Has your garden felt “two dimensional” this summer with long periods where nothing much is happening?
Do you look at your garden and see tree-shrub-bulb-shrub-perennial without any feeling of the power and complexity of nature?
If you take a walk in nature you will realise that plant life tries to occupy all the different layers of space. From tall trees with a canopy of small trees underneath, to shrubs then ground cover, bulbs and climbers, nature weaves life into all the different available layers of space.
So often we just plant something we like into a space that is available, yet different plants survive on different levels depending on their light requirements, wind tolerance, soil stability and acidity and ability to grow next to other different species.
If we can listen and look at the essence of nature growing in the wild we can achieve a natural look with all the lovely stylised beauty that our human love of colour, symmetry and order can provide.
The result is powerful and achieves a complexity that most gardens lack.
Of course in many ways gardens are simplifications of nature, bringing out the essential elements whilst allowing for more functional human spaces as well as ease of maintenance. Yet it is possible to bring some of that rich ‘woven-feeling’ into the smallest of gardens and the results will give you a deeper satisfaction and a more four dimensional beauty.
So if there are gaps in your beds or just one or two layers going on compared with the eight I have mentioned below, you can notice what is missing and plan to enrich your layering for next year!
Choose your trees carefully. Often I arrive at a client’s garden and there is either one massive tree that dominates the rest of the garden space or there is a lack of trees. People sometimes assume that planting trees will create too much shade but if your garden is small/medium, well positioned trees with a delicate and spacious leaf and branch character can create a canopy that will give your garden a sense of height, enclosure and intimacy.
Some trees for the smaller gardens are Amelenchier lamarki, Weeping Birch, Malus, Sorbus, Viburnum Tinus, Albezia and Rhus. All of these trees will give your garden a lovely sense of breadth without a tree surgeon being called in every year.
Underneath this layer one can plant a layer which I call Tall Shrubs. These plants can contribute lots of height when needed but can also be pruned severely each year depending on the plan you have for the shapes in your garden.
Some are Sambucus ‘Sutherland’s Gold’ and Sambucus ‘Black Lace’, Philadelphus, Forsythia, some of the taller Cornus, Ceanothus, Fatsia, most of the Pittisporums and the different types of Laurel.
Smaller shrubs can then be chosen that will tend to give longer periods of colour and fit snuggly under the ‘umbrellas’ of the taller trees. Some interesting shrubs that come to mind are: Rosa rugosa, Teucrium fruticans, Japanese Quince, most of the Hebes, Hydrangeas, Cistis, Pittisporum ‘Tom Thumb’ and the Choysia range.
Ground cover can be used as the ‘glue’ that holds all the different layers together. Not only can you plant these in large ribbons and drifts to give your border a sense of flow and unity but they solve the practical job of suppressing the weeds whilst the trees are establishing themselves.
Some tried and tested ground covers that I like are the Geraniums, Sedums, Chaerophyllum ‘Roseum’, White Bay Willow Herb and Persicaria.
Smaller Ground Cover
The smaller ground covers tend to be at the front of borders where they won’t be swamped by the bigger plants. Some nice examples are: Pachysandra, Ajuga, Brunnera, Galium odoratum, Epimedium, Bergenias, Lilly of the Valley and Periwinkle.
It is surprising how many gardens I visit and see unsightly spaces that a week chosen climber could easily transform.
Climbers hide fences, can shoot up trees like rambling roses or drop languidly gown from shed grooves or pergodas. They are a first choice for many unsightly wall or tool shed and with their exuberant need to spread out can give your garden a new dimension of space.
More unusual climbers are Akebia, Campsis, Berberidopsis coralline and Solanum
The bulb range is enormous. Some come out before the trees have come into leaf to grab the early sunlight when they can, others push through other plant life tenaciously. As I have written in previous articles plan your bulbs with the months of the year in mind and you can have bright splashes of colour almost all year. (The bright blue of Gentians at Wakefield were intense to look at this weekend).
I would like to include another dimension to designing your garden with layers and that is what is called ‘Window Plants’ . These are plants that even though some are quite tall they can be planted in the middle or even the front of a bed and you can see through their spacious foliage to other plants.
Examples of these – and please look them up as they have a great ethereal feeling, are Sanguisorba ‘Pink Elephant’, Dierama, Qaura, Molinia Tranparent and Molinia ‘Karl Foestar’, Allium Sphaerocephalon and the more commonly known Verbena Bonsariensis and Stips gigantia.