Sue Whigham advises it’s worth taking your time to discover how your new garden grows as she contemplates the revamp of her son’s new outside space near Bath
Having lived in a Brixton flat with a small but perfectly formed garden for a decade, my son and his wife made the big decision to move out of London last year. Over the years their garden had become absolutely full of mature plants, shrubs and a couple of trees. We hadn’t expected the olive tree to get so large to be honest or the crab apple to spread as it did. The latter might have been my mistake as I was going through a period of absolutely loving Malus transitoria which I still do – it’s a fabulous tree.The fences were painted a dark browny black which looked great draped with plants like the highly scented Trachleospermum jasminoides and R. ‘New Dawn’ and the raised beds filled up every summer with clouds of shrubby salvias and all manner of lovely things. There had been a large white hydrangea there when they arrived and we took half a dozen cuttings late last year, which seem to have taken and are now ready to grow on.
And the raised beds, created using old railway sleepers which had begun to rot, had added interest as they became home to stag beetles who emerged into the garden in the summer to find a mate. It was wonderful to see them actually. The male has jaws which look like a stag’s antler, hence the name. And, like stags, they use their ‘antler’ jaws to fight other males for the females. London is apparently a national hotspot for stag beetles and considerable conservation work is being done to conserve their habitats.
But despite having a tree-filled park a few streets away, the urge to have more space and fresh air worked its way to the top on the list of priorities. And having made an offer on the second house they viewed, the Brixton flat and its garden have been replaced by a property in a village just south of Bath. And what a journey that was with several months spent in Airbnb properties whilst the chain sorted itself out and fears that their mortgage provider would renege on their offer were resolved.
So now they are the proud owners of a sloping (and boy, what a slope) garden of just under half an acre. Thankfully the area nearest to the house is quite big and, luckily, perfectly flat – but it is just getting there from where the cars are parked that is the problem. But perhaps one should not worry about that and just see it for the wonderful south facing views they have over rolling countryside. And of course the slope can be tamed one day with the help of a digger and some innovative landscaping. Project Number 20 most probably.
So, picture a garden on a slope which has been well loved but is now in need of a bit of sorting out. Where do you start…
I think the first thing to think of is not to rip everything out immediately. Wait until you have been there for a while and can see what appears in the spring that you like the look of.
Also it’s an idea to check what sort of soil you have before planting anything. Have a look round to see what is thriving in other local gardens perhaps. In this case, the local houses, many of them listed, are built from local Bath Stone, an alkaline limestone. So no acid lovers here.
Then think about the aspect of the garden. For instance the vegetable patch is not only on a slope at the back of the house but a good half of it gets a limited amount of sun – especially in the winter when the light levels are so low. It is pretty stony here too, but that’ll help with drainage. The weeds are happily growing away but as old carpets from the house have been ripped up already, some of them have been turned over to be used as weed suppressors. Luckily they were all fairly neutral colours so there haven’t been any comments from the village on their way to the pub next door.
Something that might be worth doing whilst there is so much else to do in the garden would be to sow a green manure: a cover crop grown solely to improve the soil. The one that I would use would be Phacelia which, whilst acting as a soil improver, also looks very pretty with its blue flowers and the added bonus of being very attractive to beneficial insects. Actually, when you eventually dig the plant in to work its magic on the soil, it’s worth leaving a few clumps here and there for the insects. You can sow Phacelia from spring through to autumn and as it is particularly leafy, it helps prevent nutrients being leached out of the soil whilst also helping to smother weeds.
The previous owners have left a few bits of this and that in this area. There’s rhubarb and Jerusalem artichokes up at the back – it is very hard to get rid of Jerusalem artichokes even if you wanted to – and surprisingly some of the herbs like sage and rosemary are perfectly happy even in quite a shady spot. I suppose the drainage suits them well.
Don’t forget to take photographs of the borders as they are now. As nothing had been cut down in this garden, it has been quite easy to identify most things. I’m a great fan of the Picture This app. You have to pay for it but it seems to be better than most at identifying plants that you are having trouble recognising yourself. We’ve already spent a wet afternoon identifying umpteen exotic houseplants that have made the transition from South London to the West Country. Apparently there is a fabulous houseplant shop called Cornucopia somewhere on Streatham High Street which was difficult to walk past without being tempted. The border plants were easier to recognise without any problem but it’s obvious that some of them are either totally overgrown or out of place. There are at least half a dozen mature hazelnut clumps. One or two have already been cut right back and any good stems stored away to use as pea and bean supports in the summer. I must say that the borders look better already and definitely less congested although seven huge plants are about five too many. A Lonicera nitida hedge has been pulled out as it was as good as dead and perfect for the basis of a first bonfire. Lonicera, if kept under control, it is a fast growing alternative hedging plant but it soon topples over if left to its own devices and becomes unwieldy and ugly. Give me a native hedge any day – think of the advantages for wildlife.
An overgrown rambling rose has had dead wood taken out so far but, as it is growing just by the one and only seating area, it may be replaced unless it is particularly fragrant or beautiful. Bath Stone walls on one side of the garden aren’t improved by having a couple of very elderly tree peonies looking very tired and soggy leaning against them. There’s not much else there but what fun they’ll have ‘clothing’ this wall and perhaps doing away with the narrow border at its base. But as there are some bulbs poking through as we speak, there may be something there that is worth hanging on to, so it’s worth waiting to find out.
And then we come to the buddleias. They really do self sow like mad. Think of all the ones we see from the train on the way into London. As they are a great source of nectar for butterflies, it is great to have one or two in a garden but perhaps where their height fits in with everything else. Cut them back in late February/early March so that they’ll be flowering as the butterflies emerge.
There is a laurel hedge that hides the pub garden next door – the house is wedged between an ancient church on one side and an ancient pub on the other! The Packhorse Inn dates from circa 1498 but was rebuilt in the 17th century. It closed in 2012 when its owner intended to change it into flats. The villagers had other thoughts, managing to raise over a million pounds from 430 investors to buy back the pub. It reopened as a community pub four years later having been totally renovated. The garden alone took 1,000 hours of volunteer help to landscape and it seems that 25 tonnes of earth was shifted by hand!
But back to the laurel hedge. Laurel is one of my least favourite plants and, as we know, is used as instant evergreen planting on new developments everywhere we turn. At the moment this one is too tall for its space, but bearing in mind that it is affording privacy from the pub garden, a couple of feet off the top in late spring will improve things – unless there are nesting birds in there which will mean that it can’t be touched until July.
And finally, on wet or frosty days what better way is there to spend your time than peering through gardening catalogues and perhaps ordering a few dahlias and flowers for this season’s cutting garden. Have you seen the choice of cosmos there is now? So deliciously pretty.
Sue Whigham can be contacted on 07810 457948 for gardening advice and help in the sourcing and supply of interesting garden plants.
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