A Secret Garden

I have noticed that even those that don’t show the slightest interest in things horticultural love exploring walled gardens, especially if they are overgrown and forgotten.  Perhaps it stirs memories of the children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett published in 1911 in which she shows that when something unloved is cherished and cared for it can become beautiful and healthy, be it a plant or the human spirit.

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Photo Credit: AC85 B9345 911s, Houghton Library, Harvard University

I have been fortunate over the years in caring for a number of walled gardens in different stages of development yet, regardless of their state, there is something magical in placing the key in the lock and pushing open the door – as nasty, little Mary Lennox discovered in the novel.  As she returned the garden to its former glory so, she too, grew into a loving and loveable child.

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Perhaps even more so than the plants and trees within, the beauty of a walled garden comes from the walls themselves.  The brickwork over time has mellowed and seems to release the warmth of a hundred or more summers, even on the greyest of days.  Search the walls and they reveal secrets – a date scratched into a stone, old lead labels revealing the varieties of long-disappeared fruit trees or, occasionally, the name of a much-loved pet buried at its feet.

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The walls in this deserted garden date back to the late 17th/early 18th centuries

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Recorded for posterity: the trees may have disappeared but the record of the varieties remain

One of the most rewarding to explore yet emptiest of walled gardens has to be that of Dunmore Park.  The house no longer stands but the garden walls remain crowned by that most eccentric of British garden room follies, the Pineapple.  Here the walls are hollow, fires were lit at its feet and the walls warmed to promote early growth.  Sliding stone blocks could be opened to release the smoke which, filling the garden at night helped to keep frosts at bay.  Clever, those early gardeners.

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Walled gardens when not open to visitors are more often a place of silence, the only sound to accompany the gardener is that of birdsong and the hum of insects.  It can be a place where your mind can be free from the everyday cares of the outside world.  It can also be a place where your design ideas can run riot either in your head or, if lucky enough, in reality.  The images below show before and after photos of a border I created many years ago, the idea for the colour palette coming from an Imari plate belonging to the owner of the garden.  The border is living proof of an imagination run riot!

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Thinking Outside the Box(wood)

Over the years I must have hand clipped many miles of box (in the USA, boxwood) hedging and once the knack is mastered it can be quite therapeutic.  The main rule to follow is to remember that it has to be precise for there is nothing worse than a straight, level hedge that is clipped unevenly.  It irritates the eye as much as a picture hanging crookedly on a wall.

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Patience and plenty of time are key factors in ensuring straight lines

I can’t say that I feel quite the same about topiary.  I can admire the craftsmanship that goes into producing weird and wonderful shapes but it is so easy, in a lapse of concentration to, say, cut the ear off a teddy bear or the beak off a peacock.  As a consequence, I find it rather stressful.  Cloud topiary is far more forgiving but, again, it doesn’t really “do it for me.”

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You need even more patience to clip topiary

Perhaps the most rewarding design I have created was turning four rather scruffy and unbalanced squares of box into simple but elegant cubes.  Yes, it was topiary but to misquote Star Trek “it’s topiary Jim, but…”  To begin with, I was faced by the four squares each with a rather ugly and thorny shrub rose growing out of their centres.  A consequence of this design was that the box couldn’t be clipped properly and neither could the rose be properly pruned.

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The original design with roses always looked scruffy

To create the design the roses had first to be removed leaving a gaping hole in the centre of each square.  Fortunately, I had some reasonably tall box plants elsewhere in the garden that I could dig up and replant.  I soon discovered that it was impossible to plant them properly without damaging the existing plants.  My gamble of just standing them on the earth and then throwing topsoil over them to trickle through the branches paid off.  The soil covered the roots and probably much of the lower branches too*.  Given a good watering, the plants thrived.  Before trimming  all the outer edges needed to be marked with string lines for accuracy in cutting.

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Without strings for guidance clipping the box into perfect cubes would be almost impossible

I thought about all sorts of fancy designs for the tops of the cubes and, as is so often the case with design, I decided that simplicity was the key to a satisfactory outcome.  Two cubes would have a raised circle and two a raised square.  It was essential that these weren’t too high – I didn’t want them to look like a combination of wedding cakes and pimples!  I found that it was impossible to mark these designs out and so they were created without guidelines, relying on my eye to tell me where and what to clip.  By their second year of clipping they looked as if they had been there for ever.

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The design will look just as good in winter when highlighted by frost or snow

Box is such a versatile plant to use and it is well worth experimenting with them.  Below are three photos of how I have used them: the first is the classic edging to a border; the second to bring focus to a set of garden steps; the third a mini-parterre to link two levels in a garden.  Your garden doesn’t need to be huge or grand to use box in these ways – the parterre was suitably small scale for a tiny town garden.  Have a go at creating your own box design – and if creating a topiary peacock is your thing, that’s fine with me – just don’t aske me to clip it!

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The classic use for box – fronting a border

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Giving focus to garden steps

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Mini-parterre for a tiny garden

 

*This is also a good and easy way to create plenty of new plants for the buried stems will often send out roots.  When they do they can be severed from the parent plant to be grown on elsewhere.

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.

BOOK COVER