Of the Mountains and Valleys

There’s two particular questions that I’m always dealing with when designing a garden, or evaluating an existing one.  I’ve been dealing with them for years, though they’ve only recently emerged from the subconscious, being forced into conscious articulation by a recent talk.  Writing and speaking are great ways to force you to express something that would otherwise feel, and remain, intuitive. 

The two questions of the proposed garden are simply ‘How high should it reach (at its seasonal best)?’ and ‘how far can it fall (at its seasonal worst)?’.  The answers are found in the climate (and specifically the minimum winter temperatures), the maintenance budget (or the willingness of the owner to get involved), and most importantly the horticultural confidence, exposure or sophistication of the owner.

The same garden, at a similar reach
Same garden, at a similar reach

Gardening in a cool climate myself, and having had the opportunity to garden at phenomenally high difficulty levels in cooler climates still, the answers to these questions in relation to my own garden are that I want it to reach very high indeed at its best in spring and summer, and that I have a high tolerance (a painfully high tolerance, if you ask certain members of my family) of it falling a long way down over winter.

So far I’ve never had a client who demands, or tolerates, such a reach into the extreme ends of the spectrum as I’m prepared to go.

The same garden, at nearly the lowest point of its fall.  It'll thin further, briefly, then deciduous stuff gets cut back
The same garden, at nearly the lowest point of its fall. It’ll thin further, briefly, when the deciduous stuff gets cut back

Everyone, of course, would like their garden to reach as high as it can.  What most varies is the tolerance of how far it might fall, often as a direct and inevitable consequence of how high it reached.

I have some clients who are happy for their hugely voluminous summer garden to be pared back to nothing but hedges for winter, and I’ve had others who, when I suggest using a deciduous tree, look at me askance, and clearly doubting my quality as a designer, state ‘We don’t want anything that goes off for the winter’.


I’m going to stick my neck out here and state that at this point in my gardening career I’m convinced that the tolerance of any garden owner to the down-time fall will be in inverse proportion to how high their garden can reach.  I’ve never yet seen a garden that deeply thrills me that doesn’t have a corresponding seasonal downtime.  Obviously gardeners with great horticultural or design skills will manage to minimize this fall, and might, at best, make sure that other beauties (such as strong geometry from design, or other built forms, or really creative use of evergreens) emerge during the down-time, but that breathless moment of a garden at its floral, foliar or volume peak (which is the very moment that all English gardens, for instance, are photographed) simply can’t be maintained year round.

And again..
and again…

In my own garden I’m prepared to pay a very high price – in terms of down-time – for my demand for seasonal thrill.   But I can rarely impose that on my clients.  Nor, probably, on you.


  1. Reflects some profound truths about the tension in which we hold things of beauty.

    1. I totally agree Patrick. The whole notion of beauty is so complex that my brain starts to hurt before I’ve even crossed the threshold of the subject.

  2. I love the down – time fall as much as the high season. I don’t however cut back the miscanthus or euphorbia till I have to, as it looks so beautiful as do the reedy , grassy things. Very Piet Oudolf, don’t you think ? Your photos are all lovely. In my cold climate garden in Leura in the Blue Mts I like to see all the tracery of the cherry trees and Japanese maples. You can really walk around and see the bones of the garden and get in where sometimes you can’t or don’t in summer , and really appreciate the structure of the big conifers , look at all those punctuation marks and make plans for things overlooked before- that’s my little rave anyway! Love your posts.

    1. I had a client once who decided that she couldn’t bring herself to cut back her Miscanthus (thousands of them) at all. She was really sorry a couple of months later when there was as many dead as live blades in each clump. I always leave it nearly too late myself, for the same reason.

  3. It’s a very cool climate gardening question. In a warmer climate garden such zeniths and nadirs (do those words exist in plural form?) just aren’t possible, whether they are desirable or not. Most plants do not become completely dormant in winter, nor do they respond with such whooping joy to the warming days of late spring. Maybe that’s like the smoothing effect of antidepressants for someone used to the intense bipolar troughs and peaks of a cold climate garden. I do have a dominant deciduous tree here in my Sydney garden, and what I notice most is the difference in weight, as the loss of dense canopy changes the garden’s balance, and not for the better!

    1. This may depend on the specific kind of warmer climate. To my eye, many plants in monsoon climates look absolutely wretched during the dry season but then respond with great exuberance when the rains finally do arrive.

    2. I totally agree. But I’m not aware of anyone embracing this ebb and flow within a tropical system in a similar way to what is done in either cool climates where dormancy is forced by cold, or Mediterranean climates where dormancy is forced by extreme summer dry.

    3. Yes. I wonder if this is because planting in tropical climates is more likely to be landscaping, done by hired help, rather than a garden, done, or at least pretending to be done, by the home owner. There are certainly lots of houses with professionally designed and maintained gardens in temperate climates, but the overwhelming aesthetic, in my experience, is the English country garden – as opposed, say, to an English garden in colonial Malaysia.

    4. I don’t think it’s that simple, Catherine. If what Arno King says is true – that there are more bulbs (for instance) of subtropical and tropical climates than there are of mediterranean climates, then I think it’s simply that this kind of gardening hasn’t been explored in warmer climates. One could, of course, ask ‘Why would you?’, and that would be a valid question, but one that would back up my point that everyone differs in their tolerance, and even expectation of seasonal climaxes (‘climaces’? – does that exist in plural form?) and corresponding down-times.

    5. I feel there are many ‘new’ styles of gardening in hotter climes, yet to be fully exploited. The challenge is that until you get a whole ‘move’ towards a new garden style, in a city, that new style will lack a sense of place alongside the current, quite uniform look (e.g. the evergreen, layered hedges of Sydney). Even if the style is ‘perfect’ for the climate, without a fit with the streetscape, to me, it is significantly compromised. It therefore results in tweaking and adding small areas of ‘mountains’, whilst broadly keeping the structure in line with neighbouring properties. Providing a sense of place whilst introducing something quite new is something I battle with everyday…any ideas?

    6. I think that the seasonal differences in a tropical garden are just as important and obvious to a gardener there as your peaks and troughs are to you. Just like the weather, it’s a matter of degree. In Cairns in June, they were aghast at how how cold it was. A freezing 25 degrees! And summer is so, so hot… sometimes 33 degrees! A whole 8 degrees difference. What’s central Vic’s daytime maximum temperature range…more like 35 degrees? Talking to real gardeners in the Wet Tropics (and a short drive around shows you it is a very ‘gardeny’ place), I realised that what to me would be very small or subtle changes are to them on quite a different scale. And that plant maintenance is based on holding back a constant outward peak flow with a machete, or dealing with rapid woody plant decay and turnover, rather than anything that goes up and then down in height.

    7. Tropical gardening peaks, to me, are determined by the presence of water rather than by temperature. At full peak the frangipani will be in full leaf, the hibiscus and gingers in full flower. At its low, the gingers, cannas and cordylines are either chopped back to the ground or burnt back by the burning rays of the sun and the lack of water towards the end of the dry season. At this time, most of the frangipani trees lose their leaves as well. Perhaps more noticeable in Townsville or Port Moresby than Cairns. A good time to skip town and visit friends in cooler climes for Christmas. I do remember the Hippeastrum bulbs making a good show in the otherwise bare garden.

  4. By the end of autumn, I’m tired of big masses of foliage and flowers and longing for clean, empty space. I want to see a wider sky. I want to see dark soil between the plants again. It is immensely satisfying to pull out spent annuals, cut down clumps of perennials and hack gleefully away at deciduous shrubs, exposing a whole different view of a familiar space. My garden certainly goes a long way down in winter, and that’s the way I like it. And then, by the end of winter, I’m urging everything to hurry up and grow and bloom again. Every season is different and interesting and just what I crave after the previous one.

    1. I so agree with this. I’m totally bemused by the predictablility of my fading interest in the blowsy volume of late summer, and the corresponding craving for clarity. And then for the longing to return to volume. It’s weird, but I’m so grateful for those seasonal, passing longings.

  5. Hey Michael.. I have to say a perennial garden in a cool climate peaks once again in the depths of winter with snow fall finally resting on dried seed heads, showing a truley winter scene with winter bulbs like crocus, galanthus, cyclamen flowering and snow resting on witch hazel blossum that would shrug off a winter freeze something that’s rarely seen in Australian gardens because of this anal approach to a perfect garden where spoilt flowers need to be dead headed or gardens peak in spring only. I tried educating the public with this approach and you get mixed thoughts in a public garden. In regards to tropical gardeners I had a cut flower grower visit the mountains and thought most gardens in winter or in autumn look like they were dieing. Autumn colour to him was a plant looking sick and I thought that’s true to say coming from Cairns, I guess his used to seeing a garden that’s lush all year round.
    It’s all about familiarity or being safe for most gardeners and non..not for me..

    1. You’re right. If only it snowed a little more regularly, and it hung around a bit longer…
      I remember speaking to a gardener in Quebec about how pretty the sedums look with their little cap of snow. “Cap of snow?” they replied. “They’re buried under two metres of snow!”.

  6. I was intrigued by this thread as I garden in a cool climate (frosty Canberra) and I strive for four seasons of beauty, trying for this with a mixture of deciduous trees, roses and perennials.

    While I haven’t yet achieved an even year-round peak, I try to use plant selection to achieve peaks with minimal troughs. With deciduous trees this is easy – I have a graceful linden tree in the front yard, which is beautiful in every season, but never more so than when you see its bare, arching branches against a winter evening sky. And in the back, a grove of silver birches is lovely all year round – in fresh spring green, drifting autumn gold, and now in stark silver.

    With roses, I have recently fallen in love with some of the cultivars from Brindabella Roses. Even when it’s minus 7 or so overnight, cultivars such as Brindabella Bouquet, Brindabella Rainbow and Brindabella Jewel stay almost fully evergreen. They never get black spot, and the leaves shift from green to purple in winter, providing structure, interest and even colour right through winter.

    Floral peaks are hard to balance evenly – for instance, I have a storm of camellias flowering in autumn, with only spot flowering during winter. But I try to add a later wave with hellebores, using a wider variety of species and hybrids to extend their season.
    Finally – the dead foliage of herbaceous perennials in winter. This is one of my biggest problems, trying to minimise while having a long spring-summer-autumn flowering season. Unfortunately I don’t like the cut-to-the-ground look either, and often want to leave dead foliage in place to remind me of the plant’s size in summer and to provide protection against frost for any new shoots. I’m still trying to get the mixture right. Sometimes it seems there is no way around it – there are white Japanese anenomes which look superb flowering among the lower branches of a white camellia in autumn, but their leaves go black and brown and decay under heavy frost – and they still make an ugly bare patch of stumps when cut back. Other times you start hoping that with cannier planning and better succession planting you could do better – for instance, could I hide the frosted decaying foliage of the alstromerias if I interspersed them with the emerging marbled foliage of arum italicum ‘Pictum’, which pushes through just as the others die? Or should I add more perennials whose foliage remains lovely during winter – gauras, corydalis, aquilegias, penstemons, sidalceas? Still trying . . .

    1. Thanks for this fabulous addition to the discussion. You sum up the challenges perfectly…
      I know how annoying it can be when someone comes back with specific advice pertaining to examples that were only meant to make a general point, but it’s got me thinking that as long as you cut back the Jap anemones hard at the start of winter, you could probably do the Arum in amongst them. Gardening in Melb, I always assumed that you had to leave the residual foliage of the anemone, but gardening in England, they don’t think twice about cutting it to the ground. The fact that the foliage then takes ages to kick back in allows for another whole season of something. We once had bleeding heart interplanted with the anemone.. And likewise the Alstroemeria. At Dixter we would tug the stems out of the ground after flowering, and plant something over the top. Admittedly they were the old Ligtu hybrids which stopped flowering by mid summer. The modern longer flowering ones might need to stay longer, but you could surely be rid of the foliage (the stems come out clean if you tug them upwards) for the entire winter.
      Can’t tell you how reassuring it is to find other gardeners asking similar questions of their plants and planting…

    2. Dear Michael,

      Many thanks – its great to hear that you think overplanting would work in Australia, not just in England, despite our shorter seasonal downtime. I wll experiment next winter and see what I can get away with without smothering my stars.
      BTW, irrelevant to the thread, but thanks so much for your book The Gardenist – no other writer has ever explained spaces to me. It’s a wonderful area to explore.

    3. My very great pleasure, Susan.
      And likewise thank you for that fabulous collective noun which I think I’m going to adopt – a ‘storm’ of camellias!

  7. First time ‘sharer’, long-time reader. I love this pondering. The patterns of growth and visual peaks in gardens reminds me of the jagged ‘spike’ pattern of the human pulse or heartbeat on an ECG display. When I look at some of the beautiful gardens you’ve created Michael, often in more rural settings with generous proportions to achieve mass plantings, for me there is beauty at every stage, even the down time. What does my head in, is the tiny spaces, or the average suburban Melbourne front and back yards. In the urban environment, the space for planting is shrinking so dramatically, that the ability and appetite of clients to reach for those heights is severely impeded. So I beg people to allow for deeper garden beds, to allow for depth of planting, so that god forbid if you use some sedum or salvias, there will be space for something else to be going on during the down time. More often than not however, the ‘risk appetite’ is not there and people want safe, evergreen hedging or foliage and so our urban garden ECG is somewhat flat-lining. Reading all the comments gives me hope – so cheers to all you garden ‘thrill seekers’ who are keeping the garden pulses alive!

    1. So glad you decided to share, as you’ve added a whole new layer to the discussion.
      I love that image of the ECG. I’ve often wished someone would do an annual performance graph for all garden plants, running along an axis of the months or seasons, and showing when the foliage was looking its best, when there wasn’t any foliage (if deciduous), and where in this cycle flowering occurred. By doing so you could systematize the process of choosing complementary plant partners, choosing the base-plant (so to speak), then choosing a companion on the basis of it either flowering at the same time, perhaps, or one that completed its life-cycle in the exact period that the base plant was dormant.
      This would also provide an opportunity for new heights of plant-nerdism, which I would embrace unapologetically

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