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Horticulture"The photographs are not only beautiful but serve to illustrate the ideas, as do all the others throughout this handsome, well-designed book."—Michael Cunningham, Horticulture, July 2006
— Michael Cunningham
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Small urban gardens can be the trickiest kind for designers. You need a clear head and some good guidelines. Sue Berger and Helen Phillips specialize in town gardening and say that "drama and romance" best sum up their approach to design.
While they are delighted that many urban dwellers want exuberant flowers and growth, they stress that town gardens need a good design. Being so small with relatively few plants, the ones which they do include must perform over a long period. There isn't room for plants that have one good month and eleven nondescript months. "Aim to make one third of the planting evergreen," is Sue's message.
Like many contemporary designers, they begin by trying to persuade their clients to reduce or give up their lawns. "A small lawn has to look immaculate," Sue says, "and it's difficult to keep it looking consistently good, so we suggest alternatives that don't need constant maintenance. But it is always the men who want to keep the grass." The alternatives often involve a formal use of evergreens, such as a central parterre, "which looks good in a city environment, and reduces work as it only needs a clip once a year," says Sue. Box is the most useful plant for such formal plantings, being compact, easy to shape and vigorous if well fed. But while parterres are often thought of as being excessively formal, Sue and Helen use them as a frame for looser-growing, flowering herbaceous plants. They often fill the spaces between the box with just two varieties, one earlier and one later flowering. (Note: in some areas, the disease "box blight" can wreck box hedges or features which use the dwarf variety Buxus sempervirens "Suffruticosa". Use ordinary box instead, or if a really low hedge is wanted, try Buxus microphylla or the Japanese holly relative Ilex crenata.)
Evergreens are one of their key elements, especially used to divide up the garden, creating areas or rooms. "Small children particularly enjoy this aspect," Sue adds, "as it gives them places to hide and provides places for imaginative play ... and the rooms make the garden look longer and bigger. It is important that you never see the whole garden at once." Yew and beech (which when kept clipped as a hedge keeps its attractive, dead beige leaves through winter) or sometimes hornbeam, are used to create the walls while rosemary can be used to make a low-growing hedge. Rosemary is rarely used for hedging, as it has a rather awkward branching habit, but Sue and Helen have found that if it is pruned hard back for three years and then allowed to grow, it makes much more solid growth.
Elsewhere in the garden, there is also a role for evergreens as medium-sized, rounded border shrubs where they create a sense of weight and permanence: Mexican orange blossom (Choisya ternata) and Honey spurge (Euphorbia mellifera) are very useful, both having fragrant flowers. Sue adds "we use the bamboo Phyllostachys aurea in many of our designs. It's a very undemanding plant, thriving in impoverished ground, and suits both ancient and modern architecture." A quite different effect is created by clipping evergreens, such as bay, into cones, balls or pyramids. Sue thinks that, "they create vertical interest and an eccentric look. They also fit into parterres, providing evergreen leaves at a high level."
Outdoor seating areas can take up a substantial proportion of a town garden, and Sue adds that "our clients always underestimate the space needed — we always allow for a trestle table and eight chairs. When calculating space, actually go into the dining room and measure how much space such furniture can take, including the space needed for pushing chairs back; make sure that diners can get up without chairs toppling into borders."
Many people like to have outdoor seating areas underneath some kind of structure where there's dappled shade, which explains why such structures are another key element of Sue and Helen's work. But because we like the plants to do the talking," Sue adds, "we prefer to use materials such as steel re-inforcing bars (rebar), which are inconspicuous when covered by growth, as well as being immensely robust. Although heavy and difficult to manage, they will last for 50 years." Rebar structures support a considerable weight of climbers, but take up little space and don't block views or dominate the garden.
Walls can be a dominant element in urban gardens, but they do offer plenty of scope for climbers, such as roses and clematis, Clematis armandii being one of their favourites as it has very good evergreen foliage, and Helen says that Hydrangea petiolaris "is superb for creating living walls, growing up to 5 m (16 ft) high, and will survive in complete shade." Within the framework created by such evergreens and other structural plants, Sue and Helen like to use heavily scented Mediterranean plants. Favourites include cistus, santolina, sedum, lavender, sage, helichrysum, artemesia and rosemary. These are mostly green/grey and silver leaved plants that spread and join up to make a compact under-planting for old roses, their other source of scent in the garden. They add, "we also like the tension achieved by planting strong shapes to break up the horizontal plane. Clumps of the dark cerise Knautia macedonica and the deep purple drumstick heads of ornamental alliums are regularly used to punctuate the flat heads of santolina and sedum. Such beds need to be a minimum of 1.5m (4 ft) deep to get a good variety of texture and form."
Finally, Sue and Helen recommend using containers. In many urban gardens, there may be little or no soil, in which case pots and tubs play an extremely important role. Containers can be moved around letting you highlight the plants when they are at their best. Evergreens, such as box, clipped into balls, are particularly effective.
Urban gardens might initially provide a range of problems but the potential is huge. One particular reason is the opportunity sheltered town gardens give you to grow tender species that might suffer winter damage in suburban or country gardens. Sue and Helen suggest "the lovely jasmine-scented trachelospermums or lavender-coloured Abutilon vitifolium".
After a series of highly regarded Chelsea Flower Show gardens featuring recreations of wildflower habitats, Julie Toll's name is inextricably linked with meadows and wild species, although in fact they are only part of her work.
Most wildflowers are a good deal less strong growing than the accompanying grasses, and are rapidly displaced by them on fertile or moist soils. So a site that might be regarded by most gardeners as all but hopeless — with thin, dry, infertile, calcareous soil and even crushed building rubble — will, in fact, offer the meadow gardener the best prospect. It's ideal for a wide variety of wildflowers and slower-growing, fine-textured grasses. "If you haven't got low fertility soil," warns Julie, "it will be difficult and you may end up with just grasses, although removing the clippings from mowing every year will slowly reduce the fertility."
But for those determined to give it a try, meadows are a source of endless fascination, with different wildflower species tending to dominate from one year to another, and more species appearing spontaneously as the years go by. The arrival of orchids is regarded by many as Nature's final seal of approval. Wildflower meadows are places of great beauty with myriad spots of colour dotted across a wispy carpet of grasses, with every breath of air blowing waves across the surface.
The dominant feature of meadows through much of the year, though, is the long grass. So it is crucially important that a meadow is incorporated into a garden in such a way as to make it obvious that it is intended, and isn't just a patch that has gone to waste. One way of giving them some sense of structure is by mowing short, neat paths through the grass. They can be very romantic and present all sorts of creative opportunities; you can change the layout of the paths every time the grass is mown, or mow patterns, a maze or labyrinth, It is even possible to mow a grid, with the grass and wildflowers left in square blocks.
In country gardens, meadows are often used in the outer reaches so that they form a transition zone between the more conventionally ordered parts of the garden and the landscape beyond. However, where they are more tightly integrated into the garden, perhaps even replacing lawn, Julie believes that edging the meadow with a mown strip is important for creating the intentional look. This strip can offer a very attractive place to walk, allowing the meadow to be seen and appreciated without actually being walked on. Where borders adjoin the meadow this strip is essential, but it can also play a part in a rather neat optical illusion: as you walk away the gap between the two vanishes and the border and meadow appear to be seamlessly linked.
Alternatively you can have what Julie calls a "flowering lawn" where grass, short and rosette-forming wildflowers are encouraged to grow. "You can either let a weedy lawn grow and flower," she says, or you can sow a mixture of slower-growing grasses with seed of daisy, bird's foot trefoil, speedwell, plantains and self-heal."
Flowering lawns are ideal for smaller gardens or situations where a meadow may look untidy. They have an innate flexibility as the species survive regular close mowing and can be mown monthly. Don't begin cutting until the flowering has finished, as this gives plants time to scatter their seed. The lawn can be kept quite short and then, whenever you want flowers, stop mowing, and within four weeks there they are.
Another possibility is maintaining a flowering lawn primarily as a spring feature with bulbs such as crocuses and small-growing daffodils, followed by daisies: then, after the bulb foliage has died down, the grass can be kept mown short for the rest of the year. In the right situation, cowslips and primroses can be included in flowering lawns, the former requiring dry sunny locations, and the latter light shade or cool humid areas. But again, to allow them to spread, never mow the lawn until after the plants have set seed.
Meadow species vary from region to region, and in North America it is more useful to think instead of prairie as being the equivalent habitat. Seed mixtures appropriate to the site and to your region should be used for the best results. Over time nature will add species, resulting in increasing bio-diversity.
|Pt. 1||Planning the garden|
|Looking for inspiration||14|
|Linking house and garden||24|
|The wider landscape||28|
|Formality and symmetry||42|
|Simple surveying techniques||72|
|Understanding your environment||74|
|The planning process||78|
|Using a designer||80|
|Pt. 2||Furnishing the garden|
|Working with light||88|
|Changes in level||92|
|Materials for hard surfaces||100|
|Outdoor living spaces||102|
|Rocks and earthenscapes||108|
|Water in the garden||118|
|Water in the contemporary garden||120|
|Pt. 3||Planting the garden|
|Drawing planting plans||148|
|Planting for succession - permanent||168|
|Planting for succession - temporary||172|
|Using native plants||182|
|Planting mixed borders||186|
|Planting for wildlife||202|
|Planting around water||210|