Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Gardening ~ paths, frontages & fences

Even before planting is begun a garden should look good and function well.  I have found this to be true both with gardens I've extensively altered as well as those I've started up from next to nothing.  The principle of form being based on function is sound.  Certainly it's helpful in deciding what we want, and a good principle to check while working on any project.

These are a good place to start.  If you do nothing else in your garden get the paths working properly.
     Paths to and from entranceways are of particular importance.  They should be wide enough to walk on comfortably without the need to consider where to place your feet and should be free of obstacles such as uneven paving stones and bushy over-growth.  Most of us have legs the same length, so paths should be level across their width.
     Steps need to be stable and of a gradient and depth that is comfortable and safe.

If your paths already exist cleaning or weeding them will smarten the place up immediately.  Are pathways wide enough?  Trim growth back from their edges.  If they go through a garden define the edges by digging the earth back a little from them.  If set into lawn, make sure they are even with it.  Build up the lawn if need be. 
     The entrance pathway pictured to the left was awkward to say the least, with an odd turn in at the gateway which made it was too narrow for a pushchair to be easily manoeuvred through it, and a drop of an inch or so from the edge of the concrete to the lawn on its other side made it awkward in other ways.  The solution was found in some concrete blocks lying idle elsewhere and some barrow-loads of earth.  It took a while to place the blocks evenly but was a good result. 
     If paths have yet to be formed decide where you want them.  The way I decide this sort of thing is to walk backwards and forwards and observe where my feet go, then I lay the the hose along one side of it and maybe put in some pegs.  Food skewers are good for this sort of thing.  Then I try it out some more.  Does it feel right and does it look right?  Bear in mind anything else you are likely to want to do with the area.  When your path is well placed it's likely to look satisfying from every angle.
     Whatever you use to construct your paths, whether it's flattened earth, paving stones, or slabs of rock, make sure  the resulting surface is nice and firm and as even as possible.  It will take time and effort, but it is a good place to start.  If left until after you've done other landscaping it's likely to be disruptive to your carefully laid lawn or nicely planted border.  In any case you may find you've run out of puff and motivation!

Frontages and letterboxes:
These are often neglected aspects of the garden and make such a difference to the look of a place and indeed, taken collectively, to the whole neighbourhood.  An attractive frontage also provides a good welcome when we come home.
     When we came to live here one of the first things I did was petition our landlord to remove a particularly ugly and unnecessary segment of fence and to remove the letterbox so I could paint it.  This was successful.  Digging up and mounding additional earth just behind it was a secondary consideration and done later.  These simple tasks took relatively modest effort and transformed the look of the place immediately.  A few cheaply purchased annuals put in to get that part of the garden going added to its freshness.  Our landlord was so impressed he bought brass numerals for the letterbox!
     Most letterboxes in this country are of an appalling standard which is surprising considering that New Zealanders take pride in being capable with practical things.  Many letterboxes don't even fit a standard envelope and are just rubbish!   Our present one, although it required a coat of paint, actually is properly functional and now looks proud of its job.
     Our landlord and his wife live next door.  The summer after we moved in their half-hearted frontage annoyed me so much I made it over for them while they were away!  I have to assure readers that permission had been given for me to do so, but it still made for a nice surprise on their return.  The cost was zero as I filled it in with bits from our own garden.  It has continued to bush up well since then and requires almost no maintenance.     
     If you have a gate it's important that it's hung properly and is straightforward to open and shut.  It's surprising how many are not! 
     In establishing and keeping up a pleasant frontage we do ourselves and others a good service.  

Fences, hedges and defining boundaries:
To fence or not to fence, that is the question!  Fences are good for a number of things: firstly, to contain or exclude animals and small children; secondly, to define boundaries and give privacy.  I completely understand the former and have reservations about the latter.  Fences are certainly the best choice in some situations, but in my view hedges and border plantings are often far better. 
     Too many fences in small places close together can too easily make properties look like stock yards.  Furthermore, they create deep shadow especially in winter, and the ground on the dark side then becomes over-wet and plants or lawn situated in their shadow don't grow as well. 
     Hedges and planted borders, on the other hand, are full of interest, provide places for birds and insects to have their homes, and take up excess water.  In summer they provide pleasant shade.  And they filter the wind far better than a fence.  Lastly, a hedge is live wood, whereas a fence is dead.  I'd rather have live things around me!
     In a rental situation one often has little choice, but it can be worth stating a preference.  Our landlord is a keen fencer.  He finds them satisfying to build, and I must say I'm glad of some of them: a fence between our shared drive and the neighbour of a different property provides a welcome screen from a very untidy section.
     However, on our side of the drive I resolutely opposed even a partial fence to continue on where the hedge ends.  Instead I planted a border.  It's a very long border, some 50 feet or so.  After we moved in I did a lot elsewhere in the garden and it seemed too big a job to undertake, so I left doing anything about it for about a year.  But I couldn't help thinking about it:

I considered where a border might best be placed.

Finally I couldn't stand it any longer and launched into this major project.  It was made possible by my trusty grubber!  The use of two hoses, a measuring stick and a packet of food skewers helped me get the curving edges nice and even.  Once the ground was ready I planted it very simply with self-sown seedlings and tussocks which I'd potted 'just in case'.  A sprinkling of marigolds and other hardy annuals also from saved seed helped to fill it in.

Early 2009

Although it took a considerable amount of labour to establish it, it cost me nothing and is a lasting source of pleasure and interest.

Springtime - October 2010

Usually I favour garden beds being mounded up with a scattering of rocks and lots of additional earth, but in this case I chose not to do so.  Neither I nor my landlord were sure what the future of that particular border might be.  Given that it's possible it may be removed after our departure I wanted to make taking it out as simple as possible - and its loss the cause of least regret!  With the passing of time its future seems more assured.  It will continue to put on height over the years as the shrubs grow up and there is plenty of room between them and the edge of the drive.
     A fence can go up in a matter of days whereas a hedge or a garden border is certainly a long term undertaking.  In many instances planted borders can define a boundary as much as it needed if you have the interest, energy and patience.

Later note: One last look at that border:
Early on the morning we moved from that place I took this photograph. 

It was June 2011 and a heavy frost lingered.  The plants had filled out well and I was sorry to leave them, but life goes on and I'm taming a new garden now which presents new challenges.  I'm pleased to have a couple of seedlings of those big grasses though, which were so successful, the original seed having come plants on a stream bank in Christchurch.  My happy memories of the parent plants live on.

More about letterboxes:
Entries in a recent competition for quirky letterboxes show that some New Zealanders do have a high regard for this oft neglected household object.
  • NZ's quirkiest letterbox - article published on 'stuff.co.nz' on 18th November 2010.  To see other entries click on the 'Next' link underneath the photograph of the winning entry.
  • Canterbury letterboxes stay home - article published in the Press on the 17th November 2010.  These letterboxes weren't entered into the competition but could well have been.

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