Alison StewartSnippets from a garden design course

I have forsaken my yoga class this term and enrolled on a 10-week course in garden design run by Edinburgh’s Botanic Garden adult education team. I should say straight away that it’s not what GardenDrum’s professional bloggers would regard as proper instruction in garden design. It’s only 2 hours every Tuesday evening, and the main point of it is to learn about using plants in garden design. So there’s nothing about hard landscaping or garden construction, except in general terms.


In a way it’s a bit too late for me, as I did my big planting push at Sherbrooke last year. But I do still have one garden bed to plant up, and it’s a tricky one: an awkwardly shaped island, between the old carriage drive and the house, that includes some shallow terracing backed by a section of steep hillside. With most of the other bits of the garden I’ve had at least some ideas to get me started but this garden has me completely stumped. And it’s a pretty important bit, as it forms the view from the west-facing windows of the kitchen and living room. I’m hoping that when the course finishes in late March, I’ll know what to do with it.

Kitchen garden looking north

Kitchen garden looking north

The course is pretty much chalk-and-talk rather than “hands on”, though there are lots of opportunities for questions and discussion. The biggest surprise so far was to walk in to the first class and discover Jennifer, our neighbour from the house up the hill behind us in Argyll, sitting in the front row! Like us, Jen and her husband are long-distance gardeners, living during the week in Edinburgh and whizzing across to their house in the west as often as they can. It’s good to have someone else in the class who wants to know about gardening on steep slopes with poor, acid, waterlogged soils and hungry high-jumping deer…

Kitchen garden looking south

Kitchen garden looking south

Our teacher is taking a pretty straightforward approach to the subject, with an initial class on thinking about what you want from the garden, its setting and conditions, maintenance, budget and so on, and some basic advice on how to draw up a plan. Then we moved on to what is essentially the guts of the course: planning a planting scheme. I guess it’s probably true to say that so far I haven’t learned anything that was completely new to me – I’ve read a few books and I do have a rough idea about garden styles, symmetry and asymmetry, unity, harmony, rhythm, shapes, structures and focal points. But I’m not regretting signing up for the course. The lecturer is knowledgeable, the other students are a nice bunch and it’s great to be able to bat questions and ideas around.

design22Perhaps the most useful thing so far – and we’re only up to class 3 so there’s plenty still to come – have been the odd snippets of information I’ve picked up from the “choosing the right plant” discussion. I learned, for example, that in Scotland Rhododendrons should always be planted in full sun, despite what it says on the labels; in the shade they rarely flower well. That, conversely, Mahonias flower better in shade and can get a bit tatty in full sun. That Skimmias often go that horrible bilious yellow-green because they’re getting too much sun rather than because of some nutrient deficiency. And that it’s not a good idea to move evergreens in autumn because of the danger of frost damage to their roots. No doubt it’s all in books somewhere but it seems to “stick” better when you hear someone say it.

Horsetail forest on the top terrace

Horsetail forest on the top terrace

One snippet was a bit depressing though. We talked about problems with pernicious weeds in the question-and-answer session at the end of last Tuesday’s class. Jen and I, of course, immediately piped up about horsetail (Equisetum). As ever, the first reaction from our expert was “move house”. Then he mentioned that there is horsetail in the rock garden at the Botanics. I knew that, as I had spotted it there and wondered how they dealt with it. I now have my answer: the gardeners break it off every time they see it. By constant vigilance, they keep it more or less under control. That has been my tactic at Sherbrooke so it’s good to know I’m on the right track, though the prospect of spending the next n years of my life breaking off horsetail shoots is a bit dismaying. And it makes going away during the summer problematic – who needs a pet to chain you to your home when you could have a forest of horsetail? And, as Jen said glumly, when it’s popping up through your patio you really are up against it.

Oh well, the thing about gardeners is that they struggle on regardless. I haven’t been able to get across to Sherbrooke since Christmas but I hope that if I can get over there and measure up my tricky garden bed in the next couple of weeks, I can then draw up a scale plan and get to work with some planting ideas.

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2 thoughts on “Snippets from a garden design course

  1. Sounds like an interesting and worthwhile course. I am such a haphazard gardener, but have some areas that I would like to be more strategic with. Perhaps a course like this would be the shot. Thanks Alison. Good luck. I love the stone borders on your kitchen garden by the way.

    • Thanks Julie. I’m glad you like our little wall for the kitchen garden. The path is still awaiting some attention (note the hideous drain inspection covers sticking up like sore thumbs)! I think the course will be worthwhile – lots of ideas have popped into my head as it goes along – though it would probably be better if it was a bit more “hands on” rather than “chalk and talk”. I am tempted to draw up my difficult garden bed and sit in the front row with the plan very visible on the desk in front of me!

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