A garden has many more dimensions than we could possibly fathom. We are more and more finding out about the intricate communication systems trees have developed with their roots to other trees, seeds that make the ground infertile for other rival plants, colonies of insects with complex social systems, fungi that transform debris in different ways.
Our gardens are little microcosms that exhibit all this details and more. Time is an extra dimension- how plants will perform over time, what plants will die out after a few years, which ones need to seed each year to keep the species alive, what pruning is needed for particular type of trees knowing how the way in which they grow and how you want them to look. We are involved in a shifting, flowing 4-D sculpture.
If you take a walk in nature you will realise that plant life tries to occupy all the different layers of space. From tall trees to a canopy of small trees underneath, to shrubs then ground cover, bulbs and climbers.
Different plants survive on different levels depending on their light requirements and due to other factors such as wind, soil stability and ability to grow next to different species.
The result is powerful and achieves a complexity that most urban gardens lack.
Of course in many ways gardens are simplifications of nature, bringing out the essential elements whilst allowing for more functional human spaces as well as ease of maintenance.Yet it is possible to bring some of that rich ‘wovenness’ into the smallest of gardens and the results will give you a deeper satisfaction and more four dimensional beauty.
So if there are gaps in your beds or just one or two layers going on compared with the eight I have mentioned below, you can notice what is missing and plan to enrich your layering for next year!
Choose your trees carefully. Often I arrive at a client’s garden and there is either one massive tree that dominates the rest of the garden space or there is a lack of trees. People sometimes assume that planting trees will create too much shade but if your garden is small/medium, well positioned trees with a delicate and spacious leaf and branch character can create a canopy that will give your garden a sense of height, enclosure and intimacy.
Some trees for the smaller gardens are Amelenchier lamarki, Weeping Birch, Malus, Sorbus, Viburnum Tinus, Cercis, Albezia and Rhus. All of these trees will give your garden a lovely sense of breadth without a tree surgeon being called in every year.
We will be looking at shrub combination in a future article, but one can start thinking of shrubs in a more complex way.
Underneath the tree layer one can plant a layer which I call Tall Shrubs. These plants can contribute lots of height when needed but can also be pruned severely each year depending on the plan you have for the shapes in your garden. Some of them can be also be developed as multi stemmed plants.
Some are Sambucus ‘Sutherland’s Gold’ and Sambucus ‘Black Lace’, Philadelphus, Forsythia, some of the taller Cornus, Ceanothus, Fatsia, most of the the Pittisporums and the different types of Laurel.
They are the aesthetic bridge between taller trees and the rest of the garden creating a more natural context for the smaller perennial beds and lawn.
Smaller shrubs can then be chosen that will tend to give longer periods of colour and fit snuggly under the ‘umbrellas’ of the taller trees and shrubs. Some interesting shrubs are: Rosa rugosa, Teucrium fruticans, Japanese Quince, most of the Hebes, Hydrangeas, Cistis, Pittisporum ‘Tom Thumb’ and the Choysia range. Lavatera ‘Barsley Baby’, Mahonia Soft Caress, the smaller Phormiums and variegated Euonymous.
Ground cover can be used as the ‘glue’ that holds all the different layers together. Not only can you plant these in large ribbons and drifts to give your border a sense of flow and unity but they solve the practical job of suppressing the weeds whilst the trees are establishing themselves.
Some tried and tested ground covers that I like are the smaller height Geraniums, Sedums, Chaerophyllum ‘Roseum’, White Bay Willow Herb and Persicaria. Grasses can also be used here, with dotted planting of Pennesetum Fairy Tails.
Smaller Ground Cover
The smaller ground covers tend to be at the front of borders where they won’t be swamped by the bigger plants. Some nice examples are: Pachysandra, Ajuga, Brunnera, Galium odoratum, Epimedium, Bergenias, Lilly of the Valley and Periwinkle.
It is surprising how many gardens I visit and see unsightly spaces that a well chosen climber could easily transform.
Climbers hide fences, can shoot up trees like rambling roses or drop languidly gown from shed grooves or pergodas. They are a first choice for many unsightly wall or tool shed and with their exuberant need to spread out can give your garden a new dimension of space.
More unusual climbers are Akebia, Campsis, Berberidopsis coralline and Solanum.
The bulb range is enormous. Some come out before the trees have come into leaf to grab the early sunlight when they can, others push through other plant life tenaciously. As I have written in previous articles plan your bulbs with the months of the year in mind and you can have bright splashes of colour almost all year.
I would like to include another dimension to designing you garden with layers- and that is what is called ‘Window Plants’ . These are plants that even though some are quite tall they can be planted in the middle or even the front of a bed and you can see through their spacious foliage to other plants.
Examples of these- and please look them up as they have a great ethereal feeling, are Sanguisorba ‘ Pink Elephant’, Dierama, Qaura, Molinia Tranparent and Molinia ‘Karl Foestar’, Allium Sphaerocephalon and the more commonly known Verbena Bonsariensis and Stips gigantia.
So look at the different dimensions of your garden. See what is performing well and see where you can add extra depth. Once you do you will have enriched your garden and your viewing experience.