Green breathing space

Informal green space at Pettifers in Oxfordshire, a private garden created by Gina Price

Have you ever walked around a garden that is so full, hectic even, that you come out feeling exhausted? I have. Several in fact, but one in particular. I don’t like to show a photo of it because while I think he may have died, I am pretty sure a number of his friends will read this. It is an affliction more commonly seen in small urban gardens where the owner is so keen that they want to use every bit of available space. And uncultivated space is seen as wasted space.

I am sure that trained garden designers are taught the value of incorporating open space – part of what is often referred to as ‘negative space’, I think. I call it breathing space – a restful area which gives respite in a particularly busy garden. But not many of us use skilled garden designers and the notion that quiet areas need as much attention in planning as actively maintained areas filled with plants and colour may be a foreign idea.

Wild green space at Hestercomb

In practice, most of us use mown grass to achieve this. When I first wrote about green breathing spaces in 2010, I clearly had not looked past the garden lawn as an option. And we still have extensive grass lawns and pathways that we mow to fill this function. Mark is missing Lloyd during lockdown here as the mowing of the grass is his role. Yesterday, Mark hopped on the new lawnmower and headed over to mow our tenants’ lawns across the road. He came back somewhat stunned at how fast the new Walker mower goes. Slightly unnerved, he was, by its top speed, comparing it to a race the mower would win if competing against a sprinting human.

Mondo grass instead of lawn

I was recently asked about using mondo grass instead of lawn grass which had me finding a piece I published in 2015, showing the use Auckland gardener and photographer, Gil Hanly has made of mondo grass to give a green breathing space in her very busy and full city garden.

Lawns have a purpose if you have children who like to play cricket or any ball games outside. We used to play family badminton on our front lawn way back when we still undertook such wholesome family fun. It is a better home option than tennis when you don’t have a fully netted court. And lawns have a function if you entertain larger numbers of people outdoors. Beyond that, they are basically green space, framing garden and landscape views, or keeping the amount of garden space to a manageable level. It is easier to mow grass than to maintain most garden areas.

Pictorial green space as perfect circle at Sissinghurst 

Green space at Wildside 

Wildside again

But what if you have a wilder or more naturalistic garden and don’t want to mow green spaces? I found a few examples when I was going through photos for my last post. While Sissinghurst and Hidcote have very clearly constructed green breathing spaces integral to the garden, the modern gardens we have visited have their own take on the same need.

This area could have been all mown lawn but how lovely is that combination of mown grass and molinia meadow? Piet Oudolf at Bury Court

The combination of both lawns and green space in the molinia meadow at Bury Court may strike a chord with many, as it did with me. Definitely less wild, more designer-led and immaculate in its own way, it still fills the function of giving a calming experience in a complex garden.

Green space doesn’t have to be mown lawn.

I find Piet Oudolf’s molinia meadows a great deal more pleasing as green space 

… than his more formal green breathing space at Scampston that was altogether too redolent of a graveyard for my liking

Easter greetings from my corner of a locked down world to all of you in your lock down locations.



21 thoughts on “Green breathing space

  1. Elizabeth Hamilton

    Your blog is a wonderful oasis in the middle of this lockdown.! I love the photos of Sissinghurst from the tower. We were there in September and it was very crowded. Quite alarmingly so in the tower but plenty of room in the garden. Love the view of the round lawn.!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      The round lawn was a bit a mystery to us until we saw the view from above and realised its purpose. Isn’t the tower wonderful? Even if crowded.
      I am glad to hear you are enjoying my posts. I worry that I may be posting too often but I figure people have the choice to read or not and can unsubscribe if the frequency annoys them.

  2. Nancy Strybosch

    Hi Abby thanks for all your fantastic emails. We with the large gardens are privileged to have our own spaces where we can retreat during lockdown.
    Love reading your posts.
    Take care regards Nancy

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Thank you, Nancy. Indeed, I feel extraordinarily privileged to live in such benign conditions during lockdown, when others are in much less pleasant conditions.

  3. Angela

    I love the idea of meadow grass but I fear in Auckland the kikuyu would, metaphorically, have a field day.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      It is so different in many ways in our conditions. We need to find our own path and not assume that what works in other climates will work here.

  4. Paddy Tobin

    I’m with you on the need for open space and, generally, for an uncluttered approach to a garden. We use grass/lawn for open spaces here and the view from our sitting room/living room is to an open area. Up to a few years ago this view extended to the farmland outside the garden, a view we always enjoyed when our neighbour was in dairy farming so there were cows roaming about, something we enjoyed very much. Our neighbour has since retired and the land is let to other farmers who have put it into tillage and we have put in a hedge as they view is not as we previously enjoyed. Re the open meadow approach: we allowed a large area to grow a few years back but found the taller grass actually gave a sense of closing in the garden so we returned to cutting it again. We feel we need the sense of openness, of views/vistas, of sky etc.

  5. Pat Webster

    I know that bench at Wildside… and remember very well the sense of peace and satisfaction I felt sitting on it, looking out on the garden before me. Thanks for the memory.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      My pleasure, Pat. It is really nice to hear from people who have been to some of the same places and have the same first hand experience. Did you ever get to Waltham Place? They had a strict no photographs policy so I have never written about it but six years on, we are still talking about it and making sense of what we saw there. The Henk Gerritsen garden in Berkshire.

      1. Pat Webster

        Yes, I visited Waltham Place and the nearby Folly Farm and so, like you, have written about neither. I visited them in 2016 and that year, Waltham Place needed a good edit while Dan Pearson’s work at Folly Farm was still growing in. How I’d like to return to both. And to other gardens you’ve mentioned recently: Scampston, Gresgarth, Lowther Castle, Bury Court, Wisley (I agree with Mark’s observations about stripes in the Oudolf borders), Broughton Grange, La Torrechia. I haven’t been to Mt Saint John and now I doubt I ever will… my days of leading garden tours are over and travel is less and less do-able. But I dream.

      2. Abbie Jury Post author

        I feel your sadness at thinking we may not get that way again. I am thinking I will write up Waltham Place. At the time, we wondered if we were looking at the emperor’s new clothes but when I think about it, Gerritsen was taking the English manor house garden style and turning it upside down. Too wild for me then, but the fact that I am still thinking about it must mean it was successful in some ways.

  6. Patricia Colmore-Williams

    What a refreshing post thankyou Abbie. I look forward to your posts and hungarily devour them when they arrive. So don’t ever think you have too many. They bring interesting ideas. We live the Bay of Islands. We too fell in love with the vision of meadows etc.(partly prompted through several of your informative and interesting posts) but sadly our neighbours are farmers of weeds; blackberry, paspallum, stinking iris, gorse and Prince of Wales Feathers. In the end the task of maintaining became most unromantic – so we also reverted to mowing. Sadly. Keep your posts coming please Abbie. Thick and fast is fine with us. And thank you for them.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Thanks, Patricia, for your kind reassurance. There is a whole area of meadow management that also involves our attitudes to weeds and what constitutes a weed. Wandering tradescantia is one we try and keep out but it keeps getting washed down the stream so that is ongoing. Ditto montbretia that we try hard to restrict the spread. I wouldn’t be at all keen on gorse and blackberry or anything prickly. If by Prince of Wales feathers you mean amaranthus, I would probably not be so worried about that. It is certainly a learning curve in NZ as to what are weeds that need to be controlled and which ones have become wild flowers here. We have resigned ourselves to buttercups here which are very pretty in bloom. And daisies. There is still an open verdict on what Mark refers to as stinking billy goat weed that I think may be a salvia. Kindest regards, A

  7. tonytomeo

    Yup! My colleague down south fits more species into his small city parcel than I grow on several acres. He uses his minimal space to trial cultivars that he uses at work. There are a few problems associated with doing so, such as SHADE, and pathogens that proliferate in crowded conditions. However, most people who see are impressed by how spectacular it all is. I enjoy it too; but I do not need to live with it. He has always wanted me to purchase the home next door, so that he could expand his small back garden behind it. I always told him that if I did so, that the front garden would be MINE, and that it would be plain and simple so that the pretty house within would be visible and not overgrown.

  8. Jim Stephens

    Ouch! Guilty as charged. I have a smallish urban garden and would view uncultivated space as wasted if I had any. I wonder what Keith Wiley would do if he were confined to a small area, there aren’t many open areas at Wildside and I suspect that some of them are areas he hasn’t got to yet or that he will encroach on for more planting space in the future. It’s the planting there that excites me, not the leftovers in between. I find myself energised to the point that sitting down in an open space for respite would seem like time and a rare opportunity were going to waste. Why would I want respite from it, it’s all too easy to find respite in pointless acres of mown grass elsewhere. A garden that leaves me exhausted is for me a rare treasure, to be much cherished.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Thanks for an alternate view, Jim. I just have to disagree that green space is ‘leftovers in between’. Well, it can be but done well, it isn’t. But that is fine. We can agree to disagree. I have never had a small garden so I don’t know how I would treat the space if that was my lot in life. But I do know a gem of a garden with one of the richest plant collections in a small space that I have seen – and some green space (even though I am not a fan of the buxus edging around the grass) – the last garden in this post.

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