Stripes, hedges and gardening on the flat

Striped gardening a la Monet (photo: Michal Osmenda via Wiki Commons)

Striped gardening a la Monet (photo: Michal Osmenda via Wiki Commons)

There I was last week, railing against the fad for edging plants everywhere and referencing planting in stripes. We watched a programme which we had recorded on Monet’s famous garden at Giverny. There was his striking central allée and it was planted in long stripes! But beautiful, complex stripes created with painterly style and panache.

I have yet to visit Giverny and I may have trouble motivating Mark to accompany me. Being a New Zealander, he has an abhorrence of crowds and that particular garden is renowned for packing ‘em in. That said, good friends of ours went last year, not expecting to be overly impressed, but they were blown away by it so if we are in that part of the world (an hour or so north of Paris), we will probably go. And admire planting in stripes.

It is probably no surprise that a Frenchman would go with formalised planting. The genre of parterres (regimented planting of colour on formal terraces) is closely identified with the French nobility of old. It was primarily designed to be viewed from upper windows and is essentially using flowering plants as a tool to paint patterns in stylised form, such as we see on fabrics.

Monet used more of a mix and match of colours to get the beguiling complexity we associate with Impressionist art, but if you look at the composition around that central allée, it is still geometric.

The danger is that if you over simplify it, you are more likely to end up with bedding plants arrayed in the style of the old fashioned traffic island or floral clock.

Next up came a programme we had of BBC Gardener’s World where lead presenter, Monty Don, was walking down one of the paths in his garden and lo! There was another garden in distinctive stripes. It was all dead straight. Very tall hedges either side, a middle layer of matched small bushes planted in long stripes inside, edged by buxus with a narrow path between the matched borders. There is something engaging in the simplicity of such a scene, but it is still really like a house hallway outdoors – an access way which you want to lead to somewhere more open and spacious at either end.

David Hobb's garden in Canterbury

David Hobb’s garden in Canterbury

It started a conversation here about creating a garden on a dead flat site with no established trees or structure. That is apparently what Monty Don did and he went with masses of clipped hedges to give form. I saw the same strategy in large Christchurch gardens on the flat. These hedges gave both structure and protection from Canterbury’s winds which can howl across the plains.

Mobile hedge-trimming platform from Trotts Garden in Canterbury

Mobile hedge-trimming platform from Trotts Garden in Canterbury

Ever practical gardeners, we could see difficulties in the longer term. In order to get good structure, you need to let the hedges grow tall – around the 4 metre mark in large spaces. Formal hedges need trimming at least once a year, more often if you want clean crisp lines. If you get the mechanical hedge trimming contractors in, you have to keep a vehicle path width down either side of the hedge. If you do it yourself, you need mobile scaffolding, a good eye and the determination to get it right. It is not a path we would choose to go down ourselves. There are more fun things to do in the garden than endless hedge trimming. These may not be gardens to grow old in, unless you can afford the labour to carry out the trimming.

The alternative in large flat gardens is to plant good long term trees with sufficient space to grow to reach their potential. They can give the structure and form in the long term and as long as you choose well, they are not going to need anywhere near the regular maintenance of the formal hedge.

Next, on the long, wet weekend, we reviewed yet another of the gardening programmes we had saved. This time it was the UK’s longstanding and vastly experienced garden presenter, Alan Titchmarsh (a refreshingly unpretentious Yorkshireman) with his Love Your Garden series. One episode showed a simply astounding, verdant, lush forest on a very traditional, flat, rear section.

If you have ever seen British suburbia, the British equivalent of our traditional quarter acre section is a narrow plot which is the width of the semi detached or terraced house (in other words, two rooms wide if you are lucky) with a small front area and a longer rear area. This was one of those. I think Alan Titchmarsh said it was 30 metres long but it can’t have been more than 8 metres wide, if that.

The gardening owner had taken this long, thin rectangle and entirely disguised it. The main device was a zigzag wall structure running diagonally across the yard which had then been planted heavily. The foliage hid the wall but that structure turned a blank, open canvas into a much more complex design with different conditions in which to grow plants. Against the odds, there were hidden areas to be discovered and the garden was not visible at any point in its entirety (except, presumably from an upstairs window).

You can take a dead flat, unprepossessing piece of ground and turn it into something surprising and deceptive if you have flair. But then you can take planting in stripes and turn it into something special as well, if you are another Claude Monet.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.