Making a New Garden and Working With What You’ve Got
What Have You Got?
At some time or another everyone notices a particular garden feature or an especially spectacular plant and says ‘That’s something I must have’ or ‘That I must grow when I have a garden of my own’. This is good; anyone who gardens for pleasure (and if much of it is not pleasure, one might might as well move into a flat at once) is inevitably sparked off by seeing and recognising success in gardens already made. They may be the local parks, a little front garden up the road, a seaside site seen on holiday or a great country-house garden they once visited.
Know Your Limitations
The most important thing in deciding how to make a new garden or how to improve an existing one (usually this is much the easier task) is to know what is feasible in the area in which you live. And there is no better way than seeing what groups of plants do well in your own area and what sort of garden features look right there. Because, however much one admires the marvellous rhododendrons at, shall we say, the Royal Horticultural Society’s Gardens at Wisley, there is no point in trying to repeat the effect at home, if home is on a limy soil. They will just die.
The most depressing garden I have ever seen was made at enormous expense in a beautiful valley in chalky downlands: a little stream had been widened and dammed, the sound of water gently falling over rocks making a charming effect, with wide shrub borders swelling and receding to follow the contours of the hills just as the treatises on design say it should be done. But, all these borders were planted with mature rhododendrons and azaleas — splendid plants that must have cost a fortune — and all were yellowing and dying in evident agony with lumps of solid chalk mixed up with thethat was supposed to help.
The point of this salutary story is that every garden must be improved within — as the famous Mr Brown would have said in the 18th century — its capabilities. The seaside holiday and the country-house garden offer ideas, themes and suggestions, not for slavish copying but for adaption to suit particular needs.
How then to start? Capability Brown, I have always thought, made his famous and inevitable remark, ‘It has capabilities, my Lord’ when being shown the broad acres designated for landscape improvement, to play for time. While all the while really thinking ‘Hell’s teeth! What can I do with this ?’ Yet the effect — particularly from our perspective two centuries later — was invariably so masterly as to make Brown’s landscapes appear perfect natural countryside or just what Nature, would have done if she had had a tidier mind.
For what Brown did, and all really effective designers have done since, was to follow Pope’s precepts. The lines are well-known:
‘Consult the genius of the place in all
That tells the water or to rise, or fall,
Or helps the ambitious hill the heavens to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale,
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, the intending lines
Paints as you plant, and as you work designs.’
But does Brown, working in thousands of acres (hectares weren’t thought of) with endless cheap labour, or does a dilettante poet-gardener like Alexander Pope have any relevance to us today? Does my back garden 6m by 9m (20ft by 50ft) possess a ‘genius’ at all? I believe it has. I think one has got to presume the existence (call it the ‘distinctive character’ to make it sound less archaic if you will) as the combination of inevitabilities to be worked with, not fought against in any garden of any size.
The Distinctive Character
This distinctive character will fight back and ultimately win, just as that chalk valley beat the rhododendrons that had no conceivable connection with it.
The character, then, is made up of the soil, the, the climatic conditions of that particular part of the country, the views or lack of them, the buildings around, and so on. The combination may be so unpromising as to be difficult, in the extreme, but no site is incapable of being improved by thoughtful design and carefully chosen plants well looked after.
The Importance of Plants
Only in the most esoteric of Japanese gardens do plants have no place and even there the inevitable and insidious weathering of the all-important rocks causes a gradual accumulation of mosses and lichens. To the Western mind, however, a space deprived of all but the more primitive plants cannot deserve the title of garden. Gardens, we feel, are for plants and for people. Their very aliveness is part of their importance to us, however small they are.
This does not mean that the basic design of the simplest suburban strip is not just as important as in the bare, contemplative, oriental mode. It is; and in many ways it is vastly more difficult to plan for plant growth. For a garden is really a big, living, 3D, walk-through sculpture. It is seen from a multitude of angles — though some sight lines are more important (from the kitchen windows for instance) than others — from above, from the end ofand from half way down.