case study: a year in your garden - planting revamp

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A walled garden near wallingford

Cynthia and Max contacted me in the autumn of 2017 as they were struggling to find a style of planting and way forward with which they were both happy, after having removed all the over-grown plants from their pretty walled garden.

Although experienced allotment gardeners, they had never planted a whole garden before and were looking for an experienced design eye to brain-storm ideas, show them what was possible, answer questions and support the implementation process.

Before - we have marked the new layout for the beds on the ground in blue paint

Before - we have marked the new layout for the beds on the ground in blue paint

The first session

The garden, which acts as the entrance to a pretty brick built house, is sunny, square and had a functional layout in good condition. 

Although there were a couple of elements I wouldn’t have chosen, such as the offset slab arrangement of the main path, Max and Cynthia were happy with them and they have become much less noticeable now they are softened with lovely planting.

Although they had expected to dive straight into the planting Max and Cynthia agreed that the the garden would be much improved by doing some remedial work before planting and we began by creating a very rough pencil sketch and marking out an adjusted layout on the ground in blue paint.

We then captured a list of all the jobs that needed to be done, divided it into tasks and decided how the jobs would be accomplished. Heavy or skilled jobs were passed to a skilled landscaper I had recommended.

Having broken things down so the way forward was clear was a great relief, and it was lovely to see Cynthia and Max relax and begin to enjoy the process.

“Sarah’s professional advice and coaching enabled us to prioritise tasks, and timetable the preparation over the winter months, ready for spring planting.”

so what did we do before planting?

Well - it was mainly a question of clearing, clarifying and consolidating as is often the case.

Clearing away forgotten bits and pieces, clarifying the lines of the lawn and borders, removing a bed that was ill placed and consolidating what was already there by improving soil, replacing the fence and pergola and reinstating lawn as needed before planting. 

We also decided to replace an existing but rather misshapen plum tree which was producing very little fruit. Although Max and Cynthia really knew that its days were numbered, they were having trouble following through.  I was clear that, in a garden of this size, such an important feature should be gorgeous in at least three seasons not ugly in four! 

A new, well chosen and healthy tree would offer them much more pleasure and so together we chose a Snowy Mespilus (the latin name is Amelanchier lamarkii) as a replacement.  

This small tree has pretty pink edged new foliage, flowers in spring, berries in summer and then autumn colour - so much value in such a small space, and so pretty in itself, that Max and Cynthia were delighted as soon as it was planted. 

I often find myself giving permission somehow for clients to remove a tree or other plant they don’t love but are tolerating and, for me, it was really a no-brainer. 

So many of us agonise over getting rid of plants and yet I am so clear it’s easy for me to help them decide - it’s the Marie Kondo principle in action - if it doesn’t spark joy in you thank it for its contribution and let it go.  

First stages of new planting design - the circles are to scale and represent one plant at 3 years old.

First stages of new planting design - the circles are to scale and represent one plant at 3 years old.


the planting

The planting scheme I created has a mix of strong long-lasting elements that will hold the interest year round as well as lots of seasonal perennial choices to offer a regularly changing picture.

Pleased with the design, Cynthia and Max accepted it fully and asked me to supply the plants which I was happy to do as it enables me to ensure that the varieties I have chosen for their particular characteristics are the ones that are supplied.

It was such an exciting moment when the 300 or so perennials, shrubs and yew balls arrived and I popped over to help count them in. 

There is always a wonderful change in atmosphere once the plants arrive even when they are still in their pots and this was no exception. We couldn’t wait to get them settled in their new homes.  

Planting took place on a sunny day in late April 2018 and, Sarah, a gardener colleague of mine, came to help Max and Cynthia plant whilst I ‘laid out’, starting with the larger structural shrubs, yew balls and perennials, moving onto ground cover and filling in with lots of lovelies.    

Work progressed well and by the time I’d finished my job most of the plants were in the ground and Cynthia and Max were keen to press on and finish the work themselves the next day.  

The plants were chosen to give interest over the longest possible time and for contrast of texture, form and colour. Here you see Euphorbia characias, Geranium ‘Roxanne’, the leaves of Acer palmatum and Persicaria ‘Taurus’.

The plants were chosen to give interest over the longest possible time and for contrast of texture, form and colour. Here you see Euphorbia characias, Geranium ‘Roxanne’, the leaves of Acer palmatum and Persicaria ‘Taurus’.


seasonal visits

I have been lucky enough to be invited back season on season so far to advise on general care, the addition of bulbs to extend the planting and more, and am delighted to witness bow Cynthia and Max’s enjoyment and ownership of the garden has grown through the process.

On my most recent visit our discussion was all about how best to move forward with their front garden (which they had already been busy clearing) and I’m off there again later this month to sit with them both at the kitchen table and plan the planting - I can’t wait to see what more they have achieved since my last visit. 

They’ve definitely got the gardening bug! 

Walled garden in Shillingford - Before - we’ve marked out with blue paint the shape changes needed.

Walled garden in Shillingford - Before - we’ve marked out with blue paint the shape changes needed.


the planting design

Once the bones of the garden were in good order we moved onto a discussion about the planting which was, after-all, what I’d come to do in the first place and the first thing to do was to find some common ground for Cynthia and Max. He likes a tidy garden and she likes lots of loose planting. It was a bit tricky but eventually we found a way through and the process began.

The garden measures about 10 metres square, give or take, and the criteria was that the new plants should be reasonably easy to maintain, offer interest throughout the year and not be ‘too messy.’   I also knew that good structure was important as the house is accessed through this, otherwise, back garden and needs to hold its own all year round.

There’s plenty to think about when choosing plants.  Obviously the style of garden and taste of the owners needs to be taken into consideration but it’s much more than that.  We need to also consider the local climate, aspect of the garden - is it shady or sunny, hot or cold and what type of soil we’re working with.  

Starting with a to-scale plan of the borders I gradually choose plants to create a community, and represent each one on the plan by drawing a circle sized to to the space it can be expected to occupy at three years old.  

A metre circle represents a shrub for instance and a 30cm one defines a small perennial.  The design is built up gradually and in layers, starting with the largest plants which generally offer the key structure.

Echinacea ‘Magnus” and Verbena bonarienesis

Echinacea ‘Magnus” and Verbena bonarienesis


The Plants

In order to create a planting scheme that had movement, colour and long season interest, and would be easy to maintain, I didn’t focus on the flowers in the first instance. 

Although flowers are what we often associate with gardens it is actually the foliage texture and form that gives a space its character and structure, much like a skeleton.  If all we do is focus on the flowers then impact is short lived.  

I positioned yew balls regularly along the main path and at the corners of the beds to create structure and offer repetition which creates a sense of calm. In the past I’d have used box but the current box moth and blight issues preclude this.   Yew is slow growing and expensive so we chose small ones that will gradually get larger over time.  

The lovely large mediterranean Spurge (Euphorbia charachias ‘Wulfenii’ offers structure and bulk while the delicate Golden Oats grass (Stipa gigantea) adds movement and texture.  The hardy blue-flowered Leadwort (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) offers late season interest with its sweet red-edged leaves and vivid blue flowers and Geranium ‘Rozanne’ covers the ground well.  

Crazy purple daisy Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea ‘Rubenstein’) is a delicious addition and the little central cone seedbeds that come after flowering associate so well with the grasses. It’s always useful to consider seed-heads in a schemings too as they extend the season of interest and birds love them.

Oh, and Verbena bonariensis that stands tall and is see-through adds lovely interest.  In fact, it was the mention of verbena that sealed the deal when we were discussing the planting - Max loves it and it is unstructured enough to satisfy Cynthia too - a real win win. 

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Sarah helped us see our garden through new eyes, to see the garden space differently and to identify what really matters.
— C and M F, Shillingford



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