On a Chalk Hillside July 2019

Posted on 10.07.2019 |
Added in Sheila May's Blog

Creating a Garden below the pond

So how DID we solve the dilemma of how horticulturally to join the pond to the Mediterranean Courtyard?  This is a very steep part of the garden – the first real nose-dive you encounter.  The original space had ribbon beds down each boundary, rough chalkland grass in between and an old and not very well Victoria Plum tree towards the centre of it – which had been in full fruit when we first saw the garden in early August 2004.   
Here is a shot from 2011 showing the area partially cleared, with my husband standing by the plum tree before it was removed:-

The new garden area needed to provide some interest all year, but be a follow on from the Rose garden nearer the house which peaked in June, so that sitting on the courtyard in high summer you had a beautiful view up the garden.  Additionally as this was the “last” bit of garden to landscape we had a wishlist of things we wanted, some appropriate, some not.  
Lots of thinking and garden visits brought our ideas into sharper focus.  Like many people we had been inspired by visiting Beth Chatto's dry garden in 2001 and had had several very hot dry summers since we moved to this garden.  Beth Chatto, you may recall gardened in dry Essex and had dug up her carpark to plant into gravel and never water the plants there.  However, I was a bit hesitant about drought gardening and whether it would look too low, sparse or scrawny particularly later in the summer/autumn.  We revisited last month in the wettest week East Anglia had seen (2 months rain falling in a few days), so the following pictures were taken in rain, but hopefully you can see through the raindrops on the lens.  

The gravel garden looked stunning, even in the rain, and had certainly grown on a lot since our first visit.  But there were still low/sparse areas:-

And whilst areas were colourful:-

The overriding impression was of silver:-

This is of course not surprising, plants adapted for dry and gravel gardens often have silvery small leaves to conserve water and reflect sun away to reduce transpiration.  But whilst I like having silvery plants, even silvery areas, I didn't want the whole of our new garden to be predominantly silvery.  I wanted more colour and more lush planting.  
A few years after we moved to our hillside we visited an inspirational garden in Hampshire which was a beautiful garden with gravel.  This might seem merely a different order of words, but to me it was a lightbulb moment.  The Hampshire garden was a beautiful subshrub and herbaceous garden MULCHED with gravel, rather than a garden of drought-tolerant plants planted into gravel.  We could do that!  We talked at great length to the owners, and took many notes.  The type of gravel they used was much finer than the sort I had previously had from builder's merchants – 5-6mm stones rather than 10-20mm.  It got topped up each year, and by using it you retained moisture for the plants so they coped with hot dry weather better.   Obviously with a steep slope the gravel would have even more tendency to “walk” so both the soil and the gravel would need to be retained to help it stay put.  
To the wishlist.  My husband had hankered after a boardwalk after seeing several different ones in various garden visits.  A few years back Hilliers Arboretum put a narrow one through one of their enormous gunnera patches so the public could walk underneath the leaves – here he is trying it out in October 2015:-

You can see the salient characteristics he was after in a boardwalk here – made of wooden planks (obvs) it is slightly raised from the ground which is either uneven, boggy etc so that the boardwalk is able to change direction or height with the exigencies of the ground it covers, ideal for our steep slope.
If the ground was to be gravelled either side of the boardwalk, then, he reasoned a sort of “nautical” theme was in order and we should retain the soil and gravel with groynes.  Now the ones at Bournemouth for example are concrete and board planks and not very decorative, so I was not terribly keen.  However we saw a garden feature that Cleve West designed as a divide for a garden which was 10-15cm diameter round posts that were driven into the ground next to each other in a sweep down and round, and my husband decided that we could do that at low level to make groynes.  The pressure treated wood would tie in visually with the decking wood he planned to use to make the boardwalk steps down the steep slope of the gravel garden to the Mediterranean Courtyard.  A garden visitor would walk down the steps beside the pond on the right of the garden as you looked up, which came round the bottom of the bed and then turn left to walk down the boardwalk steps through the middle of the remaining space which would all be planting area.  I could then divide it into “beds”.  The utility path would continue down to the gateway, with a slightly wider bed on its other side.  This would give me the possibility of SIX different planting beds/areas as well as the bed beside the utility path.  YESSSS.  
You may recall that the Mediterranean Courtyard is a flat surface cut into the hillside with a retaining wall between it and the slope above?  As we levelled the ground for the courtyard we threw the soil and chalk up onto the slope above to use to try and landscape the slope in places.  The next job was making the steps down through the area.  Here are the carcasses of the steps in situ with their legs concreted in:-

Here on the last day of October 2011 the steps are complete – note the weed-supressing membrane underneath them, and one of the groynes stretching away to retain soil and gravel:-

You may also be able to make out, behind the pink tubtrug the first planting in the gravel garden – the Lavetera cashmeriana which would become such a feature plant over the next few years flowering away.  This is a great plant if you have a lot of room. It grows to up to 3m in all directions. Its branches are so heavy with flowers they flop.  But wow, it is in flower from June through til at least the end of October, its blooms even surviving rain (though you have to prune it in Nov/Dec to reduce the weight of its sprawling branches otherwise the winter winds split the branches off near the base).  Here it is in flower in July 16 just after a shower:-

Naturally, I was so busy planting and mulching I forgot to take “before” pictures, but here's one I managed to take just before all the gravel was down showing the two dissectum about to get their mulch on 23 November 2011:-

The mulch was about 10cmish everywhere, but here at the bottom of the hill it gets deeper (and deeper).  A shot of the whole gravelled area showing all the tiny plants in place, and the groynes structure/boardwalk steps from two days later:-

To one of my wish list items:- In the far right edge of the picture above you can see a twig with a label on it – here's a close up:-

The twig was my very own – Paper bark maple.  It is one of my two favourite trees for their bark (the other being Betula utilis var. jacquemontii btw) and every year I visit the ones at Hilliers Arboretum when we go to see the autumn colour – here is one of theirs at the end of October 2014, (planted by our President Roy Lancaster according to the plaque):-

What wonderful peeling cinnamon coloured bark!  Ignoring the fact we had less than ideal growing conditions for Acer Griseum, I surrounded my twig with so that it would be low growing not to conceal the bark.  What was I thinking you are asking yourself.  A tree that would grow 8-12m high and have a tree canopy between 4-8 metres in 20-50 years.  It would swamp/dwarf everything else.  And you would be right dear reader.  My only rationale was that it was the only bit of garden it could go in and I wanted one.  Not a great rationale.  Fortunately for the garden, and unfortunately for me, even with the love and cossetting I gave it the tree did not survive in our garden and withered away.  I have to content myself with going to Hilliers and hugging their specimens instead.  
Here is a shot looking up the gravel garden from the Courtyard to the pond in May 2013, 18months after planting:-

This part of the garden, whilst it has areas of interest all year, is designed to be viewed as a whole from the Courtyard in high summer and beyond.  Here is a photo from July 2013 taken in roughly the same position as the last photo – note the Lavetera cashmeriana towards the back in full flower:-

Next time, what were the six different planting opportunities I decided upon, and realising one of them.


Sheila May

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