And the garden

When modern architecture goes outside

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When is it stealing?

I have a rule: if the artist or creator is still alive, I won’t buy the knockoff.  I will either save up for the original or buy something else that I can afford (hence the amount of IKEA in my home).  Or – and this is actually much better – I will find a local artist or maker and commission something bespoke.

If the creator of the iconic piece I yearn for is dead, however, the needle on my moral compass goes into a tailspin.

Knock offs of Le Corbusier and Eileen Gray

There are two knockoffs in the photo above: the Eileen Gray side table (we have a pair) and the ubiquitous Le Corbusier chaise (in pony skin). I got all three over a decade ago, before I formulated my views on design copyright and unlicensed reproductions.

It’s not that licensed E1027 side tables just weren’t available to me: why, a couple of clicks on ARAM’s website and I could have had a pair, in 4-6 weeks, for a shade under £1000, plus some £150 delivery.  Or I could take my pick from the dozens of knockoffs a simple Google search brings up, ranging from £50-£250 per table, within 7 days and for £12 delivery.

Ditto the LC4 Chaise Longue: £3,300 vs. knockoffs starting for £170.

As it happens, design karma may well have been involved in that last purchase, since after a few years the pony skin (horse lovers relax, it’s cow hide) started shedding like a labrador and now anyone wearing dark clothing who rashly sits on it subsequently has their back covered in fine white hairs that cling, annoyingly.  Although, the same is also true for an inordinately expensive and unimpeachably authentic impala hide handbag* I bought while on safari, so shedding might just be a property of hide in general.

In planning our house, I really wanted these glorious hanging lights designed by Vancouver designer Omer Arbel for Bocci over our dining table (and I discovered them way before they were so successful, from the now defunct but still useful archive SlowHomeStudio.  Go me.).

I couldn’t afford as many of the originals as I needed for the space, and I didn’t live close enough to go to their annual sale. So I started searching for knockoffs online, and I did find them. And that’s when I discovered that personally, my moral compass is not OK with ripping off a young designer, towards the start of his/her career, who has created something beautiful and functional, for which he should get the reward, and which will give him and his company the financial security to invent more amazing stuff to add to the great design treasury that lifts our hearts.  I probably won’t feel the same duty to his heirs, but I am OK with that.

As a result of my principled stance, the space above our dining table remains bare, and we eat in candlelit obscurity while I try to squirrel away enough money to commission a local ceramicist to design something for us.  I sense this is the way to go, and I will let you know how I get on.

I acknowledge that the excellent and very human architectural musings from Bob Borson at Life of an Architect have shaped my views – especially this post and thought-provoking comments –  as have the brilliant posts on design in general from Seattle-based Build LLC architects & builders.

But I wasn’t expecting to find the same issues cropping up in the garden.

This below is the eastern facade of the multi-storey car park beside the Olympia public swimming pool, in Dundee.  I think the external treatment is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen, and I frequently stop in front of it to adore it.  I knew right away that I had to find a way to incorporate something like it into my garden.


The inside of the carpark reveals the very straightforward construction: rectangular metal grids with horizontal bars running across them. Short lengths of plastic tubing are threaded onto the bars, and a small steel plate has its top edge molded over the plastic tube, securing the plate to the grid while allowing the bottom edge to swing freely back and forth.  Shouldn’t be that hard, I thought, but it might be even easier to buy it directly from whoever supplied the car park builder.



A bit of digging revealed the builder, and their supplier, and then the information that “the concept was pioneered by American environmental artist Ned Kahn. He constructed a “wind veil” 13 years ago on a parking garage in Charlotte, North Carolina, and it has now been used on a number of major buildings in the United States.”

(This video collection catalogues Ned Kahn’s mesmerizing, enchanting, transporting kinetic sculptures involving wind, water, light, fog and even electricity.)

Now there’s a line beyond which homage to and influenced or inspired by becomes outright copying – stealing – and I’m not totally sure where that line is. Did the supplier copy Ned Kahn’s work? The concept, sure, but can or should anyone copyright such a concept? The technique? From what I can make out, the technique they used is different to any used in Kahn’s work.  I would be interested to know what Ned Kahn thinks.

And what about me? I am going to copy this concept, somehow, in some form, at some domestic scale, by hook or by crook, for my  garden. Where do I stand?

Thoughts, anyone? Where’s your line?



* Our South African friends later told me, rocking with mirth, that it was the equivalent of wearing a musical ‘See you Jimmy’ hat down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.

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Edging: the exception to the rule

When tackling a garden, it is much better to focus your efforts on one small area at a time rather than attempt to start a number of projects simultaneously.  Years ago, my husband (under duress) and I would spend entire weekends flat out doing a bit here, a bit there, only to look up, knackered, on a Sunday evening and not notice any real difference in the garden.  It is important for one’s morale to see results.*

One exception to this rule of targeted effort is that of edges.  Getting your edges right delivers masses of result for relatively little effort, and you can afford to be more profligate in generously distributing your gardening favours around the garden.

There are two schools of thought: those who edge (we are the majority) and those who prefer a more relaxed natural progression from say, path to bed or lawn to border.  Context, style of garden and owner’s temperament all come into this, but it is an Indisputable Truth of Gardening that:

A crisp edge will make everything on either side of it look as if it was intended.

An informal but crisply edged mown path meandering through a meadow. Photo copyright Biddenham Gardeners Association

So, even if the lawn is full of weeds and the border a flopping sprawling disaster where one thug plant has swamped most of the others, a sharp edge to the lawn separating it from the border will cozen the unobservant into thinking that it was meant, that the gardener is still in control.

As detailed in this thoughtful post by Thomas Stone at ThinkingGardens, there are many ways to edge, involving varying effort and expense. After simply mowing an edge into grass (or not bothering at all, I suppose), the ‘cut and weed’ version for simple grass edges that I explain below is the cheapest and easiest to install – and, as Thomas rightly points out, the easiest to move if you decide it’s in the wrong place.  However, the subsequent maintenance is greater than that required for a metal or stone edge.

An edging technique that I covet, but cannot yet afford, is the Corten steel edging that nearby Cambo Gardens use. This only works where you have border on one side and a path that doesn’t need mowing on the other (since you would not be able to mow the 15cm or so closest to the vertical edge, and would have to do it separately, by hand or by strimmer – either way a complete pain).

Corten steel edging

Corten steel edging the beds at Cambo Gardens, Fife

I think there is a place for the more relaxed unedged path or border in the wilder, informal areas of the garden – indeed, a formal edged path would undermine the very wildness.  In the as yet non-existent hidden woodland area at the bottom of my garden I plan to mow a path through the grass where there’s meadow, and simply mulch a path under the trees, like they do at Knoll Gardens.

A mulched path with no fixed edge at Knoll Gardens, in Dorset

A mulched path with no fixed edge at Knoll Gardens, in Dorset

But close to the house?  Close to my house, all lines and boxes and angles? Crisp edges all the way, thank you very much.

IMG_8088   IMG_8095

To create your new straight grass edges you will need:

One or more long plank (you can make do with string pulled tight between two bamboo canes but a plank is vastly better).
Four pegs per plank (pegs can be short lengths of sturdy bamboo cane, handtools, etc., anything you have to hand but you will regret using the kitchen scissors. Who, me?)
Very long outside tape measure (optional unless things really have to line up over long distances – I have two 50m ones – surprisingly useful**)
Half-moon edging iron (a spade will not do the job due to its concave-ness)
Garden fork
Padded kneeler (not vital but you’ll be glad of it)

If you are doing wavy edges, not straight, you can forget about the planks and use a generous length of hosepipe instead.  You’ll still need the pegs, and more of them, so that you can mark out the curves the hosepipe will follow.  And you will also need a can of builder’s marking paint to spray the line – once you’re happy with it – onto the grass to allow you to move the hosepipe to prevent you slicing through it with the edging tool. (What? Move along, nothing to see here.)

The example that follows is the eating area close to the house surrounded by a horseshoe bed of Sarcococca (Christmas box), herbs and edible flowers. Nasturtium flowers give a lovely peppery kick to a salad, but the lurid colouring of the one below – N. Empress of India – offended me all summer and I eventually hoicked it out way before the frosts were due (I grew a darker one – N. Black Velvet – around the other side that was fine).  You don’t need to tell me: I know it looks garishly vile in my terribly tasteful green and white scheme. Next year I will grow it in the kitchen garden.


There is no definition between the lawn and the bed

First set your plank roughly where you think you want your edge to be, with the plank sitting on the grass, and the line you want to cut its outer edge.

Mark out the line of the edge with a plank

Mark out the line of the edge with a plank

Now get up and walk to one end of your proposed edge and consider its placement, then the other.  Walk around the garden, squinting at the line, from every angle you can.  Bash pegs in on the other side of the plank.  Walk around some more.  Make adjustments to the plank and pegs accordingly, then do the whole walking around squinting at it thing again. Although it seems a faff, this time spent measuring by eye is never wasted.  As someone I used to work with taught me: if it looks wrong, it is wrong, even if the measurements on paper – and the ground – are correct.

When you are happy with the line, secure the plank with the pegs, then stand on it and slide the edging tool against the edge of the plank, pushing it down to slice through the turf with the sole of your boot.  Position, push down to slice, pull up and shuffle along 15cm or so and repeat.  Make sure the pegs aren’t bending and letting the plank pivot.

Once you have got your sliced line, go along it again but this time with a garden fork, standing on the plank again to stop it moving and sliding the backs of the tines right against the plank about 10com into the ground and then gently levering the cut edge loose.  Do this along the whole length of the line.

Now get the kneeler out, and your bucket and handfork, and start removing the loosened turf (and probably weeds), shaking off as much soil as possible into the middle of the bed. And that’s it. When you’re done, remove the pegs, the plank, and admire your handiwork.

The crisp edges give definition to the spaces on either side of the line

The crisp edges give definition to the spaces on either side of the line

An effect only possible with crisp edges is the impact afforded when plants are allowed to billow or sprawl over the edge.  There’s something about a straight line that just begs to be broken.

Herbs are allowed to sprawl over the line of the edge

Herbs are allowed to sprawl over the line of the edge

And as an aside, the above is all one season’s growth.  The bed was dug and planted in May of this year (below).  The cloches are protecting the Nicotiana sylvestris (tobacco plant) got as sturdy pluglets from Sarah Raven, which are the 6′ tall exotic looking plants with white trumpet like flowers in the photo above.  Staggering growth in just one season, but although they’re supposed to scent the air on warm summer evenings, I didn’t really notice.  Perhaps something to do with the lack of warm summer evenings this year?

The herbs sit in pockets of the Sarcococca matrix

The herbs sit in pockets of the Sarcococca matrix


*For this reason I also recommend starting with a bit of the garden close to the house, that you see everyday, and working your way outwards.


Long tape measures come in handy for marking out very long straight lines

Long tape measures come in handy for marking out very long straight lines


How to Pleach

It seems as though every article I read about pleached trees includes the nugget of information that the word comes from the French word plechier or plessier, meaning to plait or weave.  Gormlessly, I accepted this at face value, despite having grown up in then French-speaking Brussels; despite having spoken French rather well at one point; despite having plaited my hair as a schoolgirl and discussed this – in tedious detail, as one did – in French with my francophone friends; despite my never ever having encountered either variant of the word before.  Someone, somewhere, made this up (or dug it out of an obscure French equivalent of Chaucer), and it has been repeated, unquestioningly, ever since.  The correct term is ‘palissé’ or ‘en espalier’.  So there.*

Whatever size trees you start with, you will first need to make your structure.

If you are starting with young trees that you will train from scratch, you need tall posts set in concrete at regular intervals (5m apart or thereabouts) with tensioned wire making up the horizontal bars between them (four or five bars is usual). Later this year in the courtyard garden I will be doing this too, with seven crab apple ‘Red Sentinel’ that I had to buy young (oh the satisfaction of ordering something on the right rootstock so that its ultimate size will be just right for my purposes).  I have heeled them in beside the garage and will train them myself because I am looking for the lowest bar of the pleached branches to start lower than is usual with nursery supplied trees.  And because it is much much cheaper.  I will teach myself how to do this and post about it in due course.

This post however is about how to treat mature trees which have already been trained individually in the nursery: how to create a structure that links them together; and how to train them to it.

rootballed limes in situ

We planted six small leaved limes (Tilia cordata) in April 2014.  By rights we should have done it a little earlier in the year (the trees were just starting to come into leaf), but although these were field grown trees they were dug up one day and transported to my garden the next, and they were to receive the very best of care, so we risked it.  Their planting holes were large, the backfilled soil mixed with generous amounts of organic matter, and their rootballs sprinkled with liberal quantities of root growth enhancing mycorrhizal fungi (Root Grow, I SWEAR by it).  They were tethered against windrock by an underground guying system (the excellent Arborguy from GreenBlueUrban), which means we didn’t have to have unsightly supporting posts, and each tree had a circle of perforated drainage pipe looped around its rootball with the end sticking up out of the ground, so that I could water them copiously (but only every now and then).

With a lot of hard work, we got them into position. I will not dwell on how unpopular my insistence that the trunks line up with the distant window breaks made me, nor how no one, myself included, made the leap of logic that suggested that a telegraph pole would indeed have an underground cable leading to it, which we promptly dug through.  Once in position, I proceeded to do absolutely nothing to them (except water them and keep them weed free) for the next year.  Mainly because I thought that they needed time to settle in before I started hacking them about, but in part because I didn’t really have a clue what to do next.

limes in leaf year one

They passed an apparently happy summer (see photo above), coming into leaf and putting on lots of new growth while I bided my time and googled.  Monty Don had what seemed to me to be sound advice, and equipped with my magnificent tripod ladder from Jake Hobson, my trusty Felco secateurs, a ball of twine and more bamboo canes than I imagined possible, I set to work in February 2015 to link these six disparate trees into a coherent whole.

limes - six distinct trees

Tip: wrap up warmly and wear wraparound glasses – being poked in the eye while balancing up a ladder in a howling gale is best avoided.  Also, cut the twine into lengths (short bits of 35cm and longer bits of 80cm) while still in the warmth of the house, and stuff the different lengths into different pockets before you go up the ladder.

limes - building the bamboo structure

I found it was best to split the job into two parts: creating the new structure first and only once that was complete tying the branches onto the structure. My trees each had four bars of bamboo to which they had already been trained, so the first thing I did was to run new bamboo canes across the gap between the trees, weaving the canes in between the bamboo uprights and the trunks of the trees, and tying them securely into place to the existing bamboo bars with twine in at least four points along their length.

Once I had a solid – if slightly wavy – line of canes along each of the four bars, I then extended the structure out at either end with more canes, one end tied into the bamboo structure, the other reaching out to the point I wished to grow the foliage (above but abutting the datum).

limes - lining up edge with datum

Because the shape I am going for is a sort of shoebox on stilts, I want to train the branches of the two end trees to form right angles and meet in the middle.  I therefore connected the two rows of trees with four horizontal canes (which I also braced with verticals in the corners for strength).  By now the trees had more bamboo in them than they did tree (and over a week had passed), but I could finally start tying the branches to my bamboo structure.

limes - lining up the end structure

Although the trees were quite twiggy and it had been fiddly to get the bamboo canes in place, until this point I had restricted myself to only pruning out the deadwood.  One never knows when a branch will come in handy, and I learned that small leaved lime is amazingly bendy, which, it dawned on me, explains its popularity for this purpose.  (I will have to be a lot more gentle with the more brittle crab apples when I come to train them.)

limes - back row pruned front row unpruned

I tied in whatever I could to the horizontal bars, and then marshaled my quailing resolve and pruned out everything that was not in the right place for the shape I wanted, some branches back to 4-6″ or so, some right back to the branch bark collar with the trunk or main stems.  I removed most of the new growth, as illustrated in the above photo showing the pruned back row and the unpruned front row (I started with the least visible bit until I got my courage up).  The photo above also shows how we really should have thought at the outset about placing the six trees according to their straightness of stem, and hidden the one at the front on the left which has a backwards lean to it in a far less prominent position.  I have built the structure to compensate, but I will have quite a job to train the bushy new growth out so that the vertical face of the ‘green box’ appears straight.

lime branches before being tied into line   lime branches tied into line

The two photographs above are before and after.  And although I suspect that I might not have been ruthless enough, I will be very relieved come Spring to see them come into leaf.

limes with weights

The above photograph shows the end result. I am very pleased with it, but looking at it now I think I will have to get back up my ladder and lop the tops of the vertical bamboo canes that break the lovely horizontal lines.  The two orange bags hanging from the branches are mesh bags that some of my Peter Nyssen bulbs arrived in (see?  I knew they would come in useful), weighted with rocks and tied to joins that had an upwards arc to them, to try to bring them slowly into line with the horizontal.  My husband finds them vaguely unsettling, reminiscent of a medieval display of the heads (or worse) of one’s enemies on spikes .  I can’t see it myself, but there’s a novel idea for a show garden at Chelsea if ever I heard one.

* I blame Anne Wareham for my pugnacious tone.  I have just finished reading ‘The Bad Tempered Gardener‘ and I am feeling inspired.


Pinheads and Dinnerplates

Hardy cyclamen are wonderful plants, quite unlike their trashy indoor cousins.

I have a particular weakness for scent, autumn colour and plants with winter interest, and although unscented the ivy-leaved (or Neapolitan) cyclamen excels in the latter two categories, sending up its charming pink recurved flowers in the autumn, and most obligingly holding on to its heart shaped leaves, intricately marked with silver, over the winter months, shedding them over the summer when their absence goes unnoticed in the midst of all the other star horticultural performances.

cyclamen in planter

I really should investigate Cyclamen coum, which flowers from December to March and would take over nicely from the September to November flowering of C. hederifolium, but I have read that if planted together C. coum will in time (which is relative – centuries, probably) come to dominate, so I will have to wait to find a source and a good spot.  However their circular leaves are unmarked and nowhere near as interesting.

The greatest downside of C. hederifolium, if one wants a swathe of them (and who would not?), is their cost.  Even my first choice of bulb supplier, Peter Nyssen, was charging over £1 per tuber.  At this point, I turned my beady and acquisitive eye towards my unsuspecting mother.  My mother is not a gardener but she is hugely generous of spirit and has a lovely garden, blessed with great drifts of hellebores and, I remembered covetously, hardy cyclamen.

When we were building the house and lived for almost five years in rented accommodation with a pocket handkerchief of a garden, she made me up a horticultural care parcel containing plants from her garden which I arranged together in a planter and which lifted my frustrated gardening spirits no end.  (In the preceding sentence I use the term  ‘made me up’ as a euphemism for ‘allowed me to plunder her garden during one of my visits, digging up what I wanted, and leaving it for her to wrap in damp newspaper and post them all up to me in a cardboard box’.) There were a number of cyclamen tubers in this planter, and I had noticed that the flowers had set seed – those seedpods on curious little coiled springs – and that many had germinated into seedlings, a year or so old.  I resolved to turn out the planter, carefully, and prick out the seedlings into a tray of jiffy modules – why, I would soon have hundreds of hardy cyclamen.  Pricking out seedlings is soothing pastime, providing one sets up the bench or table to avoid being hunched over and getting a crick in the neck or between the shoulder blades, and I spent a restful and virtuous sunny October afternoon doing just that.

IMG_5880      IMG_5882

Pleased though I was with my labours, I recognised that it would be many years before the pinhead sized tubers produced any flowers, so I turned once more to my mother and asked her, with what I hoped was engaging directness, whether she would dig up some more tubers and send me them (or ‘instruct Tim who comes on Wednesdays to dig up etc’). Again she obliged, and Parcelforce duly delivered two boxes filled with magnificent tubers, some bigger than my hand (see photo below).  I have no idea how old they are, and while the literature relates how they can grow to the size of dinner plates, I have found nothing that gives a timescale for this development. Readers, if you can shed some light, I would be delighted to hear from you.


The tubers themselves are odd, unpromising things, with hardly any roots, and it is difficult to imagine them ‘throwing up hundreds of flowers’ per tuber, as the books would have them do.  Bought dormant from bulb suppliers, many have no roots at all and it is often difficult to know which way up to plant them.  Planting any bulb, I think, is an act of faith, but cyclamen require belief of Orpheus-like proportions.

Out of curiosity, I also ordered some tubers from Peter Nyssen to compare, and a plant from Crocus, and then succumbed to buying some more tubers when I was in Dobbies (despite the recent mis-labeled anemone experience), to see which would  give me the best results for my time, effort and money.  Contenders in my unofficial and woefully unscientific hardy cyclamen trial are:

1) Five dormant tubers from Peter Nyssen (photo below left) – £6.50

2) Five dormant tubers from Dobbies garden centre (photo below right) – under £10

Nyssen cyclamen tubers     Cyclamen tubers Dobbies Taylors

3) Two boxes of tubers from my mother’s garden, semi-dormant (i.e. freshly dug up and showing some signs of root or leaf growth) – free, but clearly not everyone has access to such cyclamenic munificence

4) 300+ seedlings – free, ditto

5) A plant in a 9cm pot from Crocus (photo below) – £2.99

crocus cyclamen small

The plant (by its very definition in a non-dormant state) from Crocus was the real surprise, with that little 2cm tuber throwing up dozens of leaves and all those fine root hairs.  If the dormant tubers lumber into life with anything near this fecundity I shall have veritable carpets of cyclamen, I’m just finding it incredibly hard to believe this with any conviction. Having planted them this winter – a bit shriveled and apparently dessicated, with their crowns just below the surface of the soil and hopefully the right way up – I am not sure when I should expect signs of life, especially since winter is normally their non-dormant season.  Might I have to wait until September to see the first leaves? I just know I will not be able to resist digging one of them up to check whether root development is actually happening, and I hope this doubter’s impatience will not irretrievably damage the plant*.

I went to check on the tubers from my mother that I planted in the beds under the pleached limes, only to find to my annoyance that their stems have been neatly severed, and a few leaves left on top of the mulch.  The culprits are our resident rabbits, and I will position some cloches over the cyclamen while I hone my plans for a multi-pronged attack on the blasted creatures.

I will update this post with progress on the plants over the course of the year.  Yes, you have heard me say that before, but remember this is still a very young blog.  You may or may not have noticed that I have resorted to copying and pasting comments under my WordPress posts that dear and valued readers have put on my Facebook page.  I have been wondering what I could do to attract more comments, suggestions and questions to these posts – I would love to get some dialogue going. Is it because WordPress requires some horrid sign in process?  Clearly, if this is the case then you are hardly likely to sign in in order to tell me so.  If you prefer, you could tweet me @AndTheGarden?  Perhaps this too is merely a matter of time, and comments will emerge in the natural order of things. Or, for that matter, not.


* Should I ever be in the privileged position to name a new species of cyclamen, I shall call it Cyclamen eurydice, and take my chances at being smacked in the face for being such a smart arse.


A bed for all seasons

Faced with the 1/2 acre of compacted, partially waterlogged, marestail-infested rough grass that currently constitutes the back garden, the only sensible response is to ignore it until such time as dealing with it becomes unavoidable, and to busy myself with less intractable problems.

I have successfully employed this stratagem for over a year now, much to the benefit of the front garden, which has seen my unadulterated horticultural attention lavished upon it.  In particular, the rectangular bed set in gravel in front of the house which separates the family and visitor parking areas.

Front bed empty

It is a comparatively small bed, measuring only 6m by 2m, but those 12 sq meters have received an inordinate amount of thought.  I have written before of the different approaches I have to planting up the front and back gardens, but here there was an added imperative:  not only would this highly visible bed have to sing for its supper during every month of the year, it would also need to be of horticultural interest to me – no easy task.  I sometimes think that the planting around contemporary houses is one of the most depressingly formulaic things about them.

Let’s face it:  most architects don’t understand plants (and a lot of the clients for whom these houses are built aren’t gardeners).  They may have an appreciation of how the structural quality of a plant may offset some aspect of the built environment, how the texture or movement of a plant may frame or complement a building, how outside space can provide a balance or a foil for the dwelling, but with all their spacial awareness few of them have any plant knowledge* and they don’t fully appreciate the magical fourth dimension that plants have and buildings don’t:  change over time.  Once a building has been constructed, at the most it might weather a bit, but unlike plants it won’t change shape or size.  One of our team of highly talented architects was here this morning, and on hearing my plans for the garden she remarked ‘but that will take years‘.  Well yes.

The photograph a few paragraphs above shows the empty bed in April 2014 with some of the select number of mature plants I bought for the garden being lifted off the lorry: six pleached limes for the back gardens, and three multi-stemmed birch for this front bed.  On this occasion I did cheat time and bought mature plants for instant impact.  Used judiciously, there is a role for large plants, I just think that if you plant the whole garden with mature plants, you’re decorating, not gardening.  In addition, your garden can then only decline (sometimes gallingly quickly, as mature plants need a lot more cossetting than younger specimens, and are prone to die at the drop of a hosepipe).

I swithered a great deal in choosing what trees to plant in this bed:  after all, silver birch Betula pendula is hardly a choice horticultural rarity (and is moreover, it pains me to admit, a common choice for modern buildings).  I toyed with flowering trees, trees with striking bark, trees that flared with autumn colour, even with different varieties of birch.  On and off my list at some point were Betula septentrionalis and jacquemontii, various Sorbus spp., Amelanchiers, Cercis and Catalpas, Arbutus and Stewartias, Magnolias, Acers and Malus, Cercidiphyllum, Liquidambar, Parrotia and even a single Platanus.  But they were all either too big, too small, too stiff, their leaves were too large, their crown was too rounded, their form undistinguished or they were not reliably hardy on the east coast of Scotland.

Ultimately, nothing – in my eyes – is as beautiful in movement and in the shadow it casts as our native silver birch, with its diminutive delicate leaves and pliable flowing branches.  Also in the birch’s favour was that some of the most pleasing trees in nearby gardens were birch, lending a satisfying repetition to the streetscape and subtly linking our modern house to its older neighbours; and finally, birch’s status along with Scots pine as our beloved national woodland tree.  From this last thought came the idea that I might paradoxically plant the bed – so formal in shape – as a naturalistic upland birchwood community, underplanted with blaeberry and a smattering of wood sorrel, ferns and grasses.

Autumnal birchwood, Craigellachie NNR.

(Picture of Craigellachie NNR by photographer Peter Cairns)

This idea lasted until it hit the buffers of my list of horticultural demands: sticking dogmatically to only those plants found in the Scottish birchwood habitat would severely limit my plant choices, and all for the bleak reward of botanical authenticity.  In my town setting, to choose a square island of native self-righteousness from an ocean of horticultural diversity and abundant plant choices struck the gardener in me as downright perverse, and the idea duly evolved into the concept of an interpretation of a birchwood.  This gave me both the framework within which to choose plants (some limits, if not too draconian, are very helpful), and the freedom to look elsewhere in the globe for plants that would provide the attributes to give this prominent bed the year-round interest I asked of it.  Because the bed is small, and must not distract from the approach to the house with too much busy-ness, I added a further restriction that the planting be predominantly green and white.

So we have three multi-stemmed silver birch – unevenly spaced to give an air of naturalism yet also positioned carefully to break sightlines from the pavement through the glass to the inner deck.  A small up-lighter sits at the foot of each tree, illuminating their stems at night.  The trees are staked: while normally I favour underground guying, the discovery that the ground workers had used the base of the bed as a convenient dumping spot for rubble put paid to that.  The tree ties are initially set at breast height, but over the next few years I will gradually lower their level, before removing them along with the stakes in about five years.

Front bed midplanting

In the bed is a variety of plants that I deemed to fit the bill, some bought mail order, some I had dug up from our last garden and had kept in pots over the intervening years, some bought from gardens I’d visited, some grown from seed, some stowaways and self-seeders, and some dug out of the garden of a generous friend.  The only duds were the Anemones bought from a garden centre, that revealed themselves in late summer to be pink instead of white (the refund never assuages one’s annoyance over the lost growing season).

Given its position in front of the house, I felt that the planting should appear fairly uniform when seen from a distance, the detail only revealing itself as one gets closer.  In this instance, this translated to one species of tree (the three specimens of Betula pendula) and one main species of shrub, eight plants of the heavenly scented evergreen Christmas box Sarcococca hookeriana var humilis, arranged in two informal groups of three and five plants respectively. At about 80-100cm high at maturity they will not outgrow their position, and while waiting for them to fill out I have planted the ground between them with bulbs and ground cover.

I did, in a moment of weakness, add two more shrubs (one specimen of each):  a Fothergilla major that I had bought from the Edinburgh Botanics years ago and which I felt would work well with the woodland theme, and a plant I had been yearning to place in a south facing position close to an entrance ever since meeting it for the first time outside the lecture block of my horticultural college, Askham Bryan.  No one could ever accuse the winter honeysuckle Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’ of possessing either grace of form or interesting foliage, but its scent is captivating and has the power to stop me in my tracks.  Both these two shrubs have the potential to grow slightly too large for their situation:  I envisage pruning the honeysuckle annually and eventually moving the Fothergilla.

front bed Jan 2015

Moving to the herbaceous layer, I have arching clumps of Maianthemum racemosum (formerly Smilacena racemosa), dug up from my last garden, and a drift of the understated perennial honesty Lunaria rediviva, the initial plant got from a plant stall at a local SGS garden opening (and the next three from a lovely neighbour who was digging out her borders and had some spare) .  New this year will be white foxgloves, Digitalis purpurea ‘Alba’, which I grew from seed last year and which should flower this June, followed later in the summer by the correct anenome, Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’.  A solitary specimen of a wonderful Actaea pachypoda, bought from the inspirational Scampston Hall in Yorkshire last summer sits under one of the trees, its seed carefully gathered last year and sown in seed trays as I try to bulk up its numbers.  I may have a while to wait.

Temporary residents of the bed, dug up from a friend’s garden and very useful to fill the space while the slower growing stuff works up some steam is a ribbon of shuttlecock ferns Matteuccia struthiopteris (but it’s not really shady enough for them to thrive and they did look rather miserable last summer) and pockets of Tellima grandiflora, a good do-er if a bit invasive.

front bed primula and snowdrops

Moving ever closer to the ground, I have drifts of the single snowdrop Galanthus nivalis, which I will increase once I can tell which of the trays of snowdrops I have are singles or doubles – I love them both but prefer them planted apart – lungwort Pulmonaria ‘Sissinghurst White’ with its glorious silver marked foliage, and a darling little pale cream primrose, unnamed, that seems to be in perpetual flower.

I decided against wild garlic Allium ursinum, because it is such a thug – but I do love it so I will plant it to run at the foot of the new beech hedging that lines the drive, once the hedge has established itself.  Lily of the valley Convallaria majalis is just as thuggish, but I may succumb and plant a few pips.  Or not.  I have tucked away a couple of other treasures that I thought would work:  a cobra-headed Arisaema (I forget which one, but it showed its delight at having been released from its pot by flowering enthusiastically last summer) and the always welcome bleeding heart, Dicentra spectabilis Alba (and I’ve just checked and the wretched thing has been reclassified as Lamprocapnos spectabilis ‘Alba’).

Forgive me for the lack of pictures and abundance of botanical names.  Throughout this year, I will take photographs of all the plants I have talked about in this post and add the pictures to this post, paying especial attention to anything that really didn’t work – I find the failures are always so much more interesting and instructive than the successes.  Even more so if they are other people’s.



*Christopher Bradley Hole is the honourable exception.  Other architects, you don’t have a leg to stand on.

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The Tale of the Bathroom Window

Listed on our very first brief, when the design of the house was still just a twinkle in the architect’s eye (and, crucially, before we had settled on a predominantly single storey design) was the item ‘bath window at eye-level’.  Building one’s own house gives one the opportunity to incorporate quirky and bespoke elements, and these rarely fail to deliver lasting delight.  Remind me to tell you about our storm door one of these days, and how our cold larder off the back kitchen is actually outside the envelope of house insulation.  I digress.

I must have been inspired by something like this (Karen Cilento’s photo of Paul Raff Studio’s Cascade House in Toronto as featured in Arch Daily:

Cascade House / Paul Raff Studio

I imagined soaking in the bath after a long and productive day spent working in the garden, letting my gaze roam out over the swaying grasses and structural planting, and yes, maybe even sipping a glass of something chilled while I basked.  How indulgent, how civilized to be able to enjoy the fruits of my labour from my bath.  And so it came to be.

The horizontal bath window can be seen at the far left of the drawing in the blog banner, above, and, in the photo below, seen from the back garden (the large glass window & door to the left of it is the bedroom).

House seen from back garden

All through the build I cherished the thought of this little idiosyncrasy, not pausing to identify that a key feature of the bathrooms of my inspiration was that they were not on the ground floor.  I remained blithely unconscious of the implications of this fact and then one happy day we moved in.

View from bath - day

And it was great.  During the day, that is.  And also providing no one was outside in the garden while I was in the bathroom.  At night, as I daresay even the meanest intelligence will have by now deduced, it was a different story.

View from bath - night

Now I don’t care how sensible or how rational you are, how little you are troubled by silly thoughts: I defy you or anyone else not to lower themselves naked into a bath in these circumstances without wondering whether there is a prowler somewhere in the garden, getting an eyeful. Frankly, it cast a bit of a pall over the whole bath-time ritual, and I only really relaxed once the glass had steamed up.  A frosted film applied to the glass was clearly the answer, but that would then defeat the purpose of me being able to look out at the garden, and we might as well have done without the blasted window (and the extra cost of the wretched thing) in the first place.

So I mulled things over (uneasily, from the bath, firmly telling myself to buck up and that it was highly unlikely for there to be a Susannah and the Elders situation occurring, but…), and then last week I stumbled across a firm that supplies frosted glass film with a transparent pattern on it.  And not just any old pattern, but a transparent pattern of plants.  There was even a choice of designs.  And while the purist in me was rather holding out for Pennisetum or Briza seed heads, I settled happily for wheat.

Applying frosted film to bath window  Frosted film seen from exterior

It was straightforward to apply, looks great from the outside, and because my head is level with the base of the window I can see through the transparent ‘blades of grass’ bit of the pattern, right out into the garden.  When the low winter sunlight streams through the window, it casts delightful clear shadows.

Frosted film - application complete

Thwarted, the prowlers will have to move on to pastures new, and I can enter the bathroom while my son is playing football outside with his friends without worrying that I might inadvertently scar them for life.

I am thoroughly pleased with myself and have hardly left the bath since.

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Privacy in the Front Garden, part one

The front garden and the back garden are very different beasts, and this is especially true if your front garden is visible (as mine currently is) to passers by.  The front garden is a framing device for the house, a semi-public space which will be passed through on one’s way elsewhere.  Architects call this ‘negative space’, as opposed to ‘positive space’ for dwelling in, and in my opinion the main purpose of a front garden is to be functional as one passes through it – and to please the eye when looked at from a variety of viewpoints.  At the rear of the house one gardens purely for oneself: at the front of the house one gardens for the neighbourhood.

Direct sightlines from the road pose a challenge to privacy

Direct sight-lines from the street pose a challenge to privacy

Although both front and back will be influenced by the style of the house, the issue is not just one of degrees of design formality: it is that one is public, the other private.  I would no more sit out in my front garden within view of the street than I would have a picnic by the side of a motorway.  I suspect that many people instinctively feel the same way: I defy you to find anyone out in their own front garden who is not engaged in some form of garden, household or vehicle maintenance.  In my own highly idiosyncratic book of etiquette, it is acceptable to catch the eye of someone in their front garden, and say hello.  This rule does not hold in the back garden: the pretense must be maintained at all costs that one does not notice one’s neighbour talking loudly – merely yards away – on the other side of a porous hedge.  Palpable squirming ensued on both sides of the boundary earlier this year when my then seven year old heard our (lovely) next door neighbours in their back garden and cheerfully yelled a greeting through the hedge at them, before I could stop him.  He knows better now.

Modern houses often have large expanses of glazing – frequently floor to ceiling – and the treatment of the front garden in relation to them needs careful thought in order to preserve the balance of maintaining views and light while ensuring privacy.  I do not share the apparent insouciance of the inhabitants of many glass houses featured in architectural magazines, who seem happy to carry out their daily lives permanently on display.  Frankly, it makes me twitchy even to think of it.

Our house has four main areas of glazing (and one minor vertical slit window) on the elevation facing the street, all of which need some form of screening.  The first storey window is currently my study (from which I write this post), and a wooden slatted blind on the inside controls of views in and out.  As an aside, during the design process we noticed that The Blind seems to be the only form of window dressing even remotely acceptable to contemporary architects. God forbid you should besmirch their lovely clean lines with a curtain.  Time after time our request for hanging space for curtains in the bedrooms would be noted (with, I now realise, a barely suppressed shudder); time after time that hanging space would fail to materialise on the plans.

      Front door

The first of the main glazed elements on the ground floor consists of the front entrance, behind the outer storm door which is closed (above left) at night but usually kept open during the day (above right).  The picture below left is taken with the storm door open, from the inside of the glass panel looking south towards the front garden.  The glazed panel at the entrance is fixed – the inner front door is around the side and to the left of you as you look out.  This conceit of a fixed panel and unobtrusive offset front door is a mixed blessing:  while undeniably a masterstroke of pleasing design, we have had enough people walk smack into the glass thinking they were walking into the house to need to put a bench in front of it (or, as is visible in the photo below right, to hang a wreath on it) to prevent the buildup of piles of dazed visitors and delivery men.

Looking south along datum through glass     View from deck to road

The photo above right is taken from the deck in the courtyard back garden, looking through two sets of glazing towards the road*.  It turned out that it was this location rather than the direct approach along the datum that really needed screening, because an unintended consequence of the building angles meant that there was a direct sight-line from the pavement on the street outside directly through the glazing to the courtyard deck.  This destroyed any sense of privacy, and I felt thoroughly unsettled while I looked for a design solution.

After much musing** and sketching out various options, I settled on a large rectangular bed abutting the slate datum, planted with a stylized interpretation of a birchwood (I will keep the planting list for another post).  The bed was carefully positioned to be at a distance where the multi-stemmed birch trees would break the sight-lines and thus screen the courtyard deck from sight of the road, and at the same time provide enough space between it and the house for private parking for household members.

The planting in the rectangular bed screens the glass entrance from the road; the bed itself subtly defines private parking from visitor parking

The planting in the rectangular bed screens the glass entrance from the road; the bed itself subtly defines private parking from visitor parking

This solution is proving highly satisfactory:  the trees are in leaf during the summer when we are likely to be sitting outside on the deck – in the winter it does not matter.  The next project is what to plant between the house and the road to screen the view from my husband’s study and the TV room (the large floor to ceiling glass window to the far left of the house and the horizontal slit window, respectively).

In the absence of planting, the main focus in the front garden is the gap in the hedge and view to the road

In the absence of planting, the main focus in the front garden is the gap in the hedge and view to the road

I am planning to continue the beech hedging along the boundaries by the road, and to plant panels of beech with gaps in it between the grey slate datum and the lawn.  I have spent much of today pacing the front garden, armed with 50m tape measures and bamboo canes, squinting along sight lines.  More on this later.


* The reflections in the glass are as delightful as they are confusing:  the green sunlit lawn to the right in the photograph is in fact the reflection of the back garden behind the camera.  Our house is characterised by myriad reflections, inside and out, and I will write a post solely about them at some point.  It has taken the dogs a while to adjust though.

**  I could never make my living from garden design:  it takes me even more time to come up with a design that pleases me than it does to write these posts.


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