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Plant Decoration

Herbaceous borders bring wonderful colour in summer but die down to next to nothing in the winter, so it is good to provide an evergreen structure of plants to get you through all the seasons. These can also contribute to the ‘architecture’ of the garden, creating levels, screens, and even sculpture. You can plan to have taller shrubs at the back of the borders, slowly graduating toward the front, or you can make more structured steps. You can arrange rows of small, lightly screening plants across the garden to create a living screen, and you can use specimen trees or neatly trimmed topiary as living sculpture.

The colour scheme can he planned against this basic structure. The decorative garden room is at its prettiest with plenty of colour. The structural shrubs and trees also can be chosen to make certain there is some colour all the year round — fruit trees for blossom in spring; shrub roses for summer colour and late-flowering clematis and wonderful berries, such as those of the pyracantha, in autumn, and of holly in winter. This display can he complemented by autumn-flowering bulbs such as colchicum, schizostylis, and cyclamen.

But the most variety of colours can be added with pots and containers. There is always a choice of seasonal colour at garden centres. By planting up in movable pots, you can easily put the colour where you want it and replant with new seasonal colour as the old blooms die.

Colour creates much more impact if it is kept to a theme — of blues and pinks, perhaps, or oranges and yellows. This theme can be strengthened with the use of paint and stain on nearby fences, garden buildings, furniture, or even the pots themselves.

Adding decorative colour

In a decorative garden, colour is very important. Not only can the paint you choose suggest mood and ambience, just as it does indoors, it can emphasize the colour scheme of the planting.

The surfaces you paint may be the house walls, walls of outside buildings, or the garden walls. Maybe you have a hopscotch of fencing and trellis work, all of slightly different woods and ages, that has resulted in a visual muddle. Paint them all in the same decorative finish, and you will have a much more coherent look. Or you may have newly erected trellis work that has a year or more to wait for a verdant covering of creepers. Paint it, and you will have a reasonable finish while you wait.

Colour can also be used to highlight areas. You may pinpoint an area destined for a particular colour scheme or you may wish to highlight the planting. Burnt-orange fencing would provide a stunning background for marigolds, while yellow picket would highlight the nodding heads of pansies. Painted fences and surfaces also lend colour throughout the year. They are particularly valuable in winter when many plants have died down.

Ideas with paint

Whether you want to paint your garden wall or a house wall that makes up part of the garden, there is plenty of inspiration to be had. Experiment not only with colour but with technique.

As well as straight colour, you can create depth by layering the colour. Try to add effects such as marble, stone, slate, or moss or by stenciling to a wall. The trick is to consider the scale of the garden.

These effects will have to be seen from much further away than they would be if used inside the house. Even a 10 m/30 ft garden is much larger than the average room, so everything has to be exaggerated a little.

An enchanting little pond, complete with fountain and cherub, adds colour and interest to a shady corner of the garden.

Although you may spend less time in the front garden, colourful plants growing by the door will create a welcoming impression.

Paint Practicalities

Any outdoor paint job has to be able to withstand a lot of beating from the weather, such as frosts, strong winds, torrential rain and the summer sun.

For this reason, it is best to use exterior-quality products. They are less likely to peel and flake, their colours are less likely to fade and they are specifically designed to protect the surface they are covering.

Alternatively, when decorating items such as pots and containers, which are not crucial to the garden structure, you can achieve a reasonably hard-wearing finish using a wider variety of paints over a primer, finished with a varnish.

Whatever you plan to paint or stain, it is important to use primers and varnishes that are compatible with each other, otherwise they may react adversely. Remember too that, if you have the patience and time, several thin layers of paint always produce a more enduring and better-looking finish than one thick one

Planning Your Garden

Simply moving a few plants is rarely enough to transform an uninspiring garden into something special. It is worth having a goal, a plan to work to, even if you have to compromise along the way. Bear in mind that you may be able to stagger the work and cost over several seasons, but having a well thought out design ensures the garden evolves in a structured way.

Use the checklist to clarify your needs, then decide in your own mind the style of garden you want. Make a note of mundane and practical considerations, like where to dry the clothes and put the refuse, plus objects that need to be screened, such as a compost area, or an unpleasant view.

Labour-saving tips

To minimize cost and labour, retain as many paths and areas of paving as possible, but only if they don’t compromise the design.

If you want to enlarge an area of paving, or improve its appearance, it may be possible to pave over the top and thus avoid the arduous task of removing the original.

Modifying the shape of your lawn is easier than digging it up and relaying a new one.

Garden styles

The garden styles outlined here are not exhaustive, and probably none of them will be exactly right for your own garden, but they will help you to clarify your thoughts.

Formal

Parterres and knot gardens: Shaped beds and compartments originally designed to be viewed from above. Knot herb gardens, such as ones based on intricate Elizabethan designs, can be stunning but are expensive to create, slow to establish and labour intensive.

Formal herb gardens: Easier to create than knot gardens. Seek inspiration from illustrated herb garden books -both old and new. It is easier to create one if based on a theme.

Formal rose gardens: Easy to create and can look good in first season. For year-round interest under plant with spring bulbs and edge beds with seasonal flowers.

Paved gardens: Particularly suitable for small gardens. Plant in open areas left in paving, up walls and in raised beds and containers.

Courtyard gardens: Floor tiles and white walls (to reflect light), together with some lush green foliage, an architectural’ tree or large shrub and the sound of running water will transform a backyard into a delightful courtyard garden.

A modern interpretation of an Elizabethan knot garden, with gravel and brick paving to keep weeding to a minimum

Traditional designs: A small formal garden, with rectangular lawn, straight herbaceous border plus rose and flowerbeds is a popular choice for growing a variety of summer bedding and other favourites.

Informal

Cottage gardens: The juxtaposition of old-fashioned’ plants and vegetables creates a casual but colourful look. Place brick paths or stepping stones through the beds.

Wildlife gardens: Even a tiny plot can attract small animals and insects. Planting must provide shelter and food, while a water feature will encourage aquatic wildlife.

Woodland gardens: Shrubs and small deciduous trees suit a long narrow garden and are effective for screening and dividing up the garden. Under-plant with naturalized bulbs, woodland spring flowers and ferns.

Meandering meadows: Where there is an attractive view, a sweep of grass between curved borders can merge with an unobstructed boundary. If the view is unappealing, curve the border round so that the lawn finishes beyond the point of view.

Decorative features

Barbecue

Beds

Borders, for herbaceous Borders, for shrubs Borders, mixed

Birdbath

Bright beds and borders: If plants are more important than design, use sweeping beds and borders with lots of shrubs and herbaceous plants to give shape. Use focal points such as ornaments, garden seats or birdbaths to create a strong sense of design.

Distant influences

Japanese gardens: Raked sand and grouped stones translate well to a small space, making a confined area appear larger. Plants can be kept to a minimum. Stone and gravel gardens: These materials can be used to create a dry-river bed feel. Minimal maintenance if you select drought-tolerant plants.

Functional features

Compost area

Garage

Tool shed

Necessities

Children’s play area Climbing frame

Clothes drying area Dustbin (trash can) area Sandpit

Swing

In most cities and urban environments, back gardens are small and shady, but these factors need not restrict the garden’s potential, as these great splashes of colour show.

Choosing a style

The most comfortable and visually pleasing gardens are usually the result of careful planning, even those with an informal feel to them. Formal gardens appeal to those who delight in crisp, neat edges, straight lines and a sense of order. Many traditional suburban gardens are formal in outline, with rectangular lawns flanked by straight flower borders, and perhaps rectangular or circular flower beds cut into them. Such rigid designs are often dictated by the drive for the car and straight paths laid by the house builder.

The informality of the cottage garden and the ‘wilderness’ atmosphere of a wild garden are difficult to achieve in a small space, especially in a town. However, with fences well clothed with plants so that modern buildings do not intrude, an informal garden can work even here.

Professional garden designers are frequently influenced by classic styles from other countries, especially Japan, but amateurs are often nervous of trying such designs themselves. Provided you start with the clear premise that what pleases you is the only real criterion of whether something works, creating a particular foreign style can be great fun. Adapt the chosen style to suit climate, landscape and the availability of suitable plants and materials.

CHOICES CHECKLIST

Before you draw up your design, make a list of requirements for your ideal garden. You will almost certainly have to abandon or defer some of them, but at least you will realize which features are most important to you.

Use this checklist of suggested features at the rough plan stage, when decisions have to be made… and it is easy to change your mind!

Herb garden

Lawn (mainly for decoration)Lawn (mainly for recreation)Ornaments

Patio/terrace Pergola

Pond

Raised beds

Summer house

Sundial

Vegetable plot

How to Buy Plants

Once you have established what plants will thrive in the conditions in your garden, you can prepare to make your selection with confidence. Plants are living, perishable things, and supplies will often fluctuate widely according to season and what the commercial growers decide to market. The condition of the plants is also never certain, though there are certain signs to look out for to ensure you are choosing a healthy specimen.

Plants are sold in different places, from supermarkets to nurseries, and they will have received different levels of care. Those sold on the same site where they were raised are likely to be younger and healthier than those which had to endure a journey to their destination. As they are transported, plants may undergo a period of drought, which will affect their growth.

Conditions at the point of sale also affect the health of plants: the longer they remain unsold, the more they will begin to suffer as the reserve of slow-release fertilizer in their pot runs out.

Nurseries are a good choice for specialized and more unusual plants, and expert advice on choosing and caring for them. The selection in garden centres is improving and they stock a wide range of plants.

Plant Health

Before buying a plant inspect it for signs of pests, disease and damage. Leaves should be free from holes, bitten edges, wiggly patterns across the middle, yellow patches (unless it is variegated) or brown spots, and they should feel firm and should not be floppy. Stems should also feel firm, with no signs of being eaten, and no small, oval, brown bumps (scale insects) on them. Look for signs of fungal attack, particularly the tiny coral-coloured spots of Nectria cinnaharina, a fungus that will attack both live and dead wood and can easily kill a young plant.

If the compost (soil mix) is covered with weed seedlings, moss or liverwort, the plant has most likely spent sometime in the same place and is likely to be under-nourished.

The plant may also be pot-bound, a condition in which the roots circle round and round inside the pot. The plant may find it hard to break this habit, leading to a poorly anchored plant that will be susceptible to being blown over in a high wind. The roots of a healthy plant will be fat and swollen, and white, yellow or chestnut-brown, but they should not be shrivelled or dark brown. Don’t be afraid to knock the plant out of its pot to inspect the roots.

Often, newly potted plants are on sale alongside ones from previous deliveries that have not yet sold; younger ones will establish such more quickly, even if they are slightly smaller to start with. Don’t be fooled – biggest is not best in the world of plants!

Aphids are the best-known plant pests. Greenfly and blackfly are the most common ones, but there are many species, some affecting the roots of plants rather than the leaves.

Some commercial growers supply plants by mail order. These plants are usually dispatched in lightweight but highly protective packages, and the quality is often quite high.