Category Archives: Abbie’s column

Abbie’s newspaper columns

Fashion vs style

I was shocked. Really shocked. There I was in the supermarket and I picked up a gardening magazine I had no intention of buying. But as I skimmed it, I came across an article that told us to rip out all our grasses. The ‘Oudolf prairies’ and the entire New Perennials movement were out. Shrubberies are back.

The writer qualified this statement by saying that she was just joking but the damage was done. There are my new borders just coming into their own with their heavy dependence on grasses and perennials, much influenced by what we have seen in the UK and Europe. And while this whole naturalistic gardening movement has been a major force in Europe and to some extent the USA for over 15 years, it hasn’t really reached New Zealand gardens yet, but is already, allegedly, passé.

It did at least get me thinking on the difference between fashion in gardening and major gardening movements.

Fashion or trends are driven by marketing, as much in gardening as in clothing or décor. And that is all about selling commercial product. If you can convince customers that they need this hot new item to be on trend, that makes money for everyone on the supply chain from producer to retailer. Even better if you can convince them to replace a whole garden in order to be up with the play, at the forefront of fashion.

Gardening movements, styles or genres are different, though it can be hard to tell apart at the time. It takes hindsight to get the bigger picture. Until early last century, ornamental gardening was largely the preserve of the rich and powerful. Ornamental, domestic gardening at the individual level didn’t really take off until after WW1. But we can look back and see several significant gardening movements, or styles.

The idea of garden rooms has its most recent roots at Hidcote and then Sissinghurst. It made design – in this case, the design of a series of linked but separate spaces – applicable to the home gardener. Many people are still working to the garden rooms principles today.

Cottage gardening, as exemplified by Margery Fish at East Lambrook Manor, is a separate gardening movement that remains popular nearly eight decades later. It is very relevant and applicable to a domestic scale of gardening which became popular as the grand estates declined.

I think the classic rose beds probably warrant the status of genre rather than transient fashion, though they have certainly fallen from favour now and look very unsophisticated and barren by today’s standards. Those are the island beds of just roses, hybrid teas mostly, planted with little regard for colour and standing in splendid isolation with good air movement and bereft of underplanting. There are many practical reasons for growing roses in this manner and it is only in more recent times that most of us have decided the aesthetic deficiencies outweigh any practical consideration.

Treating the garden as an extension of the indoor living space (all that indoor-outdoor flow) is often attributed to the English designer, John Brookes in the latter half of the twentieth century. That is here to stay, though taken to ridiculous lengths by OTT Australian luxury design with their outdoor kitchens and living areas.

Crystal ball gazing, I would suggest that the contemporary tropical garden in more northerly areas of this country – the Balinese hotel style, as I have sniffily dubbed it, may turn out to be more movement than transient fashion. It fits the climate, the lifestyle, the aesthetic and the maintenance regime of many gardeners, particularly in Auckland city. Not so good down south, though, so it is quite localised.

Then there are the fashion gardens, more driven by magazines and other media then anything else. Remember the dreaded dwarf conifer gardens with their scoria mulch laid on black plastic?  No. I don’t want to remember them too much, either. The same goes for the short-lived reign of the ghastly minimalist gardens at the start of the new millennium. Three large rocks, a yucca, a sanseveria and some scleranthus surrounded by an ocean of lime chip, fine gravel or – if the budget ran to it – prettier coloured pebbles. Or, horror beyond horror, a mass of tumbled, coloured glass pebbles if you were of a certain demographic. Aqua coloured glass shards were much favoured as I recall. Minimalist gardens may have drawn on the subtle and spare refinement of the traditional Japanese garden but they lacked any cultural context or complexity in their trendy manifestation and died very soon after being born.

While the home production of fruit and vegetables seems destined to continue no matter what, the current craze for *food forests* is, I suggest, more fashion than movement. It won’t be long before people realise that so-called food forests in temperate climates don’t actually produce much food at all – at least nowhere near as much as more utilitarian vegetable gardens, berry enclosures and orchards can provide. You wouldn’t want to be aiming at self-sufficiency with a food forest but you can at least claim to be on trend at the moment.

Which brings me to the ‘Oudolf prairies’ (he has done many things but never prairies) and the current fashion for plantings incorporating a fair swag of grasses. Movement, not fashion, I say. These are but one part of a major swing in gardening style towards a more naturalistic and sustainable approach. It is part of a whole spectrum which takes in meadows, even prairies if you have the right climate, the Sheffield School, environmentally friendly and sustainable gardening as practiced by a large swag of British, European and American designers and leading gardeners. It is soft-edged, should be lower maintenance, sitting comfortably with Nature as opposed to being imposed upon it, sustaining a healthy eco-system and a harmonious balance between the natural world and the aesthetic many humans crave. Enhanced nature, romantic gardening, naturalistic gardening – call it what you will. It is a movement, not a transient fashion because it is underpinned by a philosophy that goes well beyond the marketing of plants and landscaping accoutrements.

I won’t be ripping out my grasses and perennials to replace them with dwarf shrubs from the garden centre. Style trumps transient fashion every time.

What a difference a year makes (flowering through 12 months)

November 2017

When I first started writing about our new sunny borders last year, a reader commented that she would be interested to see how we managed year-round interest in them. Because, in colder climates, and particularly the UK where we drew inspiration for this project, gardens are not expected to perform all twelve months of the year and most of the herbaceous material is fully deciduous. Most gardeners in cold climates put their gardens to bed for the coldest months and retire indoors to their very warm homes, or at least to the shelter of the garden shed if they are determined. Expansive herbaceous plantings leave huge gaps in winter and nobody expects them to bloom all year round.

Early December 2017, still very new

It is different here. So much of the plant material we use is evergreen and we expect to be wowed by something every week of the year. I tried to make sure that I photographed this new area each month to track the performance and today I went through and organised the photos by date so I could see the sequence. February is missing! What happened in February? I am hoping I just miss-filed February’s photos because I am sure there was plenty going on in the gardens, it being full summer.

March 2018

It is also interesting to track the growth as the borders filled out. Planting was mostly done in late winter and spring last year – so July to November.  I had to stop over summer because the hose doesn’t reach that far so I could only plant after rain. From memory, we had a particularly wet spring followed by an unusually hot, dry summer extending well into autumn.

April 2018

Rather than list what is in bloom each month – plant lists can get very dull – I would comment that even I am surprised at how much bulb material I have added to get that seasonal spread and I shouldn’t be surprised because it is me who has planted every single one of them. Ixia, babiana, sparaxia, narcissi, snowdrops, crocosmia, moraea, albuca, Aurelian lilies, ipheion and more have all found their home here but in clumps, not drifts or dots.  Even the somewhat coarse blue Dutch iris and a pure yellow gladiolus that looked crass in the more refined rockery look right at home in this bigger and bolder planting.

The stand-out plants for length of blooming season are the echinaceas (from December to May) and the kniphofias (from October to April). Verbena bonariensis, alstromeria and hemerocallis also give extended blooming to justify their places.

May 2018

So what happens in the quietest months of the year? In the late autumn of May, the grass plumes are beautiful. The echinacea, salvias and plectranthus are the major providers of colour. Finally I have a place for those giant, thuggish salvias that can reach well over two metres tall and they certainly come into their own in April and May.

June 2018

June is the quietest month and the grass plumes of the miscanthus are particularly beautiful with the lower light angles. But already the new season is starting. We have a backbone of pretty Camellia yuhsienensis with its michelia-like blooms and it starts flowering in June.

July 2018

July is our bleakest, coldest month but already there are the camellias in full bloom (we have five of them scattered along one side) and the extensive avenues and surrounding hedges of michelias (particularly ‘Fairy Magnolia White’) are coming into flower. This is also the month when our most successful snowdrop – Galanthus S Arnott – flowers. I planted just a few in one patch but I now think I might bulk up one section with it because it would give a winter white garden with no other flower colours in evidence.

August 2018

By August, we are warming up. The early narcissi are in flower; my trial patches of ‘Peeping Tom’ made me smile each time I saw them. Many plants are already springing into growth and by September, we are in full swing again.

Dutch iris and moraeas in September

The garden is still in its early stages, just a year down the track. We have yet to do the paths which I want covered in soft honey coloured hoggin, which I discovered is crushed limestone. Mark still wants to move the propagation houses often seen to the side of the photos and that may take another year or three. But the garden borders, they are getting to where I want them. I am at the tweaking stage now, the foundations are all in place.

October 2018 The propagation sheds to the left are planned for removal

None of this would be possible had I kept to a very restricted plant palette. It is the range of material we can grow that makes these borders work all year round. What knits it together visually are the repeated large blocks of key plants like the Iris sibirica, yellow Phlomis russelliana, Dietes grandiflora and Albuca nelsonii and the rhythm of a limited range of large grasses threaded throughout. Within this solid framework, other plants are in defined clumps, not scattered cottage-garden style.

There is no hard landscaping and next to no ornamentation in these borders and I have no plans to add any. The plants can carry the day here. Every day.

November 2018 

And just a year ago – November 2017

Not just from Siberia – the sibirican irises

“I think I prefer the sibiricans now to the bearded irises. Much easier care.” So spake a friend who will, for unrelated reasons, always be known as Cemetery Sue here, as we stood looking at my swathes of Iris sibirica in the new borders. In the second year since planting, their display has been fantastic.

I only had three different varieties and they are just one of those good performing, utility plants that I took for granted before. Sue has since brought me a fourth one sourced from the inimitable Bill Robinson (yes, he and Anne are still gardening and growing plants in Tikitere, near Rotorua). Now I wouldn’t mind a few more.

Probably a species selection, rather than a controlled hybrid

Iris sibirica, or the Siberian iris, is very hardy, undemanding – so low maintenance – and fully deciduous which means that it emerges afresh each spring. I had assumed it came from Siberia, and it does grow there but its natural distribution is from northern and central Europe right across to Central Asia (which includes Siberia). In the wild, it is a damp woodland plant, preferring full sun to part shade. Presumably, woodlands in that part of the world are largely deciduous. The received wisdom here has always been that they grow well in heavy soils and are ideal beside ponds and waterways, though they do not grow IN the water but BESIDE it. In Taranaki open gardens, they are usually combined with the bright yellow Primula helodoxa because both grow in similar conditions and flower at the same time, conveniently at the peak garden visitor period.

Caesar’s Brother, of course

I wasn’t sure how they would go en masse in my new sunny borders which don’t have particularly heavy soils, though we get spring and summer rains during their growing season. The answer is that they are sensational, growing larger and stronger than I anticipated in the freshly cultivated soil. The erect foliage is between waist and chest height and the flowers held above that. They have taken my breath away. Even the white and yellow form with tissue paper thin petals (it may or may not be ‘White Swirl’ or ‘Snow Queen’) which I had thought a little insipid where I had it planted previously, was terrific in early spring. We have the dark ‘Caesar’s Brother’ (who doesn’t?) but it was the other blue that is the real showstopper with its much larger flower, longer season and free flowering ways. I wondered if I could put a name on it and that took me down a rabbit hole on the internet. I had no idea there was so much passion for the sibiricans.

A sibirican hybrid?

It turns out that this iris has been crossed extensively – very extensively – with others in the iris series Sibiricae – which is one step up the iris family tree from the species I. sibirica. You can tell by the cultivar names that the breeders of this genus are passionate about their subject matter and quite possibly American. I say that because after looking at the photos on line, I wonder if our large blue variety is ‘Blue Moon’ or maybe (wait for it) ‘Over in Gloryland’. Mark is hoping for the latter.

The big blue and the new yellow – these will be named clones. We just don’t know the names.

The new yellow that Sue brought me from Bill Robinson still had a flower on it and is very pretty. Bill had lost the name but, like the other three, it will be a named clone. I wonder if it is ‘Butter and Sugar’ or ‘Dreaming Yellow’. My guess is that ‘Caesar’s Brother’ and the white one I have are both species selections, so pure Iris sibirica while the larger flowered mid blue and new yellow are named hybrids from a breeding programme. It appears that the sibirican hybrids are not unlike the so—called Dutch irises and indeed the Japanese Higo irises in their complex breeding lines which have mixed up the genetics so much that the debt to the original species is quite distant. Before any readers get all purist, yes it is important to keep the world’s gene reserves going and not to lose the original species, but the hybrid vigour that comes from mixing up the original genes is often what gives us better performing, more reliable garden plants.

Our Higo iris season is just starting and that is a time of special delight.

 

 

Blurred lines

One of the access paths linking the park to the avenue gardens

When you garden on a town section, boundaries are usually clearly defined, most often by fences or hedges. Some lucky gardeners are in a situation where they can visually *borrow* a wider view of the neighbours or maybe some bush or landscape to draw the eye out from the rigidly confined boundary. More often, the situation imposes limitations that mean the garden has to be inward looking and confined to its allotted space. Some people like that sense of a contained space, accentuating it further with tall fences. Whether you see that as security and privacy or self-imprisonment depends on the individual.

It is different when you garden in the country and that clear definition of an end point is arbitrarily imposed on a larger landscape. Or not, as the case may be.

Scadoxus to the right, calanthe orchids to the left along with self-sown ferns and tree ferns – subtropical woodland, I guess

I had never really thought about what Mark was doing in one area where our avenue gardens meet the area we call the park. I had vaguely noticed that he was drifting down the hill with some plantings of pretty choice material like some of the interesting arisaemas, calanthe orchids and scadoxus, but in a casual, naturalistic manner. We were in that area together recently when he commented that he was attempting to blur the line between highly cultivated garden and wilder areas, to transition seamlessly. It was like a penny dropping for me. Of course that is what he was doing.

Arisaema dahaiense!

This inspired me to get into that area where I have never done anything  before, bar the occasional quick tidy-up. It was a perfect place for a few clivia plants. I am trying to rehome the last of the clivias red, orange and yellow that had been potted up by the last of our nursery staff and that must have been back in 2011. They are amazingly resilient plants. Some were in very small planter bags and all that has happened in the intervening years is that the pots have been moved out of the former nursery area and beneath trees. They have not been fed, let alone nurtured and loved but still they are green (some more greenish than dark green), many are flowering and seeding. Enough is enough, I thought. These need to planted out.

Having seen the occasional garden that suffers from the ABC syndrome (another bloody clivia, mass planted), I have been trying to drift them through the shaded areas, mostly areas that are loosely maintained at best. It takes longer to plan a drift than a mass planting and drifting a couple of hundred clivia plants without making them a mass takes a while.

Yellow seeds from last year’s flowering, visible here, will flower yellow.

Not for us all the yellows in one area, oranges in another and reds elsewhere. There is nothing wrong with that. I have seen it done and it is what I describe as the ‘landscaper look’, usually done with plants that have been purchased and are identically matched, being the same clone. It is just not our style. We prefer a looser look, using seedling raised plants so there is subtle variation,  the mix of colours being more suggestive of the gentle hand of Nature enabling plants to seed down in situ. Which they will do over time – we have clivia seedlings popping up around the garden but to leave it all to Nature will take longer than we have left. We are just hurrying the process along by a decade or two when we use established plants.

If you are going to raise your own seed, it pays to start off with the best parents. This means selecting the ones that flower well every year and have the best flower heads of the type you want. For showy garden plants, we want ones with fuller heads rather than too many with the hanging bells. The red clivia seed will eventually bloom orange and red; yellow clivias come from yellow seeds. True. I am not sure what colour seeds the peach ones have (we only have a few in the new peach shades) and we don’t have any of the green and white clivias in the garden yet.

When I think about it, blurring the lines are the tool we use to get to a seamless transition between different garden spaces. The soft transitions within the garden are all part of refining our thinking about how important it has become to us, personally, that we garden confidently with a strong sense of place, as referenced in this piece I wrote in March last year.  

 

Gardening with our native flora

The cordyline just arrived, I think. It is growing right on stream bank at water level and I can’t think that anyone would have planted it there

We like to garden with a wide range of plants here. A VERY wide range. Not for us that prescription from some *designers* who decree a garden should have no more than ten different plant varieties in it. I can’t give the most recent reference for that because I thought it was such a remarkably stupid thing to write that I didn’t bookmark it. I guess the author was thinking of small town gardens but even so, both Mark and I would be bored stiff.

I have been thinking about the extent to which we incorporate our native flora. The purist *native garden* is not for us, nor indeed the predominantly native garden. We are too much of the complex layering, detailed planting persuasion, using an extensive range of plant material in mix and match combinations, to ever want to place that type of restriction on ourselves. But when I walk around and look, it is a surprise even to me just how many native plants we grow and often take for granted.

I figured there are at least four groups of native plants – the volunteers that just arrive of their own volition, the rare and endangered which actually owe their continued existence to the horticultural trade, the utility backbone plants that we take for granted but are actually native and the ones that are grown because they are simply great ornamentals in their own right.

A note about naming: in NZ we know most of these plants by their Maori names. While there aren’t too many truly bi-lingual speakers in this country, our every day language is peppered with Maori words, names and phrases that can confuse English speakers from other countries. I hadn’t really thought of this until I mentioned pohutukawa on a Facebook post and an American replied, “Maori common names just don’t stick in my memory, I think that’s a Metrosideros?” Botanical names really do aid international communication so I have added those in brackets below.

We have never planted any tree ferns. They just arrive of their own accord.

The volunteers that just arrive will vary throughout the country. Ours include the tree ferns (commonly known as pongas – pronounced ‘pungas’, botanically cyathea and dicksonia), the nikau palm (Rhopalostylis sapida) , cabbage trees (cordyline),   an abundance of pepper trees or kawakawa (Macropiper excelsum) and a wide range of ferns. If they are not in the way, we just leave them to grow where they wish. Even NZ gardeners may not realise that we have three native dicksonia species and seven cyathea species. I think we just have the most common four or maybe five species seeding down in our garden.

Kakabeak, growing in a town garden (hence the power lines). I have the white form in a new garden but it has its own little wire cage because pesky rabbits just about ate all of it over just two nights

The rare and endangered plants contain some special stories. The tree Pennantia baylisiana and the climber Tecomanthe speciosa  were both down to a single surviving specimen in the wild but are now relatively common thanks to sustained efforts to propagate and distribute them. Similarly, the two species of kakabeak (clianthus) were at the extremely endangered status in the wild but are now widely planted in gardens. Sometimes commerce can ensure the survival of a species where protection of their natural environment has failed. Even Astelia chathamica was rated as under threat in the wild (in the Chatham Islands which are our southernmost islands marooned in the Southern Ocean) but there is no danger of it being lost these days, so widely is it grown now in mainland gardens.

The renga renga lily, as seen in almost every garden

Utility backbone plants include a fair swag of trees grown in this country but especially the kowhai (sophora – there are eight native species though S. tetraptera is the most common) and the pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa). Both of these are absolute standouts in bloom. What we call the rengarenga lily (Arthropodium cirratum) is so widely grown that it is probably seen as a garden cliché. But we don’t have a whole lot of flowering herbaceous  plants that are native to New Zealand when you think about it. And our gardens would be the poorer without the native astelias which are used very widely, being preferable as garden plants to our native flaxes (phormiums)

Pachystegia insignis to the left (the white buttons are the flower buds) and Xeronema callistemon with the red flower spikes

Some native plants are special in their own right as ornamentals and not necessarily easy to grow in conditions far removed from their natural environment. The Marlborough rock daisy (Pachystegia insignis) occurs naturally on exposed coastal rock faces in dry, hard conditions  ; the celmisias are predominantly mountain daisies : the Poor Knight’s lily (Xeronema callistemon) comes from sub-tropical northern islands and is distinctly frost tender and needs brilliant drainage, preferring coastal conditions. These and other plants are well out of their comfort zone here but interesting, showy and still indigenous plants if you take the country-wide definition.

The alstromeria is certainly not native but the grass is – Chionocloa rubra

What I don’t think has been helpful is the polarised positions adopted by some. The native purist position has long been claiming the higher moral ground (but only applying that to ornamental plants, and mostly trees at that, as I wrote about here) In turn, this spawned the sniffy response that our native plants are “boring”. Neither is a logical or thoughtful position.

I will say that if we stripped out the native plants from our garden, there would be HUGE gaps, not the least being our rimu avenue (Dacrydium cupressinum) and our totara hedge (Podocarpus totara). And yet, to the casual eye, most visitors would not pick that our garden is rich in a wide variety of native plants. I like to think that is because of a seamless blending of native and exotic flora rather than any self-conscious display of indigenous plants.

The widespread use of native plants is one of the key differences in NZ gardens and that is worth celebrating. We are derivative enough here. We don’t want to be a nation of gardens that could be located in any number of other countries around the world with no unique features to define our own location and heritage.

Pohutukawa to the left, kowhai with tui bird to the right

Foxgloves – the fine line between weed, wildflower and garden plant

I like foxgloves, in a wild flower sort of way. But the common pinky-purple form around here, not so much. In fact I have been pulling them out this week. I haven’t gone to the effort of trying to get white and pale ones established to see them all gradually returning to that hard shade of deep pink. I had a pretty honey peach coloured one that flowered in isolation in a gravel heap last year and left it to seed, thinking that as it was standing alone, the seedlings would be the same colour. There were over a hundred seedlings and at least half have gone back to the deep pink colour I spurn. I have been pulling them out as soon as they reveal their true colours to try and preempt the bees cross pollinating.

No the left, yes to the right

This unceremonious rooting out of the spurned colour was because of a series of photos I saw recently showing a local garden’s ‘English-style herbaceous planting’. Leaving aside the somewhat dodgy descriptor, what struck me was the jarring appearance of the common deep pink foxglove in a more refined garden setting. To my eye, it would have worked were these white or pastel, but in that hard colour – no thanks. It takes a deft touch to bring a local weed into a garden and make it appear harmonious.

The range of shades with the common wild form to the right

On my rounds of dealing to the plants whose sole crime is that they are an undesirable colour, I see that most of the seedlings from the pure whites we had are now more pastel. Naturally I wanted to pick an array of them to arrange in gradations of hue. There is quite a bit of variation in the size of the flowers too. Some have freckles and some don’t. I like the peachy tones more than the pale pinks.

Some tried to outwit me by opening creamy lemon and ageing to purple, all on the same stem, but I can see them!

I resisted the temptation to go back to childhood habits and use them as gloves for my finger tips. In those days, we didn’t worry about their toxic properties. These days they come with a warning so I try and wash my hands after handling them without gloves. But on the scale of poisonous plants, they aren’t up there with the most toxic ones.

There are about 20 different species of foxgloves but only Digitalis purpurea has naturalised in the countryside here. I bought some seed of a yellow variant from a local supplier but Mark tells me that only one germinated. It will take years of culling to get the more desirable shades established as the dominant plant here.

The best ornamental planting I have seen remains the white foxgloves at Hidcote that first inspired me to look more closely at this plant. I wonder if they start afresh each season or let them seed down? But maybe they don’t have any other colours around to contaminate the purity of the white strain.

Mark was raised on the flower fairy books by Cicely Mary Barker. I can’t think how my English mother ever missed out on introducing them to me, especially as the author bears the same uncommon spelling of her first name as my mother did. But we raised our own children with them.  Though if I am honest, the charm lies more in the illustrations and the small book format than in the poetry which  never scanned sufficiently well to read aloud comfortably.

“Foxglove, Foxglove,
What do you see?”
The cool green woodland,
The fat velvet bee;
Hey, Mr Bumble,
I’ve honey here for thee!

“Foxglove, Foxglove,
What see you now?”
The soft summer moonlight
On bracken, grass, and bough;
And all the fairies dancing
As only they know how.

Cicely Mary Barker, 1927.

About gardening at the edges – edging options

Paver edgings in Wisley’s herbaceous borders – both practical and a design feature in this situation

The thing about garden edgings is that you shouldn’t notice them. Speaking, you understand, in general terms. They are handy things to separate garden and path or lawn, to keep mulch on the garden and to give a sharp edge if mowing beside it, if a sharp edge is what is wanted. But most are infrastructure, not design feature, so should be playing an unobtrusive, support role.

The horror. The horror.

Often, the first choice for a garden edging is the concrete mowing strip. It is very permanent. This one was not long poured when I photographed it. What worried me was the lack of attention to keeping the lines smooth and pleasing on the curves. I have photos that look way worse than this  but I can’t crop them enough to disguise the identity of this place. Added to that, the owners like to keep the concrete white – as in very W H I T E – which makes the mowing strip even more obvious. I am told they get out with the bleach and scrub the edgings. Each to their own. It is just not to my taste.

Corten steel edging at Bury Court – understated quality

I am similarly dismissive about using thinly cut tanalised timber, including tanalised ply, anywhere where it is visible, really, and as a retaining edging, it is visible. If you are going to use tanalised timber, I really do think that taking the time to stain it in a dark charcoal colour is worth the extra effort. The problem is that the tanalising means that it never weathers as untreated timbers do. It is preferable by far, to my eyes, to use metal strip edging, sometimes referred to as corten edging but I think that is just a brand name. It gently rusts and ages and has an unobtrusive air of quality, especially compared to tanalised plywood edging.

Subtle detail in the edging at Hatfield House

We have a few mowing strips that we have just left to mellow and age (as in, we let the moss and lichen grow). Most of them have a brick added for additional height with the concrete strip on the outside of the brick. What has happened here over time is that the concrete and brick have remained in position but both the garden level and lawn have risen. I think this is a sign of a healthy garden environment (building up the top soil layer) but it has also rendered some of the mowing strips pointless. Were I starting again, I would probably opt for the wide pavers that I have seen used, particularly in English gardens. At least they can be lifted and repositioned if need be. The problem with excessive use of hard, visible concrete definition is that it can make any garden look very suburban. Which is fine if you want the hard-edged, tidy, suburban look but we aim for something altogether more natural in appearance.

I photographed this casual arrangement of river rocks defining a woodland path because it struck me at the time that the rocks were wrong. Unless you have a rocky stream flowing through your woodland, then the rocks are out of context. Some form of wood off-cuts or branches would seem more logical because they belong in that scene. But others may not be as picky as I am.

We tend to use what is at hand in the woodland areas – which in one garden means chunks of  pine bark. I like the little pine bark walls that serve as an unobtrusive retaining structure while still allowing some soft definition. Pine bark has good longevity and is a natural alternative for us to use, given our pine trees. Sometimes we will use lengths of wood that have fallen from the trees above and that is a softer, more environmentally friendly option than hard edged concrete or similar. A bit like a horizontal bug hotel, if you like (bug hotels being super trendy these days).

Blurring the lines between paths and garden in at Beth Chatto’s

Beth Chatto’s famous dry garden eliminated all edgings and further blurred the lines between walking path and garden by using the same honey coloured gravel as both path surface and mulch. It is a very different effect and one we admired a great deal in that context.

We have chosen just to use the cut edge on two of the four straight stretches in our Avenue Garden.

Sometimes, a straight cut line is all that is required. Would this view be better for railway tracks of hard edging in concrete or weathered steel? It just seems unnecessary.

It comes back to why you feel you need edgings and then what material and style is appropriate in the setting. Not every garden benefits from tidy edgings constraining the vegetation.

Rope hawsers, seen in somebody’s garden