The hidden power of the five-foot backless bed

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’.

The scale, and plant simplicity, I’m usually working on..

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.

Narrow beds in the High Garden

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

A fab combo of tulips and alliums making up a tiny cameo in narrow beds

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’.

The bed straight ahead is only about 1 to 1.5m deep, allowing for individual plants, or small clumps, in a way that wouldn’t make sense in the bigger beds elsewhere

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.

Finally – a location/context in which to play with the various forms of Narcissus bulbocodium..

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.

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10 thoughts on “The hidden power of the five-foot backless bed

  1. I love a slope! No views to speak of without them.

    I have to love em because it’s my bread and butter in the hills (I build a lot of retaining walls), but you can engineer some delightful spaces provided you don’t lock into a long terrace mentality. ‘Belvederes’ are often worth a look in too.

    Frinstance – all encompassing vegetative or peering beds (for alpines) on the high side and on the low side a structure of sorts to help maintain the visual and physical sense of imbalance with espaliered whatevers, arbours, hedge or smallish shed wall (can’t have enough tiny sheds in a garden). You can also play with the light more easily on a slope. The way it slides through and down the hill….you can set up moments of illumination onto a feathery light catcher for instance more readily than you can on the flats. I like your points about the importance of verticals on a slope….hadn’t thought about the pinning effect before, but you are right there. They almost serve as large visual handholds.

    Great post Michael, but I won’t have you dissing the slopes! :)

  2. Thanks for the, as usual, astute observation on garden making Michael featuring plant heights and garden widths influenced by backed & backless spaces …small, limited plant repeats for backless & tall plants if backed whether big or small planting widths … no ? Very well explained and that elevated curved planting space looks temptingly blank in readiness for those little bulbs I MUST say.

    Being more and more seduced by so many appealing South African (habranthus, crinum, veltheimia, cyrtanthus, amaryllis) South American (hippeastrum species, rhodophiala, zephranthus, griffinia) and yes, interesting Australian bulbs (calastemma, proiphys cunninghamii the Brisbane Lily & native crinums) here on Sydney’s warm temperate frostless coast, I’ve been forced to heel in the face of so much homogenous green strap herbage when these are out of flower, lax or “gone over” devoid of much interest … no?

    Short of a few stalwarts like Hippeastrum reticulatum var. striatifolium ‘Mrs Garfield’ that has such a bold evergreen contrasting lime green strip following the upper surface mid rib (& very few other “colour leaf” bulbs), things can easily get rather drear in the bulb patch wouldn’t you say… for quite a long time ? Contrasts in other plants not bulbous I’ve most often cast about for, to get “lift” in the foliage colour and textural contrasting stakes …….. so most times tend to use bulbs for their “surprise seasonal appeal” in pockets regardless of garden width or backing, as even these fairly evergreen ones growing so well for the enormous eastern coastal Australian tract, are for so long in the year “quiet”.

    I thought you might be able to enlighten us on a method that would modify well from your cool temperate/hot dry summer air ? location, to say the frostless humid coast where so many people have gardens to make…
    QUESTION – how to bring near year round interest to a section of bulbous plants (like the elevated retained planting space you show) without resorting to non bulbous ones that so easily cover the bulbs over. Slow growing dwarf non bulbous texturally & or foliage colour contrasting companions .. mayhap ??
    Thanks for the Gardenist – the thinking persons garden making reference.

    • Thanks for the affirmation, Peter. I really appreciate the encouragement.

      As for the bulb issue, I think the difficulty arises when you start to think of anything as a ‘bulb bed’. I intend to tuck as many bulbs as I can into that photographed bed, but it won’t (and I’d go so far as to say ‘can’t’) be bulb-driven. The bed will succeed or fail on how well it does perennials and lowish shrubs, amongst which I’ll be constantly on the watch for downtime opportunities – locations where the seasonal dormancy of a perennial provides a spot for a bulb with a complementary life cycle – one that’s awake for the time its bedfellow is asleep.

      This sort of opportunistic successional planting becomes more and more problematic as you head north, and the seasonal distinction disperses. There’s less emphatic, and shorter, dormancy periods in both the bulbs and the perennials that they’re fun to grow with.

      Currently I’m just stuffing a whole heap of smaller rarities along the immediate top of the wall where they won’t get in the way of the planting of the major matrix of plants to come.

      Even in the most conducive of climates, I’ve never seen a ‘bulb bed’ that I loved. Never. With only a very few exceptions that I’m pondering, and that might be worth a post in the interest of extending this conversation, the bed has to be about something else, with bulbs as (possibly off-season) bonus.

      Bulbs make great – truly magical – support actors and co-stars, but the inherent limitations of the transient, strap/grassy foliage means they’ll never be A-listers as garden plants.

  3. Oh dear Michael, new combos, little compositional cameos, given a good context and companioned appropriately. Now you have so many choices. I don’t envy you as you will have to be so disciplined and limit your choices. A bulbaholic such as I would really struggle .

    I have just spent a weekend immersed in Nerines. I can see your bed planted in perhaps 3 types very carefully chosen according to flowering time , size of flower, length of stem and colour. Imagine Mrs Mackworth Praed keeping company with Killi and Mandarin. Nerines offer such an amazing choice of rich autumn hues They reach a flowering peak just as the colours of Autumn culminate. i feel they are underutilized.

    Oh but I sigh Such a choice denies you the pleasure of spring, but only in your 5 foot bed!
    I visited White House Nursery http://www.whitehousenursery.com.au/home/about-us

    • I thought that was my point – that in building this bed I’ve suddenly found myself in a derestricted zone – no discipline necessary! Don’t go getting all legalistic with me and my five foot backless..

      As for nerines – you may only live 10 minutes away, but you may as well be in another horticultural universe. Nerines here? I’d be stuck with the most basic ones – N. flexuosa (which I love) and N. bowdenii (which I don’t love, but like well enough), and that’d be it. All those sarniensis derivatives, amongst which are all the most interestingly and mysteriously coloured, are WAY too vulnerable to frost

  4. Having visited Great Dixter and Sissinghurst I can appreciate your admiration of both. Apart from their creativity, originality and sheer brilliance in the planting, the common features are -primarily – flat gardens. I’d be interested in your thoughts – or gardens you know- where wonderful things are done in sloping gardens, without terracing. The added complication provides opportunity for even grander ideas!

    • I’m guessing what you mean by ‘flat gardens’ is that what slope there is is terraced. Gt Dixter is about 2m higher at the back than the front. But it’s a very good question, and since a reply like this can’t run to the several hundred words it would take to so such a question justice, the shortest (albeit seriously oversimplified) answer I can give is that every garden I can think of when great things are done on slopes tend to use the slopes as features, in a way, for interesting planting or the like, but as places to look at, rather than dwell in. Furthermore, they’re usually places to look at from an adjacent nice, flat terrace. I’m thinking of places like the stunning sloping lawns at Villa Melzi on Lake Como, or those lovely olive groves in Greece where each olive tree has its own semicircular wall, resulting in a repeating scalloped pattern on the slope. But none are places you’d be attracted to walk into or onto.

      Sloping ground is, after all, useless for sitting around on (with chairs/tables etc at least), no good for kicking balls around on, and is even visually unrestful. Energy seems to flow away, down the slope, at a pace in proportion with the gradient. I love that on Tuscan hillsides, the visual instability is addressed by repeated Italian cypress, giving the impression they’re pinning the earth’s skin in place. They’re also reassuringly vertical, providing a visual spirit level to we bipeds.

      But I’m wandering. I’d certainly be prepared to say that you can’t make a satisfying garden without flat zones.

      Lets see what others have to say. A good subject for a post sometime (that way I can include pics)..

  5. I’ve written (and thought) about garden design so much over the past 10 years and yet you are able to still present me with such original and well-explained observations. Your deductions about the backless bed and the differences that makes to scale, form and detail is very interesting. And I’m looking forward to your spring bulb photos!

    • Thanks Catherine. I’ve been pondering this stuff for over twenty five years, so it feels just a little embarrassing when a superficially fundamental revelation like this emerges. The inner-man is delighted that there’s no end to those knee-slapping “Now I get it!” moments, but the outer-man would love to be able to exude a little more authority and confidence that he’s got at least 80% of it covered. No such thing. Not even nearly.

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