Beds as Pictures

Before you jump to the wrong conclusion: no, this won’t be a blog post about Tracy Emin’s early work. In fact it won’t be about any of her work, because the beds are garden beds, but this time I want to think about them as elements of composition. And if that sounds a little bit pompous and posey, I’m sorry, but gardening is ultimately about creating impressions and sensations – and in that respect it’s an Art, with a capital ‘A’. Indeed I’d go further: traditionally artists have worked in two, or if they’re sculptors, three dimensions. But gardeners have also to deal with the added complexities of scent and weather. Time, too, is another dimension that often gets overlooked: part of the genius of men like Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton was the way they could foresee the way their created landscapes would appear in a hundred years’ time. I’ll never forget seeing an avenue of saplings – they were limes I think – that had been planted at Wimpole Hall, outside Cambridge, to replace elms killed by Dutch Elm Disease. They looked puny and frankly ridiculous, as those trademark clumps of trees must once have done, that today grace the middle distance, often beyond a picturesque lake, complete with bridge, in so many Brown and Repton country house parks. It’s no wonder that Repton gave clients his famous Red Books. I think I’d have needed something similar if I’d just spent a fortune on what must have looked like a devastated scene.

Now much as we’d like to work on a big scale, ours is a much smaller problem, albeit massive by modern urban standards: our wood, orchard, hay meadow and garden together probably occupy about 15 acres, at the very most. But now I want to examine the basic unit for most practical gardeners: the flower bed. Some are formal, others informal or informal-verging-on-the-chaotic. Some include ground cover; some have clear ‘islands’ of particular plants or flowers, while in others the plants blend or even fight among themselves. And then of course there are the trees and shrubs that rise above or beyond the beds. These are essential, as they give the bed its distinctive light, shade and shelter. They also determine the sort of plants that can be used around them: the shed needles (leaves) of pines, for example, tend to acidify the soil. And that’s another reason why we tend not to be very tidy gardeners: we don’t religiously sweep everything up, because sometimes it’s good to have acid patches if you want to grow lime-hating bulbs, for example. Tidy gardens are also very unfriendly to wildlife, so we tend not to cut our border perennials back in the autumn. We’d rather the birds had their seed-heads to keep them going over winter – even if that does mean a few more seedlings to weed-out the following spring. Remember: a ‘weed’ is just a plant in the wrong place.

So for this blog post, I took my camera around the garden with bed composition in mind – and came up with a few thoughts.

Veg garden

I suppose the most rigidly formal beds in our garden are in my vegetable garden (I say ‘my’ because I mostly work there; Maisie’s bed is the long border, where she can usually be found bent double over a geranium or three). I took this photo shortly after hoeing-off the late spring weeds. Note the high hornbeam hedge, which protects the garden against north-easterly winds. As this garden produces food, I don’t use weed-killers, or indeed slug pellets which kill the hedgehogs that feed on the slugs. There’s not much to say about it, other than the onions are doing well. I’m aware the micro-mesh ‘fleece’ isn’t very slightly, but then it prevents cabbage white butterflies from laying their eggs on next season’s brassicas. So that’s too bad. And anyhow, I think there’s a big difference between business-like and ugly. Some contrived mixed flower and veg gardens are neither one thing nor the other. I want my veg garden to produce good, tasty food. And lots of it. So yes, it is formal and quite disciplined, but that makes it easier for me to water, feed, weed and harvest.

Long Walk

This is a view along one of the paths in our rose garden. Now our rose garden is what you might call a ‘mixed’ rose garden. Yes, there are roses, but we both firmly believe that roses look rather sterile on their own, so we like to plant around them. They also don’t flower all year. So in this view the roses have yet to come into flower and the stage is taken-over by the wet-loving Iris pallida Dalmatica. The small splash of red at the end of the walk are oriental poppies. The tree on the left is an unusual cut-leaved form of the native British alder, Alnus glutinosa (which we bought at the superb Scottish botanic garden at Dawyck – a name that finds its way into my crime thriller, The Lifers’ Club). But note the space between the plants. Here I think the bare soil, although a pain to keep weed-free, is making a statement. It enhances the irises and adds to the formality of the set-piece.

Path in rose garden

This path, which bounds the rose garden to the north-east, continues the somewhat formal theme of the first picture, but we’re now moving into less formal territory. Yes, the beds and path have straight, cut edges, but the planting is becoming less regimented: seedlings, for example, are not always weeded-out. Here the tree-cover is provided by the Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) and in the distance is a hornbeam hedge (our land is too wet for beech). The areas of bare earth between plants are smaller, and most will get grown-over as the summer advances. This bed features narcissi, followed by hemerocallis, and (for later in the year) fuchsias. The white flowered shrub is Viburnum opulus compactum. And that’s another thing about effective bed-management: this should change with the seasons. I always get rather fed-up when I visit great country gardens and discover that a particular garden is, say, for late springtime hyacinths – only. For my money, that’s a cop-out.

Strawberry ground cover

Not all beds can be carefully structured. Sometimes the location, in this case it’s very damp and shady, is challenging; in other cases a bed might still be in its infancy. In this particular instance, both apply. The bed is close to our small summer house, the Tea Shed  (which I described in an earlier blog post), which sits on the edge of the wood, not far from the meadow. As a result, weed seeds blow in constantly. So we needed a rapidly spreading ground-cover. We happened to have a few plants of the pinkish-red flowering strawberry, Fragaria chiloensis, whose small fruits are rare, but not unpleasant if dropped into a glass of white wine. It flowers from spring right through to later autumn, so is excellent value, but it hadn’t spread much where we had it, which was too dry. So I took a chance and moved half a dozen plants to the new bed. That was in the autumn of 2012. By the same time next year the bed was a quarter covered. By the end of 2014 only ten percent remained bare earth. And as you can see, now we have total cover – which is convenient if we happen to be enjoying a glass of something cool and refreshing in the Tea Shed.

Back door path

But there is a time and a place for contrast. We both dislike over-controlled gardens – you know, the sort of places where they knot the daffodil leaves tidily, as soon as they’ve finished flowering. Maisie has a wonderful eye for colour and we’re constantly looking for new effects. Self-seeded plants can form wonderfully unexpected associations – again something one rather misses in so many of the large country house gardens run by the great national bodies (I shall mention no names), where everything has to be planned. And of course spontaneity – and yes, horticultural humour – suffer. Anyhow, this picture shows the path to our back door. It’s a scene of barely controlled anarchy. An overgrown box hedge is being clipped by our neighbour into a Loch Ness monster, with ears. The second asparagus bed forms a backdrop to the planting, which at this time of year consists of oriental and opium poppies, plus various geraniums. I’m delighted to say that while horticultural snobs might turn up their noses, this bed is very popular with drivers delivering things to the farm. I love it, too, because no two years are ever the same.

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