Monday, 22 November 2010

Gardening ~ contours, shifting perspectives & plant selection

The underlying contours of the garden are best determined early on with paths cut, terraces constructed and boulders placed as desired.  Any natural contours can be emphasized at this time by heaping up earth, arranging rocks, or adding other garden structures such as archways or pergolas. 

Once pathways and the means of defining property boundaries have been worked out it's time to consider what else you want to add to your garden in terms of structure.

When these structures and shapes are right our garden will look satisfying even before we start to plant in it.  Planting is then pure pleasure, and the growth that follows will encourage our gaze to wander from one thing to another and find ease and contentment in the shifting perspectives that result.

I like my gardens to have as much naturalness as possible.  In the landscapes of the countryside I find the mix of predictability, variation and gentle chaos very restful.  With a little consideration the qualities of natural landscapes can be echoed in the sorts of choices we make for our gardens whatever their size or location. 

The contours of the natural world are full of curves in the form of pleasing mounds, hollows and pathways.  Our perspectives shift and vistas change as we move.  These photos show this point well:

The approach to one of Canterbury's inland mountains

Same mountain, same day, different standpoint.

Garden beds that are heaped into mounds are pleasing.  I avoid stiff board or log edgings as I don't find them necessary in a garden any more than they are on a hillside in the country.  While retaining walls are necessary in some gardens this is not usually the case.  Getting the slope and height of a mounded bed right can take a bit of working out, but is satisfying.  Plants are then well displayed and the garden looks as if its meant to be there.

In beds which are flat rather than raised contours are created by edges which are well defined and by the plants themselves.  The good effect of a shallow but clear furrow just inside the edge can be formed by digging the earth back from it a little.  The curved border featured in the previous article was a flat one.  The edges look just fine and the plants provide good height perfectly well without the addition of extra topsoil.

The smaller the garden the more important it is to have continuity.  This can be achieved by borders which continue on around corners and the repetition of certain plants.  Good continuity is a bit like having the same carpet throughout the house: the effect of having different carpet in every room tends to make a house seem disjointed and bitsy; it's the same in gardens.  We want each part of the garden to have its own character while clearly belonging to the whole.
     In this view of the back garden you can see the strong curves and connecting borders which help both to enclose and reinforce the back boundary with pleasant greenery:

As the shrubs grow variations in height will become more apparent.

This is an important aspect of continuity.  My present garden is relatively small.  While each part of the garden is distinctive I've used lots of plants repetitively: I love hebe shrubs, and have about a dozen of them in my garden: some are the same as each other while others are different varieties.  These are good for smallish gardens in that they can be trimmed to scale or left to grow overhead, also they flower well and the birds and insects love them. I've interspersed these with native grasses which are tussock-like and which give the plantings a certain rhythm. A small part of the driveway is planted on both sides, and I've put familiar plants used elsewhere on both sides so that they look harmonious and as if they belong to each other.
If you have rocks to add to your garden so much the better.  Rocks add character and interest like nothing else.  When arranging them consider how they can best be used so they are in keeping with other aspects of your garden.  When putting in a new garden in the middle of my front lawn I tried putting a stone edging around it.  I roughed it out like this to try the effect:

After looking at it for some weeks I decided it was incongruous with the rest of the garden which doesn't have any rocks in it.  I rearranged the stones in what turned out to be a star shape, thus:

This formation had the added advantage of allowing me to get more height than I could get with the previous arrangement.  It was much more difficult to get the stones comfortably placed but I liked it much better, and have planted each of the segments with various small plants.
     I'll write about making the birdbath shown in the top image in a separate article.
     When placing your rocks you'll probably find that they have a top side and an underside.  If this is so, you'll no doubt find that they look best with their topside uppermost.  When I'm working with rocks I often find  that much of their bulk ends up being submerged.  This is likely to be how they were in their original setting.  I like my rocks to look as much as if they have always been there are possible.  My arrangement above is clearly contrived by human hands but is pleasantly jumbled, as if shaken into place. 

Preparing the ground for planting:
It's vital to do this properly before you plant anything, and doing so will pay big dividends in the long run.  A garden that is set up properly will not only enable your plants to grow much better but will also be much easier to maintain.
      Below you can see a corner of the garden as it was when I was beginning to work on it.  I had crashed about in the stony ground with the pick end of my grubber to break up the ground, expanding the width of the existing bed and incorporated good strong curves in the edges.
     It was a very unpromising beginning, but there were good resources available: a large mound of topsoil out the back which had been formed when the drive was put in, and an excellent supply of horse manure from a horsey place down the road.  Both were free of charge and required only my labour and the means to carry them: I borrowed a ute with a serviceable tray-back and got three loads of manure, and the trusty wheelbarrow has now carted about a couple of hundred loads of topsoil which were used to mound up the beds and level the lawns.

You can see the effect of the extra height and the layer of manure I spread before adding the topsoil.  I had a long way to go and got slimmer!

The garden responded with gusto!  Here it is again a few months later:

The mounded earth and thriving plants are the focus of the attention rather than the fence, a much more restful view!  

Planting and perspectives:
Natural perspective can be emphasized by plantings of differing heights and sizes, and by placing them at varying distances from the viewer.  This creates a pleasing sense of distance even in a small garden.  One has a foreground, the middle distance and the background.  The eye moves naturally from one to the other which is restful as well as good for our eyes. 

Choosing plants:
For the best results and greatest ease of care choose plants that are suited to local rainfall and other conditions.  Native plants are ideal in this respect as evolution has designed them precisely for local conditions over the millennia.
     In considering what to plant I often spend hours looking through gardening guides to determine which ones are likely to do best.
     Planting needn't be done all at once.  Initial plantings made up of blocks of plants which are simple and hardy and provide basic shape and cover for a new garden are a good start.  At a later stage these can be adjusted and added to with other more subtle plantings as the structure of the garden becomes established and can support them.
A plea for trees:
Please, please, please give consideration to the long term height and viability of plants, especially trees.  It's important to be realistic.  If they are going to grow too tall in the long term they should not be considered.  Otherwise they have no future and all the years of getting established and growing up will be completely wasted.  And for heavens sake plant them a reasonable distance from any fences or boundaries.
     I am constantly dismayed to observe seedlings which will grow to substantial proportions being planted perhaps twelve inches from a fence or boundary.  This means that they will grow up very lopsided and very probably be removed within a few short years - what a waste.  Think of your own arms and how we need to be able to extend them in all directions, then think of your tree and its branches.
     Hedges in particular need to be considered in terms of their space requirements: unlike fences which occupy only a narrow width and are finite a hedge needs to be planted well back from your driveway or other plants.  It needs room to spread out each year without the need for constant trimming, and you will need the room to get at it from all sides to do so.
     There are plenty of trees and shrubs which can be either pruned or kept low enough to manage, or left to their own devices to grow more naturally.

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