Tag Archives: rockery gardening

Starting with a paper plan

Mark has been laughing at me and calling me Gertrude. This is a reference to Gertrude Jekyll so I will take it as a compliment. It is all on account of my working on a planting plan. On graph paper, with coloured pencils.

The Oudolf rivers at RHS Wisley in the UK

This is a new exercise for me, but then so is planning out the plantings for a new garden that is currently a blank canvas. Added to that, the style of planting is different for us too and I need to know how many plants I am going to have to source from elsewhere if I want to get it planted up next autumn. This is the court garden where we eventually – and reluctantly – ruled out initial plans for a meadow-style garden. Practical considerations headed us instead to the idea of an immersive experience of walking through tall grasses with just a few tall flowers. Rivers of grasses, I said. In my mind’s eye, I saw the Oudolf rivers of planting in his twin borders at Wisley – a planting that we have loved and that has proven remarkably stable without huge maintenance demands for over fifteen years now, I think. But with taller plants, many more grasses, with wandering paths not a wide central path and of course we are working on flat ground without the view from above that Wisley has. So not at all like the Oudolf borders in fact, bar the idea of rivers of plants flowing diagonally across the whole space.

Learning from the mistakes of version one

Take one was to draw it up on graph paper and put in the central paths, which I did as a two metre wide figure of eight. I then laid out some squares of colour in diagonal lines running across the space. And I could see immediately that I was instinctively drawing a plan that was gardening in stripes. Child-like design.

Mark has a better eye than I have when it comes to design. He pointed out three things. The first was that Oudolf’s rivers were wide bands, each containing about five different plants, not single rows in stripes. It seemed so obvious when he said that. Next, he commented that he envisaged waves not rivers and he thought the paths should also be informal and meandering, not a formal shape. I knew he was right.

Thirdly and most importantly, he observed that designing a garden on graph paper gives a bird’s eye view, not the ground level view that is what will be experienced. That is the critical take away point from this and, I think, the reason why amateurs (and even some professionals) get it wrong and end up with a garden that, well, always looks like a graph paper garden, best viewed from above. There is a part of the process that requires the ability to translate the bird’s eye view on paper to the actual experience at human eye level on the ground. I assume professional training teaches you how to do this but it is not always achieved. We watched coverage of a major new garden on UK television where the glory of the design could only be shown by putting a drone up and getting the aerial view. It is what I think is wrong with the new garden installation at Pukeiti which they call Misty Knoll but that is referred to by others as the twin bomb craters. I am sure it looked better on paper than in real life.

Posted without comment. The Misty Knoll garden installation at Pukeiti Gardens

We went outside to look at the court garden space yet again, and I started afresh. Waves, not rivers. Waves to create an immersive experience. I measured the space with a tape measure, not by pacing it out. I also measured the area each plant needs in order to stand in its own space when mature because we don’t want the herbaceous border look where the plants knit together. Neither do we want spacings that are so wide that it looks as if we were too mean to buy enough plants to fill it. Each 5×5 square on the paper represents a square metre.

We are not going to be planting until autumn, but at least I will know this week how many plants I need to locate. We have most of them here already to work with, but I will need to buy some extras in. The foundation plantings are to be in six or seven grasses. The uniformity of filling the whole space in just one cultivar is not for us.

Looking down from above on the rockery in front of our house

Because there is so little to show so far on that new garden, I give you the bird’s eye view and the ground level view of our rockery yesterday. Because we have a two storied house, we get an elevated view of some areas of the garden. And looking down on the rockery from above shows the pure 1950s design of this garden feature. Shapes and design, not detail so it is the big picture look.

At ground level, the construction of the island rockery beds varies from ankle height to knee height to thigh height – sometimes all in the same island bed. The paths have also been lowered which accentuates the garden elevations. Truth be told, the lowering of the paths was probably in part to get soil to fill the raised beds but it is a detail that is less obvious from above.

I get enormous pleasure from the rockery because it is a highly detailed space immediately in front of the house and there are always pockets of seasonal interest within it. Because so much of the planting is bulbs, there is always dying foliage too, but that is just part of the nature of this style.

Yesterday, on a grey day, I looked at some of the views within the rockery and was delighted that it was like an Impressionist meadow, albeit in miniature.

Rock on – our rockery in autumn

Nerine sarniensis hybrids blooming in the rockery

Nerine sarniensis hybrids blooming in the rockery

When I am old and maybe decrepit, needing to draw in the boundaries of the garden, I shall fluff around in the rockery. I really enjoy this area and, as we enter autumn, my heart sings with the new season blooms.

Traditionally, rockeries are for growing alpines and sometimes retaining banks. However, we can’t grow alpines in our climate and our rockery is on the flat. It is pure 1950s vintage, built from a combination of rocks of various sizes, concrete and some brick, with sunken paths and raised beds divided into many hundreds of little pockets of soil. It is designed for highly detailed gardening and at about 20 metres by 10 metres, it is relatively large.

The purpose of the multitude of small beds is to keep bulbs separate and to confine the more invasive ones. Most of the pockets have two or three different types of bulbs in them to give seasonal interest.

There is always something to see, though summer is the toughest season. Because there is so much stone and the beds are elevated, parts of it dry out almost to dust. We have dwarf conifers, cycads, and a few other small shrubs to give both all year round structure and summer shade. There are a few smaller perennials and a limited range of annuals and biennials but generally, the rockery is about the bulb collection.

The range of nerine colours at one time

The range of nerine colours at one time

As we enter autumn, it is as if the rockery heaves a sigh of relief and leaps back into life. All the bulbs whose growth is triggered by autumn rains start to move.

As a general rule, we find that the species bulbs look better. They are usually smaller flowered and more delicate in appearance than the showy hybrids which can look out of scale and even vulgar in this particular context. The exception is the nerines which peak this month. While we grow some nerine species, it is the sarniensis hybrids that dominate. A few of these are of Exbury origin but most are the result of breeding efforts by both Felix and Mark Jury. The colour range is delightful – from white, through every shade of pink including near iridescent highlighter pink, to purple, corals, almost apricot, oranges and reds. Unlike the floristry business, we want shorter, squatter stems so that the heavy heads are held upright even through autumnal weather.

Cyclamen hederafolium

Cyclamen hederafolium

Also lighting up the autumn is Cyclamen hederafolium (formerly known as C. neapolitanum) which hails from southern Europe and Turkey. This is the easiest of the dainty species cyclamen to grow and it has gently naturalised itself here. It throws its first brave flowers up in January but peaks this month. It is one of a number of autumn bulbs that bloom first before the leaves appear. Others are most of the nerines, colchicums and Haemanthus coccineus.

Moraea polystachya

Moraea polystachya

The pretty autumn flowering peacock iris, Moraea polystachya, outdoes almost every other bulb with its long flowering season. It seeds down gently into the cracks between the rocks without becoming an invasive menace. Some of the ornamental oxalis also give extended displays of colour but not all oxalis are born equal and neither are they all born with good manners. The most reliable performers in our rockery are O. purpurea ‘Alba’, O. luteola and O. lobata. They have been here for decades and never looked threatening.

O. luteola and purpurea 'Alba'

O. luteola and purpurea ‘Alba’

Colchicum autumnale

Colchicum autumnale

Then there are the bulbs with a much shorter season. Colchicum autumnale makes a bold statement with its big lilac chalices held above bare soil. Hippeastrum bifida is a transient delight for us. We have it in both pink and red and the blooms look as if they have been touched with gold leaf when the sun shines through. The autumn flowering leucojum is one of the daintiest and prettiest of tiny blooms and the crocus also delight.

Autumn crocus (species unknown) with cyclamen hederafolium

Autumn crocus (species unknown) with cyclamen hederafolium

The rockery is not what I would call low maintenance. The more time I put into it, the better it looks. In spring I completely replaced the soil in maybe a dozen pockets in my efforts to eradicate the pretty but invasive Geissorhiza aspera. I do not lie when I tell you that we have battling it for well over 25 years, hence my extreme action in replacing the soil in the worst affected areas. We have to be vigilant on weeds, slugs, snails, narcissi fly and weevils. I wire brush the rocks from time to time to stop the moss growth from hiding their shapes. There is plenty there to keep me busy in my dotage and, with the raised beds, I can do a lot of it sitting on a stool. Sometimes it is the detail and the little pictures in the garden that delight.

024First published in the NZ Gardener April edition and reprinted here with their permission.