One of the more noticeable fashions in garden design over the past year has been an interest in all things green. It’s a trend that started some years ago when we started to embrace all those grasses that you now see everywhere. Garden designers have got a little bored with all that wavy grass and have moved over to a new aesthetic of foliage. I remembered looking at a photo with Carol Klein from Gardeners World and she pointed out that this particular leaf looked just like a dress by Issey Miyake – foliage as catwalk fashion!
My fascination with foliage comes from the knowledge that there are lots of plants out there that will give you 3 or 4 weeks of flowering interest but almost a year of foliage. Take some trees for example. A great small garden tree is Sorbus aria “Lutescens” , some delicate early blossom is followed by months of beautiful pale green-grey foliage that shimmers in the wind. Take note that this isn’t a tree to place in an open spot because its large ‘sail factor’ acts just like a yacht’s sail and, if the ground is too wet, the wind can knock it over.
Other great foliage trees include all the Acers such as the Japanese maples and those related to sugar maples and Norwegian maples like Acer saccharinum “Wierii”, Acer griseum and Acer palmatum. These will give you fantastic autumn colours as will Liquidamber styraciflua and that old favourite of mine Parrotia persica. For something more exotic have a look at the Tree of Heaven Ailanthius altissima or an Imperial tree Paulownia imperialis which is also great for shading a hot conservatory or garden office in the summer.
Shrubs are really good foliage value and here you can plant a really exotic mix with plants like the castor oil plant Fatsia japonica and of course all the bamboos. Bamboo has become really popular over the past few years and not without reason. In a London garden it can help provide privacy but it also gives a touch of exotic flavour to a garden as well as movement, shade and gentle noise. They can be thugs but most species sold through garden centres are suitable for medium to large gardens so check out Phyllostachys aureo-sucata “Spectabilis” and Phyllostachys nigra, the black bamboo. Take a look at some of the striking purple foliage out there too like Cotinus coggygria “Royal Purple” and “Sambucus “Black Lace”.
My favourite source of foliage however comes from the herbaceous plants that we usually associate with flowers. The list is endless. For an exotic, often-shady space look out for all the Hosta varieties that are easier in pots. My favourites among the almost 30 I have in my garden are Hosta “Halcyon” and Hosta “Frances Williams” . The African lily Agapanthus has strappy leaves almost all year round as well as those amazing flower heads through June and July. Groundcover plants like Blue Bugle Ajuga spp. and Pachysandra terminalis are brilliant foils for other plants. But for something really special I have two favourites, the first of which is the Rodgersia family such as Rodgersia pinnata and Rodgersia aesculifolia with its horse chestnut shaped leaves – and they don’t mind a slightly damp soil. My second favourite is Bugbane or Actaea (previously and still found as Cimicifuga) with varieties such as Actaea simplex “Atropurpurea”.
If you think there are a lot of scientific names in here well that’s with reason because you can now easily go find them on the google and it might just inspire you to have a few foliage stars in your garden.
I’ve lost count of the number of times that someone has shown me where foxes, badgers, rabbits get into their gardens. Or where they manage to get birds nesting, newts and frogs swimming or even just a few nesting solitary bees. Covering some 4% of the 93,000 square miles of this island we’re lucky that our gardens are truly the biggest wildlife park we have in the UK. What’s more it’s not just our individual gardens that are important but the sum of gardens that is vital to biodiversity.
We once worked as designers to the Royal Horticultural Society for their contribution to the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity. Individual gardens are usually quite small and it is the sum and, especially, the variety, of plants and features within an area's gardens that is valuable. Other features such as canal, railway embankments, street trees, parks and other communal green space also contribute to the variety of habitats and resources but it’s our gardens that are important. The message is that whilst you might not have a pond for wildlife, your neighbour might and if you have trees for birds and flowers for food it will work with the gardens nearby that provide shelter for other wildlife.
One of the big stories in recent years has been the demise in honey bees due to many different factors, not least the use of pesticides in the countryside. Interestingly honeybees are thriving in our cities and it’s the solitary bees that are really on the decline. Rothamsted Research studied an important group of pollinators, the bumblebees, in gardens and farmland and found that gardens support around 5 times as many nests as farmland, with about 36 nests per hectare, regardless of garden size. This was put down to two important features of gardens: presence of potential nesting sites and food resources. Gardens offer a variety of nesting site opportunities, such as compost heaps and bins, bird boxes and flower-beds and a long and continuous season of flowering plants. The abundance of flowers in gardens provides much more nectar and pollen, from early spring to late autumn, than is usually found in the countryside. The conclusion was that gardens are one of the most important refuge for pollinators in Britain!
We can all do our bit and for those low maintenance gardeners out there you’ll be pleased to hear that it doesn’t matter too much about the state of your garden as a few piles of leaves, debris and even a few bricks can be great nesting sites for our bees and insects. But if you want to be more proactive and help these creatures then start building some bee hotels using all the materials you might find around your garden but normally throw away. A few upturned flower pots stuffed with dead leaves is as simple as it can get or you can create some wildlife towers. Check out something we designed for wildlife in Smithfield Market a few years ago, it even appeared in a James Bond movie!
All the indications are that this year is heading towards being another dry one with a long hot summer and a lack of water despite teh recent heavy downpours. The past few winters have been wet so we’ve topped up the reservoirs but even if we don’t get a hose ban we need to think about how we can future proof our gardens against future shortages.
A great many of our local London garden design customers come from countries such as South Africa where waterwise gardening has become a way of life. They are a little surprised that in the UK we haven’t seen the water shortage problems coming and have been relating how they are used to gardening back home in hot climates. Their waterwise gardening techniques are all about understanding what’s going on in the soil, using drought-tolerant plants and watering wisely.
We always recommend that if you are doing any planting make sure you incorporate lots of organic matter into the soil before planting, plant closely and mulch annually in the spring after heavy rainfall. The interaction of water, soil and roots is crucial and mulching up to 150mm (6 inches) deep suppresses weeds, retains moisture and lowers the soil surface temperature. Ground cover plants are also great for cutting down evaporation from the soil and we’ve found that there are lots of useful groundcover plants like perennial Geraniums, Epimedium varieties and Periwinkle (Vinca) that are great for this.
Not all plants need more water in warmer weather and it’s these plants that we should be planting more of. Plants need water when they are in active growth and for many drought resistant plants this is in the cooler months. They all need watering to get established but usually after 12 months these plants can cope well with just rainfall and in long drought periods by slow watering to the roots. So what are our top ten waterwise plants? Well this list should give you some ideas.
The third important element of a water wise garden is to do just that – water wisely. Head gardeners and nurserymen say that watering in the cool of the morning is always the best option but an evening wander with a watering can will also take away the pressures of the day.
You’ll actually save time by cutting out the need to water and feed plants but make sure that you are planting the right plants in the right place. Even in hot weather we’ve seen gardens with boggy lawns and wet areas at the bottom of slopes. This is great for plants that love those conditions but the plants listed above would not survive. Shade is important and dappled shade from trees can be a positive advantage in keeping soil temperatures cool.
Water wise planting is something we’ll all have to get used to but also remember to save every bit of water including grey water from baths and showers and diverting it to your garden. More and more we’re seeing people installing grey water tanks to conserve waste water under the lawn and recycle it for the garden. It’s not a cheap option but over a period of time it will be cheaper than a water meter.
So garden wisely this summer and hope there’s some rain on its way.
We've been working with Blind Veterans UK for 4 years, ever since we were asked to help them with a new Woodland Centenary Garden at their newest centre in Llandudno. This garden went on to win 2 Britain in Bloom Awards and special mention as an 'outstanding neighbourhood garden'. We have also helped the charity in a joint collaboration with Blesma, the veterans limbless charity.
One thing we've always picked up is the amazing community of veteran members, their families, volunteers and staff that we felt part of and we wanted to celebrate this in a garden that looks forward showing some of the activities that members take part in. This community garden demonstrates how Blind Veterans UK can bring people together; how we can train and rehabilitate; highlighting the skills building that is important for the future; all with youthful energy and fun.
From the garden entrance you will be able to walk through a willow artwork by Tom Hare. This willow sculpture embraces the whole garden threading through the space like a vine, reflecting how everyone and everything works together as one community. The Great Vine at Hampton Court Palace, the oldest vine in Britain, was once maintained by blind veterans after WW1.
The ‘village square’ is where beneficiaries, volunteers and staff can meet and take part in activities. There are places for crafts, for just hanging out under the trees, working in the workshop, or gardening in the productive garden. An orchard will provide fruit and a pictorial meadow planting provides ideal space for guide dogs. In other spaces ornamental plants enclose and embrace the space with trees and particulary a high summer interest.
When you visit a garden show the planting design is always the element that visitors are most interested in. This is especially true of Hampton Court which attracts some very keen gardeners and plant collectors. This year we are celebrating the work of Blind Veterans UK with a community garden for the members, their families, staff and volunteers. It is for passive and active enjoyment and will be relocated after the show to their centre in Brighton.
The charity’s work for over 100 years, supporting blind and partially sighted ex-military personnel (the members) and their families is inspirational; helping members to regain their independence through activities and training. But we wanted to celebrate the whole community whilst making sure that we were maximising the potential for blind members to enjoy the garden.
This is especially important in the planting design and with 4 years experience working with the charity we have come to gain an understanding of the key factors to remember when designing with plants. Here are some ideas if you're planting a garden for a vision impaired person.
1. Remember that vision impairment can still mean that people might be able to have some vision. Often this is in the form of colour and we've found that contrasting colours, especially yellow against blue or red is often seen.
2. But you need to be bold with the colour and use bright blocks, so avoid the delicate meadow look and bring in big sweeps of the same flower or mix red and yellow varieties of the same species such as red and yellow Crocosmia.
3. Fragrance is a big factor in all gardens but be bold again and let one scent predominate so that a vision impaired person recognises where they are from the fragrance.
4. Texture is also good and don't forget bark as much as foliage. Were using the paperbark maple Acer griseum which has a great textured bark as will the Liquidambar and Acer davidii. Fruit trees also give an opportunity to experience the tree through touch.
5. Sound is a harder one as sounds can be confusing so whilst the sounds of say the wind through bamboo is great, it may be less useful in a garden than colour or fragrance.
6. We're also creating a kitchen garden which also gives some opportunity for taste as well!
If you come to the show please pick up a leaflet and see what we've used to plant the garden for some summer inspiration.