In 1998 we moved from South west London back to West Herts. to be closer to parents/ Grandparents and further away from traffic jams and Heathrow’s flight path. The village is located on the border with Buckinghamshire and when we moved in, the garden was of little importance to us, indeed that the house had a garden was just a bonus. Situated up a small track, the main garden is in front of the cottage and faces South, and the rear garden which is quite shallow, finds itself in shade for the Winter months.
The previous owners had built a small retaining wall front and back to set out the space and had recently planted a conifer hedge to the front. Other than the conifers, the planting comprised largely lawn, several Senecio ‘Sunshine’ which had been allowed to reach mammoth proportions of 2 x 2m, a selection of unkempt shrubs including Forsythia, Berberis, Holly, Euonymus, Mahonia japonica and Pyracantha. There was just one tree, an apple, located at the bottom of the garden and two pairs of roses. Nothing to get excited about, but at the time it seemed interesting enough and quaintly country with post and rail fencing to mark the boundary. Below is the garden in 2009 showing the extent of the Senecio (the silver leaf mounds).
So the first job was to get a flymo and keep the grass under control and to rip up the conifers before they could take hold. We decided we wanted a hedge but to our mind, a more in keeping, country hedge. We decided after due consideration to choose Beech, specifically Fagus sylvatica purpurea, Copper Beech and went to our local Nurseryman. We selected the number of whips the book told us we needed, and paid an extra 10p per whip for the copper variety. A cold Winter weekend was spent digging and planting and when finished we sat back and looked forward to the day when we could look out on a purple hedge. Of course those who know about these things will know that the hedge was going to take about five years before it would look anything like a real hedge. Oh well, patience is a virtue they say. What we had not expected however was that when the leaves revealed themselves in May, not one of them was copper, they were all green!
As time went by we spent more and more time in the garden, enjoying the outside with little ones and their pals. We found that the enclosed rear garden was great in Summer so a swing was installed and a number of brightly coloured plastic toys found there way in to clash with the muted country colours. The Beech hedge was trained up and around an arbour to create a window open to the paddock and horses behind. Time revealed that the roses in the back were a David Austin, old style variety, namely ”Gertrude jekyll’ a pink highly scented rose.
The roses had been planted with some lavenders, a trusted combination, however the lavenders were leggy and misshapen and eventually I realised why; a visit to Beth Chatto’s garden near Colchester was an eye opener for me and from then on I started to recognise the importance of “the right plant for the right place” and to look at my garden in a different way. Those lavenders hated the dark damp cold position they were in, so out they came and in went a new hedge of Buxus sempervirens, Box. With the hedge I put in some Echinops, ferns, lungwort, Ladies mantle, Foxgloves, the Gertrudes stayed put. New fencing was added, and a shed was shoe horned in to home the usual stuff.
The rear garden is now a calm, quiet spot most of the year, the plastic is long gone (sadly?) replaced with bird feeders to attract all sorts of finches, wrens, Blue tits and woodpeckers. The ferns have become a favourite of mine and the Hostas a firm favourite of the snails.
‘Gertrude’ remains and looks very fresh, I enjoy its scent, resistance to black spot and its particular shade of pink which somehow works brilliantly against the backdrop of the Box hedge. So taken with the colour combination I recently added the Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis which also copes with the shade offered.
So in summary, the rear garden is home to shade tolerant planting and is, in the main, green in colour. There are five species of Fern, four types of Hellebore including foetidus or stinking Hellebore, as well as Iris foetidus which I really grow for the Winter berries which are bonkers, orange, in pea-like pods. I have a number of Hosta in pots and a couple of Camellias, I also have two pot grown Eucalyptus including the spinning gum Eucalyptus perriniana which is said to be resistant to temperature as low as -19C. I would like to state for the record that if we ever get temperatures as low as that, I’m off.
I also have planted a white rose to soften the fence, namely the David Austin rose Madame Alfred Carriere which holds AGM, the RHS Award of Garden Merit. This rose is perhaps the most tolerant to the shady position and so far, its almost thorn-less growth has not disappointed; this year it bloomed from early Summer until early October.
The front garden is a different kettle of fish altogether as it is sunny and warm. Here I can grow Mediterranean plants including lavenders and I have a Fig, Fiscus Brown Turkey as well as pot grown Olives, Olea europaea and my favourite small tree Cercis canadensis, ‘Forest Pansy’. The green beech hedge has been joined with another native Hawthorn or Quickthorn hedge, Crataegus monogyna, yep no waiting for 5 years this time.
Below is the Hawthorn hedge the year of planting with the Beech hedge slowly getting established. Compare that with the picture of the table further down the page, with the now fully grown hedges in the background.
There was a large shabby Escallonia Red which I decided to prune. Working from the base up, I uncovered the most beautiful trunk which twists and turns and peels. As this was so attractive it stayed and I have used it as a prop for hanging items, see this year, in the opening photograph and above, just after it had been ‘uncovered’.
The pair of roses in the front are another David Austin variety namely ‘Most Welcome’. I do not think I would have ever chosen this particular rose as I tend not to be drawn to orange as a colour, and yet I love it; it has a gentle climbing habit and soft fragrance and I have trained it up around an arbour. It is glimpsed in the picture below. I think it compliments the golden oats grass, Stipa gigantea which reaches into the garden and rustles gently on even a whisper of wind.
There are places to sit in the garden with a bench against the wall of the house which is a complete sun trap, a perfect spot to perch with a cup of tea. There is also a bench at the bottom of the garden which offers shade from the apple tree on a hot day and a different outlook. There is the small patio which offers a table and chairs for morning sunshine.
The main table and chairs are in the rear garden for dining al fresco. Having permanent seats around the garden work best, as if you have to go and drag something out of the garage or shed, but only have a few minutes to spare, you invariably cannot be bothered as it is too much effort. So make room for benches!
It has been interesting for me, putting together this post, as I realise that even ten years ago I was still using 35mm film and have very few images of the garden in its early stages. The other thing I have realised is how many plants I have tried and moved on as they have either got too big or I no longer like them.
Change in taste is inevitable as fashions change however for me the biggest influence has been the discovery of the garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith. I first came across the garden at Serge Hill when it was open under the Yellow Book scheme. I have written a little about this years visit, but the appreciation of his work grew following three visits on my own, in order to study the merits of the garden in different seasons, for a project I was doing at college. I was not known to the family and yet he very generously allowed me access to photograph the garden and to talk to his gardener. This was a real privilege for which I am grateful. His work introduced me to previously unknown perennials, unknown to me that is, especially grasses. Whilst I have not planted in anything like his style in my own garden, I have learnt to appreciate the strong form hedges offer a space and how grasses add movement and shape to otherwise static planting. I look differently at colour and yearn for scent in any garden as that extra dimension can add so much to the enjoyment of the space.
I will leave you with images of the garden taken in frost and snow to demonstrate the effectiveness of hedges and grasses and I will write about Tom Stuart-Smith another time. I hope you like this and if you do or if you have a specific influence which has changed the way you garden, I would love to hear about it.