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Balance or Variety?

I write as Winter turns into Spring and it is therefore a time of thinking new thoughts about the garden and, seeking to maintain our usual approach – encouraging beginners – it crosses my mind that you can either just let your garden happen, or you give some thought to making it something specific. Assuming we go for the latter approach it then crosses my mind that there are a whole range of choices open to us. So let’s let our minds meander around the possibilities – and this is not meant to be exhaustive, just stirring the mind to think some possibilities. Now we have covered many of these things in previous articles and this article intends to be a more general and less formal approach to generating ideas. We’ll start with the contrasting possibilities and then I’ll ask the questions, how can we get balance, do we want balance or is total variety the name of the game?

Structured v Just Happens

I’ve just referred to this, but it may be a conscious decision that says I really don’t want to do a great deal of work, I just want to enjoy what seems to come naturally. All well and good, but in most gardens weeds or grass come most naturally!  Controlled grass means lawns and lawns need work. Grass in flower beds looks untidy and is a nuisance. Work! So it’s back to thinking, how can I make something a bit more interesting?

Open v Areas

Some gardens – the ones that tend to be large open areas – provide a sense of space and panorama and maybe even spectacular views over surrounding countryside (unlikely in modern suburbia!).  The alternative is to divide up your garden and create ‘areas’ which give a sense of surprise to the visitor. The idea of ‘areas’ also suggests variety. The big thing to consider is what will you use to divide off areas and what effect will your ‘divider’ have on the enclosed space. Where is the sun and will your ‘divider’ reduce the amount of sunlight to that area? The simplest forms of divider may be trellis or bushes or shrubs (and even leylandii, if kept under tight control) can create a ‘natural’ wall.  Brick or stone walls, if already existing, can be nice but otherwise you are talking about real money. If you use trellis and, presumably, grow stuff on it, many climbers go thin in the winter so recognise the limitation. Siting a shed or summer house, if done thoughtfully, can provide another natural division.

Formal or Cottage

A number of years ago, a friend wandered round our garden and commented, “A nice cottage garden feel” meaning informal and somewhat of a shambles, is what I think he meant. I hope it has changed a bit since then, but there is constant room for improvement. A proper cottage garden (according to Wikipedia) ‘uses informal design, traditional materials, dense plantings, and a mixture of ornamental and edible plants’.  Formal gardens, by comparison, tend to be laid out with straight lines or carefully constructed curves to paths, walls, beds etc. and there are some beautiful big ones around the country.

Open beds / containers / raised beds / patios /decks

Now we really are moving into the range of styles. Over the past twenty years of so, probably longer, Britain really became more of a garden-conscious people, with help from a succession of Gardeners World presenters or presenters of a variety of ‘garden makeover programs. Patio and decking appeared all over the place, use of containers in large quantities and more recently of the use of raised beds. Interestingly the very first Gardeners World programme of March 2018 included a complete mini-makeover where the focus was on a small walled and thus somewhat shady back yard, that involved changing of levels, use of gravel, sprucing up some trellis, and choosing shade loving plants.   

Sunshine versus Shade

Which brings us on to the point of being ‘sun-aware’. Knowing which plants want full sunshine and which plants thrive in shade is somewhat key to what will grow successfully in your garden.

Big open gardens = sunshine. Wall and hedges on the south side, suggest shade plants. Ferns and Hellebores head the list for this latter setup. If you wanted variety in a large open garden, then the use of closed fence panels, a shed or summer house etc. will create shade.  

Flowers / veg / tropical / wildlife / butterfly

These are just some of the other options that confront the modern British gardener. I think we have covered most of these in previous articles.

A Question of Balance or of Variety

Once upon a time our gardens tended to be of just one kind. Patios and decking broke the mould and containers and raised beds have continued the trend of mixing it up. Risking the personal touch to show this, our own garden has seen some considerable changes over the years. It is now clearly divided into three (being long and fairly narrow) with arches, hedges, sheds and shrubs making the divisions. Within the central division there is an open area AND a ‘walled garden’, the ‘wall’ created by trellis with two arched openings. A patio, yes; decking no.  Scattered around the place are a number of pots of varying sizes. A water feature and a small pond and various bug homes encourage wildlife and buddleias call for the attention of butterflies in the summer.

It is certainly not formal and possibly, as our old friend remarked, veers towards a cottage garden – but not much. In fact, hybrid is probably the best description. One side, sheltered by a south side fence is now the home to over a dozen types of fern and a growing number of hellebores. On the other side, flowers and raised-bed vegetable patches have recently been added while areas of lawn diminish (but an area designed ‘wild-flower meadow’ is struggling for identity). As you may gather, I like to try everything I can. Yes, we do have one or two tropical plants but attempts at keeping a couple of palms going, seems to have failed so far, but who knows what next year might hold?

Balanced? I suspect not. Interesting? I like to think so. Complete?  Never. So what’s next? Well one of the choices we didn’t mention is the spring or summer or autumn focus. So far our garden is at its best in the Spring and blues and purples predominate. Summer and Autumn is not so good and so, ever being the optimist, somehow, we are going to crowd in more flowers among the vegetable patches and aim for an abundance of colour in the Summer.  A shambles? Possibly, but ‘abundance’ is the ‘style’ I have in mind for the coming year. Any ‘projects’ for this year?  Well, having recently taken down five large leylandii, the project for the coming days (weeks or months) is what to do with all that recyclable material?  Ideas abound. Fun times ahead. And that is what it is all about – enjoyment. If your garden gets you down, start thinking creatively and if still nothing comes then move to a fourth floor flat and accept our condolences. It’s all about ideas. It doesn’t have to be about hard work or spending money (although it can do); it’s about how you can make your mark on that patch of ground you like to call ‘my garden’. Have fun.