New garden features – be careful what you wish for!

Caroline

Like Mole burrowing up to the sunlight at the start of Wind in the Willows, the Easter weekend will see millions of us driven by Darwinian forces to tackle ‘THE GARDEN’.
It’s preternatural. It’s what we do in between complaining that winter will never end and buying a gas barbecue because it’s tipped to be the hottest summer ev….er.
I bet a lot of Growbag readers are preparing right now to create a border; put in an arch; construct decking etc . That was me last Easter when, despite driving sleet, I lifted turf and made a flower bed. The planning phase, when I should have been calculating that the site was in a wind tunnel; heavily shaded and denied water due to overhanging soffits, was overlooked. I don’t think you need to know more. Only gritty campaigners like Euphorbia amygdaloides have managed to survive. (I’m now wondering if Louise’s Great Plant this Month might also have the guts for it?)

What a trooper – Caroline’s Euphorbia amygdaloides

So, when my son, Jack, asked me for ideas on how to transform the square of grass behind his new home, I thought I’d try a more holistic approach and pre-plan his garden on-line. How hard can it be?
In fact it’s quite hard. I spent ages keying in garden measurements – selecting the right ‘shed’ icon and trying unsuccessfully to apply gradients. I was repeatedly encouraged to install sprinklers (really? have software developers ever been to Scotland?) while mandatory features included a sandpit, pond and a ‘belvedere’. I didn’t know if I needed one of these so I looked it up and discovered it is a viewing tower as can be found above the Vatican, (as well as a brand of Polish vodka which I actually did need by this point).
I’m not sure how Chelsea designers go about the task but I recommend a sheet of paper and pencil. You’ll have you own preferences but do take into account sunshine and shade for flowerbeds and I can recommend, because my sisters actually do this well, creating a journey through your garden so can go round ‘corners’ and have things happening at different heights.

Elaine

I have seen Caroline’s new flower-bed – every chance that she was at the Polish vodka long before she thought that it was be a good place to plant anything much beyond Highland heather.  What about a water project instead?
When we moved into Eastbourne 23 years ago, there was a teeny-tiny pond in a corner of the neglected garden; baby-bath-sized and made of stained, brittle, moulded plastic but still water-tight.  We wanted something bigger and excavated a large hole and once it was ready, we transferred the sludgy water from the baby-bath….and, to our amazement, the 18…18! frogs!  If you wanted evidence of the wildlife benefits of having water in your garden, well, that was it.  At this time of year, the water is fairly fizzing with fornicating frogs (I hope you appreciated the alliteration there).

Of course, you can have too much wildlife sometimes.  We bought a plastic heron for our pond in Normandy to deter the real one from spearing the fish;  it was frankly a surprise to spot a real heron giving the plastic one a good seeing-to one morning.

Surveying its miraculously plant clear pond, Elaine’s plastic heron has plenty else to dwell on in Normandy.

Over-sexed herons notwithstanding, adding water to your garden is very worthwhile, whether it is a waterproofed half-barrel or Versailles fountains, as long as you follow a few simple rules:

  • Don’t site your pond in the shade unless you want the Black Lagoon
  • But do aim to cover at least half the surface of the water with plants in summer or algae will turn it bilious green;
  • Line any hole you dig with old carpet before you put in a butyl liner – it is a monumental drag to re-do it all because a stone has worked through the soil and punctured the thing;
  • And most importantly, remember that it is the mission of every pond to turn itself into a swamp full of rampageous plants – bulrushes, Canadian pondweed, Iris pseudacorus, Nuphar….it is a feature of most pond plants that they want to take over the planet QUICKLY. So choose your plants with as much care as you would, say, a president.
Laura

Yes I have also seen Caroline’s new flower bed so was frankly amazed that that anyone had actually asked her to design their garden. At least it’s only family so it shouldn’t end in litigation, and being an outdoorsy highland lad Jack should be up to the chainsaw demolition operation if, or rather when, the belvedere goes t*ts up.
Caroline recommends a ‘journey’ around a garden but what with viewing towers, sand pits, and now Elaine’s water features this journey only needs a couple of brushwood hedges to feel more like a trip round Aintree.

And with ambitious new garden features it can be a case of be careful what you wish for.
For me the siren luring me to the rocks (actually shingle) was the outwardly sweet little then octogenarian Beth Chatto, seen laying hose pipes out in curves on her erstwhile car parking area in order to delineate where her new fangled so called ‘low maintenance’ gravel garden would go. What La Chatto was not letting on was the team of diggers, tractors and dumper trucks that came along afterwards to perform her bidding.
Laura’s gravel garden – a welcome refuge for every weed in the neighbourhood

Let me tell you that gravel gardens are not in any way low maintenance. Even once you have achieved the initial set-up, laboriously by shovel and wheelbarrow, the gravel actually seems to encourage more weeds than any other growing medium I know, unless continuously and copiously topped with more shingle – a regular lorry load delivered from Dungeness would not be excessive to the purpose.

So my advice would be to approach the creation of new garden features with caution, unless you are in possession of ‘staff’ and confine your spring makeover instead to the installation of some new window boxes, which to my surprise, E and C actually gave some good advice on recently in response to one of our readers questions. We’ve pasted it below…
WINDOW BOXES
Thank you so much for your question about window boxes. You know we’re all bonkers so stand by for some unorthodox advice.I think mine’s a winner:
Caroline – For the window-box you won’t want too much height. I’d grow Golden Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia mummularia ‘Aurea’) around the edges – lovely lime green tendrils will tumble down the sides. + bugle (Ajuga reptans) dark purple foliage and loved by bees + Begonia ‘Golden Embers’ small dark foliage and brilliant orange flowers that bloom ALL SUMMER LONG. Dramatic colour combination – lime green, purple and orange; will flower forever and bring some lovely bees to your windows. Think I will plant one up myself!
Hi, this is Elaine. Not bad, Caroline, but, Sarah, much depends on whether your window-box is in sun or shade. If the answer is sun, then what about something edible as well as decorative? Nasturtiums are insanely easy to grow – just push some seeds into the soil round about now – they look lovely and both flowers and leaves taste delicious in summer salads. Pop some chilli plants in to join the party and plant some Helichrysum petiolare (don’t chomp this one, though!) round the edge, where its trailing silver foliage will complement the bright colours. The nicest window box for shade that I ever saw was a gorgeous collection of ferns.
And now Laura. Sarah, for once both my sisters have come up with very good suggestions for your window box dilemma!
The thing that crosses my mind though is that the contents of window boxes, like hanging baskets, soon shrivel up unless regularly watered, so if global warming properly takes hold this summer you are making a rod for your own back with all these nasturtiums and begonias to water. So you could try some succulents, which store their own water in their fleshy stems so won’t mind if you flounce off on holiday for three weeks in August. Echiverias are my personal favourites; there is a range to choose from and they don’t seem too fussy about sun or shade.
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5 Comments

  1. I just love your banter. And your excellent tips founded on long and difficult experience of the real thing (the carpet!) I think everyone reading this feels, as I do, that our parents really messed up not producing a couple of other siblings that we could be so playful with in later age … Keep going, its brilliant!

    1. So lovely to hear from you again Caroline, and thank you so much for your encouragement! We do indeed feel very blessed to each have two clever wonderful sisters (though of course Laura and Caroline might say differently…); and we love writing the blog. If only we knew more about how to ramp up our readership effectively, and even actually make some money from our writing – we will keep working on it!

    1. Hi Yve, Caroline here. I’m going to have a go. ???? If that smiley comes out as a question mark there must be a bug in the system. Thank you so much for commenting. I can’t believe you made a pond just like that. We’ve got one with a water flow that comes on very audibly at 7am so if you haven’t already had to get up in the night, it fairly brings it to mind on waking! Hope to see you this summer and perhaps get an update on the lovelife of your wildlife! xx

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