Designing a Graceful Garden- Letting Plants Sing
As a garden designer I am often called in to renovate a garden that has become tired or stultified.
Two problem elements often stand out for me.
The first is that plants are not in the right place. This leads to owners having to prune them to size on a regular bases. If you are wanting a tight, formal look to your garden this can work out well if the right plant for controlled pruning has been chosen. However, plants are just normally hacked back because they are too big for the allotted space and the poor householder has no choice.
The second problem I often encounter is that the planting has no real connection to the house. Neither the texture or structure of the plant, it’s leaf colour or personality relate to the house and its characteristics. It goes without saying that houses tend to be large and hard objects but often the planting is equally hard and atrophied, pruned to fit into a border rather than being free to ‘do it’s thing’.
Nigel Phillips, a well known Sussex garden designer, has a wonderful way of looking at it. He says – Ask yourself a simple question – Does that plant in that place SING?
That is, does it embody all the beauty and unique characteristics of its nature without looking bound, chopped, squashed or held back. It is surprising what answers you will get once you start asking yourself this question of each plant in your garden.
So how do we free up our garden and make it feel abundant?
One question you can ask is how can I let the plant off it’s leash. The other is do I need to move it or pull it out and start again.
A good example of the first point is how we treat our Philadelphus. This popular Orange Blossom is basically a multi stemmed small tree that we treat as a shrub. It has a very tall, arching nature, sending lots of stems up from the base to rejuvenate itself each year. Most well intentioned gardeners will just cut it into a 5 foot rectangle after flowering each year. But if you want it to sing the best way to prune is to thin out a third of the oldest stems right down to the ground and encourage the new stems to freshen up the plants. This will leave you with a graceful yet very tall plant, about 12 foot.
The second question then needs to be asked- Now I have let my plant sing, but is it too big for its spot?
Then I need to be brave and either move it or pull it out.
Getting rid of plants is a whole issue in itself. In my oil painting class what we struggle with a lot is not just getting something to look right but knowing when to start a whole area again in the service of getting the whole picture to work, even though what we have done ‘looks good’. This courage to ‘destroy’ is arguably more important than the skill in making something look presentable. If you can muster the courage to take out something then you find you can start working towards a greater goal. We often bulk at taking out a healthy plant but if a garden is to work and inspire you and others with the beauty of nature then the sacrifice is worth it. And in my experience once you have the nerve to do it, you end up planting a richer garden with possibly more plants than before.
Look at the shrubs you have
Every plant has its own characteristics, forged from thousands if not millions of years of growth in particular habits. The amazing thing is ho adaptable they are. If you work with them rather than against what they want to do your garden will have a natural and effortless feel and you won’t be feeling there is a fight on your hands every weekend.
You can let the shrubs you have let their hair down this Summer and see what happens. They might go up and out in which case you could try a different type of pruning which would be thinning out whole branches rather than chopping them into a round shape.
If they do get too big you can think about training them against a wall, moving or removing them.
Here are some of the common garden shrubs that you could re think.
Rosa rugosa- leave at the back of the border to become wonderfully leggy letting it throw its blooms over the plants at the front
Escalonia- this can be thinned and the small branches at its base can be stripped back to the core branches creating a nice looking ornamental tree
Acuba japonica- let it go and see what happens. Again it can be allowed to stretch out if planted deep in a shady corner rather than in a prime spot in the border.
Weigela- this popular flowering shrub often gets pruned into a ball but it has the most wonderful fountain of branches. Again the lower branches can be cleaned up and old branches taken right out.
Spirea- same as above
There are so many other plants that you can give a green light to this Summer- and what’s the worse that can happen. They look untidy and you can just neaten them up again!