28: Autumn 2011

Author: Joe Rice

Gardening in a small space

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Gardening in a small space
Joe Rice

About thirty years ago, Notcutts were offering a garden planning service at a most reasonable price. In retrospect it seems that they were, perhaps, using the service as part of a training scheme for budding garden designers. And so it was that I was thrilled with their plan for my 10m square flat garden. Better than anything I could ever have come up with. I followed the planting plan to the letter. The plants were what might be called the standard stock plants held by a reputable nursery.

All went well for the first two years but then two things happened; some plants did not flourish -for example choisyas, honeysuckles and also Clematis ‘Lasurstern’; some plants rapidly outgrew their allotted space -Viburnum burkwoodii ‘Park Farm Hybrid’, Wisteria sinensis etc. In fact Ceanothus microphyllus rapidly became a tree, quite unsuitable for a small garden.

Perhaps the worst catastrophe was the final result of the expression ‘Wouldn’t it be better if…’

Now it happens that I reckon a good garden depends on having a varied winter planting and so two of the plants I put in were Berberis dictyophylla and Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca. The berberis was fine at first with lovely white winter stems but, even though it was pruned hard every spring, it eventually became an untidy mess. (To get an idea of the mess, pay a visit to the berberis collection at the Edinburgh Botanics.)

I later found that Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’ is much better at providing the required white stems in winter. I’ve had it grow up to about 1.5m even though it is pruned hard every spring. Almost as good as the fine exhibition stand of Perovskia at Wisley. As for the Coronilla, it did fine against a west wall and so it was that I could not understand why Bob Brown described the plant as a rangy mess. A year or two on I found out what he meant. The replacement is currently Buddleja ‘Harlequin’ which seems small enough for my modest garden. True, being semi-deciduous, it leaves the wall looking a bit bare in winter. However, many buddleias, this one included, carry little clumps of foliage which look like stars in winter. I like the effect. I tried Buddleja ‘Lochinch’, which the label assured me would grow to about 2m x 2m. However although the winter effect was wonderful, it grew very much larger and had to go. And that after the hard spring pruning. I’m sure that some miscreant had deliberately halved the shrub size on the label.

And so the garden became an impenetrable jungle, a jungle which some members of the HPS visited. Of course they were kind and said very nice things but God only knows what they were saying to each other on the homeward journey.

Form, shape and colour had disappeared into a sort of pan haggerty. Something had to be done, and so the whole centre bed was cleared out in preparation for a foliage garden. In went Phormium tenax ‘Maori Queen’ , as did Euphorbia mellifera together with Melianthus major. Fatsia japonica was already there from the original plan. Some other items also found a place but what they were I no longer remember. By now, of course, those of you who know about these things will be feeling rather smug in the sure knowledge that another disaster was at hand. And so it was that after about three years, overgrown garden number two became evident.

However about five years ago, salvation came in the form of Christopher Lloyd’s wonderful book ‘Foliage Plants’. This book is a gem. Not only does it describe plants like any other book, but it gives quite a few dimensioned planting plans. There are many pictures, both colour and monochrome, and so it was that I cribbed his suggestion of associating Mahonia x wagneri ‘Undulata’ with Pleioblastus viridistriatus all spiced up a bit by putting Fuchsia magellanica ‘Versicolor’ nearby. By the time these shrubs went in, I’d replaced Fatsia japonica by, in my opinion, the vastly superior variety Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’. About twenty years ago I paid the huge sum of £14 for a tiny Abies nordmanniana ‘Golden Spreader’. Year by year it has crept along but its current size of 0.6m x 1m is nicely in harmony with the nearby blue/grey perovskia. It appears that every garden, no matter how small, should have a small tree. I settled on Betula utilis ‘Moonbeam’. Looks lovely both in winter but in summer the effect is somewhat spoilt by the rather dowdy foliage. On Christo’s advice, room has been found for Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea ‘Red Chief’ as well as the Victorian standby Ligularia dentata ‘Desdemona’ (a good planting may be viewed on Nun’s Moor, Newcastle). Perhaps L. ‘Britt Marie Crawford’ would have been better.

At long last, although the bed is looking a little sparse at present, things do seem to be working. Every plant now seems to be slow growing or is easily controlled. In particular the shape and structure of each plant can be now seen without having something else ‘clogging up the works’.

In summer the mahonia has the most wonderful glossy leaves which contrast very well with the beautiful Pleioblastus. An additional bonus is that the foliage of the mahonia becomes a beautiful plum colour in winter. But not in my garden: together with the winter red bergenias, it stays stubbornly green. For a while I supposed that this had something to do with soil pH but in the case of the bergenias, Jane Sterndale-Bennett reveals in her fascinating book ‘The Winter Garden’ that the winter red of bergenias is due to a natural anti-freeze which is only triggered by a cold spell at the beginning of winter. The green of the mahonia in winter remains a puzzle.

To me, a garden never looks complete unless the walls are planted up, so I was pleased to find that my budget Notcutts garden plan included a comprehensive wall planting scheme, either climbers or free standing shrubs set against walls. Apart from the house, which is an impossible shape for running climbers up, no fence is higher than 2.1m (7 ft) -not much potential for true climbers. To say that the Planting Plan for the fences was ambitious is something of an understatement. Although there were some very suitable plants e.g. Kerria japonica ‘Pleniflora’, others ran riot from day one, among which were Wisteria sinensis and the thicket forming Jasminum officianale which had been placed on the 2.5m (8ft) pergola screening my hut at the far end of the garden. It was decided to remove these two uncontrollable plants and furnish the top of this screen with the rambler ‘Adélaïde d’Orléans’ (‘lax growth, ideal for arches and pergolas, almost evergreen’). In blossom, this rose completely covers all 4.5m of the top rail with a superabundance of white flowers for about four weeks. Truly one of the glories (there ain’t many) of my garden. By placing a Berberis linearifolia ‘Orange King’ in front of the hut, the screening was completed. Both these plants have been in place for about fifteen years and have proved easy to control.

The Planting Plan also called for the splendid rose ‘Golden Showers’ which naturally grows up to about 2.75m (9 ft) but no matter how we tried, it never really looked right with bent stems and laterals all scrunched down to fit the 1.85m (6 ft) fence. We found that David Austin’s ‘Buttercup’ and ‘Graham Thomas’ made excellent replacements. In short, we had to look around for more suitable plants. On the 2.1 m (7ft) west wall the original splendid rose ‘Penelope’ prospered for many a year but then seemed to suffer a decline and was eventually replaced by the lovely pink and apricot low rambler ‘Open Arms’ -a real treasure which is easily controlled. The success of this rose led us to find room elsewhere for its equally excellent cousin ‘Little Rambler’.

Because it is arranged by size, colour and season the RHS ‘Encyclopaedia of Plants and Flowers’ proved invaluable. We seem to have spent a great deal of time searching through the shrubs/medium and shrubs/small sections. Some real treasures emerged, perhaps the most amazing of which is Daphne bholua. This is at once the tallest (~2m), the most spectacular and the least troublesome of the daphnes. The variety ‘Darjeeling’ flowers from early January to mid February while ‘Jacqueline Postill’ puts on a brilliant show from mid January to early March. And all this with a very powerful scent in both varieties.

Another invaluable shrub, Abelia ‘Edward Goucher’, grows to about 2m, flowers from July to September, and spreads very slowly by suckers but is easily controlled. It is not seen very often, except perhaps in the West of Ireland, but there is a small planting outside Newcastle Eldon Bus Station.

There have, of course, been failures, notable among which is Desfontainia spinosa. This shrub, though of a suitable size, really needs a damper climate than that of our east coast and so, although it flowered reasonably well, it became a mess with its green holly like foliage atop bare stems. The 2010 December freeze precipitated its demise. However other shrubs are on trial and these include Deutzia setchuenensis var. corymbiflora and Ceanothus thyrsiflorus ‘Skylark’ (both in flower at present). Although we know that the original Berberis dictyophylla eventually became a mess, we did like it and have bought not one, but two, each from a different source. (Don’t ask why.) Though both are grafted, the difference between the plants is remarkable. Questions really need to be asked of the suppliers.

Although the garden does look better than in recent times, there are still holes while we wait for plants to fill out. However, having just bought Adrian Bloom’s ‘Bloom’s Best Perennials and Grasses’, I feel that perhaps…

First published in the North East Group Newsletter, April, May and September 2010
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 28.
© Copyright for this article: Joe Rice

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2011. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.

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