Going Round in Circles

Designing your own garden is, I think, far trickier than designing someone else’s. One of the problems is that emotion gets in the way. I’m not suggesting that there shouldn’t be passion in design but far too often one is tempted to hang onto things that have no place in the new design, whether it is a plant or a pot – or in this example, far too many pots!Garden Makeover 3a copyright

The garden shown here was quite a good size but difficult for it was on a gentle slope and there was need for a central path to lead to sheds at the far, and lower, end. To avoid splitting the garden in half, large circular stepping stones had been randomly placed but the result was a confusing mish-mash of shapes and plants. The only place the eye focused on was the rotary washing line!Garden Makeover 1c copyright

You don’t need to be a great artist to design a garden. A simple method is to take photographs, turn them into black and white (for colour confuses the eye) and pencil sketch over them. Here, we were quite keen to improve on the circular theme.
The final result was a series of circles, each with a low retaining wall and a step down to allow for the change in level. Trellis was used to screen the sheds. Although the hard landscaping took up more of the garden than before, the remaining planting area was far more useful and could be crammed with plants. The little walls made perfect low seats.Garden Makeover 2c copyrightGarden Makeover 1b copyright

And what happened to all the pots? Most of these were discarded in favour of a large, custom-made, L-shaped timber box. This gave a better space for planting as well as making a feature in its own right. Water-retaining gel crystals were added to the planting soil reducing the need for regular watering.Garden Makeover 3d copyright

You can find more ideas on all aspects of easy, trouble-free design, plants and gardening techniques in my book, Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That?  To take a peek inside the covers click on the link here.

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A Garden Invitation

If you are disappointed or disillusioned with your garden – or just not too sure how to begin – then this may be the answer: come and join me at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival next month.

Click on the image to enlarge.

Hope to see you there!

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A Very English Day Out


Last Sunday turned out to be a glorious day after twenty four hours of much needed rain. Thank goodness it did for a friend had organised that most English of traditions – a posh picnic on the lawns of a large country house, followed by a concert in the music room.


And so we found ourselves eating smoked salmon sandwiches, coronation chicken, salads, ending with strawberries and cream, all washed down with an endless supply of champagne. But our friend didn’t just do us proud with the picnic, she had invited an eclectic mix of guests. There was an art historian, an art restorer, an explorer, a porcelain restorer, myself a garden designer amongst others. And we were international as well, for amongst the guests was an American, a Persian, myself part Polish – but the pure bred Brits did outnumber us….


Boarstall, where the concert took place, is a fourteenth century moated gatehouse. Of course, a building with such a long history has seen many changes and events, a major one being during the (English) Civil War when it was besieged for ten weeks. Damaged by cannon fire, ( the bricked up ‘patches’ can still be seen), upon its surrender the main part of the house, church and village were all destroyed by the victorious Parliamentarians. The mansion and the church were rebuilt but only the latter remains, the house being demolished once again in 1778. Since that time the tower has remained virtually unchanged. Now owned by the National Trust, it is lived in by tenants who organise the concerts.

We had come to hear a young soprano, Luci Briginshaw, sing arias from the great operas, accompanied by Peter McMullin on the piano. Luci’s story is rather like an opera plot in itself – a nice one fortunately rather than one where everyone gets murdered or dies of consumption! Busking in Covent Garden market, Luci was heard singing and invited to perform at Boarstall.

The music room at Boarstall is on the top floor of the tower and is reached by ancient, spiral stone staircases. Light and airy, it holds about 100 people so makes an intimate space where you can really relate to the performers and fellow audience. Luci’s singing was delightful, a pure clear voice, she obviously will – or deserves to – go far. Not just a wonderful coloratura soprano, for her encore, she accompanied herself on the piano singing a great blues number.

After the concert, Luci joined us all with a tour of the tower (how cross I was that, by then, I’d taken the camera back to the car) followed by afternoon tea, where she proved that she had a great personality off stage as well as on.

You will find a link to Luci’s website here, for Luci should be heard far and wide. And if, by a remote chance, Luci you should read this post, thank you for a memorable day out. Can’t wait to hear you again. Bravo!

Richard Long’s Extraordinary Land Art

I have found that there are no shades of grey when appreciation – or lack of it – of Richard Long’s art is discussed. It seems that either, like me, you are swept away by it or you just cannot see the point of it at all. Whilst respecting this latter point of view, I ask myself, “Does art have to have a point”? For me, of all art forms , Richard Long’s work demonstrates that beauty can be appreciated just for it’s own sake.
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British born (in Bristol, where he still lives and works), Richard Long studied art in both Bristol and London, giving his first solo exhibition in Germany in 1968, as he completed his studies. I imagine this is quite an achievement in itself. Since then he has exhibited regularly throughout the world.
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In the grounds of my ‘reincarnation’ house, I was fortunate to be involved in the placing of one of his slate circles (photo above). Sadly, I never met the great man himself, for I would have loved to have sat quietly and watched the stones being laid in place. My contribution was extremely modest: I only removed the turf and put down the base ready for the circle to be put in position. However, this did mean that the circle appeared as if by magic – and it has remained mysterious and magical ever since. And, as if by magic, the gaps between the stones have filled with leaves and debris and yellow lichens have started to colonise their surface.
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Regular readers of this blog will know of my fascination for stone in all its forms, whether it is the earliest standing stones (and we have our own ancient stone circle here in the Cotswolds, the Rollright Stones), the dry stone walls of the secret valley or placing stone in the garden. But Richard Long’s stone work is different to all of these for each piece is meticulously shaped and honed – or left in its natural state – and crafted into position. To really appreciate it, you have to become part of the landscape yourself. When you lie on the ground looking across the surface of his work, it takes on a completely new appearance and meaning.
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When I first came to know and love Richard Long’s work, I little dreamt that one day it would inspire me to incorporate land art into one of my own designs. Attached to a beautiful old farmhouse, belonging to a client, is a small, almost bottle shaped, raised area of land surrounded by the remains of a twelfth century moat and mill stream. It is too wild an area in which to create a conventional garden so the plan is to keep it as a simple wild flower area. A very low serpentine turf coverd bank will draw the eye – and, hopefully, the visitor – towards the bottle neck. Careful planting will bring you unwittingly into a living willow tunnel and, at the far end where the land broadens once again, will be a circle. Not a stone circle this time but a meditation circle inspired by the photograph below of children playing. This photograph is from the artist’s (or is it sculptor’s?) website; all the remaining photo’s are mine taken at the reincarnation house. To be redirected there just click and make sure you look at both the Exhibitions and the Sculptures pages.

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As for my new design, work is due to commence at the end of this month and I shall report on progress some time in the future. One thing I am quite certain of is that I will not be asked to hold any exhibitions either in the UK or abroad!
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Anatomy of a Flower Arrangement

How often does a garden plan go awry only to find that you have something equally as good, if not better, instead? This is what happened to one of my designs, a large area taking up almost one quarter of a walled kitchen garden.
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Formal beds, surrounded by box(wood) hedging and topiary, were planted to create what was to be a tisane, or herbal tea, garden. All the plants were supposed to be suitable for making infusions for either medicinal or culinary use. Something went wrong and, for reasons unknown, half the plants either died or refused to flourish. In desperation, we turned it into a cutting garden where flowers could be harvested for arrangements for the big house – actually, the mystery house I used to dream of as a child. I have written about this house before and the tale of my arriving there two hundred years after I had died….

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Concentrating on those plants that survived the initial planting, I decided to see how they would cope with being used as cut flowers and the result was much better than expected. The flowers were cut in the middle of the hottest day of this year so far – not ideal conditions – and then plunged up to their necks in water for the rest of the afternoon. They looked poorly and drooping when first arranged but perked up overnight and now, ten days later, look as fresh as ever.

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Much of the structure is created with a framework of Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’. I find that to get the best results it is necessary to prune this shrub down to ground level each spring. They then produce long wands of stunning silvery foliage. A bitter herb used for all sorts of ailments, I would have to feel very ill before I would consider drinking a tea made from this!
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At this point, I should stress, that I am no herbalist so I do not recommend that you try out any of these plants without deciding for yourself whether they will do you good or kill you instead.
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Hemp Agrimony, Eupatorium cannabinum, is a British native plant, normally found growing in damp places but quite happy in the garden border. The Joe Pye of America, it is claimed that it is good for many different ailments but especially good for gout.
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A big surprise, was this Spearmint. In the cutting garden it has grown exceptionally tall (and like all mints, proving rather invasive) with attractive, fine flowers. This is, of course, one that I can safely recommend for use as a culinary herbal tea, very refreshing on a hot summers day and good if you suffer with indigestion.
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Lavender needs no introduction. Oddly enough, because of soil conditions, I thought they would struggle in this garden. Instead, they have thrived.
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Marjoram, another common herb that grows wild in England on sunny banks, also needs no description from me. It is our best bee and butterfly plant in the garden, even outrivalling Buddleias. We grow it in huge patches throughout the garden.
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Leaving the best to last and the biggest surprise of the lot! Marsh-mallow, Althaea officinalis, another UK native. This was the first time I had grown it and it is now one of my ‘signature’ plants that I try to incorporate into every design. Related to Hollyhocks but only about half their height and very much more delicate in every way, except one – they are as tough as old boots!
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Beautiful, downy, soft-as-velvet leaves and the merest hint of pink flowers, they require no staking, suffer from no pests or diseases and grow year after year, getting ever stronger. And, of course, you can always make marshmallow sweets to eat from their dried, powdered roots.
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This recipe comes from my old herbal, although I have never tried to make them:
2oz marsh mallow root, 14oz fine sugar mixed with gum tragacanth and enough orange flower water to bind altogether. Quite what you do after that I have no idea – perhaps just eat them?
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Planting Plans: Looking for Inspiration

I am often asked where do you start with a design. This is a tricky question as I have had relatively little training in this area – I originally designed by trial and (lots of) error like most people who garden do. It is only in recent years that I have designed more formally for clients. Obviously, when working, my first concern is that the garden is suitable for the owners lifestyle, whether it should be formal or low maintenance or more complex. This post is about what I find the most exciting part – the plants.

Inspiration for planting is easy for me. I began by looking at nature and trying to emulate it, not always with a natural ‘wild’ look but more by texture and colour. Over the years, this has developed to include anything from furnishings to paint colour charts to pebbles on the beach….. The photo below show how sunsets (which are always full of amazing colour combinations) in the mountains inspired an herbaceous border.


Sometimes it seems as if flowers have inspired the sunsets! Here is the rose Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ trying to outdo another mountain sunset. This rose starts with the most intense pink bud and, as the flower fades, turns to the softest apricot, ending up with this wonderful colour combination.


This old mossy wall was the starting point for a mini parterre – the ‘moss’ is made from the box (boxwood) framework, the ‘stones’ from variegated Iris and Cotton Lavender. The wall reminds me of our garden wall in the secret valley (Sunday 20th September 2009) but this one is in north Wales and is a hard, cool grey and silver granite unlike our soft, mellow Cotswold stone. This planting is tiny compared to the usual grand parterre designs and has been used to link two levels of a small garden.


I found this reproduction plate in a second hand shop. It became the inspiration for this blue and white border in an old walled garden. It would never have occurred to me to be so sparing with the red (or to put any red at all into a blue and white garden) but the plate told me otherwise. This planting is a combination of delphinium, tall aconitum and two salvias – the dark salvia nemerosa and the taller, whitish salvia sclarea var. turkestanica. The dots of red are just our native wild poppy which I use quite a lot in my gardens although care has to be taken not to let them run riot.

So let your imagination take you where it will. Sometimes the combinations don’t work but, more often than not, there will be some exciting discoveries to be made and a lot of fun will be had along the way. And make sure you tell me all about them……

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