Monday, 27 October 2014 17:33

New design challenges

Wow, this new place is fantastic - fabulous village, lovely, friendly, interesting people and amazing views. It may be the "middle of nowhere" but it is very close to major roads (though you can't hear them) and Shaftesbury, Tisbury, Warminster and even Salisbury. My new home and garden is on the Dorset/Wiltshire border and I am in heaven.

So to the garden....having searched for a country garden of a quarter to a third of an acre, South-West facing and preferably not on clay, I have compromised – well one has to compromise somewhere. I have found my perfect new home so have compromised a little on the garden. It is only four times the size of the London one ie 120 feet long by 54 feet wide (not even a sixth of an acre with the front garden included!) so it’s still a “small” garden – plus it’s North facing and on the thickest, heaviest clay you have ever seen. So, despite moving from London to the Dorset/Wiltshire border, I shall still be writing about creating and gardening in a small garden on clay.

But now I have many new challenges – starting with the design.  

The situation

I have fantastic views which I need to incorporate and not encroach on too much. In London it was easy. Everything was fences onto neighbours’ gardens and I could hide them away with trees and climbing plants. Now I have a beautifully landscaped estate of farmland and magnificent oak trees to build into my view from the back garden and a wonderfully tree-filled hill view over a common to the front. There is not a house in sight from the kitchen even though I am in a terrace of cottages first built in 1880, plus around six other dwellings on our potholed, unadopted road known as "the track”.

The back garden view

Front garden view

Though North facing, the garden is remarkably sunny for most of the day because of the layout and height of the house.  And as someone said, the great thing about North facing gardens is that the flowers look towards the house, not away from it - something to look forward to. But is also quite exposed and windy being surrounded by open fields and commons. It’ll also be colder than London of course.

And the clay is horrendous. In this area I expected to be on chalk or greenstone or at least something not clay. However, I am on a huge seam of Kimmeridge clay which comes up from the Dorset coast. It is very deep and intensely solid – you could throw pots from it in a minute. The garden has very little added top soil except on the old veg bed.

Clay has its positives. It retains minerals and goodness generally so is rich in nutrients but it cracks when dry (which can cause root disturbance) and holds water, which is not great in a wet winter on a flattish site – think bogs and mud. The previous owners have installed under-lawn drainage pipes to stop it getting waterlogged but I am going to have to work through and around these to create my new garden.

The garden as I bought it

The planting on purchase was a whole bed of self-sown hedgerow willows down the left border, two small trees (Bramley apple and Robinia aurea ) at the front of the lawn and a Rhus typhinia, a Viburnum and a Sorbus at the end of the lawn - all obscuring the view. There was also a young silver birch and a contorted willow which I am endeavouring to build into my plans and keep.

However, between the house and the lawn is a terrace and then a vast sea of gravel about 15 feet long, 54 feet wide and 8 inches deep. The house feels miles from the garden and the gravel is Dorset flint which is big, sharp and extremely difficult to walk on for me, let alone the dogs. So the first thing I had to do when I arrived was to create a pathway across it, for all of us, from old planks and bits of wood I found in the wood shed.

The bridge across the gravel sea - almost biblical?

The second, of course, was to completely redesign it,  which I started doing whilst still in London.

The key design challenges

  1. To bring the garden closer to the house, make it feel integrated and bring the wildlife closer for easy filming
  2. To create height and interest without impeding the views. It is level-ish and wooden fenced
  3. To add a large pond and create more plant borders whilst keeping enough lawn for Pickle and Lottie
  4. To re-invigorate, widen and deepen the existing beds – only the veg bed had any reasonable level of top soil and signs of worm life
  5. To create more planting areas for all the trees and other plants I want to grow
  6. To site the new greenhouse, shed, compost bins and a washing line without them encroaching on the view or casting too much shade
  7. To deal with the utilities. Our four cottages share a septic tank next door and all the pipes run through the back garden - somewhere?! The garden has existing drainage we have to work with, and I need electricity and water to the shed and greenhouse and pond pumps.
  8. To keep reasonable access to the gate into next door’s garden so they can fill their oil tank via my side access – and to facilitate their popping over for a drink, as is their wont, plus dog and child swapping generally which is already a feature of daily life
  9. To create cover for the unsightly oil tank and to disguise a large electricity pole
  10. To create alternative privacy for my neighbours to the right. At the moment this is achieved by a bank of brambles and nettles in the dairy farmer’s field which encroach into my garden – not ideal planting companions!
  11. The planting: to combine plant colours and textures. My last garden was so small it made sense to have a hot bed full of vivid colours separate from the cooler bed. And let’s face it, it’s much easier to do. But now I want to learn how to make them work together without banning a single colour. So there will be orange, purple, wild yellow and red alongside the easier pinks, blues and whites, plus greens, browns and maroons etc. - gulp!

Design process

I made lots of rough drawings but knew the design had to be to scale so a garden design program would be really helpful, as it was 11 years ago. I researched lots of potential garden design programs and eventually invested about £60 in one called Realtime Landscaping Pro 2014 from Idea Spectrum.

Overall, I am very pleased with it. It is easy to use, you can work in plan or perspective view, and view in 3D - as mouse controlled walkthrough or using video cameras. It has a good number of features and items to include in the plan, it’s easy to change them and it also does some cute things. For example, if you add a bird bath you get birds using it and if you plant scented plants you get butterflies fluttering around.

However, it is pretty American! You can choose from a thousand different modern house styles, decking types, swimming pools, patio stones and lawns but there is not a single climbing plant and only one vegetable in the plant list. I can’t imagine a garden without climbing roses, clematis, jasmine, honeysuckle, sweet peas, wisteria , even ivy, let alone the more interesting climbers. And I don’t want a vegetable garden completely full of cabbages either. I have offered to advise them on this for their next version but they have politely turned me down.

Initially I tried dividing the garden quite strongly into different “rooms” but it meant losing views or too much lawn with dividing features (hedges, walls, fences etc). So the final design remains a "whole", with different “areas”. I have incorporated some ideas from my London garden that worked well such as the low walls around the terrace which provide well-drained sites for alpines etc, the stream running into the pond and the rustic swing seat from Duckpaddle over which one can grow climbers, but otherwise it’s very new.

The new design

So the new garden will have a greenhouse in almost the same place as the existing one (which was correctly sited East/West and is in a sunny position). It is on order but won’t arrive until January which is OK for most seed planting. We shall build its base and brick walls in advance. It will be 10’x10’, not 12’x8’ so that it does not interrupt the sight line from the kitchen sink window, down the rose arches, to the view. A matching cold frame will sit the other side of it alongside an outdoor sink. The new compost bins will be at the beginning of the veg/cutting beds nearby.

I’ve moved the shed (which will be a new one) to the other side of the garden so it doesn’t block the Southern light through the side access to the veg garden.
There will be a long, six feet wide path up from the terrace towards the new huge pond and rock garden at the end of the garden. The path will be covered in black metal rose arches covered in climbers and have a long border down the left of it with a gap in the middle to allow movement to the left onto the lawn and to the right into the extended veg/cutting garden. At the end of the path will be more hard standing, the rustic swing seat and a bridge over the pond. I shall keep the existing metal gates in the fence at the end (but hang them properly) so that it looks as if the view through them is an extension of my garden.

The border down the left will be widened, the self-seeded willows (and everything else) removed and a peninsular bed added.

The sea of gravel and misplaced young tress will disappear and the lawn will come towards the house (accompanied by the long border). Two beds have been added nearer the house (so will be shadier beds – but shade beds are a fun challenge), with another around the trellis hiding the oil tank and one by the low terrace wall near the new side gate. The path from the side gate is four feet wide and ends up at the gate into the neighbour’s garden. Everything except the rose walk path is curvy - and it'll look a bit like this from where I sit and work.

The same view in the old garden looked like this.

So I am now happy with the overall design – all I need is someone to build it for me and clear what’s there at the moment… this space!