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Garden Design

Congestion charge to a crowded border

Bernhard Feistel

Bernhard Feistel

June 7, 2012

The eccentric German 19th century writer, traveller and landscape gardener Prince Pueckler, now probably (and unfortunately) best remembered for the introduction of an ice cream, once said that one of the most important tools for a landscape gardener was an axe. Even for a somewhat hesitant gardener like me this proves to be a wise judgement, particularly when it comes to overcrowded borders. To fully appreciate a garden scenery one needs to create views and contrasts, otherwise one wouldn’t see the wood for the trees, as the German and English proverbs agree (which is not always the case). Also plant lovers need to appreciate that less can be more and I sometimes feel or I am learning the hard way that more of less could be even more or better. Yet, there is always room for personal interpretation.

When asked to do something with this mixed border (shown on picture 1 and 2 at the end of winter) there was no other chance, in my opinion, but to remove at least some of the shrubs. In order to keep them “tidy” they must have been harshly pruned each year to the effect that they could never really show their flowers. We all know that planting too densely is one of the most common and repeated mistakes, whilst any well composed border will outlive its space at some point anyway.

Yet, some (if not all) of the existing shrubs did not seem to have enjoyed their life to the full and since there was ‘undefined’ space elsewhere, there was no need to get entirely rid of them all and start from scratch. So I relocated more than half of them to a woodland area where I had created some space for spare plants, propagating activities and composting. (I did the uprooting by hand but often use a horizontal mechanical hoist for comparable tasks, since it avoids traces of heavy machinery in the garden and builds up its strength gently by pulling out the roots bit by bit. It even works with smaller trees).

The main idea behind the new planning was to create vistas between the shrubs and a seasonal changing colour scheme in front of the yew-hedge-canvas. This seemed feasible since the remaining shrubs, mostly several varieties of viburnums with a golden euonymus to the left and a laurel to the right, provided a permanent structure, too. According to season, and from where you look, there was potential for different schemes inside a general framework with a viewpoint from several angles. It is ideal to work with perennials that flower several times and thrive when pruned back, thus making seasonal squats in the border.

Time was rather short since I started at the end of March (winter) and the digging out and preparation of the soil took quite a while, not to mention the parallel creation of the herb garden behind the hedge. For the front edge I chose Alchemilla, Geranium and pinks and at the beginning Santolina, too, which I later removed since the geraniums tended to overwhelm them.

For the early summer, when the colours are supposed the get somewhat bolder and hotter I planted Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’ in the background just behind an earlier flowering Hemerocallis ‘Little Wine Cup’. I backed these hot colours somewhat up with dahlia seedlings from the Bishop’s Children strain, particularly for their beautiful red foliage, Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ and, meant as a trial and joke, some giant sunflowers.

Sometimes I am panicking a little to get quick (intermediate) effects while I am raising the plants that are meant to stay for longer elsewhere. (The whole area is so huge that it would be extremely costly not to raise most of the plants myself.) Permanent inhabitants of the background in front of the yew hedge are now Acanthus and giant Delphinium, but they were not ready then.

To support the dahlias in late summer I added perennial Aster ‘Little Carlow’ and ‘Moench’, whereas the odd toadflax seedling together with Verbena bonariensis would provide some informal surprise. In general I like to work with ‘unexpected’ seedlings, which was, of course, not (intentionally) possible in the first year. Now there will be opium poppies, too, which I will have to restrict later.

As I mentioned elsewhere, I like Artemisia ‘Powys Castle’, not only since the tea of the leaves is good for bad stomachs (I am not sure what you might think had I said a sure remedy for hangovers), helps in case of melancholia and flavours aperitifs, but also since its leaves can link plants in a wonderful way. And here to connect the shrubs that are probably still too dense. Another advantage is that the space occupied by the seasonal leaves can be used for spring bulbs, in my case early flowering tulips which can die down gracefully (and hidden) when the Artemisia takes over again. The same technique is possible for the space around Acanthus.

For early spring effect I have additionally chosen forget-me-nots (collected elsewhere) to informally weave around the other plants and connect the tulips and to enliven the scene before the summer flowers take over. (Also Dicentra is a useful early flowering highlight for the background and where later appearing plants can provide a curtain while it withers.)

The same I did with columbines which I normally raise from seeds always hoping that they might fit into the colour scheme. If not, then certainly into a vase. And since I can’t neglect peonies I inserted one in the left foreground to provide a link to their cousins in the border left to the main path, which was in a comparable condition when I came. To mirror it even better, I planted another golden Euonymus there, too. This gives a somewhat symmetrical aspect towards the gate to the new herb garden. But not exactly, which I feel is important for my approach to gardening.

All in all, I am always in danger to overcrowd or overplay the ‘cottage garden effect’ a little. This is partly due to the fact that I am (or think I am) constantly in need of propagation material, besides my suffering from acute bare-soil-phobia. Hence my approach to gardening is always a work in progress and a reaction rather than a ready made picture and thus not applicable for the Chelseas of all places. Or in other words, the borders will soon be again in the situation from where I started, although somewhat more colourful; in need of an axe or secateurs.

At the beginning I oversimplified a little. Prince Pueckler-Muskau should also be well known for the marvellous parks he created at Bad Muskau and Branitz. And in England he became (in)famous for chasing a rich heiress in order to continue with his extravagant German park projects after he secured an amicable or quasi divorce from his wife (the daughter of the Prussian Prime Minister). Unfortunately (for the parks) he couldn’t hide his secret intentions (Charles Dickens immortalised him as Count Smorltalk) and the projects fell through. Yet, he got a kind of compensation from the phenomenal success of his British travels.

But I am overcrowding this blog now too…