As I wrote in my post Planning Your Garden – Planty Wilderness vs. Concrete Jungle it is a rare person indeed that can strike the right balance between hard landscaping and greenery. Once you have an outdoor space to look after, it’s very much up to you whether you govern it with a firm and tidy hand, or whether you allow the edges to blur a little (or a lot). There are two paths to follow when curating your garden. Although you will be governed to some extent by the existing design, there are ways and means of putting your stamp on it depending on your growing personality type:
Type 1 – The Plant LoverYou are a bona fide plant lover if you: - Buy a plant because it’s special/unusual/a challenge to grow with no regard to where you will plant it - You try so hard to colour coordinate your planting schemes, but somehow there’s always a bright orange marigold poking its head through your blue and lilac border - You buy single plants rather than multiples, because you know you’ll have to shoehorn it in amongst your others If you’re a Plant Lover, you may absolutely be capable of appreciating the crisp lines and neat edges you find in meticulously maintained outdoor spaces, they’re just not for you. Plant Lovers tend to be so enchanted by a weed or self-seeder that is capable of making it through the perilous process of germination and seems to be surviving the vulnerable seedling phase, that they are likely to leave it be instead of weeding it out just as a mark of respect for its sheer will to live. Plant Lovers will appreciate gardens like Great Dixter, where the York stone terraces are weeded extremely carefully so as to allow any interesting plants that have arrived to remain in the cracks between the paving. This softens the hard landscaping and can increase the amount of food and habitat sources for wildlife. Plant Lovers should be careful that less robust plants that don’t do well with competition aren’t crowded out by more energetic self-seeders such as Verbena bonariensis. Plant Lovers also need to beware of introducing things that seed around over-generously or that spread quickly through running roots or the like. It can take a firm hand to keep rambunctious specimens in check and sometimes necessitates more drastic measures such as the application of chemical controls. If you’re at all squeamish about that sort of thing, avoid thuggish plants.
Giving a free rein to plants also means you need to know what you are allowing to remain. I brought a few bulk bags of gravel into my garden and along with them came a beautiful lush green plant that quickly shot up to over a metre in height. Being a plant pacifist, I allowed it to flourish so I could see what it blossomed into, only to realise in the nick of time that it was Himalayan Balsam. This is definitely not a plant I wish to add to my collection so I hoiked it out pronto. Your management system can be laissez-faire but be on the lookout in case something truly undesirable turns up. The worst thing would be to allow something nasty to take hold or set seed as some of these horrors are able to do with alarming speed. The epitome of the Plant Lover’s garden is Sticky Wicket, Pam Lewis’s garden in Dorset. Pam no longer opens her garden to the public, but she has written a couple of books on how she gardens in tune with nature (the subtitle of her, sadly, out of print book ‘Sticky Wicket’) and plants unquestionably rule, everywhere! I had the great fortune to visit Pam’s garden in 2013 and it was the most incredible place; just about governed enough to be called a garden, singing with life, joyful and magical. So-called weeds rub shoulders with more cultivated specimens but nothing is mollycoddled or forced and everything is allowed to flourish where it is most happy, even such pests as willowherb and ground elder. Pam’s garden is at the extreme end of the plant loving scale and could make even the most liberal grower tempted to yank out a few of the less lovely wildflowers from amongst the ranks of the proper ornamentals. Regardless of your opinion on its aesthetic qualities, it is the perfect example of what happens when you supress your urge to tidy outdoors and just let plants do their thing.
Type 2 – The Design Devotee
You can tell you are a design devotee if: - The most important items in your tool kit are a broom and one of those small-headed brushes that cleans the moss and weeds out of small gaps - You are the proud owner of a fabulously manicured collection of shrubs and trees. If one branch dares to grow out of place, you’re straight out with your secateurs to snip off the offender - You buy plants in multiples and plant in groups, making sure your borders are co-ordinated and cohesive. If something doesn’t fit with its neighbours, you’re not afraid to move it or remove it. As a Design Devotee, people admire your neatness and the way nothing in your garden seems out of place. Hard landscaping is precise; edges and lines are established and they are adhered to. Stray plants are removed and anything that outgrows its allotted space, starts to look past its best or is simply not performing you take a no-nonsense approach to dealing with it. Spaces where design rules aren’t necessarily all about hard landscaping, they are spaces where controlled forms and lines are the defining features, be that plants or hard materials. For example, a knot garden can be created using purely plants but the key is to keep the plants in check so they form strong shapes. As a Design Devotee, you may have a tendency to over-prune and over-tidy. Pruning (which includes grass cutting) is fine as long as you remember that plants get nutrients from the soil which they incorporate into their various parts, including their leaves. Side bar: Nutrients: When you clip off new growth from a plant, you’re taking off tissues which contain nutrients. In nature, leaves would fall off naturally over time, around the base of the plant and would rot back down into the surrounding soil, meaning the nutrients contained in those leaves would eventually return to the soil. However, if you prune and put the clippings into your green waste bin, the soil becomes more and more depleted as the plant draws up nutrients which don’t get the chance to be replaced, unless you are artificially feeding the plant. See more on feeding here. Over-tidying can mean you are removing material that is beneficial to both wildlife and plants, for example leaving a layer of leaf litter around a plant over winter can mean you are protecting it from the cold weather and also providing it with a food source for next year. Organic material also improves the condition of the soil – see my blog post here for soil improvement. Tidying away too much organic material and collecting up every last piece of detritus in your garden means you are taking away places where insects and mammals can live, feed and overwinter and not all of the things that lurk in litter are detrimental, you need to provide homes for both good bugs and bad bugs so there is balance. Grand homes and estates are the best places to see design devotion carried out to perfection, with possibly one of the best examples being seen in the formal gardens at Versailles. Insert pic Versailles There’s not a whisker out of place, the gardens are manicured to within an inch of their lives. The place can cope with large amounts of foot traffic because use is made of hard landscaping in the areas where people most often walk. If you include a lawn in your garden design, it’s always good to identify the most frequently trodden path across the lawn and include a path or stepping stones along that route, as turf won’t stand up well to constant footfall. The same goes for outdoor dining areas, although I hardly need extol the virtues of a spotless porcelain terrace to the design-led, this is more a reminder to those who prefer the naturalistic approach that sometimes more permanent structures are necessary. The bottom line when it comes to your maintenance approach goes beyond simply which style you visually appreciate most, it becomes instead about the type of space you feel most comfortable living in. I can 100% appreciate a minimalist space with clean lines and pared down colours and textures however I don’t implement that style in my own garden for a multitude of reasons. These are in large part determined by things that are important to me such as environmental factors and the implications of the physical management of the space on resources such as time and money. Maintaining your green environment is always a balancing act and requires compromises to be made that only you can decide upon. To me, the holy grail is marrying good design with a love of plants, so the planty person should try to temper their passion and channel a bit of their inner design lover and vice versa. If the pros are anything to go by, it’s not easy, but I really think that beauty is found in the space where control sits cheek-to-cheek with wilderness, in the contrast of the soft and hard, the rough and smooth, the sparse and the bounteous, the man-made and the natural.