Phase 3: Raised beds

Time to have a quick breather, and enjoy the fruits of our labour. After mowing the lawns, the garden is looking good and starting to come together. Here is a view from not-quite-the-top of the garden, looking down towards the house. Ornamental and fruit trees can be seen, with a cut away section after this where the raised beds are being constructed. Beyond that is Flame’s lawn, and beyond the lawn is the rose arch and planted herbaceous beds. It’s looking good.

Garden view from the top
The long view of the garden.

Here’s a closer view of the raised beds area. (Yes, that is an unusually large Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’ tree in the foreground.)

Raised beds.
Current view of the raised beds section.
Rose beds under construction.
Rose bed under construction – 2013.

With the first section almost complete – aside from the planned reclaimed brick path – it’s necessary to focus on the raised vegetable beds. It’s now May, and I need to start growing vegetables and salads, before it’s too late! As can be seen, there are three raised beds already constructed. A fourth is planned for the central area, but hasn’t been built yet. To the left of the picture, a raised bed can be seen planted with roses. This is the rose bed, and it was filled and planted towards the end of 2013, soon after I moved into the house.  The roses suffered a little over winter, and seemed to be plagued with black spot and die-back earlier in the year. I pruned them mid-March, and they have definitely benefited from this, and a liberal spray of Rose Clear. They’re now showing plenty of healthy new leaf, and most have flower buds forming. I’m really, really, REALLY (can’t stress enough) looking forward to seeing these roses flower.

A note about roses

I find roses a little fussy for my liking, as they’re often randomly developing fungal infections and diseases that seem beyond my control. They need regular spraying with anti-fungal and insecticide treatments, and they like a lot of water. They’re high maintenance, which is not my preference in a plant at all. Contrary to popular opinion (maybe), I have found that roses do best in a hot spot, South facing, with oodles of water to keep the soil moisture levels high. In this environment, they seem to really flourish. I have grown them like this in terracotta pots, and they thrived.

David Austin roses can be very temperamental; the first year or two of growth can be incredibly soft and leggy. Persevere, and the more resilient cultivars can be the most amazingly rewarding roses. I highly recommend  The Lady of Shallot, for incredible resistance to disease and black spot, very vigorous growth, and extended growing throughout the year (they are pretty much evergreen in the UK). The Lady of Shallot can be grown as a climber or shrub rose. Another vigorous David Austin rose is Wollerton Old Hall, and I recommend it.

I have visited David Austin roses on a number of occasions, initially as part of my job as a horticulturist at a large and well known garden centre in Derby. We were able to visit and observe the inner workings of the rose factory that is David Austin roses. There are now countless varieties of David Austin roses, two or three new cultivars appearing every year. Many of these won’t stand the test of time, for varying reasons. Despite coming through annual rose trials to be selected for colour, vigour, resistance, scent, and popularity, a cultivar may prove to be less vigorous or less scented, and won’t sell well. There are many David Austin groupies, and we see them a lot in garden centres. Many people will want to try to grow every new variety.

The grounds of David Austin Roses is well worth a visit, and anyone can do so. Best time to visit being June to August, for maximum appreciation of the summer flowering roses, and the formal herbaceous gardens. David Austin roses spray all of the roses grown on their grounds fortnightly, which is worth noting (if they do it, it might be a consideration to spray our roses more often at home?). Many of the David Austin roses are grown on site in large pots, including climbers and standards. Again, worth noting.

Roses can be grown in containers very successfully. However, a deep, well-drained raised bed is a better option, and I’m lucky enough to have the option to build a raised bed purely for roses. Heaven! Here are some of my current rose cultivars growing in the raised bed:

  • David Austin – ‘Munstead Wood’
  • David Austin – ‘Darcey Bussell’
  • Rose – ‘Sexy Rexy’
  • David Austin – ‘Princess Anne’
  • David Austin – ‘Boscobel’
  • David Austin – ‘Boule de Neige’
  • David Austin – ‘Wollerton Old Hall’
  • Rose – ‘Blue Moon’
  • David Austin – ‘The Lady of Shallot’
  • David Austin – ‘Indian Summer’
  • David Austin – ‘Shine On’

Building a herbaceous border. Pt. 2

Sooooo, in a bid to make this patch of ground look remotely like an actual garden, the rose arch becomes the next step in construction. The idea being that it will help develop some semblance of design and order to the garden, and it will also dictate how wide the brick path will eventually be, and where we need to begin construction of the next border.

So, the arch went up. After this, it was easy enough to plan out the left-hand border and dig out the turf (well, I say easy…).  The result of this looks slightly less uninspiring than the previous image. You can see how much of a difference a structure makes to a garden; it brings areas together and helps bring a sense of design into the garden.

April 2014
View of the first section of garden under construction.

The turf that remains as part of the full garden design is being treated for weeds and moss, and fed regularly. As a result, it has greened up nicely. It is a far cry from the head-high meadow grass I found when I moved in.

As we dug the left-hand border out, and laid down the wooden edging, we realised the soil levels were bizarrely at odds with each other. The right-hand bed – which was stripped of turf, dug out, had two tons of topsoil added, was planted up, and then had a ton of bark chips added as weed control, all last year – was in some places a foot higher than the soil level in the left-hand border. Once the wooden edging was down, this became hilariously clear. The solution is simple – more topsoil. Approximately two tons of topsoil! This has to be added before plants can go in, obviously. The turf was trimmed, so all that remains of grass in this section is a pathway. This pathway will eventually become a reclaimed brick path with a cottage garden feel.

April 2014
View of the first section of garden under construction.

To pass the time, and ease frustration on my part, I have spent some time planning where all of the plants will go in this border. Not as much of an easy task, partly because I seem to have a penchant for dark-coloured foliage and now have a collection of plants with dark red and black foliage, which needs to be spaced well and combined well to avoid a crazy mass of black and red shrubs in the border. This took much longer than expected, and I’m still not sure I’ve got it right (I usually end up transplanting plants around after the event, as I re-think where something might look much better once mature). To date, the plants have been set out in a semi-permanent way, and we now await the delivery of four tons of topsoil (half will go to fill the vegetable raised beds).

Here is the plant list for the left-hand border.

  • Philadelphus aureus
  • Acer palmatum ‘Oshio Beni’
  • Crocosmia ‘Walberton Yellow’
  • Euphorbia ‘Fireglow’
  • Solidago ‘Goldenmosa’ (Golden Rod)
  • Physocarpus opulifolias ‘Dart’s Gold’
  • Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’
  • Heuchera ‘Marmalade’
  • Physocarpus ‘Little Devil’
  • Cytisus
  • Heuchera ‘Rio’
  • Knifophia ‘Tetbury Torch’
  • Cosmos ‘Chocamoca’
  • Physocarpus opfulifolius ‘Lady in Red’
  • Epatorium rugosum ‘Chocolate’
  • Cotinus Royal Purple’
  • Heuchera ‘Peach Flambe’
  • Heuchera ‘Midnight Bayou’
  • Geranim pratense ‘Midnight Reiter’
  • Diantus sunflor ‘Paseo’
  • Polyanthus ‘Fire Dragon’
  • Polyanthus ‘Stella Champagne’
  • Carex ‘Everest’
  • Hydrangea mops lacecap
  • Iris ‘Langport Wren’
  • Weigela ‘Victoria’
  • Geum ‘Lady Stratheden’
  • Crocosmia ‘Voyager’
  • Ligularia prewalskii
  • Coprosma ‘Pacific Midnight’
  • Viola ‘Honey Bee’
  • Crocosmia x crocosmiflora ‘Emily McKenzie’
  • Echinacea ‘Hot Lava’
  • Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’
  • Paeonia officinalis ‘Rubra Plena’
  • Corylus maxima purpurea
  • Sambucus nigra ‘Black Beauty’
  • Fuchsia ‘Display’
  • Geranium sanguineum ‘Elka’
  • Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’
  • Lewisia
  • Geranium ‘Bertie Crug’

As will hopefully be clear, this side has been designed to introduce gradients of bright colours – from yellows, oranges, reds, blending into pinks. I am still unsure about the pinks (not a ‘pink’ person).

So, on the morning of the topsoil delivery, this is what we started with:

Four tons of topsoil delivered to the door. Literally.

A few hours later, the bed was raised to the same level as the right-hand bed. Corrr, look at that lovely soil. Gorgeous stuff.

Gorgeously dark, loamy topsoil.

It took a few more hours to get all of the plants put into the ground. My back wasn’t amused. Here we have the completed herbaceous border. Yes, again it looks quite bare and relatively uninspiring, but give it time. Spaces between plants is a good thing; plants needs space to spread and merge into their neighbours. Anyway, tada!

Left-Hand Border
Plants are in.

Building a herbaceous border. Pt. 1.

With a 200ft garden, I decided I had space to cut it up into four segments. Each segment would perform a different function. My choices for these sections was heavily dictated by the bizarre levels present in this garden. Around a third of the way up the garden, there is an alarming natural terrace where the terrain slopes rapidly upwards by about two feet, then levels out, then slopes upward again after 40 feet or so. I decided that this central, flat area was best left as the main lawn. (Lawn spaces should ideally be as flat as possible, with few lumps and bumps.) Whilst part of my aim with this new garden was to make the most of all the space available to grow fruit, veg or low-maintenance plants, I also wanted a decent patch of lawn. If you have young children, the reason for this will be obvious. I, however, have a German Shepherd. Dogs need a bit of lawn to run about on and follow the call of nature! The 40 ft x 25 ft square of level lawn is now dubbed Flame’s Lawn, after my dog.

For the first section, I wanted impact. I wanted maturity, lushness, colour and a sense of formality. How nice to walk into a garden and be instantly assaulted by colour and scent, and a strong impression of design. I wanted to create the illusion of this first section being the garden in its entirety. A neat trick, in my opinion, is to present a full garden of colourful herbaceous borders on either side of a formal path, with a screen of mature shrubs at its end and a rose arch which promises the potential of more beyond.

The screen of shrubs at the end of this section is very important. Originally, I had planned for some formal trellis panels, installed as a screen, but whilst attractive this would be expensive. Instead, I opted for larger evergreens and year-round interest shrubs as partial obstructions to the views of the larger garden beyond. I chose Viburnum x carlcephalumCeanothus ‘Silver Surprise’ (Californian lilac), Cytisus scoparius (yellow broom), Coprosma ‘Pacific Sunset’ and Cornus alba ‘Kesselringii’ (a dogwood with impressively dark winter stems). On one side of the trellised rose arch that intersects this screen would be a white climbing rose (undecided on cultivar yet), and on the other side I wanted to grow one of the more attractive varieties of honeysuckle, so I opted for Lonicera henryi and another evergreen climber, Trachleospermum jasminoides variegata (star jasmine). All of these plants perform more than one function – that is, they are flowering and/or evergreen and/or have winter interest and/or have high scent value. I’m a firm believer in plants working for their keep.

These two formal herbaceous beds on either side of the first section of path measure around 10 ft wide by 25 ft in length. One border is slightly shorter to accommodate an area of paving slabs on which stands the new shed. That kind of space demands a lot of plants. One of the few advantages of working in horticultural retail is the bargains. Oh, so many bargains. As a result, I’ve been collecting plants for some time now. At one stage, the patio looked like a plant nursery. Now, it’s time to put these plants in the ground.

I decided on graduations of flower and leaf colour. Putting that into practice has been less easy than typing it, as I already had the majority of the plants before making that decision! The right-hand bed was the first to be dug out. We used a turf stripper to slice off a thick layer of turf, and over a ton of topsoil was dug into the already very loamy soil we found lurking under the turf. A great start. I sorted the plants into colour. On the right-hand side, as you walk down the path, I wanted graduations of blues, purples and whites. Here’s the bed in early Spring (the rest of the garden is untouched), and here’s the full plant list for the right-hand herbaceous bed.

April 2014

Looks pretty uninspiring, huh?

  • Rosmarinus officinalis
  • Mentha (common mint)
  • Lavandula angustifolia
  • Melissa officinalis (Lemon Balm)
  • Hosta ‘Wedgewood Blue’
  • Thyme x citridoris ‘Aureus’
  • Lilium longiflorum (Easter Lilly; Tree Lily)
  • Geranium somobor ‘Mourning Widow’
  • Geranium ‘Espresso’
  • Geranium alba
  • Pulmonaria ‘Sissinghurst White’
  • Pieris japonica ‘Flaming Silver’
  • Hesperis matronalis var. albiflora (sweet rocket)
  • Delphinium ‘King Arthur’
  • Aquilega ‘Blue Barlow’
  • Salvia nemorosa ‘Ostfriesland’ x 2
  • Acanthus spinosus (Bear’s Breeches)
  • Carex ‘Ice Dance’ x 3
  • Cornus alba elegantissima x 2
  • Penstemon ‘Electric Blue’
  • Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’
  • Pittosporum tenuifolium
  • Geranium renardii
  • Alcaea (Hollyhock) – White
  • Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Nivalis’
  • Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’
  • Dianthus ‘Grenadin White’
  • Lupinus ‘Gallery White’
  • Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’
  • Pulmonaria longifolia ‘Diane Clare’
  • Aquilega ‘Black Barlow’
  • Geranium ‘Hocus Pocus’
  • Fatsia japonica
  • Cornus alba elegantissima
  • Spirea arguta
  • Philadelphus maculatus ‘Sweet Clare’
  • Papaver ‘Checkers’

They are mostly blues and whites, with some variations on purples (lilacs and deeper purples). Once these plants have grown and spread a little, and merged slightly into each other, it should create a natural and pleasing effect using colour and texture, and varying heights in the border.

The Plan.

After the grass had been mowed on shorter and shorter settings, and the dust had settled, it was time to start putting plans into action. After first looking around the garden, it was obvious (to some degree) what needed to happen.

Speaking as someone who hasn’t had much formal training in garden design, I’m at least aware that one of the fundamentals of garden design is to break up any large area into smaller, manageable sections, and to avoid creating a garden that is entirely visible from any one line of sight. When dealing with a garden like mine, which is very long and not especially wide, the best course of action is to cut it into sections, or areas.

This is the plan. So, to decide on how many sections, where each area began and ended, and what function each section would provide. Every garden should have function and purpose, even if that purpose is simply to be a wild flower meadow. An urban garden needs to be planned if it is to work well and make the most use of the space available.

When planning a garden, it should be measured out in length and width, and the angles of the terrain taken into account. Next up is aspect – which direction is North and South? To some extent, this will dictate what you can and can’t grow in a garden. Then, soil type; use a PH soil kit to test the PH of your soil. Again, this will very much dictate what plants will and will not grow. After taking into account these things, and any obstructions growing or present in and around your garden, a garden plan can be formulated. It doesn’t have to be a formal design, but anything written down is easier to adhere to and follow step-by-step.

I’m lucky. My new garden is South-West facing, with no nearby trees or buildings to obscure light, spread unwanted seeds or interfere with the growth of plants in my garden. So, the first step was to replace the cobbled-together mix of different fencing that lined one side of the garden (my boundary fence) when I moved in. This wasn’t cheap. I opted for lap panels, which are longer-lasting and more robust, with concrete gravel boards and posts.  The length of the garden thirty panels! Here’s the fencing going in. It took a team of two people three days to build.

Fence construction.
Fence construction.

I don’t relish the idea of using concrete anywhere, so this wasn’t ideal. More importantly, this kind of fencing is partially responsible for the huge and worrying decline in British hedgehog numbers. They can’t move from garden to garden during their nightly forage for food, and so they now really struggle to survive in urban areas. This is to all gardeners’ detriment as well as the poor hogs; we rely on these small, nocturnal mammals to control pests such as slugs and snails, so creating such barriers to their vital movements is a very bad thing for the health of our gardens. In time, I will be looking to replace the concrete gravel boards with something sturdy but less of an obstacle to creatures trying to move from one garden to the next. Any ideas welcome! 


A Brave New…Garden.

In June 2013 I moved into a new home. A 1930s house in urban Derby. One of the main reasons for buying the house was its garden. At almost 200ft long, and about 25ft wide, it’s a typical urban 1930s long plot (the kind they don’t build just one house on any more). My previous garden had been a square of grass approximately 30ft by 30ft and, although it looked good by the time I’d finished with it, it was small. I needed more space to grow more plants and try new things.

This was my previous garden, in 2012.

Previous Garden
Mature shrubs and herbaceous perennial borders.

I felt I had done all I could with this garden. In particular, I wanted to grow more fruit and veg, and there just wasn’t the space to do so. I feel it’s important to become more self-sufficient and to grow our own food where possible. Being vegan, those fruit and veggies are important to me! And I’d rather not pay a fortune for something I can grow in my own small space. I’d also rather not consume anything laden with pesticides. Time to move!

When I moved into the new house, this is what the garden looked like…

A freshly mowed meadow.
A freshly mowed meadow.

…after we’d spent three days mowing what had been an incredibly overgrown 200ft of mixed grasses. The grass was around 2 metres high on the day we moved in! It was slightly shocking, given that the two times I’d looked at the garden before buying, the grass had been nicely mowed.

The job of clearing it began with a petrol strimmer and ended with a number of progressively shorter mows with a heavy-duty petrol mower. At last, the canvas was clear. I discovered a fairly mature but straggly Forsythia, a very mature and tall Lauris nobilis (culinary Bay), an overgrown Syringa vulgaris (Lilac), and various leafy remnants as evidence of a few bulbs (Muscari and Galanthus) planted in the ground, here and there. What stood out the most was a very old and slightly gnarled Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’, so mature that it is now a tree. With some light pruning and removal of a couple of branches to improve its shape, it is a very welcome small tree in this new garden.

Sometimes, just one interesting, unusual or pretty plant in a garden can be enough to inspire us to build upon it and create something wonderful. A delightfully scented flower, or a showy flowering plant, an unusual tree or shrub – it can be enough to stimulate the creative urge to plant and experiment.