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.

Single good-looking Heuchera
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.

July 2017
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.

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.

Hosta ‘Halcyon’
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.

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


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.