Oh to new beginnings—and now is, allegedly, the time to ‘turn over new leaves’ etc. If I was starting gardening for the first time what would I do?
I think I’d keep it simple and, following on from last month’s ‘back to basics’ plea, the simplest form of gardening is probably a front garden laid to lawn, maybe a ‘tapestry hedge’ around for privacy, and a back garden full of vegetables, fruit trees and a cut flower border within a formal framework of clipped yew. That model can be extended, or shrunk, to fit most situations and, if you have acres to play with, larger areas can be put down to tree plantings, meadow or expansive ponds (all of which require just a few intense periods of activity each year instead of constant maintenance).
It’s maintenance which really is the killer when it comes to gardening. It is very popular, in the gardening media, to try to make people feel bad if they are not using every last inch of outside space to make time-consuming, budget-busting, horticultural masterpieces. At this point I should mention that a lot of the people chiding you to spend every last minute gardening have ‘staff’ that do it for them, some don’t even have gardens of their own, so pay no heed to them and do what suits you.
If you have a lovely motor car, languishing on the public highway, and a front garden going to waste there’s nothing wrong with seeking permission to use it as off-road parking. The only stipulation is that the surface under the vehicle should be able to absorb rainfall and not feed the run-off directly into the drains. There are various commercial landscaping products which carry the weight of ‘traffic’ but which allow water to penetrate through them into the ground beneath.
If I was lucky enough to own a beautiful Bristol (other classic British cars are available) I’d far rather look out of my front window at that rather than feel browbeaten into creating a front garden for other people to gaze upon… of course then I’d feel even more obliged to create a horticultural spectacle in the back garden!
When it comes to ‘garden magic’ I guess now’s as good a time as any to analyse what gives a garden that certain je ne sais quoi?
Scent is definitely a major factor in this and something easily overlooked. Earlier on I recommended a lawn and a hedge as the most basic way of filling a front garden. A very easy way to add ‘magic’ to a hedge planting is to include ‘Sweet Box’, Sarcococca confusa, in the tapestry mix. It doesn’t get too tall, so won’t make a boundary hedge on its own, but can withstand a certain degree of shade so is happy to be planted with other hedging species. It comes into its own during its winter flowering period with the scent it produces from its small, almost insignificant, little blooms. If it’s hidden away amongst other plants then often the only time you’ll ever notice it is when its sweet scent stops you in your tracks.
As with so many things in life it’s the small, unassuming, ‘non-shouty’ elements which have the greatest capacity to bring joy and levity to the proceedings. On a similar note it is the little ‘Christmas Rose’, Helleborus niger, which takes me by surprise each year when it suddenly opens its clear, bright white, flowers from its hidey-hole under a straggly lonicera hedge. It’s completely obscured during the leafy months of the year but, from early December to early spring, it earns its place in the garden by shining out with fresh blooms from the dark recesses of the hedge bottom where it lurks. That’s the kind of magic every garden needs.
Where space is not at a premium and you’ve got room for a large shrub with strong winter scent then I’m a sucker for Elaeagnus x ebbingei ‘Gilt Edge’. I first came across it as a student landscaper in London where it was almost the signature plant of ‘Moraes & Hansen’ (the firm I worked for). We seemed to plant it everywhere and you will understand why when you learn that it does almost everything a shrub needs to do. It has handsome gold-highlighted, glossy, green, leathery leaves resistant to atmospheric pollution and a degree of shade. Their undersides are a contrasting silvery hue and, if that weren’t enough, like the ‘Sweet Box’, it bears powerfully scented, yet embarrassingly modest, flowers in winter. The variety ‘Limelight’ is the reverse where the gold splashes are displayed more down the centre of the leaves.
If it has any downsides at all, and there is seldom gain without pain, it can suffer from reversion (plain green shoots dominating the variegated ones) and it also has spines along its stems—good for protecting it against unwanted attention! It’s worth heeding the spines because this shrub can get very big and the best way to keep it within bounds is to remove whole sections once it has outgrown it’s allotted space; it is at this point when you are most likely to come across the spines.
The subject of spines brings me nicely to that most well known garden shrub with barbed stems—the rose. This post-Christmas lull provides the perfect time for a spot of ‘internet rose catalogue browsing’. This sport can prove expensive but at least if you purchase bare-root specimens now, for planting any time up to the end of March, it’s cheaper than buying them as containerised rose bushes later on in the year. I can’t imagine a garden without a rose bush, or ten, and when it comes to adding ‘magic’ to an English garden there is nothing that compares.
A mix of old and new varieties does it for me as there are some old ones which lack the modern improvements, disease resistance and repeat flowering, but which are just so scented or atmospheric that they cannot be ignored; ‘Fantin-Latour’ always transports me straight back to the garden where I first came upon it.
When it comes to modern roses there is one breeder which keeps on cropping up—‘David Austin’. His roses are almost the default position when it comes to choosing a rose which seemingly ‘does it all’. There are too many to go into here but I tend to gravitate towards their excellent ‘Graham Thomas’ variety, even though it was introduced many years ago now. Having had a quick look at their website just now I might be tempted to take a punt on ‘Benjamin Britten’, better late than never, as it looks classic in form and I just like the sound of it—nothing more scientific than that!
So here’s to another New Year and, God willing, an abundance of green shoots of recovery…