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A Garden from Scratch: How to Build a Strong Foundation

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A Garden from Scratch: How to Build a Strong Foundation

February 6, 2024

In the first column of my series on creating a garden from scratch, I posed some starting points to think about before you make any radical changes to your space. In this second installment, I’m diving deeper and covering the key design decisions you need to consider for a strong foundation—both literal and metaphorical.

Here are the six elements that go into a beautiful foundation for your garden.

Photography by Clare Coulson.

Above: My English garden in midsummer. When I arrived, this area was a lavender walk with some climbing roses. The lavenders were tired and needed replacing, so I decided to remove the whole border and start again, keeping only the climbing rose at the far end of the border. We widened the border to create depth and I planted two long copper beech hedges at the back of the border (buying very young bareroot plants to keep costs down). I then planted ornamental pear trees every two meters that introduces spring blossom and valuable upright structure and presence. Underneath is a succession of perennials and bulbs, mostly in blue and apricot; tulips and alliums are followed by hardy geraniums, nepeta, foxgloves, baptisa, penstemons, ornamental grasses, hydrangeas, and salvias. Self-seeders are enthusiastically encouraged.

1. A Limited Materials Palette

Above: Putting in the hardscaping is the first job in most gardens. As it’s permanent, it’s also the most important to get right. I’ve used self-binding gravel for almost all the paths and terraces in my garden; it’s very easy to lay, essentially just spreading it out over a stable sub-base and then compressing it down. But the soft golden color also blends beautifully into the garden so that it almost disappears. My one regret is having it close to buildings because tiny pieces of the gravel always migrate indoors.

One of the biggest investments of time and money in a new garden is the hardscaping, so it pays to take the time to ensure that any paths, terraces, steps, and other paved or graveled areas are exactly where you want them, feel appropriate to your home and garden style, and will stand the test of time. When planning these areas, be generous, because over time plants will normally encroach into hardscaped areas and soften the edges.

Hardscaping needs to feel in proportion to the house and garden—and look visually appropriate (e.g., a traditional brick path will always look right next to a period building with similar brickwork). To keep these spaces cohesive and harmonious, restrict your materials palette; using a wide variety of finishes can be jarring to the eye. Some materials, including gravel or self-binding gravels, can work with almost any style of architecture.

Just as you would with paints for the interior of your home, get samples of the hardscaping materials you’re considering and live with them for a while. Or plan a field trip or two to see similar materials in a real garden setting. If you’re starting with a true blank canvas, you can mark out areas with a line marker (use hosepipe to create sinuous curved lines) so that you can walk through areas and make sure they feel right.

Whichever surface material you choose, a solid, stable base—usually compressed crushed materials and sand—is key to ensure that the surface can cope with daily wear and weather. It’s possible to do most landscaping projects with basic DIY skills, but just like home projects a perfect finish by a professional is often hard to replicate.

2. Good ‘Bones’

Above: A clipped hedge, shaped shrubs, topiary, and a specimen tree can all help to create the bones of a garden that have a year-round presence. When I bought my house, I had very little gardening experience but I knew that any green structure was potentially useful, so I nurtured the hedges, many of which had been eaten down to stubs by horses. We allowed them to recover and grow before clipping many of them into cloud-pruned shapes. I added a few specimen trees including a multi-stem jacquemontii birch tree, pictured here. On the right hand side of this picture a self-seeded hawthorn, providing a froth of white blossom in spring.

Garden designers talk a lot about “good bones,” meaning all the structure in a garden that is visible long after summer’s herbaceous plants have gone. These elements—the silhouettes of trees, hedges, topiary, and shrubs, as well as landscaping and structures—are what grounds a garden in the growing season, providing a backdrop and contrast to the planting. They can help add rhythm with repeated forms drawing the eye down paths and through planting. They can create playful scale—towering topiary, even in small spaces, for example. And for most gardens, all of this fundamental structure is what ensures that a garden looks good year round, even in the depths of winter. The “bones” are not only the first things you’ll want to plant—as they tend to take much longer to mature—they will also be the elements to think long and hard about and possibly invest more money in. One or two beautiful trees—even in a small space—can define a garden and bring four-season joy.

Above: Only a few herbaceous plants are visible in this image, which is dominated by forms—a hawthorn tree, box, rosemary, euphorbia—that will have a presence in the garden throughout each season. Arguably the most important thing in any new garden is learning what plants will do well—in my dry, sandy soil euphorbias thrive and have self-seeded themselves all over the garden. They are invaluable for their bright lime green flower heads in early spring, which stay looking good until midsummer. At this point I cut the flower head to the base, leaving a mound of lush glaucous foliage that provides year-round structure in the borders. All but one or two euphorbias in this image have self-seeded themselves, creating plants for free.

Tip: A good way to think about your garden layout and any planting is to imagine it as a picture. When seen in an image, the design elements are much easier to appreciate; and when converted to a black and white image, essential forms and structure are immediately apparent. It’s these forms that really become the bones of the garden—rather than the flowers that come and go. Before I start thinking about what to plant in a border I always start with these more permanent structural plants that I know will ground the space and create a backdrop to more ephemeral perennials, annuals, and bulbs.

3. Paths for Discovery

Above: By creating a path that seems to lead somewhere it encourages the eye to travel. These borders were planted from scratch about eight years ago. They create the symmetry that leads right through the garden, from a dining terrace straight down to the antique gate at the far end of the garden that was here when I bought the house. The borders are packed with plants that provide structure year round; boxwood clipped into balls were bought very young and are now starting to have a real presence; hebes, euphorbia, cardoons and ornamental grasses all provide structure when all the herbaceous plants have died back for winter.

It doesn’t matter how big or small your space is, the magic is often in creating a sense of journey through it. A meandering path that takes you through different pockets of planting, or to a destination such as a place to sit. Or a narrowed entrance that then leads into a different space all helps to create a sense of mystery in a garden. Rather than showing everything at once, create a sense of gradual discovery. If you have the space, using sections of hedging to create this game of conceal/reveal, is not only economical (plant young bare root plants in winter is the cheapest way to add a hedge) but will also add more plants to your space and bring in more wildlife, too. In my own garden, I added to existing hornbeam hedges to conceal areas of the garden and then planted more contrasting hedges (in copper beech) to enclose further areas.

4. Focal Points

Above: A distant gate at the end of this shady spring border doesn’t lead anywhere, but it gives the viewer a focal point and also the idea that there is something beyond. Either side of this lovely old gate are two juniper plants that have been gradually killed by ivy; this winter we removed both plants and now need to tackle the ivy that has also completely covered the ornate gate posts, which will make more of this gate as a garden feature.

A key part of creating a journey is by arranging your design around a vista with some kind of focal point; it can be a gate, a statue, a beautiful tree, or a bench or place to sit. By framing this view, you draw the eye through the space. It could be a double border that leads down to this focal point, or a sea of planting (at Sissinghurst Castle a swathe of ferns and spring planting engulfs a distant statue of Dionysus in the famous Nuttery). No matter what your eye-catcher is, the effect of placing it in the garden is to focus the gaze and ground the space. Conversely, if there’s an existing feature then you can develop planting around it to highlight it.

5. Upwardly Mobile Plants

Above: The delicate blooms of the ‘Blush Noisette’ rose which is a resilient and easy to care for repeating rose to use as a short climber on walls and buildings. The most dramatic decision I made in my garden was to remove the previous owner’s huge collection of David Austin roses. It felt like vandalism but the kidney-shaped rose beds were exactly where I wanted to plant a double border. We managed to re-home almost all of the roses in my brother’s garden.

It’s easy to become preoccupied by what’s growing on the ground, but don’t forget to think vertically, too—especially since tall plants and climbers need a long time to grow. Upwardly mobile plants are essential in creating an immersive, layered space that takes advantage of every structure.

6. A Garden View from the House

Above: Deep borders close to the house create an immersive effect, bringing the outside in, year round. My garden is not neat and formal, but neither is my house, which was originally a brick and flint barn, converted to a tiny cottage in the 1950s. This border is one year old and included grasses that were dug out and divided from other areas of the garden. As much as possible, everything in my garden is either propagated, self-sown, or bought in as very young plants. In the middle of the border is a young tree—Amelanchier grandiflora ‘Robin Hill’—which provides very pretty spring blossom.

Think about sight lines and what you’d like to see from your house. In many ways, the views from key windows are the most important—they are the ones you will see twelve months of the year, while the garden itself may be used only during the warmer months. So aim for a long season of interest here with planting that can stay in situ, providing structure and interest through the winter months. If you are going to have any garden lighting, a few subtle lights in these areas is money well spent. This sweeping border is the view from my kitchen table where I write every day, so it was really important that it would look good almost all year round. Though its peak season is from late summer right through autumn, the ornamental grasses and perennials with attractive seed heads continue to delight deep into winter. As an added bonus the asters are visited by flocks of goldfinches that come to feast on the seeds.

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