Is it possible to have a garden for all seasons? In our soft climate, yes, it is. But is it possible to have a garden that is at its peak for 12 months of the year? That is what many folk visualise when they think of a garden for all seasons. And the answer is no.
You can have a garden that looks more or less the same all year round. This is achieved by lots of hard structure, heavily trained and clipped plants, very little seasonal interest and constant maintenance or garden grooming. Seasonal interest (flowers, bulbs, autumn colour and suchlike) is messy and alters the tidy picture.
A reader left a comment on a recent post which included “I’m hoping that you have invented the solution to the 4 season perennial garden by then.” (Here’s looking at you, Cath). It started a train of thought along the lines of whether this is even possible and whether I had ever seen it done. If by a four-season garden, is meant incidents of colour (usually flowers), then yes, you can do it. But not massed, peak performance all year round.
I replanted a border recently, aiming for year-round performance. About 20 metres long by just over a metre wide, it contains a few established shrubs which flower in spring and summer and I underplanted in large blocks – each at least a square metre, some larger – to get big splashes of colour through most of the year. It is a garden that we look out to from one of our favourite indoor seating positions for afternoon tea or an early evening drink. It now has a pretty blue scabiosa (dreadful name – the pincushion flower) for summer, Mark’s mother’s vintage Sweet Williams and hot pink Phlox paniculata for spring and early summer, large white flowered polyanthus for winter, blue asters for late summer and pink and white sedums for autumn. All interplanted with random bulbs I lifted from elsewhere. It doesn’t quite cover the full 12 months although it should have something showy, in bloom, for most of the year. But it is one block at a time, not the full border simultaneously.
Elsewhere, we go more for matrix planting, rather than block planting. The new grass and perennial garden is strongly modelled on matrix principles but even so, as winter draws in, that garden is going into a rest phase. There is not much to carry it through the coldest weeks.
It is a conundrum. From time to time, we ponder reopening the garden for selected days through the year – snowdrop weekend, magnolias, lilies and the like. But while the snowdrops – or bluebells or lilies – have a defined and finite peak season which is relatively easy to determine, which weekend would we pick for the magnolias? They flower from July to the end of September here. No matter which date we select, some will have finished flowering and others will not have opened.
I used to get so irritated by visitors at our annual festival who would go round the garden and come out saying of the rhododendrons, “It must have been gorgeous a few weeks ago,” or “There is a lot that have finished flowering, aren’t there?” I would quell my irritation and smile courteously, saying something bland along the lines of “there is always something different in bloom but yes, some have finished for the season and some are yet to open”. What they wanted was peak display when everything bloomed en masse, perfectly timed for the garden festival. This is what I saw at the Floriade tulip festival in Canberra and what, I understand, can be seen at the Butchart Gardens in Canada in their peak season of July and August. But ours is a private garden. Our rhododendrons flower from July until Christmas and what we want is something of interest every week of the year.
Knowing this, we raised our eyebrows when Pukeiti Gardens, then a private trust, went to a great deal of effort to rebrand itself as “a garden for all seasons”. It seemed like an over-promise that they could never deliver. Its main focus was rhododendrons and yes, they flower from July til Christmas, but not all at once for all that time. Their location, at altitude, butting up to a national park means that winter is not a hospitable time for garden visitors – far from it – and being surrounded by evergreen, native forest means that autumn is never going to be as showy as in other places. It was – and probably still is – primarily a garden for spring and summer. Intrepid visitors outside those two seasons will still find much of interest, but not mass, seasonal display as implied by the catch line ‘a garden for all seasons’.
Large parts of the gardening world put their gardens to bed for winter and do not expect anything to happen during that rest period of chill. In our mild conditions, we have flowers in bloom all year round and actively garden for 12 months of the year. But, as I commented in my last post about vireya rhododendrons, it is a trade-off. You can have the big bang impact of peak season with mass blooming and all-round showiness, or you can have long performance of gentler display.
Do the maths. It is not even just the four seasons. Each season has its early, mid and late period. If you want year-round interest, then you have to allocate about one twelfth of the area and the plants to peak in each seasonal period. That is never going to give you the massed bangs for buck display at a single time. But it will give you garden interest all year round.