After almost a decade in our current home, in which modifications to the permanent planting have happened in piecemeal fashion, I have decided that the time has come to take a more planned approach. This blog is about what’s wrong with the current planting (in my view) and what I hope to achieve by redesigning it (if I ever get the chance!).
We live in a 1980s end terrace (think Brookside if you’re in the UK and can remember that far back) which has a small patio garden (approx. 21sqm) to the rear. Although it is small it does have some advantages, namely:
- It is south facing and so receives lots of sunlight in the summer
- It backs onto a disused railway line which is now a cycle path meaning that it is not over-looked
- There are lots of trees along the cycle path which makes it feel like a larger garden
- There is no traffic on that side so it is lovely and quiet
- Being small and enclosed it also feels very private
Although it is south facing there is substantial amounts of shade at different times, partly because it is enclosed on all sides by fencing, and partly because in the north-west corner there is a mature ornamental cherry tree (Prunus ‘Spire’, I think) which is really disproportionately large for the garden and casts a significant shadow during the summer. I’ve considered having this either cut back or removed altogether, but for one it is beautiful in Spring with lots of pink blossom and again in Autumn when the leaves turn yellow and pink, and for another mature trees are a valuable resource from an environmental perspective (see my previous blog on street trees in Sheffield).
The garden includes two beds with permanent planting: a west-facing bed which is 1.4m x 3.8m, and an east-facing bed which is 1.9m x 1.9m. When we first moved into the house the previous owners had populated these with ‘low maintenance’ shrubs and groundcover plants which made it feel a bit like a municipal car park. Over time I have replaced most of these with herbaceous perennials but inevitably, like many with a small garden, I have done so by adding individual specimens that have caught my eye resulting in a hotchpotch of plants. This is OK to a point but having recently completed the RHS Level 3 Certificate in the Principles of Garden Planning, Construction and Planting, I know that with more thought even these small beds could be better designed and provide much greater value.
There are a few specific aspects which present some difficulties to address:
- Size: The beds are both very small meaning that the number and variety of plants that can be accommodated is necessarily limited. I have considered making the beds larger but have preferred instead to supplement them with containers which can be planted seasonally and moved around as required.
- Microclimate: As mentioned both beds are in the shade at least part of the time. Early and late in the year when the sun is low they actually get very little direct sunlight at all, while in the summer the west-facing bed is in full sun for part of the day and shade for part of the day, and the east-facing bed is largely shaded but gets some sun early in the morning. Plants which can tolerate some shade will therefore be most appropriate throughout.
- Soil: Based on what planting I have done to date the soil quality is poor, with a shallow layer of top-soil beneath which appears to be a pile of builder’s rubble. Although I have added organic matter such as spent compost and leafmould at various points, taking the time to improve the soil before re-planting the beds would probably be time well spent.
- Time: Having only recently had a baby, finding the time to both re-design the beds and then implement the design is likely to be a major challenge, but if executed well it may result in a more attractive and low maintenance display. I am aiming to plan during the winter and then apply in the Spring.
The overall objective is to create planting displays which have more structure, are more cohesive and as much as possible provide year-long interest. My thinking on how I would like to go about this has been influenced by an article in the May 2017 issue of Gardens Illustrated which focussed on what was described as an ” urban meadow” in the Sheffield back garden of Professor James Hitchmough, and a visit to the Beech Gardens at the Barbican Estate which was the subject of a previous blog. Some key objectives include:
- Unity and harmony: the current planting has no cohesion, whereas I would like the new design to show more continuity. This will be best achieved by limiting the number of different plants used and including multiples of these to create a scheme that ties together. Consideration of layout, form and colour will also be important.
- Structure: the aim will be to have much greater structure to the scheme by including plants which retain their form throughout the year. This may involve a small number of shrubs, but also perennials with long-standing seed heads or distinctive foliage.
- Year round interest: in any garden, but especially a small one, the aim should be to have as much interest throughout the year as possible, rather than something short lived. I would hope to achieve this through ‘layered planting’ whereby in the early part of the year low-growing, shade tolerant plants emerge along with flowering bulbs, and these are then superseded by taller perennials which flower later in the year. It will also be important to include predominantly ‘high value’ plants which have a number of features of interest such as foliage and form, as well as flowers.
- Low maintenance: once planted I hope the beds will need limited attention. This will be achieved by sticking to the principle of ‘right plant, right place’ so that only plants suitable to the conditions in their location are used, which will minimise the need for feeding and watering, and also through high density planting in order to prevent weeds establishing.
With careful planning I hope that all of these aspects can be achieved to improve the impact of the beds. The next step is to identify the plants that I want to include and work on a planting plan to illustrate the number required and how these will be laid out. Watch this space!