A Lion Called Doris

You know what they say about March? In like a lion, out like a lamb. Well, if the last few days are anything to go by, the end of March is a treat in store.

I’ve got to be honest and admit to taking the coward’s option and staying firmly inside while Storm Doris has been doing her thing. And it was with an element of trepidation that I ventured out into the garden when the sun finally dared to show itself. From what I could see the damage was not too great, but the bits of the garden I can’t see from the house include the veg garden, and the amount of timber strewn across the lawn made me a bit anxious that the greenhouse might have suffered a direct hit.

I’ve also been lazy about going out to check the new sowing in the greenhouse, preferring to focus my gardening attention on the indoor window brigade who are shooting up nicely. (Although now I’m worrying that they are going to turn into leggy blondes rather than the nice compact little folk I’m hoping for!)  But once in the garden it was a relief to find everything in reasonable shape, although of course the weeds have not been put off in the slightest by the weather and are having a high old time. I’m already experiencing the onset of the hairy bittercress anxiety that is an inevitable companion to the spring and summer months.

But the Euphorbia wulfenii are unfurling their heads,

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A lion called Doris? (Don’t you think it looks like a lion’s head?)

Arnold is delivering big time on his Promise,

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Hamamelis Arnold’s Promise

the Tete a Tetes are glowing like lanterns.

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Narcissus Tete a Tete

So I decided to ignore the voices in my head telling me to get on with the weeding, and take some time to wander round and have a go at taking photos with a wide angle lens to try and give a sense of the garden at this time of year.

I do struggle with the bigger picture. The natty little close ups of my favourite plants that I’ve been practising seem so much simpler; the wider shots invariably include the bits I don’t want. But I’m going to switch off my critical eye to walk you round the garden.

Starting at the front. We live in what used to be the farmhouse, with a dairy attached on one corner which has been converted into three more homes around a courtyard. The house faces out across the fields to the southwest, with a strip of garden, lined with hornbeam and native hedging separating us from the lane.

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View from our window – one glorious night of full moon last summer

When we moved here sixteen years ago the front door was at the end of the house, leading into a very small narrow hallway. Four years ago we moved the front door to the centre of the house, converting what used to be our dining room into a proper entrance hall.

The day we moved in ....
16 years ago

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the door was at the end of the house the front garden was rather under-appreciated; we walked past but rarely into it. One advantage of moving the door was that we now walk through the front garden on a regular basis. So I planned the planting with this in mind.

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Front garden from above!

(This photo was taken from an upstairs window a couple of years ago. The rather pale looking viburnum on the right has died and been removed since then. And the other plants have filled out more. But for a space that is difficult to photo as a whole at least it gives some idea of what it looks like.)

I see the front garden as the entrance hall to the entrance hall. I had in mind a garden that you open gates to go into, that feels as if you are leaving the outside world behind as you enter into a separate space. I wanted a more formal feel to it than the back garden, a garden that keeps its character throughout the year, acting as a staging post for the inside of the house. You will see that I’ve kept the emphasis on evergreen shape, shade and texture. There are balls of Buxus and Pittosporum Golf Ball, lollipops of bay and Viburnum Tinus. Clumps of Euphorbia wulfenii define the entrance to the porch and front door, the domed bracts chosen to mirror the evergreen mounds.

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The new entrance

 

Scent is important –  delivered by vase shaped Sarcococca, and tapestries of Trachelospermum jasminoides climbing the walls either side of the porch.

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Structure and Form

Hebe rakiensis underscoring the bay trees at the lower level continues the mounded theme with ferns and sword shaped iris for contrast.

By the side of the house another painted gate opens into the back garden. Here I’ve continued the evergreen structure from the front but in a more relaxed style, so that it anchors the planting to give it definition. An intensive edit conducted a couple of years ago meant that I moved and took out and changed a fair bit, trying to achieve year round structure  and harmony. I’m pretty pleased with the way it’s shaping up and can’t wait for the summer to see how the perennial planting I introduced into the centre beds is bulking up.

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Through the gate

It’s taken time but I’m finally learning to accept the fact that a big chunk of this garden is more shady than not. We’re at the bottom of a slope that faces northwest, tucked in against a wooded area with very very big trees that cast shadows across the garden even in the height of summer. I’ve wasted a fortune planting sun lovers and praying for them to prosper. Now I’m embracing the shade dwellers and keeping the sun worshippers for the cutting bed.

Mention of the cutting bed happily leads me to the field garden, named the field garden because it used to be… yes, you’ve guessed it… the field. When the field garden was more field than garden it was pretty boring. Now – although it’s still very much work in progress – it’s one of my favourite areas.

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More field than garden!

I’ve planted yew to define the lawn and disguise an unattractive bank. I’ve separated the sloping orchard, vegetable and cutting garden with wings of yew and mixed native hedging. A couple of years ago I planted three hornbeams, (getting ready to be cut into boxes on sticks when they fill out), to lead the eye to a seating area under a newly planted prunus. At the same time as planting the hornbeams I planted three Malus Everest either side of the path up to the gate. It’s an area that can become very soggy when there is heavy rain as water runs this way off the field so I’m hoping they are going to survive. Last year I planted narcissus and camassias on the banks and under the hornbeams.

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Hornbeams in training!

 

The veg garden and greenhouse are my favourite bit of all. Here is my sunny space, the place where I go to enjoy warmth when the rest of the garden is still stuck in winter. Here rhubarb is accelerating, tulips are showing and the Hesperis matronalis and Matthiola incana that I’ve been shielding from the bunnies for as long as possible in the cold-frame are waiting for transfer to their final position. The espaliered apples I planted to act as a backdrop to the beds a few years ago have reached to the ends of the wires. Next door’s garden waits to be hidden by the mixed native and beech hedging I planted a couple of years ago. Annoyingly I lost a Victoria Plum tree last year. It had been carefully positioned to go with the apples and pear and leaves a hole I can’t fill as I would like because of the risk of the same thing happening. So I’ve got to rethink a bit before I replant.

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In case you’re wondering, we’re the bit on the left!

The last view to show you is from the top of the bank where I can look back across the garden to the downs.

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Across to the Downs

It won’t be long before this all looks very different. It’s one of the great joys of a garden, isn’t it? That it’s constantly changing. So maybe I will aim to do the same thing through the seasons.

 

The Garden Shuffle

It’s been another damp and drizzly week in the garden. Until yesterday, when there were proper blue patches between the clouds, a bit of proper sunshine. And for the first time this year I was able to go outside and do a proper shuffle.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the garden shuffle? It’s one of my favourite things: the slow meander around the garden, usually with cup of tea in hand, not doing, just seeing. It’s when I take the time to properly look at what is happening out there, without feeling I have to do anything about it. (Apart from pulling up the odd weed!) My favourite time to shuffle is first thing in the morning. Ideally the temperature is warm enough for me to go out in my dressing gown. Although we’ve got a while to go before that happens!

Yesterday the sunshine didn’t appear until the afternoon, so a dressing gown would have been entirely inappropriate. But still it was warm enough to wander, and within minutes of being out there, cup of tea and me were shuffling in perfect harmony.

There’s more to see than you might imagine. Snowdrops are opening, yellow aconites are bright against the brown earth under the ash tree by the drive, the unfolding heads of the hellebores are rising up out of the leaf mould.

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Snowdrops are opening

And yesterday the low sun of afternoon was playing wonderful tricks with the leaves of the Asplenium scolopendrium fern.

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Asplenium scolopendrium

This is the week that the green shoots have really started to get going, pushing up all over the place, and as I shuffle I’m thinking about all the bulbs I planted last autumn. (One of the great joys of bulb planting when your memory isn’t what it used to be is the element of surprise!) It’s coming back to me that I crammed the recently re-edited centre bed with tulips, choosing my selection after reading an article in Country Life by Tom Coward at Gravetye Manor… but what were they? I can’t remember and I can’t find the article.

There are the narcissus I planted under the new hornbeams in the field garden, selected following advice from The Cut Flower Patch by Louise Curley that was my bible last year and will be again in 2017. There are more alliums in the front garden, a row of muscari under the espaliered apples in the vegetable garden. Probably other stuff that I’ve forgotten about. I can’t wait to see what comes up!

And this week I’ve been writing lists of plants to buy to fill the gaps I didn’t get round to last year, and I’ve ordered my dahlias, (one of my choices is Otto’s Thrill after seeing it at Petersham Nurseries), and I’m sorting through my seed packets, and watering my pelargonium cuttings. And next week there are roses and wisteria to be pruned, and I’m hoping for another dry day so that I can tidy up the apple trees.

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Dahlia Otto’s Thrill

And finally, I’ve been getting on with Assignment 3 for the Photography course I’m doing with mygardenschool. One of the topics set for us was still life sequences, shooting the same subject from different angles. This is a shot of a moth orchid I submitted – now I’m waiting for feedback.

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Moth Orchid still life

Hope Clive likes it!

All in all it’s been a good week. This weekly challenge I’ve set myself for this blog is forcing me to pay attention. And I’m looking forward to seeing what I can find for next week’s post.

Bad Timing

It’s beginning to dawn on me that my timing may be a little out, it being January, and here I am committed to weekly posts about my garden, which at the moment is grey and gloomy and perishingly cold, and reluctant to offer up too many good stories.

So it’s a challenge.

But January feels like a good time for a challenge. And I’m telling myself that if I can come up with something to write about for a post at this miserable time of year, and if I can come up with subject matter to shoot for the online plant and flower photography course I’m doing at the moment with the great Clive Nichols at mygardenschool, then it’s going to seem like a piece of cake when things warm up.

At least that’s what I’m telling myself!

And when I’m really struggling it helps to remind myself of the damp and dismal winter we had last year, when it didn’t get cold, it just got murky. This year we have had more than our fair share of frosty mornings when the the sun shines and the world is ice encrusted and glistening. The silhouettes of the trees stand like sculptures against the winter skies, the sunsets take my breath away. And why is it that on these glorious days I don’t have time to get outside with my camera and only have spare time on days like today when it’s perishing and grey and…

Oh stop moaning woman and get on with the job in hand.

Because the truth is there’s still so much to enjoy in the garden. I just have to brave the elements, whatever the elements happen to be. And even though it’s freezing degrees fahrenheit outside and the ground is rock hard, the plants know that spring is around the corner and they are getting themselves in shape for it.

First the Galanthus nivalis, the snowdrops. Never ones to be put off by the cold they are getting ready to flower any day now.

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Snowdrops getting ready for action

Then there’s the Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ I planted in the autumn. It’s clustering beautifully and getting ready to put on a show at any moment.

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Enough buds

One of my all time favourite plants, the Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii, which has delivered its structural elegance to the winter garden, is limbering up and preparing to put on it’s lime green loveliness for the benefit of contrast, so that when the tulips and the daffodils and the scillas and the muscari come into flower they have something to work with. I have several strategically placed around the garden. Last year’s mild winter saw it flowering from November. This year we have to wait. But it’s so worth it.

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Euphorbia with rain

The hellebores are getting ready by the driveway. The Sarcococca confusa is wafting occasional bursts of scent, but really wants it to warm up a couple of degrees in order for it to release the full strength of its sweetness. The Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ is laden with buds whose scent is one of the most exquisite of any I know, so that people who rarely notice such things comment as they walk past it to the kitchen door.

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Euphorbia with Daphne and red stemmed Cornus

In the front garden buds are showing on the Amalanchier and the guelder rose and the Prunus. Once you start paying attention it’s amazing how much is happening out there.

And inside I’m playing around with reflectors and backgrounds and apertures. And  I’m breaking my resolution not to buy flowers because at the moment I have no option.

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Tulip against black velvet
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Ranunculus from above
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Don’t know what this is but I like it!
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Inner tulip

I can’t wait until the cutting garden starts delivering because this year I’m hoping that I will have much more of a clue about how to take photos of what comes out of it.

So… I’ve written myself into a good mood. This week’s post has delivered a whole lot more than I imagined it would. And there’s next week to look forward to.

Bare bones and skeletons

So it begins.

With snow.

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Not very much snow. But still a chance to see the bare bones of the garden. Which is as good a place to start this year of weekly posts as any.

But before I embark let me fill you in on a bit of background.

For those who may not know the history of this garden, I should explain that sixteen years ago it wasn’t… a garden that is. What it was was an awkward triangle of about half an acre of sloping lawn surrounded by stock fencing. The kind of space you look over and out of rather than into. It was the garden developers leave for you when they’ve finished. Need I say more!

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Room for improvement….

And this is how it stayed for a couple of years. Until the time came to ask for help from my mate Judes; who happens to be a garden designer of the very best kind. One of that rare breed who understand space and function and form.

Under Judy’s expert eye the contractors got going and the garden began its transformation. Once the landscaping was done it was time to get on with the planting. In a haphazard, unplanned, suck it and see kind of way that taught me a great deal about what goes where and what doesn’t, I bought plants I liked and put them in the ground. Which gave me an unimagined amount of pleasure, along with a fair amount of pain, as things outgrew their allotted spaces, self seeded, spread, grew this way when I wanted them to grow that, looked wrong, failed to thrive, died; in fact did all those things that plants do when you add a bit of sun and rain, and wait to see what happens.

Because when I started out as a novice gardener I was under the impression that you just planted things and left them to get on with it. I had no idea that shoving a drought loving plant into my heavy clay soil was like uprooting a camel from the Sahara and expecting it to thrive in Greenland. Plants know what they like and I learned that trying to force them to do anything different is an expensive mistake.

As for leaving them to get on with it. I realise now that this is akin to believing that the hair on your head should be left to grow as nature intended. Without interference. Now there may be many who are completely fine with this approach, but I’ve always been a seek out a good hairdresser and visit them regularly kind of girl. Plants need to be shaped, fed, nurtured. They need to be re-assessed and re-styled every now and then. It’s not that I don’t love natural. I just think it needs some help along the way.

Two years ago, with the benefit of all the years of hard work in my own garden, along with garden visits, trips to flower shows, books read, garden magazines thumbed, catalogues poured over, conversations had, and my garden design course under my belt, I took a step back, looked at what was in front of me, and realised that it was time for a major re-edit.

I went through the garden bed by bed, plant by plant, getting rid of any that didn’t please me. I drew up proper planting plans for the main beds. I reworked the area on the other side of the hedge which had been field, and was now home to a very uneven lawn, greenhouse and vegetable garden.

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Work in progress!

Over the past couple of years I’ve rejected, replanted, moved, cut back and generally overhauled the entire space. This year I hope to see the fruits of my labours start to deliver. Which is another reason I want to keep this blog/diary.

This week the garden is resting, for a couple of days slumbering under a light blanket of snow, with the odd downpour thrown in for good measure, and today a burst of winter sunshine. I’ve been out there with my camera. This is the time when the structure of the garden is revealed. Now is when I can see if it’s working. And I’m pleased to report that the skeleton is looking pretty good.

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Snowy garden

At this time of year it’s easy to believe that there’s nothing going on in the garden. But when it seems that there isn’t much to look at, you just have to look a little harder!

There’s beauty to be found in the bones.

Back to basics…

It’s that time of year. Weather frightful. Rain hurling itself at the window. Wind wailing in the eaves. But, as far as I’m concerned, it can do what it likes.

Because I’m on a mission. The Jane King, DIY, get to grips with, find the confidence that’s been lacking, go back and have another go, mission. And the aim of this mission – to redesign the planting for the four central beds of my garden. I’ve put novel writing on hold and I’m channelling the gardener in me.

When I started with this garden in the early days, I knew less than nothing. I bunged plants in with little thought to how big they were going to grow, what shape I wanted them to be, how they would look when they were grown up. Some turned out ok. Others haven’t worked quite so well. Now, with time and space to draw breath and contemplate, I’m having a rethink.

These are the beds I’m working on.

Exhibit A…

Where do I begin???
The Where Do I Begin Bed

This is my biggest challenge. North-west facing, heavy clay, and more ins and outs to it than the Hokey Cokey. I’ve already drawn up and thrown away at least three plans. (The first of which I showed you in my last post.) So it’s still very much work in progress.

Exhibit B…

The White Mischief Bed
The White Mischief Bed

I went all Vita with this bed and decided it was going to be my white moment. It hasn’t worked. Which is why I’m having a rethink.

Exhibit C…

The Never Satisfied Bed
The Never Satisfied Bed

This was supposed to be my hot border. Didn’t really work. Time to reconsider.

Exhibit D…

The Rewrite Bed
The Rewrite Bed

This bed has had more rewrites than my first novel. (The Greenyards Legacy – you have read it haven’t you? And if you haven’t… WHY NOT?) Now I’m going to do it properly.

So you might think that – HAVING DONE A GARDEN DESIGN COURSE – I would have all of this planting design stuff under my belt, that I would be able to rustle up a cunning plan with my eyes shut. You would be wrong.

The amount of time we spent during the course on the principles of putting together a planting plan was minimal. Which left me contemplating the prospect with fear and trembling. Where to start? What to do? There are a million and one plants out there. Which, what, who am I going to choose? And how, when, where am I going to position them?

But with the help of two really excellent books, (The Complete Planting Design Course by Hilary Thomas and Steven Wooster, and Colour Your Garden by Jill Billington) I’ve gone back to basics. I’ve sharpened my pencils and I’m putting my ideas down on paper. I’m dusting off and rediscovering my Vectorworks skills, plotting and replotting plant combinations, drawing up plans… and then rethinking and starting over. I’m learning that, where the planting is concerned, it is important to view the garden as a whole, not, as I have been doing, as individual beds. I’m discovering that small gardens need a different approach to large. That there is an approach to planning the front, middle and back of borders which I’ve been failing to consider. And the light is beginning to dawn. I can do this thing. I have got what it takes.

Who knows where this will take me? But one thing’s for sure – my garden is going to look bloomin’ fantastic.