The October Garden 2023 – ‘Creating Structure in the Garden’
As we move into October and the heart of autumn this year’s growing season is clearly coming to a close but there is still much to appreciate and, of course, to do in the garden. The autumn colours from leaves, fruits and late flowering perennials will be at their best this month and there will still be harvesting to be done in the fruit and vegetable garden.
In our own garden at the end of September Teresa and I, and the bees, have been especially enjoying the lovely sunflower Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ which never fails to please at this time of year, the gracefully fading flowers on the Hydrangeas and the striking orange of Rudbeckia. These are reliably good in September and into October but this year they have been added to handsomely by the Cosmos which was sown back in the spring and planted out in late May/early June. These have been flowering since July and have obviously enjoyed the summer even if we haven’t! Another summer plant which has really caught the eye this year is the bedding plant known as a Semperflorens Begonia . This is one of the fibrous rooted Begonias with quite small flowers in pinks, red and white and with either green or bronze leaves. We grow them in two small troughs on the edge of the patio in full sun and, as I write this in the last days of September, they are still full of flower and looking as good as they have all summer.
Looking back at past October blogs I see that in 2020 I was concentrating on the colours of autumn as well as suggesting the benefits of collecting fallen leaves and making leaf mould. The 2021 blog came from the gardens at Aberglasney in all their autumn glory and last October the blog was about trees in general and apple trees in particular. All these are still available on the Old Railway Line’s website under ‘News/blogs’, ‘show tags’ and ‘Monthly Guides’.
My topic for this October is how to go about creating ‘Structure in the Garden’, a key principle of garden design. The dictionary definition of structure ‘is the arrangement of, and relations between, the parts of something complex’. This is a particularly relevant subject at this time of year as it is in the winter months to come after the growth of spring, summer and autumn has largely disappeared that the basic structure of a garden is easier to see and, if necessary, to make changes to. There is little doubt that gardens are complex entities which, unless they are to become disorganised and even chaotic, need some form of structure to connect and organise the various parts to produce a calming, restful and interesting feel to the space as a whole. In many ways this comes back to an idea which we have explored before of creating in the garden a sense of harmony/unity by designing with certain themes in mind to link the various parts into the whole. To do this the gardener needs to consider how to use both the hard and soft landscapes to best effect. The hard landscape is basically about any non-living features of the garden and therefore includes such things as any buildings, paths and drives, patios, fences, walls, steps, pools, rock gardens, obelisks, arches, pergolas, arbours and gazebos. Some of these are about surfaces which help to give the garden structure in two dimensions as in a plan view but others are more about the third dimension, height, which is a vital aspect of creating structure. Without going into detail on the vast range of materials and styles available for the construction of these features it is worth just pointing out some basic principles which help us to use hard landscaping to produce structure and harmony in the garden. One key idea is to use materials which are in keeping with existing features such as the house or out-buildings for example brick, stone and wood and to repeat these in different parts of the garden rather than having too many different materials, colours and textures. Another important consideration is to keep the height dimension in mind at all times and to use hard landscaping to create permanent height features and variations. These are particularly valuable in the winter months when the height from the taller herbaceous plants is obviously missing.
Soft landscaping comprises all the plants in the garden and the way in which they are used. It includes a long list of plant types such as grassed areas, trees and conifers, shrubs, hedges and windbreaks, roses, climbers, ground cover plants, herbaceous perennials, annuals, biennials, bulbous plants, alpines, herbs, wild flowers, grasses and bamboos, plants in containers and water plants. In terms of creating structure in the garden in all three dimensions it is the larger of these plants, trees and shrubs, which are the most important particularly through the winter months. They can be used as focal points which attract and hold the attention of the viewer and as such are often referred to as ‘architectural plants’. They can also be used as the backbone or skeleton of the planting providing as they do size and colour all year round. Here conifers, most of which are evergreen, and evergreen shrubs make a particularly important contribution. A widely used ‘rule’ of planting to create structure is to use around one third evergreen to two thirds deciduous trees and shrubs. These two plant types, of course, offer much more than just size they also come in a wide range of outline shapes often referred to as ‘forms’. Just think of all the tree shapes which we often take for granted but which can create great interest and variety within the garden before even considering the beauty they offer in terms of leaf and flower colour- round or lollipop, spreading, fastigiate or columnar, conical or pyramidal, weeping and prostrate. All these basic shapes apply equally to the shrubs but without the trunk element. When you add to this the element of ‘deciduous’ and ‘evergreen’ the number of variations available to the gardener increases enormously. Of course, the attributes of trees and shrubs don’t end there as they also offer great variations in terms of the texture of their foliage, the density of their canopies and the colours of their leaves, trunks, branches and stems, not forgetting that many of them, albeit for a limited time period, produce wonderful flowers, some with fragrance, and often followed by colourful fruits. For a much more detailed look at some of my suggestions for useful trees and shrubs for garden situations I refer you to two earlier blogs. ‘Trees in the Garden’ can be found under the ‘Garden Tips’ tag and, for some reason, ‘My 12 Favourite Shrubs’ can be found in the ‘Monthly Guides’ section on the Old Railway Line’s website. My list was Berberis, Buddleja, Camellia, Choisya, Cistus, Erica and Calluna, Hydrangea, Philadelphus, Potentilla, Rhododendron and Azalea, Spiraea and Viburnum although, as I wrote at the time, I could have easily picked another set of twelve!
Basically what I am saying is that for a garden to have a structure which holds its different parts together in some organised way trees and shrubs are a major ingredient to be used alongside various aspects of hard landscaping. As with many concepts it is often easier and clearer to illustrate them with actual examples and for that reason I include two such examples which, although on very different scales, I believe follow some of the basic principles of good garden design. I begin with a garden which, over the last few years, I have got to know quite well and you won’t be surprised to know that this is the garden at Aberglasney. For those of you who also know it either from your own visits or possibly from my blogs it is clearly a garden made up of several parts including formal walled gardens, beech and oak woodland, an ‘asiatic’ hillside, a lake and a ‘Sunken’ Garden all of which are quite different. However, they are all held together and given structure by both their hard and soft landscape features. Two hard landscape features which are clear to see are the beautiful stone walls together with the stone out-buildings and the gravel paths both of which are used throughout the gardens and thus help to bring unity to the different parts. Other hard landscape features in terms of actual structures are also used to great effect and I refer here to the use of repeated arches to create plant tunnels in the Rose Garden, the Crab Apple tunnel in the Lower Walled Garden and the Wisteria Arches in the Sunken Garden.
Stone walls and gravel paths link different areas as do repeated structures such as the Crab Apple tunnel
All these provide height and interest all through the year as the plants change with the seasons but the structures themselves also provide a sense of permanence and in a way are beautiful in their own right. These features also illustrate the use of hard and soft landscaping together to great effect. Of course, there are examples all over the gardens of the wonderful use of plants but the ones that form the basic structure and hold the whole garden together are the trees and large shrubs in all their great variety of shapes, sizes colours and textures. Many of these are mature specimens but others have been added more recently to provide more focal points and links between the different sections of the gardens.
Structure and harmony of design can also be seen within the individual sections of the gardens and this is particularly true of the Upper Walled Garden designed by Penelope Hobhouse in 1999. Here the formality of the layout she created reflects the historic past of the Aberglasney estate and her inspiration came from a seventeenth century design based on a central path system laid out in the form of a Celtic Cross. This geometric design containing the three elements of lawn, gravel paths and flower beds and borders is contained within the rectangle of the old stone walls and is a wonderful example of how a pleasing structure can be achieved by a combination of hard and soft landscaping. This structure is enhanced further by the use of the repeated clipped yews and originally by the low box hedging recently replaced by a low hedge of dwarf Rhododendron. These are all striking features even at the height of summer with all the wonderful plant growth and colour which surrounds them but in the winter they take centre stage on their own and clearly demonstrate how to create a structure with all year round interest.
For my second example of an attempt to create a garden with a structure that links its different parts together to form an interesting and organised whole I am going to look even nearer to home and that is our own rear garden in West Wales. Of course, it is on a completely different scale to that of Aberglasney but still, I like to think, illustrates some of the principles of garden design and perhaps is a more relevant example for the amateur gardener with a more modest plot of land.
It is not large and is basically rectangular in shape about 20 metres long and 15 metres across with outbuildings on the eastern side- a garage, a ‘Ty Bach’, a large shed which Teresa and I like to call a ‘studio’ and a small lean-to greenhouse. As you can imagine although small it has a lot of plants in it and this makes it all too easy for any garden to become rather jumbled and even chaotic making it even more important to have a good background structure in place. The areas within the plot include a sunny patio, a gravel bed, a shady (in the morning at least) paved and gravel area, a lawn area containing a small pond and various beds and borders and a small area of raised beds for vegetables. Nearest the rear of the house which faces south is the gravel and partly paved patio with lots of plants in containers including some of my bonsai trees. Gravel was chosen not only because of its colour variations, lovely ‘crunching’ sound, relatively low cost and its permeability but also because it ties in with the pebble dash walls of the house. The patio leads down a small step to the second gravel area in which most of the plants are in the ground and which has two slate, stepping stone paths leading through it. The two areas are obviously linked together by the use of the same gravel but are very different in the way they are planted. They are separated by an open ‘fence’ of posts and rope and some vertical sections of planks to give a shingle beach-like feel. At the eastern end of the rope fence there is an arch leading through to the shady seating area with an arbour seat, the top of which mirrors that of the arch, a bird bath and the rest of the bonsai trees on low stands. Again this is clearly a different area to the main patio and is separated from it by the arch and rope but the two areas are still linked together by the gravel and the bonsai. Likewise this second seating area and the planted gravel area are separated by a line of bonsai trees on a large slate stand but are also linked by the hard landscape features of gravel and slate. From the gravel bed one of the slate stepping stone paths leads down into the lawn area and the use of our local slate is continued in the stonework of the waterfall into the pond, the pond edging and in a slate monolith within the lawn. The slate links these two very different areas in terms of hard landscaping leaving the main links to be made by the planting in the beds and borders as well as in and around the pond itself.
Finally before looking at the main structural features in terms of plants I will just mention some more detailed uses of hard landscaping which we like to use around the garden. The most obvious ones are the two wooden obelisks, one on the western side and the other in the south eastern corner both of which at this time of year are literally buried by a pair of Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ which they attempt to support! In the winter, however, they are much more prominent and I plan to add a third to support a large Helenium in one of the lawn beds. This repetition of tall, yellow-flowered plants on matching obelisks helps to create both structure and unity. On a smaller scale we also like to use metal sculptures/supports throughout the garden in various designs such as ferns, poppy heads and cow parsley seed heads which come through the planting and offer another layer of interest particularly through the winter.
As far as the structure from soft landscape is concerned as I have already suggested it is mainly provided by trees and shrubs, some of which we inherited while others we have added over the last few years. Those within the plot serve to create height, form and shape, shade, flower and leaf colour and texture as well as producing hidden areas beyond them. This idea of not allowing all of the garden to be seen in one view is important in terms of creating an element of surprise and discovery in any garden. In a rectangular plot this is not always easy but the use of small trees and large shrubs part way down the garden is one way of achieving it. Another way, of course, is to use structures such as fences, trellis, hedges and walls across parts of the garden to ‘hide’ some areas beyond. For us the main plants which do this are the ornamental cherry, Prunus ‘The Bride’, with next to it, to give a contrast in foliage colour and texture, the purple-leaved elder, Sambucus ‘Black Lace’, and on the opposite side our large Buddleja. The trees and larger shrubs on the boundaries of the garden also provide all of these important features as well as others such as giving a variety of shapes and sizes as well as great habitat for ‘our’ birds. However, large ‘boundary’ plants can do so much more for the gardener in blocking views which are not desirable and at the same time framing views which are. This idea of making use of interesting features and views beyond the garden is yet another principle of good design. For example, to the south of our plot is an orchard in which our neighbour keeps chickens. Our two ‘lollipop’ conifers hide from view some of the nearer chicken coops but we still have views of the apple trees beyond partly by keeping the conifers reasonably low but also by planting trees with lighter canopies which we can see through. This use of the ‘borrowed landscape’ works even better if the end boundary of the garden is hidden from view so that it is difficult to see where the garden ends and the landscape beyond begins. In our case this is a not particularly attractive brick wall which we attempt to hide behind low shrubs and ferns and for most of the year it is not particularly noticeable. Another good way of bringing the borrowed landscape into the garden is to try to link the inside with the outside by the use of planting. In our case we have done this with the use of a Crab Apple tree on the one side to blend in with the apple trees beyond and a Silver Birch on the other to link in with some taller trees at the far end of the adjoining hedge line. Finally let me sing the praises of a very different type of soft landscape which is excellent at linking different areas together but is often ignored because most of the time we just use it to walk on- yes, the lawn! This is a brilliant linking surface for bringing structure to the garden. At Aberglasney it forms an important part of the design in the Upper Walled Garden and back at home we use it to link the bottom of the garden back to the main patio and house by wrapping it around the south western corner, the back of the Buddleja and the side of the gravel garden. It serves the added purpose of leading up to the vegetable area which is tucked away down the western side of the house out of sight.
I hope that some of the above ideas have got you thinking about your own gardens and possibly about making some changes particularly as you begin to see the structure of your own plots more clearly as it is literally ‘laid bare’ as the winter arrives.
The RHS recommendation for the best ‘bee friendly’ plant for October is, perhaps to some people, a rather surprising one but when you look at this plant at this time of year it is easy to see why it was chosen- Ivy (Hedera). The upper part of ivy plants where the light levels are higher produce large numbers of yellow-green flowers in rounded clusters in the autumn and they are a great source of food for not only bees but also many other insects that are on the wing at this time of year. Other suggestions include the Devil’s Bit Scabious (Succisa pratense), Bistort (Bistorta officinalis) a native perennial, perennial wallflowers such as Erysimum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’, the semi-evergreen shrub Abelia x grandiflora and the Strawberry Tree, Arbutus unedo.
This month marks the final talk of the year but they will resume, all being well as my mother used to say, in March 2024 and details will appear nearer the time on the Old Railway Line’s website. However, I will continue to write a monthly blog over the winter period on plants and any gardening topics which catch my eye and please don’t forget that at the end of each blog there is an opportunity to make any comments or to ask any questions.
Until then enjoy all the delights which autumn has to offer and get out into that garden as much as you can- you know you want to!