It rains a lot in the west of Scotland. It’s often too soggy to be out in the garden, so it’s important to have something attractive to look at from inside the house. We spend most of our indoor time in our kitchen and adjoining living room/dining room, which are both west-facing.
When we bought the house, the view from the living room was of a dreary expanse of compacted clay and gravel, roughly triangular in shape, bordered on the far side by a scrappy line of yews that blocked the view to the water, and only redeemed by an arc of hydrangeas. From the kitchen, we looked at a steep clay slope choked with moss and horsetail and with a tangled mass of shrubs at the top.
What to do? I decided to go for broke (though not literally; there was a tight budget) and make the whole area into a new garden. Drainage was a problem, as always at Sherbrooke, but I hoped that by creating a raised bed I could lift the feet of the plants above the swamp. It seemed worth a try.
Step 1, in 2013, was to dig the whole area over, removing vast amounts of stone and rubble, and then build up the soil level with bag after bag of shop-bought topsoil mixed with compost. The line of yews was cut down and the stumps dug out.
Originally, the triangular area consisted of two shallow terraces separated by a low stone wall. I decided to lose the terracing in favour of a gentle slope though I later altered it slightly by building a small curved raised bed to create a transition between the foot of the slope and the main, flatter area of the garden.
The heaps of stones I had dug up were originally pressed into service to build a low retaining wall at the front but then I decided it was worth splashing out on such an important part of the garden so – my one extravagance – we paid a local stone mason to build a much tidier mini dry-stone wall which I then capped with loose, overlapping Welsh slates barrowed down the road from neighbours who were replacing their roof. At the same time we chose a warm golden pea-gravel for the path between the garden and the house.
Finally, in spring 2014 when we had moved from Edinburgh to live here full-time, I could start planting. Having made the mistake of over-planting in a previous garden, I drew up a proper plan based mainly on shrubs with varied habit, foliage and flowers, and retaining most of the hydrangeas as well as a few of the shrubs at the top of the slope. I dutifully followed the plan to the letter – but then, of course, everything looked terribly sparse, I got impatient and I couldn’t resist filling in the carefully calculated gaps with perennials and other irresistible “pretties”!
By summer 2015 it was all starting to knit together. In the flatter triangular area I’d gone for a basic colour palette of purple, blue and a range of pinks, with touches of cream or yellow, and stronger accents from grey and gold foliage shrubs. I’ve never got the hang of the block planting thing – my eye seems to respond to a more fine-grained pattern – but I’ve tried to avoid the dreaded “dotting” by repetition, both of individual plants and of combinations.
I think it’s worked quite well in the flatter part of the garden but it’s been less successful on the steep slope, where I’ve mingled various primulas, golden ferns, the ever-tolerant Bergenia and the lovely red-tipped evergreen shrub Leucothoe ‘Scarletta’. A bit more massing or grouping there would have worked better, I think.
The new garden looked lovely all through its first full summer and I was pretty pleased with myself. But of course there’s no such thing as a free lunch or a problem-free garden. I haven’t really solved the drainage problem: by summer 2016, it was clear that some of the shrubs were suffering from the plant version of foot rot and I had to lift and re-plant them in mounded-up soil. It’s too soon to say whether that will be enough to save them.
And of course I am now being punished for over-planting: last summer the garden probably hit that “sweet spot” when every plant is obediently occupying only its allotted space, but this year they’ll all be trying to invade their neighbours and I’ll have to prune, divide and edit my way out of trouble. But my “two rooms with a view” – even in December – gladden the heart on all those rainy days.