Ian BarkerRomantic perennial garden a florist’s dream

I knew from the outset that this garden in the beachside suburb of St Kilda, completed earlier this year, would be an exciting project to work on. As a company, the most satisfying jobs are where we’re involved in every step, starting with the design but continuing on through the construction and planting of the garden, and then also the follow-up garden maintenance.

St Kilda front garden. Design Ian Barker and Associates

St Kilda front garden. Design Ian Barker and Associates

The brief for the front garden was that it needed to be quite traditional, in order to complement the beautiful architecture of the original red brick Edwardian house, while the rear garden had to reflect a more contemporary aesthetic in keeping with the boldly-designed extension. Here, I’d like to focus on the front area and explain how we designed a traditional and romantic perennial-focussed garden that is a perfect frame for this stunning old house.

Romantic colour pallete

Romantic colour pallete

From the beginning the client was very keen on a soft and feminine palette with lots of pinks, purples and whites. Given that the client is a florist by trade, it was her dream to have a flowering garden full of blooms she could pick and use in her arrangements. In terms of style, the garden needed to have elements of structure but still have a relaxed feeling about it.

We kept the layout quite simple and traditional, including a generous lawn area for the young children and dog to play on, and a bluestone pedestrian path for easy and direct access from the gate to the ornately tiled veranda. To add detail to the design and make a paved pathway around to the side courtyard, we created another path out of bluestone crazy pavers. Here, the pavers are broken up by lawn, which clearly separates the main path from the secondary.

St Kilda front garden showing heirarchy of paths and layered planting

St Kilda front garden showing heirarchy of paths and layered planting

Bordering the lawn on all sides are several quite narrow garden beds. As there is limited space in the beds, we used the traditional method of positioning the lower growing plants at the front, and the medium to taller plants towards the back, rather than mixing the plants in the more random fashion I like to use in a larger bed. For example, plants such as Anemone and Gaura lindheimeri are planted towards the back of the beds, as their flowers will sit above the foliage of the lower growing plants.

When designing a planting palette, we usually approach it by making planting layers that can be built up to create an overall ‘look’. In this particular garden we have built up three distinct plant layers, which combine to create a beautiful and interesting garden all year round:

• a flowering layer
• an emergent layer and
• a structural layer

Helleborus ‘Pink Frost’

Helleborus ‘Pink Frost’

The flowering layer contains the majority of the flowering plants that create spectacular displays, predominantly in the warmer months. Plants in this layer include Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’, Anemone hybrid ‘White’ and ‘Little Princess’, Cosmos ‘Pink’, Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpurea’ (Fennel) and Agastache ‘Sweet Lili’. In amongst this layer, we have also included Helleborus ‘Pink Frost’, as it flowers in the cooler months.

In the emergent layer we incorporated some striking bulbs which will flower in late winter and early spring, such as Dutch Iris ‘White’, Iris histrioides ‘George’, Allium giganteum (Giant Onion) & Allium sphaerocephalon (drumsticks). The varied heights of the different bulbs we have used in this layer help to create diverse form and also vertical accents within the garden bed.

Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ and Allium giganteum

Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ and Allium giganteum

The structural layer includes bigger shrubs, such as Syringa vulgaris ‘Belle De Nancy’ (lilac) and different varieties of Camellia, which are used to fill space in the garden beds in the cooler months when the other plants are not flowering. These plants tend to hold their form year round while other plants around them are dying down. Having a structural layer ensures that the garden retains its shape at all times and still looks interesting even in the dead of winter.

There are also structural plants scattered throughout the garden which are clipped into hedges or will be pleached once they have grown. Spheres of Buxus sempervirens (English box) in amongst the garden beds help to create balance and act as anchor points, while the three Buxus spheres in urns with pleached Carpinus betulus (hornbeam) behind, provide a focal point down the long length of the lawn.

Spheres of Buxus sempervirens in urns with Carpinus betulus trees to be pleached behind.

Spheres of Buxus sempervirens in urns with Carpinus betulus trees to be pleached behind.

Something else we like to consider when designing a planting palette is foliage texture, and ensuring there is enough variation to create plenty of interest. In this garden, we used a mix of strappy plants such as Dierama pulcherrimum and Iris, plants with fleshy foliage such as Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, and low mounding plants such as Nepeta faassenii ‘Dropmore Blue’ (Catmint), Helleborus and Salvia.

Once we had selected the plants for this garden, we created A, B, C & D plant mixes for the different garden beds. Many of the same plants occur in more than one plant mix, while some plants are used exclusively in one mix. It’s important not to have a completely different mix in each bed, as the overall effect won’t be cohesive. In this case, many of the plants have been carried through to a number of different garden beds, for example the Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ used en masse along the front garden border is then dotted through all of the other garden beds in the front garden.

Decorative urn with Buxus sphere. St Kilda garden. Design Ian Barker and Associates

Decorative urn with Buxus sphere. St Kilda garden. Design Ian Barker and Associates

As this garden is newly planted, we are yet to see it in full flight and have not had the opportunity to watch it change throughout the seasons. I have to say though, I am very impressed with how it is growing so far, and was delighted to see the Salvia blooming and the Allium giganteum beginning to emerge the last time I visited. Given that we were able to use a lot of advanced-sized plants, I believe we will start to see some truly spectacular results in the very near future!

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Ian Barker

About Ian Barker

Ian began his landscape design, construction and maintenance business in 1996 after completing two apprenticeships, several horticultural courses, plus extensive work experience abroad. Ian places high importance on helping clients design a garden that’s tailored specifically for them. His approachable demeanour, love for the outdoors and timeless style continue to prove a winning combination. Ian Barker Gardens is now a three time medal winner at the world renowned Chelsea Flower Show in London, and most recently won a gold medal for the show garden ‘Cross Roads’ at the 2015 Melbourne International Flower & Garden Show.

8 thoughts on “Romantic perennial garden a florist’s dream

  1. This is fascinating – especially where you say your company is involved in the “follow-up garden maintenance”. This seems to be where a lot of public spaces fail. Do they ever ask the companies pitching for the work to include a “maintenance” budget? So many still believe that low-maintenance means no maintenance (“so let’s just put in natives”). I’m serious about this, and genuinely interested in what companies like Ian’s have to say about a “maintenance budget”. Plants need to be replaced, soil needs to be fed, design points that don’t quite work need to be adjusted. Some sites have hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on them – works of art, but briefly – with no thought given to a maintenance budget. You wouldn’t pay for for a valuable piece of furniture, then pop it into a corner and forget about it. You’d dust it and polish it, and fix any problems that emerged as it aged (meaning you’d be watching it constantly). So what is going on here? Are we surrounded by “landscapers” with no horticultural training? Is it because it’s often men who put out the tenders and the lack of a maintenance budget is a particularly masculine approach? FFS, can we not just do something PROPERLY THE FIRST TIME?

    • Hi Anne-Marie,

      Firstly, I have to say I love your passion for plants. Most of our work is in private residential spaces so more often than not gardeners are employed post construction. It seems to me that private owners are well aware of the need to ensure their investment is looked after properly.

      We also do some commercial spaces, and believe it is our responsibility as designers (not contractors) to ask for a maintenance period. More often than not our request is granted, but usually at reduced hours from what we would ideally like.

      As for this lack of maintenance being a “particularly masculine approach”, I don’t believe this has anything to do with the issue. Again, it is my belief that the designers (male or female), who put the tender documents together should insist on a maintenance period and would do well to educate their clients about the importance of gardens being cared for properly. If nothing else, the designers would get better photos in the long run!

  2. I’d love a blog post that further explored your use of A, B, C and D planting mixes for different beds in the same garden. Variety and repetition is a big part of good planting design (and biologically diverse plantings) but not easy to do well. I can see that’s it’s the key to the beauty and success of your planting schemes – we want to know your secret!

  3. The secret would be that we have made loads of mistakes! However we are our own worst critics so we learn from every minute detail meaning we are always learning. It is important to note that before we design this style of planting, we are honest with our clients and state clearly that not everything we do will work. We find that clients that do take this on enjoy the process of discovery as much as we do.

  4. Ian, in my haste to have a rant I failed to tell you that the St Kilda garden is gorgeous. And I’m with Catherine on the planting mixes: practical information is so welcome. It doesn’t mean people will stop using designers, of course…

    • Hi Am, I love a good rant. In this case it gave me the chance to push the importance of Garden maintenance. my start in this industry was a gardening apprenticeship at the Austin Hospital. So my rant would be the number of unqualified gardeners running around destroying really good garden designs in their haste to have beautifully manicured dirt. Ian

  5. Don’t get me started! And “garden contractors” who like their beautifully manicured dirt unmulched “because it will just blow around”.

    Maybe your professional body should run a campaign to persuade all designers to include a proper maintenance budget in their pitch. But that raises a new set of problems for professionals: the number of hours (therefore the cost) of a good pitch – that’s money they won’t get back in 90 per cent of cases.

    How do other “consultancy” businesses cover the cost of a pitch? As for unqualified gardeners, they should be made to call themselves “mowing contractors”!

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