Friday, 27 July 2018

I'd love your gardening advice


Long-time readers might remember my God of the Garden (ahem!) post where my husband transformed our back garden (it looks SO neat in those photos - I can't quite believe how much the garden has grown up since then. The laurels at the back of the garden are now over 12ft high and completely obscure the house you can see in those photos - I never really noticed them growing....a bit like the children who featured in that post, who now tower over me as teenagers).

Unfortunately, our front garden was never overhauled in quite the same way. I've noticed online that in the US and Canada, people really use their front gardens and spend time in them, often having a proper porch with seating; in England they generally seem more decorative than functional and so we've always been slightly mystified by the front lawn we inherited twelve years ago when we bought the house. It's was covered in weeds, but even after we returfed it, it quickly became a strange mossy thing that baffled us with its wilful dedication to looking hideous. We used to go on walks and play hunt-the-lawn-that-looks-as-awful-as-ours in an attempt to reassure ourselves that this was normal, but we soon realised that our lawn was unique and that we were quite alone. And this picture was taken before the heatwave began in earnest.


We have a really long, thin driveway that runs the entire length of the house and have always thought we'd pave over the lawn and the path to our front door at some point to make a more usable driveway space, but when we started looking at the gardens we really loved locally, we realised they're all ones that have kept the garden as a garden, so we decided to stay with our impractical driveway and turn the lawn into some flowerbeds bordered by little pathways. After a six year hiatus, my husband felt oddly excited about the prospect of marking out paths and laying paving again.

On the left, you can see the original path from 1927 that goes up to our front door. It's quite cracked, but has an odd charm that would make me sad to dig it up, so we spent a morning at a reclamation yard looking at old tiles that might sit beside it sympathetically. We very nearly came away with some red hexagonal paving bricks that spoke to my love of English paper piecing, until my daughter rightly pointed out that the scale of them was too big for how small our paths are going to be, so we've gone for some old square tiles. They're paler, but I'm hoping that won't matter so much once it's  all planted up.


So, this is our half-finished front garden - I can currently hear my husband tamping down more tiles as I type, which seems a curious activity when it's thirty degrees outside, but he seems to like it. There are going to be four new beds (where you can see the patches of earth). Two rectangles diagonal to one another and two squares. The rectangles measure 0.8m x 1.5m and the squares are 1.5m x 1.5m and it's my job to fill them. My usual approach to planting is based around hebes. I think we have well over 30 hebe of all kinds between our front and back garden and they're my very favourite plant - I love that they're evergreen, low-maintenance and produce masses of flowers a few times a year (we have some that flower in summer and others in autumn and winter). They have served me well as a one-stop plant and have filled the gaps in the back garden. Although I'm keen to continue with this hebe-concentric gardening to some extent, I also feel I could be missing out. So, I have some questions about how I can step out of my comfort zone with these new beds and I'm hoping that the green-fingered amongst you might be able to give me some advice.

As it's a front garden that we'll walk through all year, I want to try and avoid any fallow, bleak periods in my planting, but I also want to celebrate each season with annuals and perennials. And it's here that I'm confused. I'm aware that you need some evergreen shrubs to give a permanent backbone to each bed, but the annuals and perennials bit is confusing me. On our back patio, I plant up masses of pots in spring and summer, but I tend to let most of them lie fallow in winter, save for the odd cyclamen, so I don't feel like I've gathered much experience of in-the-earth planting.

These are the thoughts and questions flying around my head:

  • How can you preserve a space for swathes of annuals like daffodils and tulips, without having large areas of bare soil for the rest of the year? 
  • I've seen some amazing displays bordered by a low box hedge, but I'm not sure I'm disciplined enough to keep a box hedge neat and I don't understand how to plant one so that it all joins together to form a hedge. Are there any other alternatives for less structured gardens that would do this same job? Or some other way of creating a space for annuals?
  • Are there annuals for winter, as well as spring and summer? Maybe this is how you end up without the bare soil problem?
  • Perennials confuse me: you have a beautiful plant and then it dies back and reappears the next year...but that must mean a lot of half-dead looking plants in the long in-between periods - how do you plant to minimise the appearance of the gaps this creates? And how do you decide which season to have your perennial in? Do you plant one for each season in each bed to give a good overall spread, or do you go all out for it looking amazing in one particular season?
  • How do you remember what's an annual and what's a perennial in order to know what to pull up? I'm guessing you must make a plan of the garden to refer back to and update it each time you plant something new?
  • Because of our little paths, I don't want plants that are going to overflow too much, although I do like that slightly messy english country garden look. Any ideas for lovely compact or upright plants? Or just ones that fill a space really nicely without taking over? 
  • If I was planting against a fence, I'd try to do that clever thing that proper gardeners do where they actually think through having tall plants at the back, medium height in the middle and low ones at the front, but these beds aren't quite like that as there isn't a back and I don't want the front beds to completely obscure what's in the back beds and so I feel unsure what to do about different heights. Any thoughts? 
  • Or should I plant low to high and enjoy a different view depending on whether I'm going up or down the path and not worry that the front beds obscures the view of the back beds?
  • Where do you shop for plants? We have an amazing nursery locally that we visit regularly, but I'm seeing all sorts of plant names that I don't think are available there. I'm wondering if there's a good online source where I can fill in the gaps. Is Crocus any good? 
  • It's an odd time of year to be planting perhaps? Lots of the plants I've researched don't seem to be available...it seems like there may be some waiting involved in planning out year-round beds?  
I have a gardening book that I've been pouring over (The Encyclopedia of Garden Design by DK) and the whole of the internet, but I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed - sometimes it's hard to root out the answers to specific questions from the masses of information. I've looked into schemes like Garden on a Roll, but I think they give you quite small specimens that really take a few years to grow into the space and I'm impatient and also aware that we may only stay in this house for another four or five years, so I want to enjoy it now. Also, I don't think garden-on-a-roll answers my wish for a mixture of evergreens, perennials and annuals.


I'll leave you with a photo of one of the pots on my back patio that's in bloom at the moment and a thank you for your time if you're able to answer even one of my loopy questions.

Florence x

Ps. The hebe at the top of this post are in a bed to the other side of the path that leads to our front door - they make me so ridiculously happy that if all else fails I could continue to be a one-trick pony,  but I feel compelled to at least try to learn some new tricks...

24 comments:

  1. So many great questions! This is something I'm still working out a bit, but one thing that's helpful to consider is that your early spring bulbs like daffodils and tulips will appear before the rest of your perennials have grown back up, so they're not really competing for attention. You can try to think through a succession of blooms a bit- for example, I have a small bed with a large hydrangea paniculata in it. This is a more upright, woody hydrangea, so I've underplanted it with salvia and surrounded that with daffodil bulbs. The daffodils bloom early, then as summer approaches, the salvia blooms, and the hydrangea goes from late summer to early fall. You don't really notice the daffodil foliage as it fades because the salvia starts to take over, and as the salvia loses its brilliance, the hydrangea comes into bloom. In another shadier spot I've got a thing going with bleeding heart (late spring) and astilbe (midsummer). I don't worry about pulling up bulbs because I have the kind of winter that makes them come back every year- not sure what your winters are like, so a gardener in your neck of the woods is probably better suited to speak to that.

    Also, I'm not certain I would go crazy planting just yet- if you're still in a heat wave, the plants will struggle to get established. I would wait until cooler weather approaches and then put in any shrubs or bulbs (again, if you guys plant bulbs in the fall) and I would cover up everything else with mulch to keep it weed-free until spring.

    What a nice project this will be! I'm looking forward to seeing what you come up with!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh! I almost forgot my best tip! When I've not been sure about what might work in my garden, the thing that has worked the best has been to snoop around nearby gardens, especially ones with similar light, to see what's thriving in their yards. That lets others be the guinea pigs for you so you don't have to spend lots of money on plants that don't thrive in your light + weather!

      And don't be afraid to think of this as a process, not a one and done. It takes time to figure out what you like, and sometimes you need to see what things look like and how they grow in order to understand what you like and don't like. For me, I like a lot of variation in color, so I prefer combos of purple + orange, for example, instead of a big block of purples and blues, or a chunk of oranges and yellows. And I planted a bunch of starts from my mom's garden all together, and realized the next year that I'd created a bed where everything blooms at once in a short window and then it looks like a scraggle mess the rest of the season! Just get a little notebook and keep track of what you like and don't like each season, and you can keep adjusting the garden until you're thrilled.

      Delete
    2. Thank you so much for all your advice, Sonja! I've loved reading about what you've done in your own garden - some of the photos you've posted make me think you have quite a large area of land - I love what you've done with creating intense areas of flower with expanses of green in the background.

      I've had that before too - I did it with cornflower and didn't thin them out and just had this scraggly mass of vibrant blue, which was quite exciting for its crazy abundance and wildness, but then just became more and more awful as they started dying back. But even while it was at its peak it made it look like the gardening plan of someone slightly unhinged.

      Thank you so much for all your wonderful advice. x

      Delete
  2. Without wanting to disappoint with my total lack of gardening experience, I did want to let you know how much I love the idea of hexagonal paving stones to match your EPP love!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I still have a hope that they might find their way into the back garden, but we'll see!

      Delete
  3. When in doubt, bring in the experts. Hire a garden designer to draw a plan for you. Or, ask if the local polytechnic runs horticultural courses, and if the students might draw up a plan for you (offer to pay or make a donation). Or take a short course at night school and plan your own garden. My friend did that and is very proud of her garden now. When you have a blank canvas you need a good plan.
    PS. Got to love a good Hebe. They are New Zealand natives.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We rarely hire people to do things that we can do ourselves...even if we can only do them badly. But we somehow landed on our feet last week and found that the independent nursery we visited to buy plants is owned by a garden designer and so we were able to show her photos of our space and she advised us on plants bed by bed and each time we planted a new one up, we went back for more advice and more plants and it worked really well...so I somehow seem to have unwittingly brought in an expert and you were right - it was a revelation and worked so well. She had such good ideas that I never would have thought of and it's made me think that maybe we should occasionally venture into asking experts more often. x

      Delete
  4. As soon as you mentioned putting a spade to the earth at Christmas, I knew for sure we are in different horticultural worlds! But I'll offer one suggestion, which is to look at the twitter account "by" Vita Sackville-West; that is, quotes from her many books, and wonderful pictures of both gardens and the plants therein, and a LOT of info about garden design. Just looking at the photographs is an inspiration to me, although I know many of the species would not work here in Massachusetts. But maybe it would be just the ticket for your planning! Worth a scroll through the timeline, anyway? @thegardenvsw

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm not sure that's a England/US thing - most English people don't start major gardening projects on December 26th - we may just be in our very own horticultural bubble!

      Oddly, we live not so very far from where Vita Sackville West grew up and from one of her gardens, but I didn't know about that Twitter account so that's a fantastic recommendation - thank you. x

      Delete
  5. I garden a lot here in the U.S. One sure way to have no bare spots is to layer bulbs in the same hole, creating a "Garden Lasagna" for color that lasts months with little effort .See link below for how-to and some bulb suggestions. You could do the same types of bulbs in each rectangle, like lilies, tulips, and daffodils, just choose different colors or different kinds for each rectangle .See below link .

    Here's a link for the bulb layering. This is super easy. Plant spring flowering bulbs in the late fall and summer flowering bulbs in spring, and plant them in layers right on top of each other. Also, Monty Don has great ideas for small spaces - like keeping your plant choices to just a few types of plants, like 7 to 10 and no more. Google him

    Here's the link: https://www.rootwell.com/blogs/layering-bulb-garden

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This was such an exciting idea - thank you! I actually bought a book the next day that showed the whole lasagne layout and I'm looking forward to giving it a try. Thank you. x

      Delete
  6. The best advice I was given is to check your soil and also how shady your plot is; look at what is growing well in neighbours gardens - I love Azaleas etc but they will just not grow in our clay soil. Autumn is a really good time to plant shrubs etc as the ground is still warm and they have chance to get established over winter. It is difficult planting at the moment while we are scorching! I garden in Surrey (old cottage) so mine is a bit informal :) I love Hellebores for winter and they keep their leaves all year, lots of spring bulbs follow especially snowdrops and daffodils, and forsythia (gorgeous yellows and whites) if you plant the bulbs with say Bleeding Hearts and Peonies (another favourite) you don't notice the die back as the peonies etc take over. Lilacs make good large shrubs with plenty of room to underplant. My old English roses flower early here and keep going all summer if I deadhead, underplanted with Lavender they smell divine in early summer, I also love hydrangeas and clematis, again underplanted with bulbs. Don't rush to plant everything the first year, pick one or two shrubs and plant some bulbs then visit the garden centre regularly to plug the gaps. If you go every month or two and buy things that look good at the time, then you will have a succession of plants that look good throughout the year. You can fill gaps in the first couple of years with bedding plants for some colour until things get established. I leave everything overwinter to die back then tidy in the spring, removing anything that is actually dead - the birds and insects love the seedheads. If I have any gaps come the autumn then I plant a pack of tulips for spring. Visit gardens if you can especially National Trust etc and make a note of colours and plants you like, you can replicate the look on a small scale . I (my Goldie loves Nell & Nigel!) watch Gardener's World and make note of things to try. Plant what you love, take your time and enjoy the process :) I treat my different beds a bit like planning a quilt and try to restrict the number colours so it doesn't get too messy. Gardens are always a WIP!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much for all that information. Your garden sounds like it would be beautiful.

      We did indeed end up watching not just Gardener's World, but also Monty's own show Big Dreams, Small Spaces, which we really enjoyed and which had lots of inspiration and little tips along the way. Thank you so much for all your advice.

      Delete
  7. So glad to hear you are keeping your front garden! I think there should be a campaign to bring them back! My parents-in-law got rid of theirs - paved it and added some ghastly container in the middle with a plant in. It ruined the front of the house in my opinion. And they didn't even need the space for a car. Apart from the environmental aspect there's the social aspect too - when one is gardening out the front one meets one neighbours!

    I love gardening but with me it's just a question of try it and see so I can't answer any of your questions, but I love the fact that you haven't been afraid to show the limits of your knowledge! As previous people have said though, and as they are always saying on GQT, see what works in your neighbours' gardens.
    And I'd like to put in a plea to support that local garden centre that you say is good - I recently went further afield to buy a plum tree and on another occasion a climber, and in both cases ended up back at our local smaller garden centre and found that even though they are smaller they had much more selection and were cheaper.
    I loved seeing all the pics of your back garden by the way.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Did your parents-in-law do it because they wanted a lower-maintainence space as they got older? I know of quite a few people who've done that, just because it's so upsetting seeing the garden looking awful when they don't have the energy to maintain it all. I agree, it is a shame from an environmental perspective though.

      We've carried on going to our local garden centre, but also found an amazing independent nursery a little further away...so no internet plant buying has occurred!

      I'll look forward to perhaps bumping into you at FoQ if you're going this year. x

      Delete
  8. Delighted that you are not paving your front garden, as most people seem to do!
    I have bought from Crocus and would recommend them, if you cannot find what you are looking for locally. They also have some great design ideas in the 'right plant, right place' section of their website - you could simply follow one of their schemes.
    But the key is to identify your soil type, the aspect, and then you will have a better starting point for choosing your plants,
    With regard to the bulbs question, why not get yourself a couple of large pots instead to plant up lasagne style as someone has already suggested, stick them either side of the front door?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The idea of still being able to have that fun in additional pots was a liberating idea when we were choosing plants last week - thank you so much, Andrea. I think I may have been wanting one space to do everything!

      Delete
  9. Check the RHS website as they have planting ideas. Recently a feature on planting up front gardens from which you may be able to crib ideas.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The RHS website has proved to be an amazing source of information - thank you for the suggestion.

      Delete
  10. And forgot to say they are currently running a campaign encouraging people to retain and plant up their front gardens. So you are doing the right thing!

    ReplyDelete
  11. some great comments for you so far. I love gardens that have a simple style with nice mix of foilage and flowers. You can layer the heights by having the largest plant/s in the centre of the bed and work outward/downward from there to the edges. There will be times when plants change. I always think it is nice to see the bareness of deciduous trees against evergreens as they add an extra element. It's a great idea to check out what is growing in your local area as that is a good indication of what suits your local environment and is a basic horticulture design technique. Consider different foilage types, like Acanthus Mollis which are large and dramatic verses smaller leafed hebes etc. Good luck, hoping you have fun playing

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We had so much fun, so thank you! And thank you also for all your thoughts and advice.

      Delete
  12. Box edging looks good in a small bed but they can get a bit out of hand if you are not careful, they a slow to start but once they are growing well they can start to get too wide, their roots can invade the beds. Having said that, a well clipped cone or pyramid box plant in the middle of each bed looks good all year round, they give a bit of height in the middle. Good luck

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We have done exactly that in one of the beds - very low box hedging with some cloudy mounds of box inside it. They are already growing a lot though, so I can see that we will have to be out there pruning all the time! The gardener we spoke to said that they really love a weekly bath of epsom salts to keep them healthy and better at fighting off disease. Thank you for your advice. x

      Delete

Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a message - it's always really lovely to hear from people.

I now tend to reply within the comments section, so please do check back if you've asked a question or wish to chat.

Florence x

A few of the books/products that I link to on Amazon from my blog contain affiliate links and very occasionally, I'll mention a product that I've been given free of charge. I choose the things that I recommend carefully and my priority is to only share things that I love.