Starting with a paper plan

Mark has been laughing at me and calling me Gertrude. This is a reference to Gertrude Jekyll so I will take it as a compliment. It is all on account of my working on a planting plan. On graph paper, with coloured pencils.

The Oudolf rivers at RHS Wisley in the UK

This is a new exercise for me, but then so is planning out the plantings for a new garden that is currently a blank canvas. Added to that, the style of planting is different for us too and I need to know how many plants I am going to have to source from elsewhere if I want to get it planted up next autumn. This is the court garden where we eventually – and reluctantly – ruled out initial plans for a meadow-style garden. Practical considerations headed us instead to the idea of an immersive experience of walking through tall grasses with just a few tall flowers. Rivers of grasses, I said. In my mind’s eye, I saw the Oudolf rivers of planting in his twin borders at Wisley – a planting that we have loved and that has proven remarkably stable without huge maintenance demands for over fifteen years now, I think. But with taller plants, many more grasses, with wandering paths not a wide central path and of course we are working on flat ground without the view from above that Wisley has. So not at all like the Oudolf borders in fact, bar the idea of rivers of plants flowing diagonally across the whole space.

Learning from the mistakes of version one

Take one was to draw it up on graph paper and put in the central paths, which I did as a two metre wide figure of eight. I then laid out some squares of colour in diagonal lines running across the space. And I could see immediately that I was instinctively drawing a plan that was gardening in stripes. Child-like design.

Mark has a better eye than I have when it comes to design. He pointed out three things. The first was that Oudolf’s rivers were wide bands, each containing about five different plants, not single rows in stripes. It seemed so obvious when he said that. Next, he commented that he envisaged waves not rivers and he thought the paths should also be informal and meandering, not a formal shape. I knew he was right.

Thirdly and most importantly, he observed that designing a garden on graph paper gives a bird’s eye view, not the ground level view that is what will be experienced. That is the critical take away point from this and, I think, the reason why amateurs (and even some professionals) get it wrong and end up with a garden that, well, always looks like a graph paper garden, best viewed from above. There is a part of the process that requires the ability to translate the bird’s eye view on paper to the actual experience at human eye level on the ground. I assume professional training teaches you how to do this but it is not always achieved. We watched coverage of a major new garden on UK television where the glory of the design could only be shown by putting a drone up and getting the aerial view. It is what I think is wrong with the new garden installation at Pukeiti which they call Misty Knoll but that is referred to by others as the twin bomb craters. I am sure it looked better on paper than in real life.

Posted without comment. The Misty Knoll garden installation at Pukeiti Gardens

We went outside to look at the court garden space yet again, and I started afresh. Waves, not rivers. Waves to create an immersive experience. I measured the space with a tape measure, not by pacing it out. I also measured the area each plant needs in order to stand in its own space when mature because we don’t want the herbaceous border look where the plants knit together. Neither do we want spacings that are so wide that it looks as if we were too mean to buy enough plants to fill it. Each 5×5 square on the paper represents a square metre.

We are not going to be planting until autumn, but at least I will know this week how many plants I need to locate. We have most of them here already to work with, but I will need to buy some extras in. The foundation plantings are to be in six or seven grasses. The uniformity of filling the whole space in just one cultivar is not for us.

Looking down from above on the rockery in front of our house

Because there is so little to show so far on that new garden, I give you the bird’s eye view and the ground level view of our rockery yesterday. Because we have a two storied house, we get an elevated view of some areas of the garden. And looking down on the rockery from above shows the pure 1950s design of this garden feature. Shapes and design, not detail so it is the big picture look.

At ground level, the construction of the island rockery beds varies from ankle height to knee height to thigh height – sometimes all in the same island bed. The paths have also been lowered which accentuates the garden elevations. Truth be told, the lowering of the paths was probably in part to get soil to fill the raised beds but it is a detail that is less obvious from above.

I get enormous pleasure from the rockery because it is a highly detailed space immediately in front of the house and there are always pockets of seasonal interest within it. Because so much of the planting is bulbs, there is always dying foliage too, but that is just part of the nature of this style.

Yesterday, on a grey day, I looked at some of the views within the rockery and was delighted that it was like an Impressionist meadow, albeit in miniature.

11 thoughts on “Starting with a paper plan

  1. Maureen Sudlow

    Have to agree with you about the Misty Knoll, but love your rock garden. The idea of tall grasses and flowers sounds wonderful. We have a wee suburban garden, but want to do a lot more planting out the front to give more privacy. Small trees and low flowering shrubs that attract birds and bees. I am going to follow your lead and draw up a plan..

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Glad you found it helpful, Maureen. And that you found the rock garden photos enjoyable. Might I suggest you look at the flowering seasons in planning your front garden and aim for something pollen and nectar bearing for each month of the year – especially winter and very early spring when feed is in shortest supply.

  2. Pat Webster

    It’s interesting to follow your thought process as you plan out this new space. I’d enjoy seeing paper plan design #2, if you think it is ready for viewing.

  3. tonytomeo

    Design is not for everyone. I often remind my colleagues that I am a horticulturist, not a designer. I can grow anything, but I am none too keen on putting it into a landscape.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      We have always point blank refused to get involved with any designing of other people’s spaces. That is a different skill set and our skills lie in hands-on gardening, plant knowledge and specialist propagation and nursery production. But when it comes to our OWN space, we don’t want to contract that design process out to anybody else. We want to manage it from start to finish, though input from others never goes astray.

  4. sarahnorling2014

    Looking forward to seeing this new garden emerge, and love the delights of the rockery. It’s a very good point that what looks good on paper doesn’t always translate well to the experience of walking through it. Same goes for the type of simplified design that photographs well but would be pretty boring to live with year-round.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Could not agree more with you on the one photograph garden – not unrelated to what Mark calls ‘smart hotel style gardens’. The simplicity of that image can be overly seductive which doesn’t matter until it becomes equated to good design!

  5. Tim Dutton

    I’ve rarely put pen and pencil to paper for desiging areas of our garden. I find it very hard to think or draw in 3-D, and our site has virtually no flat areas anywhere. So our new beds get laid out in situ and that way we can always get the shape so that it looks right. I must say a planting plan would be desirable to plan plant purchases though (or knowing how many of some plant to propagate), but I’m afraid we’re never that organised.

    Love the photos of your garden. Is that blue flower in the foreground of photo 7 an Anemone?

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Yes it is just a simple anemone. I planted a batch many years ago and they just keep reappearing each spring. We have not felt the need to draw a complete paper plan before. Though Mark did do a paper plan of sorts for the whole area before we started on it and then staked it out with long bamboo sticks to get the basic lines right from the start, because he was wanting the right angles and centres in the right place to open up long axis from the established garden in due course. But this area was a blank slate.

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