Planting the new court garden

A big, blank space. Bamboo stakes are used to define the areas to be be cultivated and to get the curves right. 

In the world of gardening, I am not sure that there is much that is more exciting than starting planting a new garden which has been years in mental incubation. Indeed, I am surprised how positively thrilling I am finding it to be out in the space actually putting the plants in.

It is a blank canvas, what we refer to as the court garden, on account of it looking like a tennis court when it was just an open space. We have talked about it a lot, stood and looked at the space and mentally envisaged the possibilities – which were pretty much endless – for this open, sunny area. Having narrowed down the plan, I set about refining the plant palette and building up the material to go in. As Mark has observed in the past, ours started as a poor man’s garden. His father could not afford to buy in all the material to plant up the large garden across several acres so applied himself to raising a lot of it. These days, rather than a poor man’s garden, it is an economical couple’s garden. It would cost a lot to buy in all the plants needed to fill over 450 square metres and they would arrive as small specimens. I have been gently building up plants for a few years now so what are going in are reasonable large divisions. Instant effect, Mark calls it.

This is to be my contemporary grass garden, inspired by the work of Christopher Bradley-Hole at Bury Court  but different. Immersive, not pictorial, to coin the phrase of English writer, Tim Richardson. It is set a little lower than surrounding areas so we step down into it to be surrounded by the movement of large grasses, shoulder or head high, planted in waves. A prairie on steroids perhaps? It is not designed to be viewed from a vantage point so much as to be experienced within.

Doryanthes palmeri (which will grow much larger) with Stipa gigantea

I have planted the first waves using Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’, Stipa gigantea, Chionocloa rubra and Calamagrostris ‘Karl Foerster’. And I have found a suitable space for Doryanthes palmeri. The next two waves will be Elegia capensis and Astelia chathamica. I do need to buy in about three plants of our native austroderia, commonly known as  toetoe. For, as Mark says, what is a grass garden in New Zealand if it lacks toetoe? I have sufficient plants for a wave of Chionocloa flavicans (which looks like a smaller toetoe) but I am not pinning my hopes on that because it seems to be like Christmas dinner for the rabbits and I am learning that I must garden that area with the rabbits, rather than fighting them all the time. It is one of the very few plants I am using that we have not trialled and come to understand already.

Moody miscanthus in the autumn light . It will be on a much larger scale in the new garden

Once I have planted all the waves of grass, then I will paint within with the few flowering plants I plan to use – the giant autumn-flowering salvias in yellow and red, tall yellow Verbascum creticum for spring, the very tall white nicotiana we have seeding around the place, maybe foxgloves in white and fennel. Nothing small, nothing detailed, no bulbs except the huge Albuca nelsonii. I expect the large evening primrose to find its way into the area of its own accord and I am sure Verbena bonariensis will seed down from the neighbouring borders. But the flowering plants are all secondary to the movement of the grasses.

Mark is rotary hoeing. The vintage piece of equipment in front is his prized Planet Junior that he uses often.

For those of you who are interested in the mechanics, Mark killed off the weeds and dead-headed the nasty carex we have through there to reduce future seeding. He is currently rotary hoeing the area. I drew up a planting plan and expected to be out there with my large piece of graph paper, keeping fairly closely to that plan. But in practice, it is just a guide. My spacings on paper were too close. My eyes on the ground are better than a paper plan. I rake out the rough-turned sods and then lay out each wave and sometimes I dig the plants back up again to move them a little to change the angle or the spacings. I am constantly mindful that this must be a low maintenance area. We have quite enough high maintenance areas already.

We won’t mulch immediately. Because our soils are so wonderfully friable, we will allow the first couple of flushes of weeds to germinate and rake them off. Weed control from the start is critical, especially with big grasses. Only then will we mulch. I have decided against the fine gravel mulch I had thought I would use. I am sure I will have to refine the plantings at least once in the early years and don’t want all that gravel incorporated into the soil. Neither do I want sharp edgings to the paths (which are about 1.8 metres wide to allow for plant flop). I want it to be more seamless so the current thinking is that we may opt for a granulated bark mulch which can be spread across both garden and paths. That we will have to buy in by the truckload.

We should see results this summer in our soft growing conditions and by the second summer, it should be hitting its stride. I am optimistic. Sure, it is hard work but if you are into active gardening, this is probably the peak of fun.  The culmination of years of thinking and planning and something entirely different. I will keep readers posted on progress.

Postscript: I am a dirty-kneed gardener. Mark laughs at me and regularly tells me I should not be allowed indoors. Indeed, I often shed my trousers in the laundry before I enter the house. Don’t tell me about knee pads. I have tried them and they don’t suit me. I have an abundance of kneeling pads but unless it is wet, muddy and cold, I find it easier to wash my clothes than constantly re-position the kneeling pads.

What I don’t understand is how Mark stays so clean, despite gardening as much as I do. Well I do know. He either uses long-handled tools or squats. My gardening mother stayed clean by always bending. With dodgy knees and a dodgy lower back, I kneel. Kneelers with dirty knees unite, I say.

16 thoughts on “Planting the new court garden

  1. SusanO

    very exciting – looking forward to future posts and photos. I too am a kneeler – often accused of being somewhat dishevelled, in my old gardening clothes and with dirty knees and leaves in my hair
    (and I usually haven’t even started gardening on those particular days)

  2. Elaine Bolitho

    Thank you for taking us on this planting journey with you Abbie -I look forward to the progress pix and trust the rabbits will keep away! How lucky you are to be able to kneel – Since I have had two artificial knees I have never been able to kneel on them! Consequently can’t get up from sitting on the ground either, so am limited to bending over, and to get lower, bending knees! Gardening uphill helps! So does Jeremy our twice-a year- do-the-big-stuff gardener!

  3. Diana Kenny

    I truly don’t know how anyone gardens with out kneeling – my knees are just like yours. I have an old pair of very thick track pants which are great.

  4. Tim Dutton

    Love the way the court garden is heading. We developed an area last year that has a central section that contains mainly grasses too. Centre stage is a large toetoe that had been there for years, most of the other grasses (big and small) have been added: the toetoe certainly adds impact. We planted a block of bronze fennel in there and have used a few Verbena bonariensis too, but the grasses are the main thing. We are very pleased with how it all grew over the summer.
    I too have to garden on my knees, but do use a kneeling pad, which I shuffle along with me as I go. Helps when working on gravel paths and the like!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      It sounds as if we are on a similar gardening trajectory, Tim! And I do use kneeling pads on gravel and concrete – tender knees. The soft soil and grass, not so much.

  5. Paddy Tobin

    It is wonderful to read of your gardening. I am reading in Ireland and, as our climates are quite similar, it is easy to relate to your plant selections. I don’t share your bravery with grasses; they have never appealed to me and I have never enjoyed them in the garden. On the other hand, I do share the dirty knees practice with you. My wife says it is the nearest I ever come to prayer! Many thanks for your blogs!

  6. Renee Collins

    Really looking forward to seeing this garden grow in. I not only kneel but often actually sit where space allows, so I come in with a damp and dirty butt as well as dirty knees. There always seems to be dirt on my face too – I have no idea how that happens.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I can relate to the muddy butt syndrome. It is why we have a dark leather lounge suite in our family lounge! Fabric soft furnishings are not practical for the likes of you and me.

  7. tonytomeo

    Is there a concern about the miscanthus or other grasses becoming invasive there? I do not believe it is a problem here, but it does grow all over Oklahoma . . . not that anyone minds it.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      We are very sensitive to invasive grasses here (a pastoral economy) but I am not aware that miscanthus is seen as a problem. Indeed, I have read about it being trialled as a stock food, I think.

      1. tonytomeo

        Pennisetum setaceum is an invasive for us; but even that does not get very far into the wild without water. Pampas grass in a whole different and nasty story!

      2. tonytomeo

        Well, that is good. The sterile cultivars of Cortaderia selloana are still available here, but they are only sterile because they lack male flowers for pollination. If Cortaderia jubata happens to be in the neighborhood, it can pollinate the Cortaderia selloana to produce hybrids that are not sterile! Fortunately, the hybrid are not nearly as prolific as the Cortaderia jubata is; and if Cortaderia jubata is already in the neighborhood, no one is worried about a few hybrids in the mix. There are plenty of other problems.

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