they are given a good start in life. And instead of the large-flowered clematis that demand a rich diet, try some of the species like Clematis alpina or C. macropetala that do not need pruning and survive on leaner conditions.
If you are prepared to forego the heavenly scent of annual sweet peas because you have too little time to erect proper supports, growlatifolius, the perennial pea, in its beautiful white form ‘White Pearl’; it can be trained through a shrub, rambling through the , or tumbling down a bank, so that you can forget about staking. With no time for bedding out annuals, grow only those that seed themselves without you remembering to do it for them. And you can avoid the fussier primulas that need constant division by growing vigorous species like Primula florindae (tolerant of ordinary border conditions although considered a water-lover) with its scented, lemon-yellow flowers dusted with farina, or some easy Candelabra primula such as P. japonica. These will look after themselves by seeding around, so even if attack the parent plant there are always young plants coming on. If you love bearded , the dwarf sorts will go on flowering without regular division for longer than their taller cousins.
A lawn is unequalled-for providing a sheet of plain green to offset colourful flower beds but there is no doubt that it is time-consuming. However good the borders are looking, if the lawn is unkempt the whole effect will be spoilt. In a small garden you could use paving and plenty of box in pots or in the ground (or both), to ease the eye.
Money is a further consideration. If this is in short supply, you may have to grow many plants from seed or fromacquired from friends. In fact a shortage of money can make you a better gardener for you have to learn more about the craft. Join the specialist plant societies, and study their seed lists: they are full of rare and desirable plants for you to try. You will have to start off with small plants and you should spend any extra money you have on getting your soil right. Do not skimp on loads of manure, topsoil, leafmould and bags of general and bonemeal.
Age and time scales
Age is something to be thought about on many levels when planning the garden. If you are young and intending to move house soon, you will not want to wait many years for a tree like the dove or handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata) to produce its white bracts. Instead you will want to plant shrubs that mature and flower quickly, and which are easy to root from cuttings, so you can take young plants with you when you move house. Old plants of box move very well, and you can steal a march on time for your next garden by taking them with you. Yew trees up to 2m (6-1/2ft) tall will move well watered for the first year; although they take some time to get going again, you will be able to start off with a decent sized specimen. Roses, even if the plants are old, move well if they are cut back hard and any damaged roots trimmed And there is no excuse not to collect any herbaceous plants you like, as they will enjoy the move to new ground.
Regarding age at the other end of the scale, the true gardener is always thinking of next spring, and many is the octogenarian still growingfrom seed, with little thought of the years they take to come into bloom.