Would you use a garden designer?

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Have you ever used a garden designer, or if not, would you employ one? Would you be willing to share your thoughts in a survey?

The question of using a garden designer might not be one that you have ever asked yourself. Or else it might be on your mind every time you catch sight of your garden through your kitchen window.

Is a professional garden designer something you could afford? Would you feel afraid of losing control of your garden, that the finished project might not align with your style, or afraid that it might look too ‘done’? Or do you feel that your garden is fine just the way that it is? No time for such projects? Too many other priorities to worry about the garden?

I would be so interested to know your thoughts and read your comments. The survey should take no longer than 2 minutes to complete, and is open to everyone, regardless of who you are or where you live. The survey will be available for about a week, and I am looking forward to sharing the results with you. Because it is an anonymous survey, I am unable to offer any sort of gift for taking part, other than my genuine gratitude and some good gardening karma!

As a garden design student, I am keen to understand the attitudes of garden owners towards garden design. I am also planning to introduce some design focus to this blog, and so any insight into the sorts of topics that might be of interest to you would be of splendid help. Please leave any extra comments in the usual place below!

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Blank Page/Empty Garden

Anyone who has ever written anything, from school essay to holiday postcard to first novel to tardy blog post is familiar with the tyranny of the blank page. Enough has been written on that subject, and I am sure that plenty has been written on the subject of starting a garden from scratch on an empty site (not least on these pages). But has any gardener-writer asked us why the white sheet of paper is an object of dread yet the empty garden site gives us thrills of joy?

Or, at least, it gives me thrills of joy. The realisation that the front garden needed redoing from scratch (again) came to me at roughly the same time as the realisation that I hadn’t written about my front garden for many weeks. At first I thought that my not writing about the garden was because I was too busy and tired from my day job. Then the busy period ended, but I still didn’t want to write about the garden. After all, what was there to write about? Once the tulips were over (and my garden does tulips very well), there was little else to revel in. My dear readers’ attention wouldn’t have been held for long by the single heuchara that looked all right, or the lonely Astrantia ‘Buckland’ that had come into bloom beside the Salvia ‘Caradonna’, in the one corner of the garden that looked relatively well. There wasn’t much to look at elsewhere, other than dying Narcissus foliage and a peony that refused to flower for the second year in a row.

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Single good-looking Heuchera
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Salvia ‘Caradonna’ coming in to bloom beside Astrantia ‘Buckland’

I was surprised by how poorly the front garden had looked in 2016, and again in 2017, compared with the floral exuberance I managed to produce in its first year, 2015. For surely the plants — and my expertise — should have been more established twelve and twenty-four months later. Was my successful 2015 just beginner’s luck? The photo below shows the garden in July 2017. Yes, it’s full of green at first glance. But the bare patches and general lack of flowers are noticeable on closer inspection. No amount of moving pots around can make up for the core faults.

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July 2017
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No amount of moving pots around…

In the end, a chance remark by my neighbour solved the mystery of my diminishing garden. Our street is lined with beautiful mature sycamore trees that shade the front garden for a good proportion of the day in summer. My neighbour mentioned that in late 2014 the council had cut the trees significantly back in order to do works on the pavement. Hence, the garden received a great deal more light in 2015. By summer 2016, the trees had regrown to their original sizes. A second factor was that in creating the garden, the earth had been dug over entirely and all the large roots from the sycamores, and also the hedge that surrounds the garden, had been removed. Now these had likely grown back and were taking up all the nutrients and water that I was trying to offer to my own plants.

Clearly the design I had made in 2015 and the plants I had chosen were in need of a rethink. I sat on the (now broken) bench with a notepad and made a list of every single plant in the garden, and whether it was doing well or whether it was failing. And importantly, if a plant was doing well, did I like it? Life is too short, and gardens are too small, to contain plants that you don’t love, however healthy and happy they might seem.

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Broken bench

Some, like the non-flowering peony, the oriental poppy whose flowers lasted about four seconds in the perpetual wind,  and a woeful acanthus that was desperate for sun and nutrition, were clearly in need of a move to the sunnier and more sheltered back garden. Others, like my heucheras, hostas, ferns, meadow rue and alliums were perfect keepers. And what about plants I didn’t own but would do perfectly here? The RHS plant finder helped me seek out drought-tolerant shade lovers such as Liriope and Japanese anemones. And a helpful response to my email to the RHS for advice about topiariable (if that’s a word) evergreens suitable for my conditions gave me many more ideas for structural plants to consider.

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Hosta ‘Halcyon’
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Meadow Rue (Thalictrum)

I am now at the stage of considering the layout of my small 6 x 8-metre rectangle. It needs to be both practical and delightful, making full use of the space while making it seem more spacious. I want to inject a sense of mystery and intrigue, a winding path, an archway to areas that are hidden from immediate view, and of course a small dark pool. What materials I will use, the eventual shape and how it will all come together is yet to be determined.

I am extremely fortunate to have arranged a gap between work contracts this autumn, permitting me a good month or so in which I can undertake my garden planning and redesign. As the plans take shape and progress, there will once more be a great deal to write about.

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Clematis ‘Filigree’ which does well in the front garden and will stay
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Window boxes of Erigeron and applemint being about the only exuberant things in the garden

 

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Hydrangea ‘Limelight’ with camellia and Cotinus ‘Dusky Maiden. Potted plants in the front garden do much better than those in the ground, because the trees and hedge cannot steal the nutrients.

A blank slate for the New Year

A blank slate of a garden, a bare patch of earth, is a complicated dream. On the one hand it provides a rare and satisfying opportunity for planning, pure creativity, experimentation, and the pleasure of transforming an unattractive area of land into your own personal Eden. On the other hand, transforming said land is time consuming, costly and hard, physical labour.

Last month the Brazilian and I took possession of a small front garden of eight by five metres. It is attached to a small flat on the Southside of Edinburgh, which, through a similar transformative process, is to become our home, once the right walls are knocked through, the dust has settled and we’ve worked out why the north west corner is so damp.

I’ve long had daydreams about what I’m going to do in this garden, but in my daydreams the soil was already lightly tilthed, the earth root- and rock-free, the paths laid out without breaking sweat. Needless to say, it hasn’t been like that in real life. Firstly I should explain that the blank slate wasn’t blank in the beginning. It was edged with a path of concrete slabs and had two dwarf rhodadendrons, an ancient rosemary, two cotoneasters, and various sad looking plastic pots of dead things. More concrete slabs had been laid to create a diamond shape in the centre, and the in-between bits had been filled with gravel. The whole thing was surrounded on three sides by a huge privet hedge that was far too large but at least gave a rare feeling of privacy and quietude for a street-facing garden in the city centre.

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The garden as was. The hedge is overgrown, the concrete ugly, and the rhodadendrons unwanted. A huge cotoneaster near the gate has ideas above its station…
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Sad looking pots of empty soil, self-seeded grass and a single lackadaisical rose stood about.
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The enormous rosemary sadly also had to go: a path is destined to run right over its spot.

It all had to go. First out were the rhodadendrons. Forgive me if you like rhodadendrons. There’s nothing wrong about them, except for being invasive, but I just can’t bear them. There are so many more interesting things to plant in a garden, especially in Edinburgh where just about every other garden for miles has these grinning, shining things bursting across their iron railings. Next were the cotoneasters, a pity because I loved their red berries, as did the practically tame robin that tweeted volubly at me as I decapitated its prickly hideouts. Finally the rosemary, which though venerable was right in the path of my scheme. All this took a lot of lopping, sawing and an iron will pitted against tangled branches and steadfast roots. Then it all had to be dragged through the passage to the backgreen and incinerated on a rainy December Saturday, five hours of chucking branch after branch into the reluctant flames.(Lord, did the burning rosemary smell gorgeous.)

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Stage 1: The slabs have gone, and a pile of cement rubble remains. The plants have also gone and the hedge has been trimmed. The pots are waiting in a corner to be put on Freecycle, save one or two useful ceramic pots which I’ll keep. The sacks contain horse manure courtesy of Emily the Haflinger.

 

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The bench came from eBay and cost £16. It will go under the window where once the enormous cotoneaster flourished.

As for ridding the garden of the concrete slabs, I had a brainwave. ‘Concrete Slabs: free to anyone who can uplift and remove them,’ was the advert I put on Gumtree. The response was quite amazing; I didn’t have to lift a finger. Several different parties came and took what they wanted, and soon every slab had gone. Finally to go was the cement that had fixed the slabs. This was easier for me to crowbar up. A few trips to the tip and it’ll be gone (it’s half done already).

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These cement pieces are heavy but manageable. There are about 4 carloads left to take to the tip.

 

Next task: to lay out the plan!