Were I starting a new garden from scratch, especially a large garden, I would reduce the number of beds and borders. And I would be more rigorous in separating the highly detailed areas from the broad sweeps of plantings.
I am perfectly happy doing highly detailed gardening. Micro gardening, I call it. As I lifted and divided big clumps of pleione orchids, I decided it was the gardening equivalent of surgery. But I want my areas of highly detailed gardening limited and confined. We have a large rockery which requires close attention, the sunken garden and the millwheel garden. It was the little millwheel garden that I was going through earlier this week. It is full of seasonal detail like the aforementioned pleiones, blue lachenalias, fritillarias, erythroniums, dactylorhiza orchids and similar tiny treasures along with a few choice shrubs like species camellias and small rhododendrons.
The mistake I made over time was to grab pots of such treasures from the nursery (in the days when we still did the full range for mail order) and tuck them into odd places here and there. Everywhere, really. Now I am trying to reverse that and lifting such little gems to relocate out of mixed borders.
Away from these highly detailed areas of planting needing close maintenance, I want bigger sweeps of bolder planting. I love how our avenue gardens have shaped up with the bigger sweeps of interesting shade perennials. It is the itsy, bitsy, inbetween stuff that I do not enjoy doing. The mixed border – too often the hodge podge border – has a lot to answer for. We have too many borders and beds like that and they are hard going.
I didn’t just strip out the old rose garden. I am also nearing the end of clearing another design aberration – a round garden in the front lawn which had evolved over time to something less than satisfactory. The defining concrete mowing strip has been removed, as have the bulbs and smaller plants. It is just waiting for Mark to remove the dwarf lollipop camellias and the Graham Thomas rose. All that will remain is the umbrella Magnolia laevifolia in the centre and the stone artefacts which are of interest. One is a shaped corner stone which used to be placed to protect the early timber buildings in settler New Plymouth from being raked by passing cart wheels. Another is a small stone trough Mark’s mother collected, hand-shaped of course and the centrepiece is another mill wheel. This wheel is a small inner wheel from a domestic grain mill in the Te Henui stream area in New Plymouth. Mark’s parents gathered these historical pieces back in the 1950s when nobody else valued them and the records have been passed down orally. We don’t do much in the way of ornamentation in our garden but we appreciate our small collection of historic artefacts.
I am also eyeing up another three short lengths of garden border and thinking I may strip out the messy underplanting. There are sufficient shrubs in those borders to carry them without the need for ground cover detail as well. A mulch of leaf litter or compost is all that they need. It is just quite a bit of work to lift everything and reuse the plants and bulbs that are of value. If we gardened less with bulbs it would be easier but our bulbs represent many years of building up large numbers of different types, many rare and curious, and are a feature of our garden.
There are several lessons I have learned through all this:
- Gardens evolve over time and we often don’t step back to look with critical eyes at the current picture. Sometimes, they do just become a mishmash, especially if you are the sort of gardener who tucks plants in to fill spaces. Or they become dominated by thugs which take over and swamp out the more desirable plants.
- Tiny treasures and small detail need to be accommodated in designated areas where they won’t get overtaken by competitors and where it is easier to carry out the more careful, intensive maintenance that they require.
- It is still possible to get detail and variety into larger scale plantings but the detail needs to be larger in scale.
- Not every area needs the oft recommended three layers of planting (ground cover, middle layer and upper canopy or backdrop (recommended, I think, to get the lush, well furnished look).
- Not every pathway, driveway or building needs a side border to complete it. There can be too many bits and bobsy borders and beds. Fewer may be more effective and certainly makes for easier management.
- Mixed borders are difficult to manage well in the long term (mixed borders being a mix of woody shrubs, perennials, climbers and sometimes bulbs).
- Most perennials perform much better if you lift and divide them, replanting them in well-dug soil. Some, like polyanthus and pulmonaria, benefit from lifting and dividing every two or three years in our conditions. Others like hostas, can usually be left for about ten years before they start to go back (by ‘going back’, I mean they can reach a point where they get smaller, not larger).
As I have said before, if there is an area of your garden where you avert your eyes every time you walk by, there is a problem that needs to be addressed. It won’t get better if you ignore it. Sometimes it needs drastic action.