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Garden Design

Sweat and SWOT

Alison Stewart

Alison Stewart

April 26, 2012

Oh the springtime it brings on the planting! I am trying to take advantage of the couple of months when the soil at Sherbrooke is warm enough for planting, but the midges haven’t yet woken up for the season.

The east slope in summer 2011, where a large part of the old retaining wall was obliterated during drainage works

So I’ve strapped on my crampons and replanted the steep slope to the east of the house that was bulldozed a few years ago when the drainage work was done. A few shrubs were left in a strip near the steps but everything else was obliterated, including most of the retaining wall.

I’m pleased to report that, taking inspiration from fellow blogger Helen McKerral, Jim and I have succeeded in rebuilding the missing stretch of wall, using stones found around the garden. It seems reasonably stable but I’m not risking standing on it, mainly because I think, in our efforts to tie it in with the remaining bit of concrete wall, we have probably not raked it enough. Oh well, time will tell: if it falls down we’ll just have to have another go.

Building a new retaining wall using stones found around Sherbrooke’s garden

I’ve taken an experimental approach to the replanting and I’m by no means sure it’s going to work. During the last few years, grass and weeds have colonised the slope so Jim has been keeping it more or less under control with the hover mower. The normal thing to do would be to kill the grass, improve the soil and then get going with the fun bit. But there’s a problem. The whole area (like the rest of the garden) is infested with horsetail (Equisetum arvense) and Crocosmia, and so far the only way we’ve found to keep it under control is by regular mowing. If I returned the slope to soil rather than grass, that would no longer work. And, given the steepness of the slope and the high rainfall, we would probably end up with a mud slide rather than a garden.

The finished wall and newly planted slope (there are some plants there somewhere……)

So what I decided to do was to cut large circles from the grass in the places where I wanted to plant shrubs, and mulch around the plants with a thick layer of composted wood chips from the felled trees. I hope this will enable the new plants to get established while leaving the stabilising grass in place. It should be possible to work round the plants with the strimmer to keep the horsetail at bay.

I’ve tried to keep the planting simple. The shrubs that remained from before the drainage work included a hydrangea, a Berberis thunbergii ‘Atropurpurea’ and a Mahonia japonica. I’ve repeated these across the slope, and added two Pittosporum ‘Tom Thumb’ (to echo the purple of the Berberis), Viburnum davidii for its hummocky form and beautiful, strongly veined dark green leaves, Potentilla fruticosa ‘Primrose Beauty’ (alleged to flower for months), Penstemon ‘Blackbird’, and some conifers and a Viburnum tinus ‘Eve Price’ near the top of the slope to mark its separation from the north-east lawn.

The newly planted east slope from the side

The planting was VERY hard work. I tried to dig, for each plant, a hole at least three times the diameter of the pot, and to dig down far enough to be able to improve a sizeable volume of soil with topsoil, compost, grit (to improve drainage) and a handful of pelleted chicken manure. Doing this while perched on a steep slope was no mean feat. It took me two whole days but eventually I got all 19 new plants in, and stood back to take a photograph which looks – well, pretty rubbish, really. All I can say is that it looks slightly better in real life!

Recently I wrote a paper that included something called SWOT analysis: one of those management buzzwords used in strategic planning. The letters, in case you haven’t come across it, stand for ‘Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats’. I’ve got it on the brain a bit, so I thought I’d have a go at applying it to my new garden experiment. Here goes:

Strengthsvariety of form and colour; rhythm from repeating the same plants across the slope; flower colour in mid- to late-summer (when we’re most likely to be looking at it); hardy plants that should tolerate the conditions

Weaknesses: leaving the grass means that the large gaps between the shrubs can’t be filled with annuals so it’s a bit sparse; I couldn’t plant in groups and swathes so it perhaps looks a bit contrived and artificial

Opportunities: as the shrubs grow and fil out, they should gradually knit together to form a pleasant tapestry that will conceal the weeds

Threats: horsetail and crocosmia infestation!; plants may struggle in poorly-drained soil; woodchip mulch may fall away down the slope; Jim D may hate me for replacing his relatively simple hover-mowing task with fiddly strimming

A good omen perhaps?

The ‘Threats’ and ‘Weaknesses’ seem to outnumber the ‘Strengths’ and ‘Opportunities’, which is a bit of a worry. But I live in hope that the experiment will work. The key vantage point for viewing the eastern side of the garden is from the water so I hope that, eventually, as we bring the boat back to the mooring in the summer evenings, we’ll look across to a pleasing tapestry of form and colour – and from that distance we won’t be able to see the horsetail.

Alison Stewart

Alison Stewart

Freelance science and medical journalist, based in Edinburgh and gardening in Argyll, western Scotland, and Edinburgh
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