Don’t ask us for garden advice. We hand out endless plant advice and I write regularly about many gardening matters but we do not dispense personal on site advice. This is not for want of requests but oft-times, all the person asking wants is for you to affirm that they are right. Besides, advice carries an implicit suggestion that you think the gardener is not doing it as well as you could. And that doesn’t always go down well.
But there are times when an outside view can be extremely helpful. We have a garden which we loosely call the rose garden or the “sunken garden area”. It is a formal area, laid out in the early fifties and planted by Mark’s mother with her beloved old fashioned roses. These days it would be called a garden room. Over the years, it has had a lot of work done on it including several major renovations. And still it didn’t work as well as I wanted. Sure it looked pretty in spring but it didn’t look pretty enough for long enough. Worse, I just didn’t like working in the garden. I would avoid it until it could no longer be ignored. Clearly something wasn’t right but we were failing to come up with a diagnosis.
Enter a house guest last spring. It was Neil Ross, whom some readers will know from his writing in NZ Gardener. He used to be head gardener at Ayrlies in Auckland but since then, has been working in gardening and design in England. I asked for his thoughts but in busy schedules, it came down to grabbing a few minutes at dusk. To my surprise, that was all we needed. We stood in the garden, wine glasses in hand and Neil nailed it for me.
“Gosh,” he said, “that really is a deep sunken garden.” (This had never even occurred to me. I just knew it had been dug by hand by Mark’s dad, aided by a draught horse). “And that is accentuated by the height of the standard roses. They’re really high. I’ve never seen such tall standards.”
In the following 90 seconds, he fired out suggestions. Get rid of the tallest standard roses. Remove the far border “which merely creates yet another path that I bet nobody ever walks down” (true, Neil). Make the borders wider on the main bed to compensate and lift all the perennials and reorganise them. Instead of the classic mix and match of perennials and bulbs, he suggested I opt for “more blocky plantings” and simple combinations of two or three plants in each block.
That was it. I knew instantly that he was right on the mark but I left it to percolate in my brain until a couple of weeks ago. Besides, such drastic changes needed to be done in winter. It clearly involved moving a lot of plants. Besides, while the advice may have been given in 90 seconds of inspiration, there was quite a lot of solid work in implementation. The garden beds are all hard edged – with footed concrete. Getting rid of one bed entirely is a major operation in itself, especially as we wanted to salvage the 15 year old maples and handsome weeping camellia. There are a lot of plants in just one bed. That said, roses are easy to move – at least compared to other shrubs.
I admit I have had help. The concrete garden edgings have been cut into manageable lengths and recycled where needed. This means that once completed and in full growth again, the garden will look as if it has been in place forever. Nothing shouts recent renovation more than pristine fresh concrete. And I am not the one who is recycling the squares of turf from the enlarged borders over to the area where the surplus bed has gone. But my job involves digging the entire garden, lifting all the perennials and bulbs, dividing them and replanting in new combinations. That has been Serious Fun. I speak in gardening terms and while gardening is many things, Serious Fun is not usually one of them. More on new perennial plantings next week.
We have been blessed with wonderful weather. A very wet winter would not have made this easy at all and I am hoping to finish this week before we get the wet, cold rains that will arrive, without doubt, sometime soon.
The upshot of all this, is that I would counsel readers that if you have an area of your garden that you do not enjoy working in, this may be an indication that there is something inherently wrong with it. I was lucky that the right person happened along eventually and gave me a rapid fire diagnosis. The best people to give advice are those who know at least as much as you do about gardening and design and who do not have an emotional investment in you acting on their advice. If you can find a really good garden designer (not just any old one), who gives on-site consultations, they should be able to assess the situation quickly and decisively but they are not easy to find. You may end up having to listen to a lot of ideas from different people before someone hits the mark for you. Just, don’t ask us, please.
First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.