Stick to your principles in the garden

PUBLISHED: 12:26 15 September 2010 | UPDATED: 17:49 20 February 2013

Stick to your principles in the garden

Stick to your principles in the garden

Don't fall prey to the lure of cheap plants at the garden centre or village fete. Shorten your plant list and be pleasantly surprised at the impact on your patch, says Nicholas Newton

Dont fall prey to the lure of cheap plants at the garden centre or village fete. Shorten your plant list and be pleasantly surprised at the impact on your patch, says Nicholas Newton

Collecting plants is something that many English gardeners are exceptionally good at. Its something that a lot of gardeners do better than anything else; those impulse buys at the village fete, the irresistible lure of so many bright colours at the garden centre. But when they are taken home and put together and endlessly added to, do they necessarily make a beneficial contribution to the garden, or do they just remain what they were at purchase; a random collection of plants?
The critical question has to be, do they add up to more than the sum of their individual parts? Do they do more than just look pretty?
The harsh reality is that a collection of our favourite plants and star buys will rarely achieve either of these two key objectives for any well-designed garden. Cast aside the bias of favouritism and hold on to one or two key principles and your planting schemes will very soon make a much more worthwhile contribution to the overall beauty of your garden.
One of the first things you will need to focus on is establishing a certain degree of year round permanence to the garden. This is important if the garden is to have any merit at all through the dark days of winter. If you are ready to put time and indeed money into a garden it should reward you and work for its keep by enhancing your surroundings for all of the 12 months.
In the first instance this is not achieved simply by loading the plant mix with evergreen shrubs or conifers, although both will have a role to play. No, the essential quality youre looking for is form. By this I mean its shape and outline.
This idea of form can work at a number of different levels. At the broadest scale it can be interpreted quite simply as the outline of the plants. In the case of maturing shrubs, and especially those clipped to defined shapes, these are the plants that will provide a framework and degree of permanence to the planting, recessive perhaps in the height of summer when there is so much other flower and foliage around but solid and strong in the winter when all else has faded away.

Take care not to fall into the rather dated approach of keeping horizontals at the front, domes in the middle and spires at the back

Within this seemingly unchanging permanence it is possible to introduce a degree of movement in the resulting shapes. Rounded, hummocky mounds are generally seen as static shapes causing the eye to pause while pyramids and spires introduce vertical movement to lift the eye up and away from the vertical plane.
At the largest scale think of the tumbling shoots of the weeping willow beside the very lateral element of a flowing river or lake surface. At the scale of the border, a spiky upright plant next to a low, prostrate one will enhance the impact of both more than the sum of their individual contributions to the overall scheme.
It is this endless juxtaposition of the horizontal, the upright, the rounded, the spiky, and those that are spires that contributes a valuable three-dimensional quality to the plant mix. Just take care not to fall into the rather dated and formulaic approach of keeping the horizontals at the front, the domes in the middle and the spires at the back. They can all be moved around to suit the mood and character of the site as different gardens will need more of some than others.
At a smaller scale and within the border itself, the same principles apply but the forms youre using will have less of a degree of permanence particularly among the herbaceous perennials.
It becomes further complicated when you have to think about plants whose form changes and evolves throughout the growing season but that is all part of the challenge of successful plant combinations.
The right selection of plant forms will add body and volume to which are added the decorative qualities of texture and colour. And the repetition of key shapes will reinforce and elevate the key characteristics that those forms add to the garden.
The impact of a plant mix can so easily be lost by the use of endlessly changing individuals when a shorter list of well selected plants that appear again and again around the garden multiply the impact of the contribution that they make and reinforce the character of the garden that they generate.
We would all do well to shorten our plant lists and realise that less, used well, will bring so much more than seemingly endless novelty.

Nicholas Newton is a Registered Member of the Society of Garden Designers and may be contacted on 01728 638903 for further information

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