Tag Archives: starting a new garden from scratch

Planting the new court garden

A big, blank space. Bamboo stakes are used to define the areas to be be cultivated and to get the curves right. 

In the world of gardening, I am not sure that there is much that is more exciting than starting planting a new garden which has been years in mental incubation. Indeed, I am surprised how positively thrilling I am finding it to be out in the space actually putting the plants in.

It is a blank canvas, what we refer to as the court garden, on account of it looking like a tennis court when it was just an open space. We have talked about it a lot, stood and looked at the space and mentally envisaged the possibilities – which were pretty much endless – for this open, sunny area. Having narrowed down the plan, I set about refining the plant palette and building up the material to go in. As Mark has observed in the past, ours started as a poor man’s garden. His father could not afford to buy in all the material to plant up the large garden across several acres so applied himself to raising a lot of it. These days, rather than a poor man’s garden, it is an economical couple’s garden. It would cost a lot to buy in all the plants needed to fill over 450 square metres and they would arrive as small specimens. I have been gently building up plants for a few years now so what are going in are reasonable large divisions. Instant effect, Mark calls it.

This is to be my contemporary grass garden, inspired by the work of Christopher Bradley-Hole at Bury Court  but different. Immersive, not pictorial, to coin the phrase of English writer, Tim Richardson. It is set a little lower than surrounding areas so we step down into it to be surrounded by the movement of large grasses, shoulder or head high, planted in waves. A prairie on steroids perhaps? It is not designed to be viewed from a vantage point so much as to be experienced within.

Doryanthes palmeri (which will grow much larger) with Stipa gigantea

I have planted the first waves using Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’, Stipa gigantea, Chionocloa rubra and Calamagrostris ‘Karl Foerster’. And I have found a suitable space for Doryanthes palmeri. The next two waves will be Elegia capensis and Astelia chathamica. I do need to buy in about three plants of our native austroderia, commonly known as  toetoe. For, as Mark says, what is a grass garden in New Zealand if it lacks toetoe? I have sufficient plants for a wave of Chionocloa flavicans (which looks like a smaller toetoe) but I am not pinning my hopes on that because it seems to be like Christmas dinner for the rabbits and I am learning that I must garden that area with the rabbits, rather than fighting them all the time. It is one of the very few plants I am using that we have not trialled and come to understand already.

Moody miscanthus in the autumn light . It will be on a much larger scale in the new garden

Once I have planted all the waves of grass, then I will paint within with the few flowering plants I plan to use – the giant autumn-flowering salvias in yellow and red, tall yellow Verbascum creticum for spring, the very tall white nicotiana we have seeding around the place, maybe foxgloves in white and fennel. Nothing small, nothing detailed, no bulbs except the huge Albuca nelsonii. I expect the large evening primrose to find its way into the area of its own accord and I am sure Verbena bonariensis will seed down from the neighbouring borders. But the flowering plants are all secondary to the movement of the grasses.

Mark is rotary hoeing. The vintage piece of equipment in front is his prized Planet Junior that he uses often.

For those of you who are interested in the mechanics, Mark killed off the weeds and dead-headed the nasty carex we have through there to reduce future seeding. He is currently rotary hoeing the area. I drew up a planting plan and expected to be out there with my large piece of graph paper, keeping fairly closely to that plan. But in practice, it is just a guide. My spacings on paper were too close. My eyes on the ground are better than a paper plan. I rake out the rough-turned sods and then lay out each wave and sometimes I dig the plants back up again to move them a little to change the angle or the spacings. I am constantly mindful that this must be a low maintenance area. We have quite enough high maintenance areas already.

We won’t mulch immediately. Because our soils are so wonderfully friable, we will allow the first couple of flushes of weeds to germinate and rake them off. Weed control from the start is critical, especially with big grasses. Only then will we mulch. I have decided against the fine gravel mulch I had thought I would use. I am sure I will have to refine the plantings at least once in the early years and don’t want all that gravel incorporated into the soil. Neither do I want sharp edgings to the paths (which are about 1.8 metres wide to allow for plant flop). I want it to be more seamless so the current thinking is that we may opt for a granulated bark mulch which can be spread across both garden and paths. That we will have to buy in by the truckload.

We should see results this summer in our soft growing conditions and by the second summer, it should be hitting its stride. I am optimistic. Sure, it is hard work but if you are into active gardening, this is probably the peak of fun.  The culmination of years of thinking and planning and something entirely different. I will keep readers posted on progress.

Postscript: I am a dirty-kneed gardener. Mark laughs at me and regularly tells me I should not be allowed indoors. Indeed, I often shed my trousers in the laundry before I enter the house. Don’t tell me about knee pads. I have tried them and they don’t suit me. I have an abundance of kneeling pads but unless it is wet, muddy and cold, I find it easier to wash my clothes than constantly re-position the kneeling pads.

What I don’t understand is how Mark stays so clean, despite gardening as much as I do. Well I do know. He either uses long-handled tools or squats. My gardening mother stayed clean by always bending. With dodgy knees and a dodgy lower back, I kneel. Kneelers with dirty knees unite, I say.

From scratch – the caterpillar garden

The caterpillar garden has been bringing me much delight this summer.

Starting to lay the area out in 2016 and marking the basket fungus shape

It is a flat area. Mark had to get up the ladder to get a view

Basket fungi

We refer to it as ‘the caterpillar garden’ but we really need to come up with a better name. It is the caterpillar garden because of an episode of BBC Gardeners’ World we watched several years ago. English designer, Tom Stuart-Smith, went into Carol Klein’s garden and clipped her buxus hedge into his trademark, undulating, wavy caterpillar style. That was the starting point for Mark’s vision for this particular area – a central backbone in clipped, undulating caterpillar-style but planted in a small leafed Camellia microphylla rather than utility buxus. He laid it out in pentagon shapes and I wondered about calling it ‘the pentagon garden’ but I would need to wait for a new president of America to go with anything that carried such strong, albeit irrelevant, connotations. Now Mark is wondering about ‘the basket garden’ on account of the basket fungus that guided his layout but that is a bit obscure.

May 2018, a few months after planting. The Podocarpus henkelii in the centre is such a handsome tree that we are keeping it and working around it. The little white flowers are Camellia microphylla in bloom in early autumn.

We both laughed when a Facebook page of Broughton Grange’s parterres came through on Facebook this week. Lo, there was Tom Stuart Smith’s undulating caterpillar hedging, filled with a tapestry of plants. Same, same but different. I think his shapes are hexagons, not pentagons and he has closed each shape rather than opening bays to the side paths as we have. He has gone for a different colour palette too – bright reds and yellows rather than our softer hues of blues, whites and lilac. And he has put the taller plants in a separate border to the side of the parterre rather than having them rising out of the central enclosures as we have. But we feel we are in excellent company with our caterpillar garden. We were a bit surprised that a small snippet of inspiration could see us end up at a similar destination several years later.

Very late spring 2018 – white iberis and Brodiaea ‘Queen Fabiola’ with the blue perennial forget-me-not (Myosotis) in the background

I wondered about appending a plant list to this post at the end, just in case any reader wanted to see what we have used but these things are never that simple. Even mass planting for impact and restricting the selection for each separate enclosure to between one and three different plants, I have kept adding to the plant palette to try and extend the seasonal interest and a quick count came to about fifty different plants so far. So I won’t be listing them. I can tell you that it gets us through three seasons with different plants being a focus but it is never going to be a great mid-winter garden. I would also comment that we could not afford to garden on this scale if we relied on buying the plant material. It takes many (many, indeed) plants to fill such an area of around 200 square metres. We have drawn on plants we already had in the garden, plants we have been given and trialled in Mark’s vegetable and meadow areas and plants we have raised. In fact, while it has taken plenty of time and effort and a lot of thought, the dollar expenditure currently sits at zero. We are quite happy to pay for special plants or ones we need to get us started, but this is not a garden for special plants. We are after mass effects and colour blocks.

The Salvia uliginosa is too floppy to be in an outside bed

This is now a garden filled with life, particularly butterflies and bees

This has been its second summer. It was patchy last year with big gaps. Some of the plants are smaller growing and more compact so take longer to spread and cover the area. This summer, I have felt it is coming together as we hoped. I have just completed the first – and most major –  reworking that is often necessary when the reality doesn’t match the vision. The pink shades had to go. Too pink and detracting from the spectrum of blues and whites. Salvia uliginosa is too tall where I had it and needs to be moved – but placed with care because it does have dangerous, invasive instincts. I am quite happy doing the fine tuning. For me, it is worth the effort.

I love the white Japanese anemones and blue asters currently in bloom

I have high hopes for next year when I think it will all come together as we envisage it. And we may have the paths laid and quite possibly some garden edging to emphasise the curves. I was going to avoid edgings if I could but I think this is a case for gently rusting Corten steel edging defining the lines and keeping the mulch from the paths. Not tanalised timber ply, not in our garden.

It feels as though this garden has taken longer to get to fruition, but what is a few short years in the greater scheme of things?

This was back in 2012 when we emptied out the capillary beds (which had been built around the Podocarpus henkelii 20 years earlier).

In 2014, we cleared and re-contoured the area. Same tree in the centre. Spike, the dog at the front is still with us but distinctly elderly and very deaf these days,

And this week. Filling in colour blocks with plants.