Monday, 29 August 2011

Late summer border - colour verses structure?

It's shamefully been months since my last post, it's been a super busy year with one thing and another - going to try and write about some of the exciting projects I've been involved with over the next month or two. Thought I'd start with the most recent one - a garden I worked on which was opened under the Scotland Open Garden Scheme yesterday. A lady rang me in March asking if I could help her with plant design. I don't get asked for just planting plans very often so when I arrived I was delighted to find out she was looking for a late summer border, pure herbaceous - no structure, shrubs or year round interest required - even more rare. Coming down the stairs at the side of the house, I got first sight of the border that she wanted redone.
It's south facing, runs along the base of the wall of main terrace and is bookended by steps. The client had already started clearing it of plants, so it contained only some bulbs, Nepeta, Astanita & Peony. It was approx 14m long by around1.8m deep. Beyond wanting the planting to peak for the open day in late August, the client's brief was quite loose - no grasses, but she didn't mind what colours I chose. She asked for some Helenium, Verbena bonariensis and she was growing on some of her own Dahlia and Ricinus communis which she'd like to include if it fitted with the scheme (which it did!)
Standing half way down the lawn, looking back at the border I realised that the planting needed to be vibrant, with lots contrast in form and texture to be able to stand out against the handsome house just beyond it. So out came my favourite design & plant books, catalogues and the research began. I created a photo portfolio of plants, which the client & I looked at together on my laptop. She was very knowledgeable about plants, but I always find these really useful at this initial stage. They included the likes of: Achillea 'Gold Plate', Sedum 'Purple Emperor', Agastache 'Black Adder', Crocosmia 'Dusky Maiden', Echinacea 'Sunrise' and Kniphofia 'Nancy's Red'.

The client was pretty happy with everything on this master list, so then I then I set about refining it and thinking about planting combinations. One of my favourite books is 'Designing with Plants' by Piet Oudolf & Noel Kingsbury, and it was easy to adopt a lot of the principles they describe in here - mainly that 'Structure is the most important component in a successful planting: colour is important too but it is a secondary consideration. If the forms and shapes of plants in a border work well is difficult to imagine an unharmonious colour combination arising'. So, here's the plan I came up with. I colour coded all of my plans and have included photos. 

I thought it might be interesting to look at some of the combinations in more detail & the process I use to create them. In the book I mention above, the authors discuss the relationship between colour & form, with 4 main principles:

1) Related shapes and related colours - that the subtle interplay between 2 or more very similar shapes and colours can create a powerful impression. An example of this here is Coreopsis 'Sunray', Helenium 'Wyndley' and Rudbeckia 'Goldstrum' at one end of the border.
An even simpler combination is the use of the tall Achillea 'Gold plate' and the shorter Achillea 'Moonshine' - far enough apart to not jar, but close enough to make the association between the two whilst looking down the border.
2) Different shapes + related colours - the white border and the colour themed borders at Hadspen House are testament to these being successful, but I tend to steer away from overusing this. However, here the purple of Agastache 'Black Adder', Verbena bonariensis and Thalictrum 'Hewitt's Double' look beautiful and glow in the late afternoon sunshine.
3) Related shapes + different colours - this is one I use a lot, think it can be very successful. As Piet and Noel warn though 'how much contrast is considered harmonious is a matter of personal taste'. A really simple example here is the yellow Achillea 'Moonshine' and then further down the border the gorgeous coppery orange Achillea 'Walter Funcke'.
One of my favourite ways of doing this is via daisies, there are a particularly large choice for late summer borders. I've included Echinacea 'Sunrise', Helenium 'Moerheim Beauty', Echinacea purpurea 'Magnus', Rudbeckia 'Goldstrum' and Helenium 'Wyndley'.
4) Different shapes + different colours - this can be tricky if the whole border is filled with this, but if the scheme contains enough of the above three principles then I throw some of these in.What's not to like about Agastache 'Black Adder' next to Echinacea 'Sunrise'??
Or Salvia 'Caradonna', Monarda 'Ruby Glow' and Helenium 'Wyndley'...??
This was an incredibly fun project to work on and the open day was a great success raising almost £3000 for charity. I learned loads and it just emphasised that if I follow the principles outlined above then I can't go far wrong. But let me know what you think...

Saturday, 5 February 2011

A cobbler's children are always poorly shod.

Welcome to Rose Cottage. In lovely rural East Lothian. Him indoors and I are lucky enough to have moved here after years of searching for somewhere close enough to Edinburgh for work but far enough away from it all. Whatever it all actually is.
Now we've been here for 2 years and after the initial flurry of completely renovating the whole interior it's time that the outside gets some of the same TLC. Now as many of you'll know I'm a garden designer. Fixing sorry outdoor spaces is what I do. So that should be really easy, right? Hmmm. In my 'looking for an excuse as to why we've not done anything about it yet' days I tell myself it's because I've been busy trying to get my garden design business established. If I'm honest it's got more to do with changing my mind about what to do with it every 5 minutes or just plain not being able to put my garden designer objective hat on when looking at it. 
We're very lucky and have got a third of an acre, so big enough to grow lots of lovely plants, but not so big it's daunting. Allegedly. The previous owners of the house were a retired couple who spent lots of time tending the shrubs and flowers, picking & storing apples from the orchard, growing lots of produce in the fruit cage and enjoying the beautiful surroundings. They left it in a lovely, well manicured state. They even left us their ride on mower so we could mow the large swathes of grass. So how come we managed to let it get into this sorry awful state? 
We're both completely horrified when anyone comes to visit, most people can't hide their shock when they see the state of it. One day late last summer after planting up a particularly pretty country garden, the owner was waxing lyrical about how much she would like to see my garden and how beautiful she reckoned it must be. It was the kick up the rear I needed, and decided enough was enough. So late last year, Operation Rose Cottage swung well and truly into action. First was strimming the terribly overgrown grass back to see what we were dealing with, and even that made a huge difference. 
There are 3 main parts to the garden - the above photo is the back garden, and this is where we decided to start. It's got several large trees in it (Birch, 2 Rowans, Red leafed Maple, Laburnum), as well as some shrubs, roses and a rather dilapidated pond. There is also a fruit cage, greenhouse, a wee stone byre (where we store our logs), a garage and a gravel area where we park our cars. All in all pretty ugly and uninspiring. So this is where we've decided to start. 
We've taken the radical decision to convert the garage into a studio / office, so we needed to figure out where everything in it would go. No mean feat.
Getting a garden shed was an obvious first step, so we found a spot for one in the corner of the garden. Had the idea I could use not only for storing my tools, but a potting shed too. So here she is (It's a girl. Obviously). Not pretty or inviting. Yet. 
And then there's the greenhouse. A great size with lots of lovely potential but full of the previous owner's junk and covered in Ivy.
So this year amongst making other people's gardens lovely, I'll be hoping that some of the magic fairy transformation dust is sprinkled on ours. This weekend the clearing out starts in earnest. Mind you, there is one member of the household who might miss the mess...

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

A challenging site and chocolate fudge brownies?

I've been lucky enough as a designer to work on all different types & sizes of garden design projects and when I look back at the ones I've enjoyed the most it's usually those which are the most challenging - on a steep slope, tiny & dark or like this one. It was completely land-locked, an A-listed house which is in a Conservation area in Edinburgh's Stockbridge. Oh, and it looked like this:
The clients had previously lived in Surrey with a 4 acre garden, so they didn't know where to start getting the best out of the much smaller space. They were giving the 3 storey Georgian town-house a complete overhaul which included moving the kitchen back down to the ground floor with double wooden doors out in to the garden where they wanted to be able to dine & entertain. The also wanted a more secluded private area at the bottom of the garden, for reading & sunbathing. A place to grow some herbs, built-in seating, elements of water and using an Asian influence was also important. All the grass was to go and a majority of the plants too. So as usual a mixture of concept designs and 3D models were used to create a variety of options, of which the client chose this one:
A natural sandstone terrace would be laid leading directly out from the house. A low raised wooden bed adjoins in and gravel path (laid with boulders and planted with bamboos and an Acer) leads down to a reflective pool. A floating stone step leads owners to a secondary more private patio made up of the same sandstone as the main terrace, with a built in 'L' shaped wooden seat, backed by slightly higher planters. The terrace, patio, gravel path are surrounded by planting on all sides. 
The tricky part of this build was the lack of access, everything had to go in and out through the house which adds a significant amount of time & also presented problems with where to store materials & equipment. On top of this there was scaffolding up and the garden was being used as a spare storage space. Despite this, the contractor & his guys cracked on and even clearing the garden made a huge difference.
We decided to work from the back of the garden towards the house, so the pale wooden sleeper 'L' shaped seat and raised planter were built first. The guys sanded it down so it was super smooth and even paler in colour, a clear matt varnish applied too. Although most of the plants were removed, we kept a beautiful pink Camellia and a willow leaved pear tree.
Next the pool had to be dug out. By hand. I wasn't so popular that week. An Acer which had been surviving in a pot from the clients old house was transplanted out too. We kept it really well watered and as dust free as possible and it didn't lose any of its leaves, or seem to suffer.
Contemporary horizontal trellis was put up, pool was lined and pillars for floating step was built. The sawn edged buff coloured sandstone arrived. The guys are starting to have problems with where to store stuff safely, out of the way and to keep it clean...
Small patio done, larger terrace beside house begins.
I'm lucky enough to be overseeing the build, so am there at least once a week to see what's happening. At the beginning of projects there always seems to be larger, more dramatic things happening quickly. As we get to the latter stages, we're at the stage of things like planters being built, gravel going down which still has an aesthetic impact.
We're on the home stretch at last. The stainless steel water ball is installed, beds are prepared and additional compost & top soil added. 
To think that the contractor Dave and only 2 other guys have carefully carried all the old waste out and all the paving (over 40 sq. metres of it),  tons of gravel, umpteen heavy wooden sleepers, top soil, cement, hardcore is amazing enough - but in the latter stages the house renovation was almost complete so they were having to carry stuff without scuffing walls, dropping any debris or making any mess. My heros!
So it was over to me to plant up the garden. The client had asked for a combination of purple, blue and white planting. One side was in semi-shade, so we used Sarcococca, Hosta, variety of ferns, Hellebore, Pulmonaria, Dicentra, Meconopsis, Brunnera & Aconitum. The other was in much more sunshine, so Penstemon, Salvia, Iris, Perovskia, Verbascum and Paeonia were planted.
Again the plants had to be carried through a very cleaned and finished house (with a Limestone kitchen floor). It's really nice keeping in touch with clients, not only to see if you can help with any future advice and tidy-ups, but being able to see the garden just a summer later made the tricky and hard work worthwhile.
Most things seem to be flourishing, and despite coming through a really bad winter only a couple of herbaceous things need to be replaced.
This turned out to be a hugely challenging project for all concerned - the contractor & his guys worked their socks off heaving, carrying and general back breaking work. The clients were very patient, open to ideas, understanding & trusted us not to make a mess of their lovely new home. Although it was tricky to try and make this garden serve many functions, to manage expectations of the clients, gee the guys up when they were having a bad day (1 metre deep pool anyone?) and deal with planners and conservation specialists, I wouldn't have changed this project for the world! What did I learn? That bribing people with chocolate brownies goes a long long way...