Lessons learned

The stone mill wheel serves as a bird bath and is used often, this time by a tui

Were I starting a new garden from scratch, especially a large garden, I would reduce the number of beds and borders. And I would be more rigorous in separating the highly detailed areas from the broad sweeps of plantings.

Pleione orchids in spring. At this time of the year they are dormant and can be lifted, cleaned up and replanted.

The little mill wheel bed is a highly detailed area

I am perfectly happy doing highly detailed gardening. Micro gardening, I call it. As I lifted and divided big clumps of pleione orchids, I decided it was the gardening equivalent of surgery. But I want my areas of highly detailed gardening limited and confined. We have a large rockery which requires close attention, the sunken garden and the millwheel garden. It was the little millwheel garden that I was going through earlier this week. It is full of seasonal detail like the aforementioned pleiones, blue lachenalias, fritillarias, erythroniums, dactylorhiza orchids and similar tiny treasures along with a few choice shrubs like species camellias and small rhododendrons.

The mistake I made over time was to grab pots of such treasures from the nursery (in the days when we still did the full range for mail order) and tuck them into odd places here and there. Everywhere, really. Now I am trying to reverse that and lifting such little gems to relocate out of mixed borders.

Bolder plantings in bigger sweeps need treasures that are in scale to the other plantings, not small detail.

Away from these highly detailed areas of planting needing close maintenance, I want bigger sweeps of bolder planting. I love how our avenue gardens have shaped up with the bigger sweeps of interesting shade perennials. It is the itsy, bitsy, inbetween stuff that I do not enjoy doing. The mixed border – too often the hodge podge border – has a lot to answer for. We have too many borders and beds like that and they are hard going.

The round garden was a design aberration and has never been successful

Hand-hewn stone artefacts dating back to pioneer forebears

I didn’t just strip out the old rose garden. I am also nearing the end of clearing another design aberration – a round garden in the front lawn which had evolved over time to something less than satisfactory. The defining concrete mowing strip has been removed, as have the bulbs and smaller plants. It is just waiting for Mark to remove the dwarf lollipop camellias and the Graham Thomas rose. All that will remain is the umbrella Magnolia laevifolia in the centre and the stone artefacts which are of interest. One is a shaped corner stone which used to be placed to protect the early timber buildings in settler New Plymouth from being raked by passing cart wheels. Another is a small stone trough Mark’s mother collected, hand-shaped of course and the centrepiece is another mill wheel. This wheel is a small inner wheel from a domestic grain mill in the Te Henui stream area in New Plymouth. Mark’s parents gathered these historical pieces back in the 1950s when nobody else valued them and the records have been passed down orally. We don’t do much in the way of ornamentation in our garden but we appreciate our small collection of historic artefacts.

I am also eyeing up another three short lengths of garden border and thinking I may strip out the messy underplanting. There are sufficient shrubs in those borders to carry them without the need for ground cover detail as well. A mulch of leaf litter or compost is all that they need. It is just quite a bit of work to lift everything and reuse the plants and bulbs that are of value. If we gardened less with bulbs it would be easier but our bulbs represent many years of building up large numbers of different types, many rare and curious, and are a feature of our garden.

Not every wall, fence, pathway or building needs an edging border of planting. We had our first visible frost this week – we don’t get too many of these each winter. 

There are several lessons I have learned through all this:

  • Gardens evolve over time and we often don’t step back to look with critical eyes at the current picture. Sometimes, they do just become a mishmash, especially if you are the sort of gardener who tucks plants in to fill spaces. Or they become dominated by thugs which take over and swamp out the more desirable plants.
  • Tiny treasures and small detail need to be accommodated in designated areas where they won’t get overtaken by competitors and where it is easier to carry out the more careful, intensive maintenance that they require.
  • It is still possible to get detail and variety into larger scale plantings but the detail needs to be larger in scale.
  • Not every area needs the oft recommended three layers of planting (ground cover, middle layer and upper canopy or backdrop (recommended, I think, to get the lush, well furnished look).
  • Not every pathway, driveway or building needs a side border to complete it. There can be too many bits and bobsy borders and beds. Fewer may be more effective and certainly makes for easier management.
  • Mixed borders are difficult to manage well in the long term (mixed borders being a mix of woody shrubs, perennials, climbers and sometimes bulbs).
  • Most perennials perform much better if you lift and divide them, replanting them in well-dug soil. Some, like polyanthus and pulmonaria, benefit from lifting and dividing every two or three years in our conditions. Others like hostas, can usually be left for about ten years before they start to go back (by ‘going back’, I mean they can reach a point where they get smaller, not larger).

As I have said before, if there is an area of your garden where you avert your eyes every time you walk by, there is a problem that needs to be addressed. It won’t get better if you ignore it. Sometimes it needs drastic action.


11 thoughts on “Lessons learned

  1. Cath

    Too true. I agree totally. I think the shrubs and bulbs help to keep the whole garden from going to weeds during the not very cold winter, but eventually they (and weeds in my garden) smother everything else. I’m looking forward to seeing your garden one day, I’m hoping that you have invented the solution to the 4 season perrennial garden by then. :)

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Cath, I think we are moving from the idea that the goal is a garden for all seasons to the idea that it may be better to go for the big effect and accept that some areas will have quiet times. Only in a very mild climate do we expect all year round performance but even in the tropics, there are times that are just lush and green.

  2. tonytomeo

    I am certainly no designer, but something that still annoys me in the arboretum is the clutter of the small details; although a few focal points is nice. When we mix too many azaleas together, it looks like a garage sale. Something that Brent does that really annoys me is putting focal points in front of other focal points. He does not do this in the gardens of his clients, but at his home garden where space is limited. Unfortunately, his home garden is used to trial certain plants, so they tend to get cluttered, and also get infested with scale and aphid and mites that proliferate in crowded conditions.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Best bit of advice I heard about focal points is that there should only be one in view at any time. Restraint is a virtue!

  3. Tim Dutton

    We learnt a somewhat different lesson. When a well-meaning neighbour gives you lots of willow and poplar sticks to poke around your bare boundary and tells you they’ll only grow to 15 metres, beware! The poplars are now approaching 30 metres and are far too large to fell in the available space. At least we took the willows out along the driveway while we still had room. So far as the borders are concerned we haven’t had the same problem as you, as ours have been remarkably empty of anything but shrubs until the last few years. Now we can afford the time to propagate, we are filling our borders and beds trying out different colour schemes and generally having fun. We just hope it doesn’t turn out to be too much work for us in the future.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Oh dear on the poplars. And if you add detail and complexity, I guess you can always simplify it again if need be in the future

  4. Dale Lethbridge

    Thankyou for such a timely article. I have an old garden that I am trying to modify to my venerable age and there is so much wisdom written here that has given me the courage to be as ruthless as I need to end up with a manageable and successful restoration.

  5. Lyndel

    Less is More, I am beginning to bring into my garden. So fewer visits to Mitre 10 !
    This post really made me think, and look . Thank you

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