2017 A Year in Review: The Garden

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Towards the end of 2016 MrsGrow stumbled in a hole at the top of our steep hillside garden and moaned at me (because of course it was my fault). She also grumbled about having nowhere to sit in the sunshine… a nice patio area for example. I’ve got an allotment but apparently I should have been spending more time in the garden to make it habitable instead! The garden we’d acquired with our rented home wasn’t in any way ‘designed’, had an abundance of weeds and needed a lot of work to make it a more enjoyable place to relax and entertain friends.

Like many people I don’t like to put too much effort into a garden that isn’t actually ‘mine’ but this time we have a very long flexible tenancy agreement so I decided to landscape it. It will benefit us for a decade and those that come afterwards too, like a rented allotment I think it’s worthwhile. The garden is on a steep hillside (sloping in two different directions) consequently I opted to build some terraces using a stacking croft brick system from Marshalls. I planted a row of Box hedging behind the walls to separate beds from newly turfed areas and threw in a few hundred late flowering tulips, alliums, Dutch Irises and wild gladiolus (communis subsp. Byzantinus).

Wall Terrace Beds – Tulips and Alliums

In 2017 it was the nature of things that late flowering tulips (Queen of Night, Catherine etc.) actually flowered early (mid-April) just as we were heading off for a family holiday to Devon! This early tulip display in our absence annoyed me almost as much as the fact it completely threw out my floral design plans for May/June. However they were still going strong when we returned and the alliums coming later with Irises simply actually extended the colours through into summer.

I had planted 25 mixed creeping Plox ‘Subulata’ in late 2016 on top of my new retaining walls. My intention was that they grow down across the bricks over time but they made slow progress in 2017 despite full sun and excellent drainage. Only the blue variety seem to have embraced the growing conditions. I’ve put in an order for ten more blue creeping phlox for my latest terrace wall. I may even replace some of the other varieties that are struggling.

MrsGrow very much enjoyed being able to pop outside and cut tulips and alliums for vases in the house. I also enjoyed entering a few mixed floral displays into the Westcott Village Flower show, achieving a couple of first and second place wins.

Mixed Wildflower/Perennials Experiment

I didn’t have the time (or budget) to complete a third terrace wall in Autumn 2016 so simply levelled it and supported the soil with some relocated rocks and a stacked row of removed turves that I needed to rot down anyway. At the Gardens Illustrated Festival in March I heard a fascinating talk from ‘Professor in Planting Design’ Nigel Dunnett on mixed wildflower & perennial planting. It was completely in keeping with some of the things I’d learned from a day with designer James Alexander Sinclair and on workshops at Great Dixter so I decided to attempt such a thing on terrace three. I knew the soil was ideal (poor) because I’d removed a lot of top soil whilst levelling it. Other soil that I was bringing down the garden (whilst levelling the top terrace) had also proved a terrible base for growing vegetables in 2015.

The mini wildflower meadow really did work and when in flower the mixture of wild flowers with perennials like Verbena Bonariensis and Eryngium was STUNNING. However I have to say it did look like weeds had taken over for a good couple of months before and after flowering. I was fine with that and the bees and insects loved it, butterflies and dragon flies frequented in abundance. It wasn’t terribly practical though, MrsGrow had a good moan about that aspect at least once a week. It was a good experiment but in 2018 the terrace will be turfed and planted with three additional cypress trees to add depth and structure.

New Top Patio and Raised Bed

We were already into summer by the time I got around to constructing a patio for MrsGrow to enjoy at the top of our hillside garden. Used paving slabs were provided free of charge by the in-laws and I laid them on top of a layer of hardcore and thick weed-control fabric. The soil in our garden is naturally sandy so it’s wasn’t necessary to go to crazy with deep foundations. I simply filled the gaps between the slabs with a concrete mix and over-watered with a watering can. 6 months later it’s still stable, no sinking or weeds popping up.

Due to the foundation line on the hillside retaining wall traversing the end of our garden (and those of our neighbours) I needed to build a deep raised bed beside the patio. This was no mean feat, so many tree roots had to be sawn off by hand. I spent a lot of time sieving out rocks and stones which I used as the hardcore beneath the patio area. I used a double row of sleepers to hold back the beds, they are held together with metal joiners as well as wooden posts which I concreted in across their fronts.

After adding a lot of compost and manure I planted the raised patio bed with a mixture of reds and yellows for late summer 2017 – Dahlias (Bishop of Llandaff, Taratahi Ruby) and Bright yellow perennial and annual Rudbeckia. I also planted a lot of grasses alongside purple Cordylines; Miscanthus sinensis ‘Ferner Osten’, Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ and Stipa tenuissima have added a Mediterranean feel to things. The display was OK but it was all a bit rushed, I am hoping that in 2018 my planning results in something a lot more impactful!

My Garden Plans for 2018

Most of my perennials (from the mixed wildflower experiment) have been moved to the patio terrace raised bed. All previous bulbs from 2017 were lifted from beds in the summer so that I had a clean slate for 2018 planting. I have just completed a new retaining wall for the third and final terrace which has taken me to around 40 square metres of raised flower beds across the hillside. Across all four walled beds I have planted a consistent mix of tulips, alliums, gladioli and Dutch Irises. Between 2000 and 3000 bulbs have gone in (yes my poor aching back). I’ve also added in a few Forget-me-nots which I hope will self-sow and naturalise across the garden. Other self-sowers that I encourage and relocate to desired positions are foxgloves, those have moved to the top of the garden to homes at the back of the deep patio bed.

All of the bulbs I have planted this year are perennial, I have decided that I will not lift them in summer 2018, instead I am going to let the garden ‘naturalise’ a bit over the next two years. This is partly an experiment to see what the display difference is year on year without my adding new bulbs. It’s also partly because I have TWO new half allotment plots in my portfolio now… I’ve a feeling I’ll be short on time! Hopefully my garden efforts over the past 18 months will keep MrsGrow happy and content for a couple of years.

New lower wall completed for 2018. Turfing to be done, three cypress trees to go in.


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About Author

Matt Peskett is GrowLikeGrandad (if you want to know why read 'About the Editor). He has a few 'heavy clay' allotments and is Chairman of the Dorking Allotment Holders Association (DAHA). Matt also has a medium sized 'sandy soil' hillside garden (Italian terrace designed) and enjoys photography - especially nature. Matt takes inspiration from gardens like Hidcote and Great Dixter and enjoys watching anything on TV presented by Monty Don or Louis Theroux.

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