Most of what I do professionally is biggish to big. I’ll be ordering perennials, for instance, with 150 or this and 200 of that, totaling in the thousands. I love using plants in vast, repeating sweeps, and wouldn’t have it any other way. Even at home, my preference would be to be planting up large spaces with low-diversity planting.
But that form is inherently limiting. If, as I stated a couple of posts ago, my home garden really needs to be a plant playground, then it’s essential amongst all the sweeping, large-scale stuff to have beds and zones that work on a tighter platform. I need places where a single plant of a single species can ‘work’.
And I’ve stumbled on the exact solution.
Back in the days of lolling around, deconstructing Gt. Dixter while spread-eagled in late summer sunshine on its vast fireheap, it was perfectly clear to me that what Christopher Lloyd required (and achieved sensationally) in his 300ft long, 22 ft wide ‘long border’ (the imperial measurements are his – see below) was big effects. There was no point tickling a single new acquisition, possibly an impulse purchase, or a gift from a distant botanic garden, in amongst planting of this scale, no matter how perfect its foliar form or flower colour for the surrounding planting.
Elsewhere in the garden were much narrower beds, like those along the paths of the High Garden. The best of all was the one surrounding the octagonal pond, with path on one side and a narrow lawn on the other. This was perfect for small-scale combinations – not necessarily for small plants, but combinations using a very small number of plants, and combinations that, given the setting, didn’t need repeating to
validate them. There are little cameos through all of C.L.s garden books showing little sparks of genius that occurred only once in this contained area, and more than got away with it. Whereas you’d want to stand back when looking at the Long Border, you’d be leaning in to examine all the detail in these narrow beds around the Sunk Garden.
It was always obvious that this was due to the size of the beds. What has only become really clear to me recently is that it was also due to the fact that these beds were ‘backless’.
Now jump to the other side of the planet, where I’m putting the finishing touches to a wall that defines a bed about 1.5m wide – the low retaining wall on one side and graveled area/path on the other. It’s the perfect plant playground – a bed narrow enough that individual new plants are capable of having some presence, and where you can try out new combos that might eventually be translated to the large scale, or might remain right where they are.
I’d already thought of this during construction, but what I hadn’t considered is how much more liberating it is when these narrow beds are ‘backless’. Narrow beds against walls or fences are an altogether different thing. What they call for is plants that respond to the height of the wall behind rather than the width of the bed. This is why the assumption by nurseries that small gardens require small plants is so, so wrong. Small gardens invariably have high fences/walls/surrounding buildings, and small plants look ridiculous in them. You might want a narrowish plant in such spaces, but its height must take its cue from the surrounding boundaries.
My new bed, around 20m long, has no such restrictions. Low, small or individual plants can make sense there, and what’s more, this bed provides the perfect setting for the small bulbs that I was lamenting my lack of in a post back in January. Not only do they look OK despite their diminutive stature, you can get right up close to them by standing at the bottom of the wall, bringing the bulbs to navel height, rather than ankle height. So I’ve over-ridden my decision not to buy any bulbs this year – immediately, and just a little extravagantly.