Looking at Garden Planting Design Mistakes

dog MaxAs a keen gardener I am always making mistakes and learning from them, but invariably gardening books only tell us the correct way to do things and only show perfectly composed photographs of gardens to which we must aspire.

Looking at your own gardens is different than looking at those of others. When I see my low-growing, open garden in spring I see it in the context of how it will be in high summer when the air will be filled with arching grasses and billowing clumps of head-high perennials. Others might view my garden now as lacking in structure and variations in height; I see the contrasts it offers over time.

King_150428_15047Conversely most people passing my garden this weekend will comment upon how nice it looks, bursting into growth, the newly planted shrubs showing their first flowers and promising more in the years to come, but for me, I see a problem.

In truth not one problem as this is a trial garden and not meant to be a perfectly designed show garden, but what I am missing at the moment is the wash of colour tulips could be bringing to the picture.

The perfectly composed photograph in the garden magazines seduce us into admiration of the skills of others, but we don’t see the whole picture: both literally and in context. Where the camera lens focuses it carefully crops out the things that we must not see. Also, those photographs are a shot in time and fail to reveal the process that is unravelling there day by day.

King_150428_15034At a glance my garden looks great, but I know it could be better. The sea of red tulips that I crave to contrast boldly with the many shades of green it currently displays are missing –  in part because I failed to plant them and in part because I am fighting a loosing battle with the local mice and vole population. This autumn I will have more time than last year to work in the garden and plant the missing tulips. I am told that the smell from fritillaria bulbs such as Crown Imperials will deter the rodents so maybe my current mistake will be solved and then I can move onto the next problem. Why, in God’s name, did I plant that brightly variegated Acer campestre in such a prominent position? And wouldn’t the simple green leaved species have been a much better choice?

Acer campestre 'Carnival'Gardening moves forward one step at a time and no doubt two backwards. Perhaps it is time for an alternative gardening book highlighting all of our gardening mistakes.

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The Vernal Garden

Seasonal Highlights in the Perennial Meadow Garden

Vernal Garden

For more than three weeks the weather has been cold, wet and very windy here in the Netherlands, but now it is Easter and it feels like the gardening season has begun. The nights are still cold, but the days are calm and sunny and daffodils dominate the garden; finally it is the place to be.

In every season I take the time to note which plants really make their mark and then try to build upon these highlights to improve the garden’s appearance in future years. Hellebores have been flowering in my garden for almost two months, but it is only now that they are surrounded by a carpet of white Pachyphragma  (see earlier post)  which itself is peppered with clumps of blue Pulmanaria, Scilla and Anemone that they really matter.

Vernal Garden

This ground covering carpet of flowers is always at its best in early spring and makes the setting for clumps of the various early flower daffodils I grow. Yes, there are very early flowering Narcissus and also splendid late flowerers, but whilst the former are delightful harbingers of spring, the later must fight for our attention amidst the haughty tulips and brash or beautiful spring flowering shrubs. Only now, in early spring, can daffodils take the leading role and the more I look around my garden this weekend the more I realise how much more I must plan to add to the borders this coming autumn.

Vernal Garden

I am trialling a number of winter flowering shrubs in the garden at the moment and many are definitely well worth finding space for – see my eBook on shrub features. Without doubt the one that really matters though is the witch hazel – Hamamelis. I chose to plant two mid to late flowering cultivars (‘Angelly’ and ‘Aurora’), one yellow and the other soft orange, as they flower in the period following the garden’s annual tidy-up when all of the dead debris of last year’s perennials have been removed. Still small, these two plants managed to dominate the garden in late winter and will only get better as they grow larger in subsequent years. With snowdrops below, these shrubs will become the main theme of my garden in late winter in years to come.

Vernal Garden

Things move on quickly in the vernal garden and in two weeks time tulips will be taking centre stage. Yes, there are very early flowering species and spectacular lates, but it is the peak of their flowering season that we need to grab and make extravagant use of. Like a crescendo at the end of a piece of music, the tulip must play its part in our gardening plans. I aim to bring you up to date on what is happening here in the Netherlands when I make my annual pilgrimage to the Keukenhof before the end of this month, but for now I am spending time in the garden – open, low and sunny – to enjoy the splendours of the early-flowering daffodils and their chorus line.

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Looking back at a Perennial Meadow Scheme for Christmas

There is a small perennial border in the centre of my garden where for many years I grew a random mixture of plants – all interesting, but as a whole chaotic. Finally, I decided to bring order and a sense of design back to this section of the garden; a garden which is essentially a trial garden and where all design rules can be broken for the sake of trying out a new plant.

Gardening with GrassesThe aim was for an open, relatively low planting scheme over which the eye can travel, but which nevertheless is interesting without screaming for attention. Why not lay a simple lawn you might be thinking and indeed that would serve the same function, but there are far more interesting plants to grow and I am not interested in mowing grass.

Gardening with GrassesThis border is already very beautiful in spring as it contains a collection of early flowering daffodils which are a precursor to a display of purple/blue tulips. The challenge was to replant it without digging up all of these treasures. My trick was to mark the spots where the existing plants were removed from and replant in these same spots without disturbing the nearby soil. It worked, and I only unearthed a handful of bulbs during the exercise.

Gardening with GrassesThis scheme reuses plants already growing in the garden with the aim of creating a long season of interest. No sooner had I decided that the border must be low than I discovered that the only place in the garden where I could place a magnificiant cultivar of purple moor grass – Molinia arundinacea subsp. arundinacea ‘Cordoba’ – was here. This tall grass creates a wide arching flower display that all too easily hangs over any nearby paths. In its current position it was spectacular by always in the way and this new border – some 4 meteres by 3 meters – was big enough to contain it.

Gardening with GrassesCompromise is a normal part of life and so my new, low, simple border would have to have a dramatic centrepiece! Fortunately this grass is totally transparent even though it grows over head-height so there would not be a real problem. The methodology I have developed for creating perennial meadows is nothing more than a starting point and must not be allowed to become a dogma. If it is to be successful it must be flexible and easily adapted to any given situation and circumstance.

Gardening with Grasses MoliniaThis year the molinia grew tall and arched out magnificently above its neighbours.

The name, perennial meadow, suggests schemes for open sunny situations, but the idea of mass planting a restricted mixture of perennials to create a coherent block of vegetation can equally be applied to the shadier parts of our gardens. In face, some of the most satisfying schemes I have designed using this approach have been for precisely such situations.

Gardening with GrassesSo with the bold arching grass at its centre, the planting scheme was filled in with a random mixture of epimediums, hostas, astrantias, low-growing grasses and aruncus; let me explain what I did:

Gardening with GrassesEpimedium rubrum is a tough early-flowering ground cover that quickly develops spreading carpets of pale green foliage beautifully traced with dark ruddy toned patterns. Its small neat foliage would provide the setting for the larger-leaved collection of hostas I had been hiding away in an odd corner of the garden for some time. In design terms it would have been better to have restricted myself to just one hosta cultivar, but I had five – some plain green and some variegated – these would have to do and none proved too distracting the following year.

Gardening with GrassesThe Astrantia major ‘Buckland’ was already growing in this border. It is a white flowered cultivar which also reflowers for a second time in autumn most years. The grass I have used is a new form of Calamagrostis – ‘Cheiju-do’ – This low-growing grass has yet to win my heart but it has grown well here and will bring variety to the broad leaved plants surrounding it.

Gardening with Grasses CalamagrostisMy good friend Ernst Pagels introduced a number of interesting hybrid goat’s beards – Aruncus sp. – some are tall and indispensable such as ‘Horatio’, but some others, such as ‘Sommeranfang’, make low mounds of fine foliage and flower in early summer. I have planted these near to the edges of this new border as yet one more texture to bring interest to the scheme when viewed up close.

Gardening with GrassesTo guarantee a long season of summer colour to this rather green border I added one of my favourite easy perennials – Chrysogonum virginianum. This lowly perennial starts producing its small, star-like, yellow flower in late spring and will continue to flower on into autumn – never dramatic, but totally worthy and perfectly in tune with my intentions here.

So there we have it, a random mixture of simple perennials that should work together to cover the ground and open up this central, semi-shaded area of my garden.

Planting took place just before the end of October 2012 during an interval in the persistent rain that had been a feature of our European summer and winter that year. Everything established well but it wasn’t until this year that the large molinia at the centre of the border was settled and flowered well. This restful area has since become the home of a couple of my growing collection of viburnum shrubs so over time it will change, but for now it has the simple open character that I was aiming for. Such are the games we gardeners can play in our own private spaces.

Happy Christmas to all my followers and merry gardening in 2015.


Michael King

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Gardening with Shrubs

Books For Christmas 2014

There are not many books around that will actually teach you to use shrubs effectively in your garden. Too many shrub books are written by experts and focus on the plants at the expense of design; how many magnolias, rhododendrons or Judas trees can the average person fit into their home garden? In my case possibly one of each; and although their flowers might be magnificent, the plants need to earn their keep all year round to justify a space in a small garden.

Writers such as Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd have given us a lot of good advice particularly in their explanations of how they have set about combining shrubs into their planting schemes. Some of the most useful books specifically on gardening with shrubs I have read are by Andy McIndoe. His “The Hillier Gardener’s Guides – Shrubs” and the new “The Creative Shrub Garden” focus on the latest assortment of good shrubs to use in gardens of all sizes. His experience shines through and this is where you will find the very best recommendations of which species and cultivars you need to create your schemes. His ideas on combinations with other types of plants are also very well considered.

andyFrustrated by the lack of good design guidance I set about formulating my own ideas based upon trials in my garden and extensive reading of everything I could find. The result was the publication of Shrub Features as an eBook earlier this year. To date reactions to my efforts have been positive, but many find it a challenge not to be presented with a book filled with pretty pictures.

Shrub Feature BorderTo focus attention on my ideas I have only used simple sketches and drawings to show how shrubs might be placed in garden designs. Also, one of the greatest challenges I find in using shrubs is estimating how large they will eventually grow. To illustrate the size, the shape and the textures of the shrubs I know and grow, I have attempted to sketch their sihouettes as they near maturity.

Recommended Shrub FeaturesMy ideas are still evolving on gardening with shrubs and not everyone will agree with everything I have written, but, hopefully, it will make some gardeners think, and stimulate a more original approach to the use of this very important group of garden plants.

Happy Christmas reading.

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Form and Structure within Perennial Planting Design

Perennials are by their very nature loose and informal especially when combined into contemporary naturalistic planting schemes.

Naturalistic Planting

The traditional herbaceous border was created as a tableaux to be viewed from outside and was given structure by being given a framework of formal hedges and fronted with neatly mown lawn.

Traditional herbaceous borders

Perennial meadows as an example of today’s interest in naturalistic planting invite their visitors inside, amidst the plants, to become engulfed and enraptured by their loose, expansive nature.

Naturalistic Planting

Bringing structure to such informal arrangements of plants is of paramount importance in order to avoid the whole collapsing into a tangled mess. Simply by placing a few solid points of interest in their midst we can bring focus and direction to their design.

Naturalistic Planting

Ground patterns and the construction of walls and seating units is yet another means of imposing structure to larger schemes.

Naturalistic Planting

Repetition is the key to the creation of visually powerful perennial meadow planting schemes and these can be given structure by using plants of different form or height to contrast with those that surround them.

Naturalistic Planting

One approach I use often is to include into the design blocks or rows of a single species of perennial such as a river of persicaria or ornamental grasses.

Naturalistic Planting

Further, I have tried many shrubs and trees over the years to introduce such structural incidents into my plantings and the most useful have turned out to be slim pencil-shaped conifers. These plants are so out of vogue that their use becomes original and exciting; my current favourite is Irish juniper – Juniperus communis ‘Hibernica’.

Naturalistic Planting with conifers

It is often better to break up a perennial meadow into a series of separate beds or borders with contrasting schemes or types of plants. This not only allows you to enter into their midst it also facilitates easy access for maintenance.

Perennial Meadows by Michael King

This need for structure in a perennial meadow is just one of the practical points I cover in the final lesson of my course for My Garden School entitled Naturalistic Perennial Meadow Planting Design. The online course covers the principles covered in my series of eBooks which have been available to you for some time now, but brings my thinking up to date and includes a host of new and exciting images. These online courses offer students the chance to share their thoughts and ideas with both their tutor and other students in the virtual classroom. Each week for a month, there is a small assignment to undertake which provides the basis for discussion. I must say this as well as my course on ornamental grasses has proven to be highly stimulating for both myself and, I believe, my students. Perhaps this winter is the time for you to plan your own new perennial meadow.

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