Helen's Garden Renovation Project

Friday 20 October 2006

And the final things that are wrong with the garden

Filed under: Progress — Helen @ 9:16 pm

Now I have described the failings of the left and right hand corners of the garden, here is what is wrong with the rest.

(1) The crazy-paving paths don’t match the patio in materials. They also aren’t on quite the same level as the patio.

(2) The border on the right hand side is too wide and therefore difficult to maintain. It needs to have stepping stones in it or be a different, more accessible shape.

(3) The viburnum is not really the most exciting plant to have right in the middle of the back border. Also something keeps eating its leaves.

(4) There isn’t enough space to grow vegetables.

(5) My compost bins are kept at the side of the house, but it isn’t very convenient because the space is so narrow. I have to walk right to the end to dump my fruit and vegetable peelings.

That’s mostly it. In addition, there are things that I would like to add to the garden to improve it.

(1) A greenhouse. I love raising plants. I would like to get my tomatoes and courgettes started early, and also have somewhere to put my cuttings and seed trays.

(2) A tool store. At the moment I have to go right round to the front of the house to get any tools that I want from the garage. This means that I either have to leave the garage door open while I am in the back garden and risk having things stolen, or keep opening and closing the door, which is a nuisance.

(3) Two ponds. My current pond is very popular with the newts, who aren’t worried about it being lop-sided, but I never get any frog tadpoles. I think this is because the newts eat the spawn. The frogs seem to be well aware of this, and only put some spawn in it at the end of the mating season, once they have filled up everyone else’s pond. I would like a deep pond for newts and a shallow pond for frogs. Possibly the newts will take them both over, but at least I will have tried.


Thursday 19 October 2006

What’s wrong with the garden continued

Filed under: Progress — Helen @ 8:48 pm

I shall now look at the left hand corner of the garden. There are even more things wrong with that, if this is possible.

This is the view I have when I look out of my patio doors in the sitting room.

Left hand corner Feb 2006

It’s not a very good shot of the corner because I was trying to show off the colours of the patio in the rain, but it’s the best one I can find at the moment.

The main problem is that the patio area looks massive, the amount of lawn looks tiny, and the back fence looks far too close.

Other problems you can’t see from this picture are: the right hand edge of the pond has sunk, so that means that when the pond is as full as possible, you can still see several inches of pond liner on the right hand side.

The photinia behind the pond is too vigorous for the amount of space it has.

The raspberry frame ( you can see two of its six posts at the left of the picture) is redundant now that all the raspberries that used to grow in it have died of a virus. I can’t grow raspberries in there again unless I replace all the soil, and I don’t think it is worth it, given that the last lot only lasted for a few years.

There is an area around the pond where there are rocks and stepping stones, and I wanted to grow alpines there, but because of the slight slope of the garden, this area tends to get flooded from time to time. So not much grows there, apart from weeds, which I am always fighting.

I have a bog garden around the pond, but it is a nightmare to keep weed-free, and it doesn’t look good in winter because everything in it has died down.


Wednesday 18 October 2006

What’s good and what’s bad

Filed under: Progress — Helen @ 8:28 pm

I have been thinking about not just what I hate about my garden as it is, but also what I like. I like the patio, although it is probably too big and the wrong shape. I like the blue conifer (Chamaecyparis Lawsonia Pelts Blue) in the far left corner, and I love the camellia, which grows happily in the deep shade in the right hand corner of the garden nearest the house. This photograph was taken in March 2004. Just look. Isn’t it gorgeous?

Camellia March 2004

The marjoram that I have growing in a shady corner near the house does brilliantly. Another huge success is the vinca minor which provides first class ground cover for the patch where the honeysuckle grows up the trellis against the back wall of the house. Both these plants have done very well in deep shade.

On the other hand, what’s wrong with the garden may take several entries to cover, so I’ll just start with one corner. Here’s a picture of the far right hand corner, taken in February 2006. (The reason I took the photo at the time was to show how the rain brought out the colours in the patio).

RH corner February 2006

In the sunniest part of the garden, that far right hand corner, I have put a blackberry frame and behind it, an enormous conifer (another Chamaecyparis Lawsonia variety, but I am not sure whether it is Dutch Gold or Variegata. The colour suggests Dutch Gold, but the vigour suggests Variegata). To the left of the enormous conifer, another rather big one. Along the back fence, at the left edge of the picture, you can see a massive viburnum partly in flower. That’s a good plant, but it’s huge, and it gets viburnum beetle, or whatever it is that eats up its leaves. Along the side fence I have a Pieris, a Buddleia Black Knight, a Hibiscus Blue Bird and a Ceanothus Autumnal Blue. But I might as well not have them at all, because I can’t see them, and they can’t see the sun, and although they try valiantly to survive, it’s not easy for them. They are good plants, but they are in the wrong place. Further along the side fence, the bay tree is growing well but is out of control. However, it is so delicious in cooking that I forgive it for trying to take over the garden. The euonymous (the low-growing bright yellow mound – actually four plants) adds some valuable colour to the garden in winter. That’s definitely staying, although not necessarily in that exact place. Directly in front of the blackberry frame you should be able to make out a magnolia if you put your glasses on and look carefully. It sulked for a few years when I moved it from its original position, but for the last couple of years it has put on a magnificent show. However, I think it will turn out to be in the wrong place again when the garden is redesigned. I don’t think it can be moved again, and I am getting myself ready to say goodbye to it.

So, to sum up: the sunniest corner of the garden is being wasted, and the top of my right-hand border isn’t doing much good either.


Tuesday 17 October 2006

Finding the stepping stones around the pond

Filed under: Progress — Helen @ 9:35 pm

My assault on the garden continues. I wonder if getting a garden designer in is similar to employing a cleaning lady – several people have told me that they feel obliged to clean up the house before the cleaning lady visits. But I think this is more sensible – if I clear up the stuff that I definitely don’t want, then Yvonne will be able to see more clearly what space there is and what can be done. And I have to do it eventually, so why not now?

I cut back the photinia at the back of the pond. The pond is too near the fence, so the poor photinia hasn’t really got the space to grow that it needs. It is a lovely plant – vigorous, without being too pushy, and giving a gorgeous display of red leaves in spring. I have taken some cuttings, on the grounds that I might as well, but I don’t think they will work. I will either take them next summer, or buy a new plant, because I definitely want photinia in my renovated garden.

I also cleared away some of the weeds around the pond, and rediscovered my stepping stones. I used to have lovely things in that area – dear little alpines, snowdrops, fritillarias and some fat little cream crocuses which I particularly liked. I probably still have the crocuses, but the alpines have long gone. The snowdrops never really got established, which is sad, given that I bought 50 bulbs from B&Q in 1996. But I was warned – all the books say don’t buy snowdrop bulbs; buy them in the green.


Tuesday 10 October 2006

Garden appraisal

Filed under: Progress — Helen @ 9:18 pm

I have been thinking about how to get the best from a garden designer. I decided that one thing she would probably ask me was how much time I was prepared to spend maintaining the garden. I thought about this question, and decided that three hours a week was reasonable. And so, I have been doing three hours a week. The funny thing is that the garden is beginning to look a lot better for it already!


Wednesday 4 October 2006

How did it get like this?

Filed under: Progress — Helen @ 5:57 pm

Sometimes people want to redesign their garden because they don’t like what the previous owner did with it. I can’t use that defence because when I moved in, there was hardly anything in the garden. There were two apple trees, leaning towards each other, right in the middle of the garden. There were many, many bulbs. There was some kerria. I think there may have been some crocosmia. There were a couple of saplings which my dad said I didn’t want and dug up the first time he came to visit. The builders had put back the topsoil and sown grass seed all over the area. That was it. That was my garden.

I can’t claim that my aspirations have changed much, either. In 1987, when I bought my first house, I was reluctant to take on a garden. I had only just left university, and I was about to start my first job, and I didn’t have much confidence in myself to look after a house. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with a garden. But then, I found the ideal house, and it had a little back garden, with a path running through the middle of it, and a brick-built shed at the end. “All right then,” I said, “I’m having a garden. But I’m not growing anything I can’t eat!”

The following March, I sowed broad beans. Later on I grew tomatoes, mange tout and purple-sprouting brocolli. The neighbours dug up their apple tree and offered it to me, and I planted it in the lawn. Encouraged and fortified by this good food, I planted heathers and sowed flower seeds. By the time I came to move house, a good garden was on my list of requirements.

My next house had a mature garden which was small but well planned. It had several trees and shrubs, and apart from digging a pond which never produced any frogs, and killing a hebe by pruning it too harshly, I didn’t do much to it. Some of its inhabitants included a beautiful but very prickly berberis which was painful to prune, a vigorous and variegated hedge which didn’t hurt, but which didn’t take much notice of being pruned, and a mop-head hydrangea which always looked rather miserable, probably because I couldn’t be bothered to dead-head it.

Finally, I moved to my present house, which was a new build, hence the almost empty garden. By now, a big garden was almost at the top of my list, and the garden didn’t look very big, but my mum said that was because it was empty, and that if I looked next door, they had four mature beech trees in theirs. The next door garden was actually quite a bit wider than mine, but it was the same depth, and the beech trees were undisputably growing in it.

So, what an opportunity! A blank garden of an easy shape (about forty foot square, and almost perfectly level) with virtually nothing in it. I could do anything I wanted with it. As an inexperienced gardener, I could have been intimidated by such freedom. Indeed, I wished that I could have had more constraints so that it was easier to decide how to arrange it. But I decided that I would have a go, and see what I could make of it.

My primary strategy was to get some structural plants started as soon as possible. There is no substitute for time in a garden. (I told my dad I was gardening for growth and not for income. He thought that was quite funny). I bought the RHS Encyclopaedia of plants and chose the shrubs and trees that I wanted. It was April when I moved in, and the front gardens in the neighbourhood were glorious with magnolias. I definitely wanted one of them. I also remained faithful to my principle of growing things that I could eat, and decided that I would grow raspberries. There had to be a pond, too, and this time I would put it where it got some sun, in the hope that the frogs would prefer that.

So in June my parents came over for the day and we erected a raspberry frame with the posts set in concrete. I ordered my raspberry canes from Ken Muir and planted them in the November sleet. They produced raspberries the first few years, but after that they sickened and didn’t put on much new growth. I think they must have contracted a virus. I knew I couldn’t plant a new set of raspberry canes in the same place, or they would die too, so I bought some apple trees to grow inside the frame and some blackberries to grow up it.

The pond was put in by Lotus Landscapes, and I soon realised that I should have had it put a bit further away from the back fence so I could grow something behind it that would hide the fence. But the pond did well, and attracted a large colony of newts. I was delighted. But then the right hand edge started sinking. It was a good few inches lower than the left hand side. I think this could have been because it was built on a disused soakaway.

I dug a long, straight border on the right hand side, and planted shrubs and perennials. I also bought some conifers to grow along the back fence. But they were slow-growing, and I decided that I wanted more privacy sooner, so I ordered some Leylandii by mail order. Ten plugs were posted through my letterbox and I planted them. I moved the conifers to be in front of the Leylandii so that in the right hand side I had a double row of conifers – in the sunniest part of the garden!

Then I decided to have a blackberry frame in the right hand corner (this was before I started using the raspberry frame to grow blackberries up). I got Lotus Landscapes to extend the path they had built in front of the pond so it went right the way around the garden. I dug up and moved the magnolia to make room for the blackberry frame. It sulked for several years, but eventually forgave me and started flowering again. The blackberry frame blocked out sunlight for some of my shrubs in the right hand corner, and they never really thrived.

When I was mowing the lawn, I found that the grass cuttings would land in the pond, so I dug up some of the grass in front of the pond and planted some low shrubs there to block the grass. I also used some of the space for growing vegetables – I had not included a vegetable patch in my original plan and I was missing growing vegetables. At least I put the vegetable patch where it got some sun.

I took out the apple trees. They produced plenty of apples, but the apples from one tree had bitter pit, and those from the other were always rotten. The trees were large, and I knew I could do much better by buying new ones – as indeed I did.

And then I got my patio laid, and that was when I suddenly realised how bad the garden looked.


Tuesday 3 October 2006

When to give up with garden design

Filed under: Progress — Helen @ 9:10 pm

All through the spring and summer I have been digging up plants and taking cuttings of the ones I like, ready for the great renovation project. However, I still don’t know how to renovate the garden. I have some ideas, but I don’t know if they will look stupid. I tried putting something into my old garden design software that I bought in about 1998, but it crashed. And I can’t see how I can possibly fit everything in that I want to put in the garden – a greenhouse, a tool storage place, vegetable plots, two ponds and some lawn.

My neighbour across the road, Jane, has just given me a business card from her friend, Yvonne, who is a garden designer and general horticulture expert. I have no idea how much she will charge for sorting out my garden, but I think I have to get someone in to give me advice. Although not all of my ideas have been failures, I have made too many mistakes and I want to get it right, or at least nearly right, this time.

So I have rung Yvonne. She is busy at the moment, but the job isn’t urgent, so I have agreed to wait a couple of weeks, and then she can ring me to arrange a time to visit.