Category Archives: Tips for gardeners

Permaculture versus my lettuces.

For advocates of permaculture, this will probably make them bristle. Although secretly, they will admit (but only to themselves in the wee small hours) that sharing their lettuces with the pigeons, slugs, rabbits and anyone else that wants some is at best irritating and at worst – well let’s not go there. What is permaculture? It started from a principle first put forward by a New Zealand ecologist, Bill Mollison (and his student David Holmgren) who noticed that the greatest amount of useable biomass in terms of food was produced by multi-layered complex ecosystems such as forests. It has long since expanded to cover a whole philosophy of life and way of thinking.

The three core principles at the heart of permaculture are:

  1. Care for the earth: No disagreement here, right?
  2. Care for the people: Well, that sounds pretty sensible too.
  3. Return of surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. Needs a bit of clarification perhaps? This is sometimes referred to as ‘Fair Share’ to reflect that each of us should take no more than what we need before we reinvest the surplus.
Plenty for all - come on down! Although if I am honest, these are not my lettuces. Mine didn't get quite this bad.
Plenty for all – come on down! Although if I am honest, these are not my lettuces. Mine didn’t get quite this bad.

The third ethic – fair share – is a great principle, and clearly life would be a lot better if we all lived like that. However, will somebody please tell the pigeons in my garden? They seem to think that ‘fair share’ means all my brassicas, lettuces and young pea shoots. This year, they have been kind enough to leave me the broad beans (although read my blog post from last year – ‘Badly balanced vegetables’ for other problems with broad beans). They have also pointed out to me on a number of occasions that I can also have the nettles and thistles. Negotiations are ongoing, you might say. Meanwhile, I have netted my lettuces to keep them off and also have some (totally ineffective) cloches over my kale and cavalo nero. This also seems to keep the other interlopers (rabbit and his friends & relations) out of the beds. However, this particular year slugs are taking their fair share. Unfortunately, they seem to take it rather unevenly – a bite here, a bite there – and also once they have eaten their fill, like to snuggle down for a little nap between the leaves. This does not go down well with offspring (or anyone else at the table, come to that).

These are my lettuces - complete with plastic slug collars.
These are my lettuces – complete with plastic slug collars.

My solution has been to use plastic soup containers (herein lies an admission that I sometimes don’t make all my own soup – but don’t tell anyone). I cut the bottoms off them and gently thread them over the lettuces. this seems to work, and it is even a bit permaculturey – I am recycling after all! You might notice in the picture mulching with grass clippings and my irrigation system, which runs off rainwater stored in an IBC (International bulk container). All a bit Bob Flowerdew, but it works! Ignore the weeds please.

Of course this acceptance of intervention is at the heart of gardening and of garden design. Indeed, it is what defines it (see my blog post from a couple of years ago – When is a garden designer a landscape designer?). By making interventions we clearly make conscious choices about what we will or won’t allow in our space. The natural world impinges upon that space; it is allowable if it works with or doesn’t directly undermine our choices. When it does, we define it as a pest. So I suppose what fascinates me about all this is that we are very keen as gardeners and garden designers to cater for ‘wildlife’. As long as it doesn’t eat our lettuces, that is. This same view pervades our view of plants as well. The difference between a wildflower and a weed? Well, the old adage is that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place. So by extension, is a pest just wildlife in the wrong place? Squirrels are OK when they eat nuts from your hand in the park, but not from your walnut tree? Rabbits are OK in a hutch but not (as with us this winter) when they cause several hundred pounds’ worth of damage to newly planted trees – all ring-barked. Do I sound bitter and twisted? Maybe a little, but as least with my soup container solution, the slugs and I can live happily side by side! Maybe they will even eat the weeds…

Badly balanced vegetables – diary of a well-meaning gardener

Badly balanced vegEvery year, I start off with the same good intentions. I’m not talking about taking more exercise, drinking a little less, losing a couple of pounds or keeping the bedroom tidier, although God knows I need to do all those things. No, I’m talking about the veg garden. This year (no exception) it ran something like this:

Boxing Day – sit thinking about how this year I will really get things sorted.

January 1st: decide to sow an early batch of tomatoes in the propagator before the end of the month.

February: sow mangetout and broad beans in the garden (the ones that I intended to sow in October). Look half-heartedly for propagator but cannot find all the bits.

March: discover mice have eaten the broad beans and peas I sowed last month. Sow some more.

Early April: actually sow first batch of tomatoes, along with courgettes, French beans, lettuces, gherkins and various vegetables that I don’t even like. There doesn’t seem to me to be a real argument for planting potatoes – I am infuriated by all the leftover potatoes that come up all over the veg garden from previous years.

Late April: despite misgivings I sow loads of seed potatoes, mainly because they looked a bit lonely sprouting on the shelf at the garden centre (plus I have a soft spot for Red Duke of York). Peas come up, but mice have eaten the broad beans (again). The pigeons have broken all the branches on the cherry trees eating the new shoots in the Spring.

May: after inspecting the seed trays every day or so for about five weeks, I discover that the lettuce seeds from two years ago that I sowed last month are no longer viable. This could have something to do with being stored in a non-airtight container in the warm conservatory, but personally I think it is just spite. Buy more lettuce seed and so that I will not be caught out again with dud seed, sow the whole lot. In desperation, buy broad bean seedlings and plant them out. Pigeons eat the pea seedlings. I think about how nice pigeon pie with peas might have been.

Early June: plant out about 400 lettuces. Discover that I have enough tomato plants to feed Italy, but not that bothered as I know they will all get blight before I can harvest them anyway. Courgettes doing really well! Discover a tray of climbing French beans at the back of the conservatory with a another seed tray on top of them. Amazingly, quite a few have survived (perhaps plants fare better with my neglect than my care?) I plant them out in the vegetable garden.

Late June: enjoying lettuces. Looking wistfully at stumps of pea plants. Broad beans doing OK, but showing signs of chocolate spot (they always do this, not normally too much of a problem if you pick them soon). Courgettes romping.

Early July: Getting a bit fed up with lettuce, which is also starting to bolt in the hot weather. Pick all my broad beans, and with great ceremony pick the first courgette. I always feel summer has properly arrived when I pick the first courgette. Mention airily when I am cycling with friends on a Sunday – ‘Oh, aren’t yours ready yet? I’ve started picking mine!’ All the raspberries seem to have ripened on the same day. I pick loads early one sunny morning, which would be a pleasant task if it wasn’t for the tall nettles which seem to have sneaked up between the canes, resulting in some nasty shocks when searching through foliage for just-reachable berries.  Also – a huge success with artichokes. In the winter I found some artichoke plants lurking at the back of the veg garden that I had forgotten about and transferred them down to a sunny border next to the deck. Not only do they look very statuesque, they have also produced about ten good-sized artichokes!

Lots of courgettes – but no beans!
Lots of courgettes – but no beans!

Mid July: Courgettes producing well, although beginning to get a bit worried that I have planted too many of them. I planted half of them in the vegetable garden and the other half down in the what we laughingly call the ‘forest garden’ – actually a bit more polyculture than permaculture. I think because they were in two different places I didn’t realise quite how many there were. Disappointed to see that the apricot tree at the Triangle Community Garden is laden with apricots whereas our own tree has none.

Late July: I can now barely get into the conservatory for tomato foliage. There is no sign of any tomatoes on these, although the outside tomatoes in the vegetable garden are heavy with trusses. I always plant some outside for the one year in ten when we get a dry end to the summer, and also because I pretend to myself that I like green tomato chutney, of which I seem to have rather a lot in the larder. We are now drowning in courgettes. I am picking them at the rate of about four a day (work it out – twenty-eight a week). The family are showing signs of courgette wilt. Potatoes now ready to harvest. I always think they look so sad at the end when they all collapse. I remember one year going on holiday and my daughter (who had stayed behind and was kindly doing some watering) thought she had killed them all. Genuinely disappointed (no, really) to hear that someone has pinched all the apricots off the tree at the Triangle Community Garden.

The remains of  a chocolate courgette cake
The remains of a chocolate courgette cake

Early August: Have a very successful courgette cooking session. I make a rather unusual courgette chocolate cake, which Vicky proclaims to be ‘a bit odd’ but to my surprise my elder son says it is ‘lovely’. Also manage to burn a load of courgettes while softening them for soup, which is great because I can bin them and use four more. I have also discovered the inevitable marrow which some escaped notice under the leaves of one plant. This is good news as it means I can make my favourite Zucha parmigiana dish, which is ridiculously rich, but delicious. Dip slices of marrow in egg and seasoned flour before frying and layering with Taleggio cheese and tomato sauce, then bake in the oven – Yum!

I will update this as the year goes on. Next year I might even do it month by month, who knows. Then again, I might be too busy gardening (and cooking courgettes).

A Bigger splash – weeks eight and nine – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

 

The completed liner for the swimming pond, looking towards the path end. The skimmer pit is in the foreground.

As of Friday night, the installation of the liner is finished and the pool is (hopefully) watertight.  I will resist all the obvious puns regarding liners and launching. Suffice to say that although we didn’t crack any bottles of champagne on the ‘bow’ of the pool, we had a small celebratory drink at what is after all a landmark in the construction.

Detail along the sleeper wall. The liner is trapped between pieces of timber and then sealed.

You might remember from (much) earlier posts that we decided to go for polypropylene rather than PVC partly on the grounds of it being manufactured in the UK, but also because it is a lot less environmentally damaging in manufacture. My concern with this was that it was very stiff and might look a bit ruckled following installation. I needn’t have worried. The appropriately named Tim Pool (yes, really) who is doing the installation of the liner for us did a fantastic job with almost no creases or ugly lumps. It did take quite a lot longer than we expected (like most things on this job), but the result looks great. I have posted a couple of pictures of some of the details as well as the main photo. The marginal beds with curves on both sides were particularly difficult. To seal the liner against the sleepers was tricky – we don’t like to make things easy for ourselves – we used a chunky piece of larch that we used to secure the liner against the timber sleepers and then enclose in liner. This stops the liner tearing against the fixings once loaded with water.

Similar to the timber detail, but using metal edging.

On the lawn side we used a similar method with a strip of metal bolted to the metal edging, which was in turn secured in concrete haunching. This may all seem a bit belt and braces but the pull on the liner once it is full of more than 200 tonnes of water is huge.

Although the rain has made working on the lawn grade difficult, we have made progress towards final levels. So much so that I am now beginning to think we might not have enough subsoil and topsoil! All those enormous piles have gone – I can’t quite believe that all the calculations were right.

Hopefully an end to these...

What I really cannot face is the incessant battles with the local mole population which has gone on for the last six years. This peaked when, on our return from our summer holiday a few years ago, we were confronted 40 molehills on the lawn. My heart sank. I spent 3hrs or so on my hands and knees opening the tunnels and burying all the soil so the lawn was green again. Next morning: ten fresh molehills – this was war! We tried everything – flooding the tunnels, battery operated sonic devices, solar powered devices, traps, with limited success. The ultimate indignity was finding a sonic device toppled by a fresh molehill – a sort of moley ‘two-fingered’ response. The dispute as to whose lawn it was dragged on for several years until I recently solved it (temporarily) by digging it all up. We had to find a more permanent solution by which we could both share the lawn. After a lot of research, we have come down in favour of a German product (suggested by Jens in our design office) which allows the moles to tunnel beneath the lawn but prevents them producing molehills. An honourable compromise that should restore peace. You can get details from Harald Unger at http://molebarrier.com/3.html. It is installed about 50-70mm below the surface of the turf. If I never see another molehill, it will be worth it.

From now it is a sprint to the finish. Marginal beds in the pool to be filled and planted, plumbing completed, paving laid, pool filled, lighting to be installed, lawn laid and decking constructed (both underwater and outside the pool). Soon there will be no more mud in the house…

A Bigger Splash – week three – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

Vicky Wyer takes up the story…

Week three of the swimming pond saga and the garden still looks like the outskirts of a Welsh mining town.

Looking very deep now - swim area walls almost complete

The blockwork walls of the deep swim area are almost complete and now stand proud of the surrounding ground – although eventually they’ll be about 300mm below water level. As our garden is on an appreciable slope, we have planned this ‘perching’ of the pool in order to minimise the dig but also to redistribute what was in the hole around the garden.

So where our lawn was sloping it will be flatter, and beyond the pool the ground will need to be terraced to take it back down to existing levels. How this will be achieved when there are spoil mounds on almost every inch of ground remains to be seen…

Plans for our food forest

John has asked me to write a bit about our forest garden plans this week so here goes:

For those unfamiliar with forest gardens they are basically self-regulating, food-producing ecosystems designed to mimic the structure of a woodland edge – optimum light, shelter and layering of groundcover, shrub, understorey and canopy  to give abundant production.

Typical layers in a forest garden (unless you have chickens)

This is based on the principle that nature is always pushing towards climax vegetation (woodland in the UK) so why not harness that energy and work with it, adapting nature’s tendencies for our own ends.

How it should work

Briefly in an ideal forest garden all your resource inputs are minimised:

  • minimal weeding as planting or mulch covers the ground completely
  • minimal watering once established due to the woodland microclimate
  • minimal pests and diseases due to the biodiversity
  • minimal feeding as the design incorporates sufficient nitrogen fixers to feed the rest via microrrhizal activity. Potassium is added via comfrey mulches, etc

All of which is just as well as between us John and I are pretty rubbish at nurturing our own garden on the whole. Looking after three children, two dogs, a business, a community garden, a neglected house still in need of major renovation, four ducks, eleven chickens, some raised veg beds and a lawn that seems to be the mole-magnet of the county seems to fill most of our time…

Deckchairs on the Titanic? - where John and I will sit and laugh when this is all over (when we're done picking all the flippin forest garden fruit)

Factoring in existing ‘challenges’

And as with everything we do at home, our forest garden will be a bit of a compromise:  partly since we’re working with a set of existing trees, none of which fix nitrogen, partly because our garden is quite exposed with the sun and wind both coming mainly from the west, and partly because the forest garden is where our chickens roam – good for fertilisation, bad for growing a productive herb layer. Oh and then there’s the rabbits that pop over from the field next door for a little ‘silflay’ every morning…

Our Forest Garden plot - aka the chicken run - looking west

How it will work – we hope

The idea is to plant some Italian alders along the northerly boundary where they will add shelter and fix nitrogen but not shade the already dappled forest garden too much – luckily the existing trees are birches so there will be some sun getting through. An Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) planted for its flavoursome berries next to the southerly hedge, will also fix nitrogen. Altogether this should give us enough nitrogen to satisfy the existing trees and our proposed fruit layers.

The Forest Garden plot looking towards the house (showing open cast mine inbetween)

As our soil is very sandy and free draining, the terraces we’re planning will help to retain runoff in the forest garden. Along the edges of the terraces we’re going to use the bulky tree waste and hedge trimmings we’ve stockpiled at the bottom of the garden from the removal of numerous unwanted or elderly trees and shrubs. These tree waste bunds will be covered with the turf from the old lawn to create ‘hugel’ beds; the slow break down of the tree waste will release nitrogen over a long period and enhance the soil structure. Rebel farmer Sepp Holzer uses this technique on Austrian mountainsides to great effect.

As well as fruit and nut trees, we’re planning to grow some bamboo near the pond. This will not only act as a much needed shelterbelt but we hope to harvest the shoots for eating.

It’s all happening so fast!

The apricots, almond, hazel, quince, medlar, gage, damson, Mirabelle, plum, blue honeysuckle, cherries, fig and berries-too-numerous-to-mention, have started to arrive from Martin Crawford’s Agroforestry Research Trust in Devon and various other specialist nurseries, and we’ve been busy heeling them in until the areas are ready for planting. And before you ask not all the plants are going in the forest garden – some will go nearer the house and some in the front garden.

The chickens look warily at the heeled-in fruit bushes

And we haven’t even started on the planting plans for the pond itself and its immediate surroundings! Looks like a busy weekend ahead with another round of decisions and compromises…

Recommended reading on Forest Gardening and Permaculture in practice:

Martin Crawford’s Creating a Forest Garden

Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture

Pollination nation

This spring it seems Britain is a-buzz about bees … many of us have suddenly woken up to the fact that bees are more than just our honey-slaves, and that if we don’t look after our pollinating insects, our food production system could be in serious trouble. If this sounds melodramatic then stop to consider that in the UK alone, pollination is calculated to be worth about £430m to the national economy – food for thought!

Paradoxically it is modern farming practices that have swept away so much of the natural foraging grounds for our bees. Bees feed on pollen and nectar which they collect from flowers, and there are simply far fewer flowers in the countryside these days. Hedges have been removed, marshes drained and over 97% of flower-rich meadows have been lost from the UK. Add to that new research from France suggesting that common pesticides damage bees’ ability to navigate and dramatically reduce the numbers of queens they produce, and it’s little wonder bees are struggling!

Gardens are just about the only place left to them and even they are becoming unwelcoming: the fashion for sleek lawns, monoculture planting and everything clipped to within an inch of its life does not make for an attractive world to pollinators. They need flowers – but not just any flowers – sadly most annual bedding plants (eg Pelargoniums, Begonias, Busy Lizzies) have no nectar in them – you might as well be planting artificial flowers for all the use they are to bees.

Gardens need to be designed for pollinators. The garden on the right has no flowers at all. The flowers on the left are double busy-lizzies, which may look nice but produce virtually no pollen or nectar so are useless to pollinators.

So, aside from campaigning to change the way Britain is farmed (good luck with that one!), how can we help the nation’s pollinating insects? Well there’s hope for bees in even the smallest garden:

Instead of filling your pots and windowboxes with bedding, why not plant flowering perennials or shrubs instead – lavender is the classic bee plant and there are many different types, but also think about catmint, lilies, sedums, hebes and heathers. If you’re absolutely wedded to bedding try wallflowers, sweet peas, cosmos, heliotrope or nicotiana – bees love them. 

Some bedding plants are good for pollinators

Herbs can be great for pollinators too: rosemary, fennel, hyssop, mint, oregano and sage are all nectar-rich and no kitchen doorstep should be without them. You could even plant up the joints between paving slabs with herbs and flowers – like thyme, thrift or erigeron daisies.

But if space is really at a premium think vertically: climbers are great way to add nectar – and texture – to a small space: favourite plants for pollinators include wisteria, honeysuckle, open-flowered roses, climbing hydrangea or if you’ve got room, wall shrubs like Ceanothus, Cytisus battenderii (the pineapple broom) or any of the Buddleias.

Climbers can be good for bees

For the medium-sized garden, why not create an area for cottage garden flowers? A sunny border filled with achillea, campanula, hollyhocks, delphiniums, penstemons and asters will be buzzing with insect life; or for shadier areas plant lungwort, bugle, foxgloves and astrantia. If you have gaps in existing borders, why not fill them with easy annuals like cosmos, cornflowers, love-in-a-mist, eschscholzia or calendula – there are some great colour coordinated bee-friendly seed mixes about. Or go wild and sow some native wildflowers: bistort, verbascum, teasel and viper’s bugloss – a brilliant bee plant.

But the mayhem of the cottage garden isn’t for everyone. If you like your planting strong and structural, you can still benefit bees by using statuesque plants like angelica, cardoon, globe thistle or drifts of iris, alliums, and the ever-popular but wonderful Verbena bonariensis.

Bee friendly plants with good form

For the larger garden there are several different ways you can improve your bee-friendliness, from tree or hedge planting to meadow creation (a subject so complex it merits a blog of its own).

Fruit tree blossom is very attractive to bees, so creating an orchard or forest garden (the more natural equivalent) would be a great idea if you have the space. If that’s not possible, why not plant a crab apple, cherry or Judas tree and enjoy it for the blossom alone. And, while people tend to either love ’em or loath ’em, bees adore laburnums, so if you’re that way inclined, a laburnum arch would be a pollinator’s dream. And for the yellow-phobes among us, wisteria is a more restrained alternative.

Bees love Laburnum

Hedgerows are great places for all sorts of wildlife, but they can be a really important food resource for pollinators especially if wildflowers are encouraged to grow up along the base. They also provide good nesting sites for bumblebees. If you’re planning on planting a new hedge, think mixed and native: the hedgerow blossom of hawthorn, blackthorn, wild plum, dog rose, and honeysuckle are all well-loved by pollinating insects – throw in wildflowers like ox eye daisy, knapweed, red clover, scabious, sanfoin and viper’s bugloss at the base and you have a year-round supply of nectar.

Native hedgerow plants are a really good source of nectar for insects - and attractive too.

 Which brings me to a few important considerations: bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects need a regular supply of nectar all year round, so it’s important to plan your planting so you have several plants flowering at any given time right across the year. Pollinating insects come in all shapes and sizes, and different shaped flowers suit different species so mix it up floristically-speaking. And as a general rule of thumb, it’s best to avoid plants with double flowers – they keep their nectar hidden away making harder for bees to get at.

Any good garden designer will be bearing all this in mind anyway: providing seasonal interest for their client and ensuring that sustainable, environmentally-friendly options are given full consideration. If you feel inspired to take on transforming your patch into a pollinators’ paradise, there is plenty of information on the following websites – enjoy!

http://www.rhs.org.uk/Gardening/Sustainable-gardening/Plants-for-pollinators

www.bumblebeeconservation.org.uk/gardening_for_bumblebees.htm

www.plantforwildlife.ccw.gov.uk

One final thought – if you are keen to attract and encourage pollinators, but can’t completely kick the pesticide habit, then please check the ingredients of the products you use very carefully and keep your eye on the news. Several commonly used chemicals: Imidacloprid, Acetamiprid, Thiacloprid and Thiamethoxam, have already been potentially implicated in bee decline, and I doubt they’ll be the last…

Vicky Wyer

The Hose Pipe Ban

Glorious weather, a weekend of gardening with blossom on the cherry trees and magnolias in bloom – perfect! Well apart from when I glance at the hose reel and realise my trusted tool and fellow reviver of greenery on the sandiest of soils is about to be confined to the shed, incarcerated, and forbidden by the hosepipe ban from the 5th April. A second glance at my splendid multi jet sprinkler with its variety of sprays has me on my knees howling why, oh why, oh why…..like the most agitated of points of view correspondents.

After a strong coffee, some apologies to the neighbours and a brief discussion with two chaps carrying a fetching white jacket with fancy buckles I gather my thoughts…

Well the why is simple after two dry winters the reservoirs and aquifers are low in the south east forcing seven water authorities Southern Water, South East Water, Thames Water, Anglian Water, Sutton and East Surrey, Veolia Central and Veolia South East to introduce a hose pipe ban. With my fanciful garden sprinkler using around 600 litres an hour I can see the need.

But what to do! ….. In fact this need not be the complete disaster I feared; my garden is established and there are steps to take that will keep my plants alive:-

• The use of a watering can is allowed when filled directly from the tap, use it in the early morning or evening to minimise evaporation and the amount of water needed.

• Install a water butt, this is the UK it will rain so store this precious precipitation.

• If you are planning major works to or around your house consider installing a grey water system which also will help stop that water meter spinning round at an alarming rate – watch this space for a more detailed blog on this.

• Install a drip or leaky pipe irrigation system with a timer set for the night or early morning. The efficiency of these systems has been recognised by all water authorities and is now permitted during hosepipe bans – but only with a timer. I am afraid any irrigation system which puts water into the air with a sprinkler head or micro spray is not allowed even with a timer.

• Apply mulch to the borders to keep the water in the ground.

• Mow the lawn a bit higher and make sure your mower blades are sharp and if the lawn does go brown don’t panic!! As long as it is established it will survive and be green again soon! See www.turfgrass.co.uk for more information.

• Save water in the house too, the water shortage is not just a problem for gardeners!

Drought tolerant plants

It seems clear that this will not be the last hose pipe ban and by selecting plants that are adapted to survive in periods of drought the effects can be minimised. Look for plants that grow or can trace their origins to coastal regions or sunnier climes.

These plants will have leaves that are adapted to minimise the loss of water this can be with narrow leaves, leaves with fine hairs to trap moisture, grey leaves to reflect the sun or with waxy leaves to hold the water in. This of course is not just a case of buying a drought tolerant plant, popping it in and job done. A drought tolerant plant will be as likely to shrivel up and expire as any other until it is established and gets its roots down so as ever preparation is key plant well and use a good compost to retain moisture. Make sure you plant early while the soil conditions are moist and keep the watering can handy.

It is also important to remember the winter – there is little point in planting that lovely Aloe with its waxy leaves or that silver leafed olive in that cold spot in the garden. They may well resist the drought only to be frozen to death in January!

For a comprehensive list of drought tolerant plants see http://apps.rhs.org.uk/advicesearch/Profile.aspx?pid=397 or Beth Chatto’s ‘The Dry Garden’ is still an essential read.

Some of my favourite drought tolerant plants are Lavendula, Cercis siliquastrum, Arbutus unendo, Rosmarinus, Quercus ilex, Pinus mugo, Vitex agnus-castus, Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii ……. I’d better stop… there are lots to choose from and I will go on and on!

Vitex, Lavenders planted by B&W in hotter climes and Euphorbia wulfenii<

New landscapes

One element of the hose pipe ban that carries uncertainty and has me back in the why oh why mode is that of exclusions. All water authorities state that the ban should not affect commercial activities and yet at this stage the professional landscaper is not universally exempt from the hose pipe ban. This is still the consultation period and the Landscape related professional bodies the SGD, BALI, APL, HTA and TGA are currently lobbying to have an exemption for the use of a hose pipe by the professional on newly planted schemes and newly laid lawns.

The landscape industry is a substantial contributor to the UK economy with for example BALI (British Association of Landscape Industries) members employing around 25’000 staff with an annual turnover of £1.5 billion and the HTA (Horticultural Trades Association) estimating growers and plant wholesale/retailers employ 300,000 staff and an annual turnover in the region of £9 billion. These are significant numbers and sums and I hardly need say that in the current economic situation they should not be put at risk.

The exemption should not be an open invitation to splash water around with abandon, indeed all professional bodies offer guidance on how to minimise water use, but a chance to keep trading!

Visit the Society of Garden Designers website http://www.sgd.org.uk/Article/Detail.aspx?ArticleUid=CCA6588A-16BC-44E0-B592-5AADCB70B417 and British Association of Landscape Industries website www.bali.co.uk for news on the lobbying and how to get involved and watch this space for news.

Stuart

How do you solve a problem like a garden designer? Writing a brief – a guide for clients.

As the weather improves this week, the temperature climbs and we all begin to look outside again. At this time of year, I frequently go into the garden and think ‘what a tip!’ All those odds and ends, badly coiled hoses, un-pruned plants, and scrappy undergrowth – how could I have not noticed it before? It is true that without the kind veil of foliage, gardens can look particularly grim at this time of year. If all this is familiar to you, then cheer yourself up by leafing through magazines and books with their summery pictures of tranquillity that we all associate with gardens. Perhaps it is finally all too much? Maybe it is time to start again? After all if you’re not going to move house you might as well sort the garden out.

Where do I start?

But where to start? Most people really struggle when it comes to writing a coherent brief for a designer. As they are unfamiliar with the process of design, or what a designer might propose, they feel intimidated by the whole procedure. If you’re thinking of making changes in your own garden or have a new project, why not start by tagging images that you like, even if they are wildly diverse. This will help to get you thinking in order that you can write a simple brief. Start with a few simple bullet points:

  • When you are there: do you look at the garden all day or only evenings/weekends? Is it a second home, perhaps used seasonally?

    How keen a gardener are you? How much time do you think you can (or want to) devote to looking after the garden?
  • Think how you will use the garden: do you entertain? Do you have children, pets?
  • Are you a keen gardener? In all honesty, how much time are you likely to spend out there? If you haven’t shown much interest so far, then don’t lumber yourself with a high maintenance scheme with lots of herbaceous plants – leave that to the National Trust! If you are keen, perhaps you might consider an area for vegetables or fruit.
  • Instead of using clichéd phrases like ‘year-round colour’ or ‘lots of evergreens’, try instead to think in terms of how the garden will look and feel. Maybe you like things wild and romantic – scrambling roses, long grass with wild flowers, apple trees laden with fruit. Or perhaps you are more controlled – clean swept paving, topiary, clipped hedges, splashes of colour or white flowers kept to occasional containers. If there is a particular style or image that sums it up – cottage garden, Mediterranean, urban chic, or family friendly, then add to your brief.
  • Are there any particular features that you want in the garden hot tub, fire pit, water feature, swimming pool?
  • If there are any facts that the garden designer might not know at a quick visit – tell them – like: ‘It’s always sunny just here late in the morning’, or ‘I’ve never liked that house next door can we screen it’. Other than that, try not to lead your designer too much – no ‘I’ve always fancied a circular lawn’ or ‘I just thought a raised bed here would be nice’. Let them come up with the ideas – you will be pleasantly surprised!
  • Finally – BUDGET! Always a tricky one! In my experience most clients say that they don’t have a budget in mind or that they have no idea. In practice, everybody has some idea and most clients actually do have a budget in mind. It is supremely unhelpful if you don’t share your thoughts on what you want to spend with your designer. You would walk into an estate agent and say you had no idea of budget. In the end, the more detail you can give a designer on cost, the less of everybody’s time is wasted. This is especially important if you have an over-riding cost limit – you only want to spend the £40K granny left you and not a penny more. And do be clear whether you are talking VAT inclusive or excluding VAT.

 

Finally - that's a weight off my mind!

Presumably, if you have come as far as reading this blog, you are interested in employing a garden designer, either now or in the future. if you want to compare people, do try and start with suitably qualified and professional designers. Of course it goes without saying that B&W are the best, but if you want a comparison, go to the Society of Garden Designers website (www.SGD.org.uk) and look through a few designers in your area.

John Wyer

Garden Design for Small Spaces

 

It may seem perverse to link the words ‘small’ and ‘space’ together, but unfortunately for most people who garden in central London, this is an all too familiar conundrum. Even more perversely, it doesn’t seem to make much difference how big your house is, the spaces aren’t necessarily any bigger – you just get six of them. However, even the smallest external space has potential. The real joy is that with access to light and water it is possible to enliven the flatness of the urban environment. Few things are more cheering than spring bulbs bursting through soil, or an exuberance of foliage and flower on a hot day.

Unfortunately the gritty reality is that basement lightwells, balconies and roof terraces can be daunting places to try and establish a garden and you should use all the weapons at your disposal. Let’s start with some practical considerations. How is the space to be used? Can some or all of it be easily seen from inside? What is access like? The links with internal spaces are often vital and should be exploited as much as possible. Make the most of views from important windows by placing pots, sculptures, specimen plants or other features on the same axis. Try and draw the viewer out into the space by giving hints of something just out of sight.

Try and create drama in a small space. Mirrors can add depth and mystery, especially if partly veiled by foliage. Use lighting, particularly uplighting, to accentuate features such as pots or sculptures. Strong textures (which work well in confined spaces) are much emphasised by carefully placed lighting. Try luxuriant foliage or slatted trelliswork against white or brightly coloured stucco walls. Water and light combine well together. Water features can be very dramatic in confined spaces, and these days there are all sorts of possibilities that take up very little space. The sound of trickling water can add to the ambience of a small terrace.

Lighting not only adds drama, but also extends the period during which you can use a garden. We often use firepits to add a strong focus; they are a great gathering point on cooler evenings and allow use of the garden well into the autumn. For roof terraces or smaller spaces, there are options fuelled by gel or by gas. Hot tubs are worth considering too; there is nothing quite like lying on your back in a hot tub looking at the stars – we did a garden in London’s West End last year with a hot tub that had a view of Green Park! There are even wood-fired ones for the more adventurous souls.

Don’t forget the surface you walk on. If you don’t want the upheaval of lifting the existing paving why not lay timber decking or thin porcelain tiles over the top.

Planting will always do better if it is rooted directly into the ground, but in many situations this is not possible. Give some thought to containers, as these are an important part of the ‘furniture’ of your external room. Don’t automatically go for terracotta, we often get timber containers made up, or you could try lead or ceramic. If working to a tight budget, found objects such as old zinc galvanised baths, buckets, or even lavatory pans can be wonderful. We have also used sections of air-conditioning ducts before as planters.

Horticultural considerations are of paramount importance. Remember the three basic needs of plants: water, light and nutrients. Consider installing a simple irrigation system -many of these are available over the counter at garden centres in kit form or can be installed at a reasonable cost by a competent gardener. Drainage is also important. Light is at a premium in courtyards and deep lightwells so choose plants carefully. Generally speaking, green-leaved plants will put up with lower light conditions than variegated or coloured foliage types. Reserve silver and grey leaved plants for high light positions. In really dismal conditions, rely on foliage rather than flower and pick plants well adapted to such conditions such as ferns. Pockets of colour can always be introduced with bedding plants. Compost should be of good quality and, if possible, replaced on a regular basis (every 2-3 years for example). On roof gardens you will also have to consider exposure. Use permeable structures, such as a close mesh trellis of horizontal battens, for shelter rather than solid screens such as glass; the more solid a windbreak is the more turbulence it will create. Seaside plants are well suited to these conditions. Combine them with decking and beach pebbles for a maritime feel. All in all, remember that the more you put into a small garden the more you will get out of it.