Whilst the long days of winter are the ideal time to plan your garden for the following year it’s often the first flush of Spring, with green peaking through the soil and daffodils lighting up borders and green verges, that often awakens our creative streak. A wise person once told me that a garden is never finished there are always things to do and your creativity grows with time and changes in taste.
A wet Spring day, too wet or cold to make it outside the backdoor, is also a good time to indulge in dreaming about how you would like your garden to look throughout the seasons or how to make that border just a little better. I have been working in my garden for 10 years and each year there is a new idea whether that’s for how to organise vegetables or just doing that little bit better in the flower borders.
From all the beautiful gardens I have wondered through and what I have learnt from my own through both mistakes and successes is that the key to a beautiful garden is in the planning.
The most important thing I learnt is that before you head down to the local nursery, as tempting as that is, is to understand how to make the most the space you have. It’s easy to get caught up in the romance of buying beautiful plants but it definitely pays to take some time to map out the layout of the garden and to get any hard structures you would like in place first. Getting these in place will save a lot of time and money spent on plants that you then have to uproot or lose due to structural changes. I learnt my lesson the hard way on this. It’s best to think about spaces you would like to sit for dining, curl up in solitary to read your favourite book on a summers day or for children to play. Look at the current layout of the garden such as borders, trees etc., decide on the features you would like to keep and note these. Grab some paper (graph paper is perfect as you can draw dimensions to scale) and start plotting out ideas.
Ideally you would watch your garden for a whole year before beginning planning, there are many benefits to this as the idea is that it will allow you to understand how the sun moves around the garden. From this you can work out areas of all day hot sun, those in deep shade and areas that have partial shade – either sun in the morning, afternoon or evening. This will help with choosing plants making sure you have the right plants in the right place. Putting a sun-lover in a shady spot will result in an unhappy plant either under performing or giving up the ghost altogether. Equally, a shade lover will shrivel up and burn out in scorching sunlight. Whilst watching the garden for a whole year is ideal it’s not necessarily something we can maintain the patience for when we’re eager to get in and get started. It will still, however, makes sense to work out at least the direction of North and South in the garden. A south/southwest facing border will be bathed in sunlight all day and become a hot border where you can grow sun-lovers and tender fruits and trees, whilst a north side will be in deep shade throughout the day where you can possibly grow ferns or the pretty Spring flowering Brunnera.
All gardens also have micro-climates, areas of different temperatures, moisture or wind exposure. Understanding these will help you to plan what to grow and where. Sunny brick walls are great at maintaining heat that slowly releases at night and so you can consider growing tender fruit like nectarines, peaches or tomatoes near these. I live in a terrace and my grape vine adores the southwest facing space between the two properties. Even in winter this little area never gets really cold. Planted against the brick wall adjacent to the kitchens gives it extra warmth and I get a great crop of grapes each summer.
A windy spot is difficult as plants will be constantly battered. There aren’t many that can take the constant beating of a harsh wind especially in winter when a windy site really becomes an issue. In this situation it is recommended that the best thing is to try to slow down the wind rather than eliminate it altogether. Deciduous trees and hedges are a great friend here as they will slow down the wind enough but still allow it through. Evergreens aren’t as good as they tend to act like sails and the wind will keep pushing harshly against them which may cause fallen trees and much more damage than good.
Now you can begin dreaming about the creative process of plants. What’s the style you love? Is it a woodland haven, an abundant cottage garden, a quite refined Japanese style sanctuary or a smart town style landscaped area? You’ll find that you’re naturally drawn to a particular style in line with your personal preferences. It’s also fun to have a look at other gardens locally and online to see what you like. If you’re looking for inspiration you can take a look at Crocus Nurseries who have a great section on different planting styles which will definitely inspire. Why not take a summer’s day out visiting other gardens locally to you via the National Garden Scheme. It’s a great way to see gardens and contribute to a charitable cause at the same time.
Finally, great gardens have wonderful cohesion. Those gardens large or small that take our breath away have a gardener behind it who carefully thought about flow, the flow of size, shape, textures and colours. This may sound quite technical but it’s really just about creating a logic to how things are placed. In essence there are three “storeys” – tall plants, mid-height and low-level or ground hugging plants. The logic is that in a standard border tall plants go at the back with the shortest ones at the front (in a round bed tall plants would go into the middle working to lowest height at the edges of the bed). This is a great foundation for starting design but as you become more familiar you can break the rules a little to add greater interest. For example airy plants like Verbena Bonariensis are really tall but slender and don’t block the visibility of other planting. I sometimes have these in the middle of a border or they’ve popped up at the front. I don’t move them because they can add further interest. Playing with shape and texture or form can take a little practice but the general idea is mixing opposites like a tall upright with a softer growing mid-level plant or visa versa like foxgloves with softer rounder leaves of a hostas or in a veg border cabbages with tall structured broccoli.
Colour is perhaps the most fun to play with. Colours typically work in two ways, harmony vs. contrast and hot vs. cool. The easiest way to think about this is to think of the colours of the rainbow or the colour wheel. Hot colours are the reds, oranges and yellows. Cool colours are the blues, indigos and violets. Hot colours will create a bold and vibrant border whilst the blues will present a feeling of calm. There is of course the possibility of creating contrasts mixing opposites on the the colour wheel for example an orange with a purple. This makes both colours standout to their maximum. It’s a jarring mix but if done well is beautiful. Check out the wonderful borders at Great Dixter where all colours are mixed together or the fabulous Bold and Brilliant Garden by Sarah Raven for ultimate zing.
Now all that planning is done you’ll be best prepped for hitting the local nursery. Here’s where the real fun begins. Time to go shopping!