Week 11: Andover Garden Watch 2020 – a very special spring

The eleventh week of watching colour and beauty emerge on each and every day of this surreal spring

Sunday 31 May – Whitsunday: a hot day just before some easing of lockdown 

In my book, spring ends on midsummer’s day, 21 June; but almost everything in the garden is behaving as though summer has already arrived. The roses are glorious, the delphiniums, penstemons, campanulas and nigella, even sweet-peas well under way. Only the dahlias, cannas, gladioli and lobelias are still to come.

The Met Office reports that May has been the sunniest calendar month on record! 266 hours of sunshine (beating 265 hours in June 1957); spring the sunniest spring.

This follows a drenching winter with record rain in February. Storms Cara, Dennis and Jorge (remember them?) contributed to an average 209.1mm of rain, 237% above the average of thirty Februarys since 1989.

Liz Bentley of the Royal Meteorological Society ascribed this ‘unprecedented swing from one extreme to the other in such a short space of time‘ to the jet stream ‘locking’ the fine/wet weather in place, resulting in ‘stalled weather patterns’

So now we know. We also know that the ground is very hard and very, very dry.

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Monday 1 June

Last week’s post focussed on some features in this garden which bear the hallmarks of Gertrude Jekyll, William Robinson, Vita Sackville-West, Christopher Lloyd, Derek Jarman, Dan Pearson, Penelope Hobhouse, Beth Chatto and myriad others from Gardens Illustrated, the RHS’s Garden, and a decade of Chelsea Flower Shows.

But in 2003 when we first moved here, it was John Brookes’ Principles of Garden Design (publ 1991) and his garden at Denmans which inspired so much – from the shapes we created to the plants we chose. We learned a lot. For example:

When it comes to creating a garden from scratch, three questions need answers:

Who or what is the garden for?

Wildlife? Or dogs or children? (if so think grass, for football, trampoline, handstands)

Will the users need shade? or sun? a long-term pastime? or a quick and easy fix?

Our garden was a project that mattered more than the house and the reason we bought it, to be worked on by people whose spare time was always garden-related. We wanted big beds, views, seasonal interest and variety – and not much grass.

What are the existing and non-negotiable ‘givens’? 

are there fences, hard-standing, sheds, walls, trees (your own or neighbours’) ?
– things that are not easily or likely to be changed. How are they to be used?

Our ‘borrowed landscape’ – the river and surrounding trees – is hugely important

From where will the garden be viewed?

These views form the starting points for designs. Below are ours:

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this is from the gate (1) at the front between the house and the garage; and (2) from the doors of the extension and through a large double-glazed pane

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A plan of the house and garden with these points marked may help

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Here the gate (1) at the front opens onto the longest axis of the garden; towards trees, decking and the river; from the extension door (2) a 180 degree view unfolds.

These two viewpoints give direction to the overall design: It all starts here!

Tuesday 2 June 

The first two years were spent sorting out the ‘hard’ lines of the garden: the shapes of the beds, the path, and the hard-standing, which was originally rectilinear paving.

We removed 70 plus concrete squares, and to my delight found someone to take them away to re-use them.  We spent a long time marking out the shapes of the beds using a bendy hosepipe to achieve even curves. We then spent even longer digging out turf, laying hoggin, hiring a compactor, and finally topping the path with gravel.

The soil is poor; a mixture of building rubble and shallow, stony subsoil, on chalk.  We reduced the grassed area by half as we created deep semi-circular beds. What had been narrow beds running parallel to fencing became hour-glass curves.

Kit, an elderly neighbour – a keen gardener and painter – came to visit. As we opened the gate onto the newly laid-out space, she exclaimed with feeling: ‘Oh! You’ve got curves! My Con only does straight lines!’

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The photos above were taken seven or eight weeks ago on one of the two wet days of this year’s spring – but they certainly show the curves!

Gravel has many advantages. It’s cheap, it’s portable, it isn’t slippy when it rains, it’s very forgiving where levels are concerned, and it goes round bends beautifully. The frost-proof bricks create a ‘flexible’ edge.

The table top is Italian limestone,  imported by Mosaic & Stone, a small company based in Sussex, whose handiwork we first saw at Chelsea, and purchased to mark David’s 50th birthday. It was love at first sight. How time flies!

The table has been brilliant – and to my amusement, shows up on Google Earth!

Wednesday 3 June 

In this photo taken from upstairs, the borrowed landscape with its givens of the river, and the trees on the opposite bank (including a willow intent on bridging the river for the benefit of squirrels) exaggerates the garden’s size and space.

The blue and white bed is almost a circle; one diameter marked by three cypresses, opposite formerly three but now sadly two white pittosporum. Beyond the cypresses the bank falls to the river, on which the campanula bed begins to flower

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John Brookes writes about the relationship between scale, shape and ‘mass’ (which encloses, or frames, and provides balance and structure) in relation to void – that is, space. The beds and the gravel apron are contained by the curves; in this bed the shrubs and perennials are held by the framing cypresses and pittosporum; the grass and the river offer space.

He also writes about views which ‘lead the eye’, and of ‘punctuation marks’ and ‘exclamations’ which slow the journey even through a small garden. Corners turned, sudden views appear; sometimes ‘rooms’ separated by trellis or vertical plantings.

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This creates surprises to reward the curious (though swans are not always available)

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Thursday 4 June 

So the ‘hard landscaping’ material – generally malleable gravel – is actually soft and curving lines create a wavy route from the garden gate, round the herb garden and the table, diagonally across the grass to the quarter-circle decking by the river.

The curves are echoed by many of the shapes in the beds. Formal topiary is often rectilinear; but here repeating spherical box balls echo the curving edges of the main beds; and two groups of three Pittosporums Tom Thumb reinforce the spheres.

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These are at one end of the pink, greys and burgundy bed, and below are three more

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at the other end. All these plants are evergreen; so important in autumn and winter.

Repetition – of shapes and colours, and even the same plants –  has an important role in garden design. They provide connections and continuities at a subliminal level; the garden hangs together around these themes and shapes.

These connections and continuities show up in the shouty yellows and oranges bed

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and in the herb garden, though the nigella and thyme are serious distractions!

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Topiary provides the bones, the skeleton of each bed; and its use everywhere holds this garden together, all year long. Which ever way one looks, there are box shapes: not only balls but clusters, often in threes, of cones (the herb garden) spirals (the fair ground) and spires (at the moment hanging out with scotch thistles and avoiding attention!) and at least one pillar.

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This was a month ago – difficult to see, but there are three spires (variegated box) in the making. The thistles, you notice, are behaving quite well… but not today…..

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David has not attempted to clip the spires yet… The thistles remain in charge

Friday 5 June 

Brookes is very keen on structure; plantings need a framework to hold the space, and skeleton plants to provide the bones (eg box balls). The thistles bring us nicely to another of his design principles: height (especially carried by spectacular and impactful specimens, which he calls specials) is a dimension often underused

This garden can do height! The thistles certainly can, but so do several other key plants in the garden, and unlike the thistles some provide colour and form throughout the year; the winter’s  ‘bare bones’. Take the phormium, for example

And the three cypresses; the standards, olive, and bay,  gunnera, spirals, pillar..

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Saturday 6 June

The framework and the skeletons are just the beginning ! Brookes also has a lot to say about plants he calls the decoratives, pretties and fillers; all the wonderful plant shapes and colours that make up a flower bed. But first the specials need a mention.

Some are vertical, some rotund; some shy, some promiscuous; some stayers, others ephemeral. Whatever their form or longevity, they perform a crucial function: they provide a focus and a presence which commands attention.

To finish this week, here are a few familiar specials of the vertical axis – the ‘prima donnas’ or ‘star performers’ – and there’ll be more to come as summer approaches

though it’s goodbye and thank you to Rosa Blush Noisette – sic transit gloria mundi…

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