A garden for all seasons

Is it possible to have a garden for all seasons? In our soft climate, yes, it is. But is it possible to have a garden that is at its peak for 12 months of the year? That is what many folk visualise when they think of a garden for all seasons. And the answer is no.

You can have a garden that looks more or less the same all year round. This is achieved by lots of hard structure, heavily trained and clipped plants, very little seasonal interest and constant maintenance or garden grooming. Seasonal interest (flowers, bulbs, autumn colour and suchlike) is messy and alters the tidy picture.

A reader left a comment on a recent post which included “I’m hoping that you have invented the solution to the 4 season perennial garden by then.” (Here’s looking at you, Cath). It started a train of thought along the lines of whether this is even possible and whether I had ever seen it done. If by a four-season garden, is meant incidents of colour (usually flowers), then yes, you can do it. But not massed, peak performance all year round.

It is an old photo of us and the view out the window has recently changed. It is the border to the left of the coffee table that I have recently replanted in blocks for flowery interest

I replanted a border recently, aiming for year-round performance. About 20 metres long by just over a metre wide, it contains a few established shrubs which flower in spring and summer and I underplanted in large blocks – each at least a square metre, some larger – to get big splashes of colour through most of the year. It is a garden that we look out to from one of our favourite indoor seating positions for afternoon tea or an early evening drink. It now has a pretty blue scabiosa (dreadful name – the pincushion flower) for summer, Mark’s mother’s vintage Sweet Williams and hot pink Phlox paniculata for spring and early summer, large white flowered polyanthus for winter, blue asters for late summer and pink and white sedums for autumn. All interplanted with random bulbs I lifted from elsewhere. It doesn’t quite cover the full 12 months although it should have something showy, in bloom, for most of the year. But it is one block at a time, not the full border simultaneously.

Phlox paniculata, I think. Easy to grow, vibrant and seasonal

Elsewhere, we go more for matrix planting, rather than block planting.  The new grass and perennial garden is strongly modelled on matrix principles but even so, as winter draws in, that garden is going into a rest phase. There is not much to carry it through the coldest weeks.

The magnolias, of which we have quite a few, do not all bloom at the same time. Nor do we want them to.

It is a conundrum. From time to time, we ponder reopening the garden for selected days through the year – snowdrop weekend, magnolias, lilies and the like. But while the snowdrops – or bluebells or lilies – have a defined and finite peak season which is relatively easy to determine, which weekend would we pick for the magnolias? They flower from July to the end of September here. No matter which date we select, some will have finished flowering and others will not have opened.

Early winter – just last week in fact. The view from our park.

I used to get so irritated by visitors at our annual festival who would go round the garden and come out saying of the rhododendrons, “It must have been gorgeous a few weeks ago,” or “There is a lot that have finished flowering, aren’t there?” I would quell my irritation and smile courteously, saying something bland along the lines of “there is always something different in bloom but yes, some have finished for the season and some are yet to open”. What they wanted was peak display when everything bloomed en masse, perfectly timed for the garden festival. This is what I saw at the Floriade tulip festival in Canberra and what, I understand, can be seen at the Butchart Gardens in Canada in their peak season of July and August. But ours is a private garden. Our rhododendrons flower from July until Christmas and what we want is something of interest every week of the year.

Late winter – as in August 9th.

Knowing this, we raised our eyebrows when Pukeiti Gardens, then a private trust, went to a great deal of effort to rebrand itself as “a garden for all seasons”. It seemed like an over-promise that they could never deliver. Its main focus was rhododendrons and yes, they flower from July til Christmas, but not all at once for all that time. Their location, at altitude, butting up to a national park means that winter is not a hospitable time for garden visitors – far from it – and being surrounded by evergreen, native forest means that autumn is never going to be as showy as in other places. It was – and probably still is – primarily a garden for spring and summer. Intrepid visitors outside those two seasons will still find much of interest, but not mass, seasonal display as implied by the catch line ‘a garden for all seasons’.

Large parts of the gardening world put their gardens to bed for winter and do not expect anything to happen during that rest period of chill. In our mild conditions, we have flowers in bloom all year round and actively garden for 12 months of the year. But, as I commented in my last post about vireya rhododendrons, it is a trade-off. You can have the big bang impact of peak season with mass blooming and all-round showiness, or you can have long performance of gentler display.

Do the maths. It is not even just the four seasons. Each season has its early, mid and late period. If you want year-round interest, then you have to allocate about one twelfth of the area and the plants to peak in each seasonal period. That is never going to give you the massed bangs for buck display at a single time. But it will give you garden interest all year round.

17 thoughts on “A garden for all seasons

  1. tonytomeo

    One of the flashiest parts of the main landscape at work is just finishing with the rhododendron bloom. Flowering cherries bloomed prior to that. I am getting to feel badly that after such a spectacular show,there will not be much more color until the end of next winter, but guest find the landscape to be so spectacular anyway, with all the big redwood trees, birches and the creek running through it. Redwoods do not change much, but really are always spectacular. There is so much more to the landscape than color. For us, the weather can be spectacular. Rainy weather is really something to see in the redwood forest. I notice that out in the Mojave Desert as well, where the bleakness is spectacular, even without the brief wildflower bloom.

      1. tonytomeo

        Even in my home garden, there is so much more going on than mere color. Color would certainly be nice, and I do happen to really like autumn foliar color, but I can not help but to be pleased with what happens naturally. Although, that is my own personal preference. I am certainly no designer.

      2. Abbie Jury Post author

        My heart lies more with the gardeners of the world. More than with the designers. For gardening is identifying with one’s own space. Designing is managing somebody else’s space.

      3. tonytomeo

        Well, that makes me feel more justified in liking my space the way it is, although I do have a responsibility to keep public spaces appealing as well (I get help with aesthetics of course), and of course, we do ‘try’ to keep it appealing in all seasons, even though I believe that it needs no help in that regard.

  2. Cath

    Thanks Abbie! It’s good to know that it can be done. I think it would be quite alarming to wake up and find yourself in Butchart Gardens – like stumbling onto the stage of an opera. Even worse if it was the same all year. I would prefer to have only the flowers of the season, enough to keep the bees and bumblebees happy if the weather is good enough for them to get out. I don’t mind if things don’t flower, I just need to have enough things that don’t die down completely so the weeds don’t take over, but things which don’t take over themselves. I am trying to plant things that go dormant in winter next to things which are dormant in summer but it’s slow going and I often lose areas back to weeds.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      It is a good thing, Cath, that the more we garden, the more we learn. Tho I often think that short-circuiting that extended process would be mighty helpful.

  3. Geoffrey Marshall

    I think you are generally on the mark, Abbie, but there is a problem – and it’s not with you.
    The word “peak” by definition must mean, in this case, a period or periods when a garden looks better or more spectacular than at other times. So of course a garden cannot be constantly at peak – that would be a plateau.
    It should not be a question of whether the garden is at a peak when it’s seen, but whether the garden has merit, or otherwise, when it’s seen – and this should include, if the viewer is knowledgeable, an appreciation of how the garden might look at other times and seasons.
    If visitors are looking for the likes of the Canberra Floriade or the Butchart Gardens, the likes of which leave me cold, then their opinions are not worth bothering about.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Too often it is the case, is it not, that those who are the fastest to offer a negative opinion are those who are most ignorant? If or when we open again, I plan to be ready with Christo Lloyd’s rebuttal (relayed to me third hand, or if may even be fourth hand,I admit): “I will shake your hand and say goodbye for we will never meet again.”

      I laughed at your plateau rather than peak because it was a blindingly obvious distinction when you pointed it out. But not one that is likely to be understood by those who think that everything should bloom at the same time, all the time.

  4. Geoffrey Marshall

    And as we’ve noted elsewhere, Abbie, while there are plateaus of excellence there are rather more plains of mediocrity.

  5. Bronwyn

    Great reading Abbie. I love putting our 1 1/2 acre garden to bed for the winter, its time off for both of us. For the garden I am sure it feels like it doesn’t need to dress up or wear makeup for a couple of months. I love Autumn, “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”. For winter, I enjoy the bare garden and seeing the structure of the trees and the pops of color beneath, demure winter roses, violets and self seeding minuet viola are simple delights. A bare winter garden is great to walk through with a glass of wine as there will be few jobs that need doing en route!

  6. Tim Dutton

    A lot of good thoughts, and as usual your article left me pondering our own gardening experience. We have 2 1/2 acres of garden and most of it isn’t visible from the house. For those bits we look out on at breakfast we like to have some all year round interest, but that doesn’t mean just flowers: foliage colours and textures in the evergreens give most of the winter interest. In the other parts of the garden we have different areas looking at their best at certain times of the year and two years ago started work on a Winter garden to ‘fill a gap’ as it were: early days for that one. We couldn’t cope with the whole garden needing year-round detailing!!!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I am sure you are on the right track targeting different areas to peak at different times of the year rather than the scatter gun approach of spreading a little seasonal interest throughout and, in so doing, diluting the effect. But I also mindful that it is a very different scenario for most people who garden in much smaller spaces.

      1. Tim Dutton

        That’s very true. I guess the bit we see at breakfast time is the size of a typical suburban garden area. There’s usually something with a bit of colour in there to brighten the gloom on a rainy day, but it never gets really spectacular either. More steady-as-she-goes. At the moment a big Camellia sasanqua has finished, but there are a few polyanthus dotted about at the front of the border to take us through winter and one of the Camellia japonicas has opened its first flower, rather earlier than expected.

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