On a Chalk Hillside – March 2024

This month I shall describe how we started to plan how we wanted to landscape and plant up our new piece of garden. For this March article, I shall also thread through some photos of my favourite Cyclamen-flowered Narcissus which are a joy during the month. We are all familiar with N. ‘Tete a Tete' which is a very early flowering cyclamineus Narcissus, and short in stature. Also early flowering (as the name suggests) is the taller N.Cyclamineus ‘February Gold' which this year was definitely in fine fettle by mid February:-

You can see from these photos that the Cyclamineus Narcissus are more dainty in form than many daffodils, and have swept back petals from the central trumpet. (Botanically described as “reflexed perianth segments”).

A March flowering Narcissus is Narcissus Cyclamineus ‘Surfside' – here first en masse, and then a close up:-

To turn to our plans for the garden. We were able to buy the lower two thirds of our neighbour's garden, which in fact doubled the size of our garden, and finally made the bottom 53.5 metres of the garden 26 metres wide, albeit extremely steeply sloping, rather than the 9.14m wide our original garden was. So now you walk down the original garden, past the Mediterranean courtyard, through the gate, and suddenly you turn and are presented with a much wider vista.

I wanted to exploit this sudden width after such a narrow restricted garden til that point by turning the garden visitor on a right angle and creating a feature across the entire width of the garden – running across the slope rather than down it. Naturally, I would have a HUGE mixed border. The path would curve round to the left before you reached our orchard and run the full width of the garden, with the mixed border on the slope above you to the left – at least 3m wide.

I find it's good to have plans, and aims and ideas, and the purpose of buying the extra garden was to give us lots of opportunities to engage in design and build of gardens/garden structures/ landscaping and horticulture as we felt like it, and in timescales that suited us. We would do all the work ourselves – this being our retirement hobby.

Another March-flowering pale cyclamineus Narcissus is N. Cyclamineus ‘Cotinga':-

My ideas sound great, don't they? But the actuality of the terrain made turning this dream into a reality “challenging” because of all the different levels and gradients. Where our new part of the garden started we had inherited a decrepit and subsiding “patio”, collapsing into a big hole lined with concrete, with some sheds beyond, which needed refelting, but were ready to use, whilst the patio needed serious attention. We needed not only to repair what was there, we wanted a deeper patio so that we could wheel a wheelbarrow to the double doors of the far shed to put equipment in.

Making a patio flat on that gradient of slope meant that some serious walls or abutments needed to be made to hold back many feet of “fill”, capped by our paving. Ignoring for the minute the engineering required for this, from a gardening point of view you had an easterly sloping garden with a need to build retaining walls at least 2m high. This would cast a BIG shadow over the planting in the mixed border.
If you look at any herbaceous or mixed border in a big stately home/public garden, there are usually two features that you are not particularly aware of – a utility “path” at the back of the border so you can get into the border to weed/prune etc; and some form of backdrop, often a brick wall or evergreen hedge.

This frames the planting and makes it stand out more. Here's an example I snapped on a visit to Hindringham Hall in Norfolk in early June 2019 showing both a hedge background AND the utility path between the hedge and the back of the border:-

And Front On:-

Aha, I thought, the retaining wall we needed for the patio construction could be made decorative. However, this did not get around the shade issue. Also, the point of the border being on the slope and towering over you as you walked around the front meant that the planting at the back was supposed to be TALL. Not necessarily likely in the most shaded part of the border – especially as what I was thinking of being there were things like Helianthus “Lemon Queen” – the clue is in the name – helianthus – SUN FLOWER…..I wrestled with this and worried about it for a long time.

Clearly, what we were proposing for the positioning of the mixed border WASN'T working horticulturally. Hmm. At the same time I was wrestling with the horticultural implications, himself was considering the engineering issues with the retaining wall/patio scenario.

To cheer us up here is a close up of Narcissus Cyclamineus ‘Toto' which catalogues often described as a white version of ‘Tete a Tete':-

I don't want you to think we are fixated with how trunk roads retain cuttings or surface their embankments beside carriageways, (as I mentioned a product last month used for this purpose). Still, we were often driving up a new bypass that had used gabions to shore up precipitous edges of a deep cutting. Gabions are metal mesh boxes – usually a meter cubed – filled with stone, joined together with more metal mesh, and stacked on top of each other to retain earth. Here are two shots of a gabion wall near us retaining a hillside to allow housing to be built on a platform overlooking a river:-

These meter cubed boxes weigh at least 2 tons each when full of stone, and are wired together and can be stacked in this staggered backward manner which is how they manage to retain hillsides/shorelines. The plus of gabions, is they let water drain through the holes between the rocks, which is why they were used in this particular development. Additionally, amphibians and invertebrates can find homes in the cracks; and you can plant into the top of them if you want.

You can get different decorative stones to put in them, depending on what your aesthetic requirements are. We had seen a gabion wall in Hilliers Arboretum at Romsey holding a valley side back constructed of darker and flatter stone than the photos above. The stone in that gabion wall reminded me of my Step Mum's dry stone garden wall behind her tiny pond which had Maidenhair Ferns (Adiantum pedatum) growing in the cracks (and as you can see from a photo I took at the end of November 2019 – Hart's Tongue Ferns – too):-

Epiphany moment – If we went for a gabion wall I could embrace the planting opportunities of shade rather than see it as a problem and put in a 1 meter wide fern bed for 12-14m at the base of the gabions. The gabions would allow water to drain down the hillside into the fern bed – another horticultural win! If we put a 1 meter decorative path beside it rather than a narrower utility path the long border could be viewed from both sides and with the path/fern bed, be far enough away to miss the shadow of the gabion wall.

Ooooh a fern bed. Next month, building a gabion wall, and what ferns to plant.
Let's finish with a very popular cyclamineus Narcissus, and probably my favourite – N. Cyclamineus ‘Jetfire':-

Sheila May

Editors note: If you have a favourite plant, area of your garden, growing technique or other knowledge to share with our members and the public, please get in touch, we'd love to hear from you.