Small Town Garden Ideas
Case Study 2
Whereas the first garden is rather deceptive, in that it is far more deliberately planned than it would appear and the plants are all carefully selected garden varieties, this second garden creates the illusion of being far removed from city life, as within it lies a pool with surrounding plants which could have been entirely natural.
The townscape is irrelevant in this delightful ‘wilderness within a garden’, shown in the photo (below right). The owner is a knowledgeable gardener who, as well as living a full professional life, also maintains a large allotment. Plants, carefully selected to take care of themselves, fill the space with well-judged abandon. The wildlife pool attracts frogs, toads, water snails and newts as companions for green tench. Hedgehogs and cats run free. The whole atmosphere is one of a semi-woodland natural pond which is unkempt but charming and gives little indication of the city surround.
In fact, the pond was made in what was originally a rather formal, small brick-walled garden. Mature fruit trees and a large pampas grass were all that existed, making an ordinary and unexciting plot. Instead of working out a design, the owner decided that a semi-wild pond would be far more attractive and interesting. There is no path or patio, just collections of shade plants under the trees and some unusual climbers allowed the freedom to compete over walls and up trees. The rest is grass.
With positive ideas of what was wanted from both the pond and associated bog garden, the owner did the work himself. A hole was dug nearly 60cm (2ft) deep and roughly 2.1m (7ft) long by lm (3ft) across. Allowance was made for the bog garden, which was to be as important as the pool. The shape appears to be random, but is basically an oval which is wider at one end than the other — simple shapes are always best. As a general rule, the bigger the pool the more likelihood there is of achieving an ecological balance and stable water temperature, although obviously in a small garden the size has to be restricted. As regards the position of the pool, even if the garden is small you should aim at a site which is not too shaded, with approximately four to five hours of sunlight on the water. Avoid trees immediately overhead, as falling leaves decompose in the water and no one wants a bubbling soup.
In this case, the water is not agitated in any way. There is no pump, but in case of flooding a run-off has been provided. A butyl liner extends beyond the pool edge, underlying the bog garden. Most of the edges are smoothly sloped, but the side facing the camera is a particularly gentle slope. The ‘shallows’ provide for marginal plants which need their feet in water but do not wish to drown. The owner did not want to add even a randomly paved edging, so the grass just merges into the bog, with the occasional group of pebbles. In fact, this is quite a difficult act to pull off — such an innocently natural look can only be maintained with some care and understanding. If you do undertake to make a pool yourself it is a good idea to read up on the subject first.
As regards the planting, there are very many options, but in this case the owner had a particular interest in indigenous plants, adding only a few garden varieties to create an interesting collection. Rheum palmatum ‘Atrosanguineum’ and the flag iris () provide the structural planting, with an orange-flowered mimulus, blue water forget-me-not (Myosotis palustris), water speedwell (Veronica anagallis aquatica) and North American pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata) adding colour. Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria syn. Spiraea ulmaria), deliberately planted, fosters the wild theme as do the bog bean (Menyanthes trifoliata), common lady’s smock (Cardamine pratense) and sweet flag (Acorns calamus). Interweaving along the edges, mixing with grass, are bog arum (Calla palustris) and tufted sedge (Carex acuta). In the water, pygmy water and arrowhead (Sagittaria sagittifolia) fight it out, though nature is certainly assisted by the knowledge of the owner.
This is an unusual pond, requiring a real interest in plants from both wild and garden sources. If you intend to make your own pond you do need to decide whether it is to be formal or informal, have flowing,or a still, reflecting surface, and whether to include a bog. Wildlife ponds can be very attractive, encouraging frogs, water snails and dragonflies, as well as supporting and newts. But, like wildlife gardens, they are actually much harder to create and maintain than the formal garden pool and do require that you are prepared to read a little, observe and learn from mistakes.
It is worth noting here that not all gardens need to be drawn up on paper to be attractive and successful. Certainly, working on paper can help to clarify intentions and avoid expensive mistakes, but not everyone works well in two dimensions and this should never prevent anyone from enjoying making a garden.
GARDENING WITH NATURE
Creating a wild garden within a small urban plot would be a way of denying the presence of the town, and making a garden that appears to regenerate itself with minimal interference does sound appealing. Many are tempted and wildare in vogue, but I have misgivings. Sweeps of meadows, cropped by cows, producing a mixture of delicately simple flowers with additions of more colourful poppies and cornflowers are part of the green movement. They have an air of charming naturalness which evokes a childhood that most of us in the late twentieth century never had. I suspect that nostalgia is as much a part of this as is any desire to preserve nature. Wild gardens can be very beautiful but can also be harder to manage than conventional gardens, and therein lies the problem.
What is a really wild garden?
It should mean brambles, ground ivy and nettles, all of which will provide cover for wildlife. It must relate to the type ofon which you garden, as truth to nature is an integral part of the concept. In the small garden space this can be acknowledged rather than achieved. The pool garden already described has successfully attracted dragonflies, insects and hedgehogs, despite being in the metropolis, proving that this is possible. Most people know which plants will attract butterflies and will choose plants with this aim in mind. But to create a rural museum within your plot does not necessarily mean that all the selected plants are beautiful — in the garden context, that is.
Part of the problem is that in the wild plants grow in massed drifts, as they have dispersed themselves, but scale is important in the small garden and drifts are not so easy to achieve. The other difficulty is that plants in the wild are very seasonally conscious. They have not been bred for extended flowering periods as have garden plants, so the scene can be disappointing for a large part of the year. Compromise and subtle planning could be the answer. In place of masses you could plant in small meanders, and in place of short seasons considered planning could create overlaps of seasonal flowering, by introducing a denser concentration of plants than one would find in the wild.
DESIGNING A NATURAL GARDEN
If you are particularly keen on a very rural look, I would suggest that you do design your plot, but so subtly that there is no evidence of this. You could create winding shapes, which sweep rather than wriggle, and if the other elements of the garden, apart from the plants, are chosen with care, like wood-chip or gravel paths, steps made from split logs and random-shaped boulders and slabs of local rock as features, the imagery will be complete.
You could provide a shade area for all the wild shade-loving plants like wood anemone, spurge, foxglove, wood violet, martagon lilies, creeping dogwood, bugle, asarum, wood garlic and so forth, with a canopy and backing of shrubs with hips and haws and old man’s beard (Clematis vitalba). Then perhaps include in the garden a sunny area, for which there are many choices, which could be enclosed with dog rose, guelder rose, elder and small willows.
But there are alternative ideas which could suggest a natural rather than a wild garden — ferns and grasses, for instance, could be very stylish alternatives. Both types of plant allude to the wild, yet both are luxuriously leaved for much of the year.
The patterns of grasses can be gracefully reflexed or proudly upright. They can be as tall as the pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) which can reach 3.6m (12ft), or very short like Festuca varia ssp scoparia. They may have fluffy panicles which catch the light like tufted hair grass (Deschampsia caespitosa), or gleamingly combed panicles like the Chinese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis), which is a great deal taller. Some are very blue like blue lyme grass (Elymus arenarius), a coarsely invasive grass if grown in sandy soil, or blue fescue (Festuca glauca). Then there are yellow-striped grasses like tiger grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’), which is also tellingly known as porcupine grass, or fully yellow grasses like ‘Bowles’ Golden Grass (Milium effusum ‘Aureum’). Also worth considering are Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’) and brown Carex comans, a small sedge about 45cm (1-1/2ft) high.
As you can see in the photo on the left, mixing grass-like perennials like Sisyrinchium striatum, irises, kniphofia and Schizostylis coccinea in amongst the grasses can add a dash of colour. Some tall, slender blue Campanula persicifolia or the flat heads of achillea varieties would also mix very well. In the photo graph, Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’ and Physostegia virginiana also look extremely effective, adding rich deep reds amongst their reedy companions.
In winter some of the grasses are parchment-pale, like Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Stricta’, or gracefully evergreen, like Carex albida which, though only 30cm (1ft) high, is a charming light green.The effect can be very beautiful if the virtues of the sedges, grasses and reeds are fully explored, and the result will be a lush garden style which is not wild but does refer very positively to nature rather than the city environment in which you may grow them.
Ferns also remind us of the countryside without actually being in the image of a wild garden. Like the grasses they have particular requirements as to soils, climate and site, so these are important starting points. They mix well with grasses but would also associate comfortably with acers, particularly green ones, and tall plants like foxgloves, mulleins and lilies. But if the ground is dampish, wonderful foliage contrasts with rodgersia, rheum, ligularia and hostas can be very effective, with a few ‘pretties’ invited such as dicentra, honesty, astilbe, primulas, irises, cimicifuga et al. With all these lush patterns, green hues and gently stirring foliage, the effect will be such that the urban surroundings do not get a look in.