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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.