And the garden

When modern architecture goes outside


Ten Great Gardening Gifts under £15

I’m afraid my robust stance on what NOT to get gardeners has not softened in the intervening two years.  If anything, I have become more set in my ways.  Here is a list of stocking fillers, all of them under fifteen quid, that any keen gardener would be very pleased to get.

  1. Jumbo kneeler

    Yes, those ads in the back of Sunday supplements are accurate: garden kneelers are useful.  No, not those leather/chintz/Harris tweed covered ones, aspirational and pretty though they be. They all share the same fault: way too small, with only space for your knees side by side. If there’s something just out of reach, you have to get to your feet, move the kneeler 20cm and then get back down again, which over the course of a even a few minute’s gardening becomes irritating (even for those less prone to irritation than myself). I wound up never using mine, unless it was really cold and wet underknee. Then, clearing out my father’s toolshed earlier this year, I came across a giant, garishly coloured slab of foam: a vastly outsized kneeler. I commandeered it, brought it back with me to Scotland and have used it almost every day since. The kneeler I suggest you buy is even larger than my own, at a wildly generous 98cm by 39cm, and is truly a brilliant present for any gardener.  Its only downside is that it won’t actually fit in the stocking.At £10.95 from Harrod Horticultural

  2. Blade sharpening kit

    This duo from Darlac is brilliant. I have a similar little steel that I have to hand – so useful for a mid pruning-session sharpen of the secateurs.  And if you wanted to bowl your recipient over with your thoughtfulness, you could bung in a can of WD40, a couple of Brillo pads and possibly even a rag. Pop the lot in a shoebox and that’ll keep your gardener happily occupied through the bleak January days, productively sharpening every blade in the shed in keen anticipation of the coming spring.At £12.99 from Two Wests & Elliott
  3. Plant rings

    These little plastic coated wire rings are incredibly useful. I never throw them away, they last forever, and you can use them again and again.  I always have a few in my pocket for when I notice that something has flopped away from its support or the twine has broken – or the plant has grown and the point at which it needs attached has changed – and I don’t want to go back to the shed and get the full works. I use them to to secure tomato and cucumber plants to bamboo canes, to train the young branches of trees, to secure delphinium spikes onto canes, to train my climbers to their wires. I realise that as presents go they lack a certain wow factor, but you can’t have everything.At £1.99 from Kingfisher, available from all garden centres and Amazon
  4. Proper gardening gloves

    Be suspicious of gardening gloves that look pretty. A gardening glove should have a purpose: it is either a leathery gauntlet to protect your hands from being scratched by thorns, irritated by sap or burnt by fire; or designed to keep soil particles away from your skin and nails. I do not subscribe to the view that true gardeners love to feel the soil with their bare hands. When I see presenters on Gardeners World plunging their ungloved hands into the earth I physically shudder at the memory of running microscopically roughened hands over fabric and the unpleasant snagging sensation that ensues. So for standard garden work use these from Showa, and for anything requiring greater precision use these medical latex or vinyl ones. As well as also coming in very useful for kitchen use when chillis need chopped, you can snap them at the wrists as you put them on and waggle your eyebrows suggestively. That may be just in our household though.At £3.10 a pair from Just Work Gloves and others
    From £3.60 for a box of 100 gloves from Just Gloves
  5. Decent hand scrub

    My father, who started out as an engineering apprentice, swore by Swarfega, and always had a pot or ten about the house. I swear by Jo Malone’s Geranium and Walnut Scrub, but let’s face it, no way is that one going to meet the £15 criterion of this list. However, a genuinely good alternative that does is the Gardener’s Hand Scrub from Nutscene (also containing geranium), which is a delight to use and smells lovely.  Don’t wet your hands first: all three scrubs work (and feel) best when applied to dry hands, slowly massaged into the palms, backs of hands and fingers, then rinsed off with tepid water. Nutscene makes an equally good accompanying hand cream – I’m quite picky about products (but you already knew that) and I rate it.From £7.63 a 500ml pot, from Amazon
    At £40 for 200g from Jo Malone
    At £8.99 for 150ml from Nutscene
  6. Seed Voucher

    That thing about sitting by the fire when it’s lashing down outside, poring over seed catalogues? Never happened to me, I do my seed salivating in the evenings in front of my computer, but it doesn’t diminish the joy in knowing you have a voucher with an interesting seed company and you get to choose whatever you like. Free seeds, hurrah! You could get six or seven packets for a £15 voucher, and the firm will send you their list or catalogue too if you like. You cannot go wrong with a voucher from any of the following:Chiltern Seeds
    Special Plants
    Franchi Seeds of Italy
    Real Seeds
  7. Thermometers

    I’m going to recommend two types of garden thermometer, both of which I use (indeed I have two of each type and can always use more). Digital examples of both do exist, but I haven’t yet tried them so I can’t comment firsthand. The first type is a straightforward soil thermometer, robust and with a bright red ball on the top which means that when you lose it under the rush of spring growth, come autumn you stand a good chance of finding it again. Thanks entirely to this attribute, I’ve had my current one for over 15 years and three gardens.
    The second type is a minimum/maximum temperature recorder. I have one in my polytunnel and one outside so that I can nerdily compare the difference. Even more nerdily, I then record the temperatures in my garden notebook (see next item on the list).At £12.99  and £14.99 respectively, both from Two Wests & Elliott
  8. Garden Notebook

    See previous point. Any committed gardener needs a notebook, for all sorts of valid and not at all nerdish reasons. I jot down what I sowed and when, garden ideas, to do lists, plant wish lists and planting combination ideas. It is a calamity to visit another garden without a notebook, because the back of a scrap of paper jottings you make will inevitably be lost or put through the wash. My favourites are medium-sized lined hardback notebooks that stay in the polytunnel or shed, and smaller unlined ones that can be slipped into a pocket when out visiting.  Both from Moleskine.
    *** I am positively giddy with excitement having just learnt that for an additional £5 you can have your notebook personalised with your name or the name of your garden. “Gray House Garden. 2017” Deep breaths.***From £10.95 from Moleskine
  9. Root trainers

    These are the bee’s knees for sowing individual medium sized seeds like sweet peas or sweetcorn (broad beans are just a tad too large), or for propagating cuttings. As well as encouraging excellent root development, you can open up the sleeve without disturbing the roots to see how things are doing. After a number of uses the plastic sleeves do start to rip, but I’ve kept mine going for years.At £10.95 (currently £6.99, you could get two sets!) by Haxnicks from Amazon
  10. Pot of indoor bulbs

    Yes yes, I know I should have ordered my bulbs for forcing in September when I did my annual tulip order, but I was so profligate with the tulips and lilies that I had to cut something, and that’s what went. And now I am forced to buy my hyacinths and amaryllis in pots, already in growth (and I’m noticing that once you allow for the pot and the time, there’s not that much in it, pricewise). There is something so utterly cheering for the gardener about spring bulbs, tangible proof that spring and summer will come again. Any supermarket will have those baskets of three hyacinths – white or blue please, not pink, and none of your sparkly ‘decorations’ thank you very much – but M&S are doing a particularly charming range of muscari in little milk jugs which I think must be instore only, because I can’t find them online. Three of those would be just dandy.

Whatever you choose to get the gardener in your life, I wish you and them a very happy Christmas and a lovely start to the eagerly awaited new year. Come on 2017!











1 Comment

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.


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


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.

Leave a comment

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.


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.

Leave a comment

Dead Mouse Soup

In my last house, I built a good-sized pond, the precursor to my present one.  I intended it purely as a formal feature, with no wildlife objectives whatsoever:  we were after all in the middle of the countryside and surrounded by more habitat than you could shake a stick at.  The old quarry pond, in particular, was a haven of damsel and dragonflies, birds, bats and invertebrates, that every spring hosted a gathering of frogs that rivaled T in the Park for the crowds, the noise and the shameless behaviour.

Unconcerned therefore with the requirements of any flora or fauna, the pond was built to look the way I wanted, and very happy I was too.  The vertical sides of the pond were capped with slate coping stones, extending slightly out over the water to make a neater visual join.

DCF 1.0

No one anticipated that the local wildlife would be so inexorably drawn to the exciting watery possibilities offered by the new pond that it would, to a frog, overlook its one major flaw.  Habitat-wise, if a body of water of uniform depth has sheer vertical sides out of which it is impossible to climb, that ought to be a deal-breaker (unless you have gills).  Caveat saltor.  Alas, they either didn’t care or didn’t realise until it was too late.  Frog after toad after newt flung itself into the pond, followed by their mates, followed in due course by their resulting progeny.  There comes a time in the life of every young amphibian when it really wants to venture onto dry land for a bit, and they would climb up the edges where bits of grouting had fallen out, and huddle when they could get no further, miserably, like Marsh Wiggles.  I would spend many a pleasantly virtuous afternoon on Newt Rescue (also young toads and froglings, but ‘Newt Rescue’ has a better ring to it), and it was an excellent way of occupying visiting children.  I would also fish out adult toads and, with the youngsters, relocate them to the gently sloping sides of the quarry pond, but the adult frogs and newts were usually too quick for me.

If things had only stopped there.  Amphibians can handle being in water a couple more days than they’d ideally like.  Mammals cannot.  I had no idea of the sheer number and variety of small furry animals surrounding us until I found their little corpses bobbing in the water: field mice; wood mice; voles; shrews.  No moles (but they are powerful swimmers anyway),  and on a number of occasions, a rabbit (I found the silver lining).  And on one awful, awful day, a hedgehog.  It started to prey on me to the extent that I would leap out of bed in the morning to dash down to the pond, hoping against hope that nothing would be in it or that if there were I would still be in time to save it.  Some mornings it was like rodent Won Ton soup.  During the day, my attention would snap to the slightest ripple on the pond, in case it were a creature in distress.  Which is pretty much what I had become.

The more practically minded among you will be wondering why we didn’t just build ramps.  We did, and they did seem to reduce the casualties a little bit (you have to build them solid all the way down with no gap at the side so that the animal, paddling its way around the sides of the pond, can’t inadvertently swim underneath the ramp and miss the opportunity to escape), but they completely and utterly ruined the look of pond.

I learned two important lessons from the old pond.  Firstly, that every pond of any size or any style must have an inbuilt animal escape route.  And secondly, that rain falling on water in a formal setting is a mesmerizingly beautiful sight (but few people have either the time or the inclination to stand in rapt appreciation at the bottom of their garden under an umbrella, so build it within view of the windows).

The new pond – while just as formal as the old one – was thus designed from the outset with one shallow side, incorporating a pebbled ‘beach’ that rises gently out of the water and leads without interruption into the bed between the stepping stones and the wall of the house.

IMG_5700 small

IMG_6142 small

While this solution would not work everywhere for design reasons, there is always the opportunity to fashion at least one escape route by installing a short pipe leading to freedom beside the overflow.  You would need to check it manually on a fairly regular basis and poke about to remove any blockages, but if you forgot the first casualty would serve as a mortifying reminder.

Our pond had been filled since April this year, and – do I dare write this? – nothing has drowned in it yet.  Typically, after that sentence, tomorrow morning I will look out at the pond and and see the bloated corpses of a badger, a pine marten and a couple of red squirrel.  With a barn owl thrown in, for good measure.