With a wealth of experience behind him, Christopher Lloyd suggests there are a few basic guiders for all gardeners.
Gardening should, primarily, be about growing plants. This is the greatest excitement of owning your first garden; the opportunity of handling these living beauties, of giving them the conditions that suit them and then, not without a touch of pride, revelling in your results.
Wading straight into planting may be messy and, especially if you have a new garden, you might want to consult an expert designer. With plenty of cowboys out there, you need to find the right person for you, by asking around and by seeing examples of their work that you like. Make it clear to the designer (who needs to be keen to listen and not just talk) that you want the design to be simple. After all, it’s your garden.
I have always found that the more features you include, the fussier the result. Furthermore, while the design before planting may look gapingly empty, once the plants grow, that space will be gobbled up.
Make a spacious sitting-out area for a start, so that chairs can be pushed back without reaching the patio edge. Make paths as wide as the size of your garden will allow, so that plants from borders on either side can spill comfortably over them and still allow two people to walk side by side. Two metres will not be too wide in many cases, even though the space looks vast to begin with.
Make your pond as large as you can, so that you need never lose sight of the water (and its reflections), even when a waterlily and some emerging aquatic plants are included. A cramped pergola, neither high nor wide enough once it is covered in climbing plants, is pointless. Forget it.
Then, think about the lawn. Consider carefully whether you really need one - it makes for a lot of work. If pleasant paving or gravel will do instead, your plantings can spill forwards without your getting into a twitch about them possibly killing lawn turf.
If the garden is on a slope, will you want it to be terraced? Terracing looks very nice, and retaining walls offer vertical space for plants that enjoy good drainage, but it is expensive. Alternatively the slope can be filled and taken up by plants.
After the hard landscape features (paths, patios etc) are in place, examine the nature of the soil in the beds which you are longing to plant. If it is rubbishy sub-soil, found in new building sites all too frequently, you'll never get anywhere with it. Have it removed to a depth of at least 30cm; more if you can afford to, and replace with top soil, which is easily available to buy. Also, do make sure that drainage is adequate throughout - few plants will happily endure sitting in water.
When it comes to planting, friends are likely to ply you with cuttings from their own gardens. Kind of them, but always retain a modicum of suspicion. The easiest plants to give away are the ones that spread rapidly - they may become weeds. Another danger, is that lurking in the roots of the gift may be some dastardly perennial weed, like ground elder, couch grass or bindweed. Once established, these are very hard to get rid of. In fact, to rid your garden of such perennial weeds it may well be wise to treat the garden with 'Roundup' once everything is growing strongly, perhaps applying a second dose later on in the season, when you can spot the survivors.
Next, visit established gardens (always remember to take a notebook), find the sort of plants that you like the look of and go on from there. With perennials, it may be enough to buy one of each and then work up your own stock by propagating at home, so that eventually you can make a nice group.
We have workshops on planting perennials, making ponds, laying paths and paving, propagating and much more. Click here to visit the ‘How To…’ section and check them out.
Christopher Lloyd’s garden, Great Dixter in Sussex, is open to visitors.
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