Garden Design, Gardening, Jorge, Plants, Watering

Reducing water use in the garden is a no brainer as it saves both the environment and money, leading to lower energy bills. Surprisingly, for a country with supposedly so much rain, the UK’s water supply is under severe stress due to excess demand that has taken its toll on our rivers. This year, there are fears the UK could be heading for a summer drought with rainfall in April 50% below average.  To solve this problem we need to improve water efficiency and doing so in the garden can be extremely enjoyable as it requires nous and experimentation.

Create a water thrifty garden

I recently visited the Cambridge University Botanical Garden, and saw a section comprised of plants that require no watering. The accompanying material described the fascinating ways plants have adapted to arid environments, such as how species of cacti reduced their leaves to spines and adopted spherical forms as to lower their volume to surface ratio, decreasing water loss.

Scientists have identified four strategies such plants use for coping with drought: escaping, evading, enduring and resisting that is described in detail here. Put succinctly, the first two strategies involve restricting growth and reproductive activities to the wet seasons, while the latter two involve reducing transpiration and growth (often through restricting photosynthesis) as to subsist in the heat.

Various morphological and physiological adaptation have allowed cacti to be extremely frugal in their usage of water.

Your own water thrifty garden (or section of the garden) doesn’t have to be made of just succulents or cacti, but can include many familiar plants, and even crops, creating a garden rich with colour and form, but with less maintenance. There are lists of drought resistant plants online and there is great guide to designing a stunning water wise gardens that can be found here.  

Creating such a garden will involve a some trial and error, but there some general practices that can be followed:

  • Permeable paving is a must as it allows water to percolate into the soil below, feeding your plants’ roots. With non-porous materials water will sit on top and evaporate.
  • Divide your garden into hydrozones with plants with similar water needs together. This will allow you to water more efficiently.
  • By using less fertiliser, your plants will grow slower and use less water.
  • Water less, but thoroughly, watering the entire root system. You can gauge how well the water is penetrating through pushing a pipe into the soil (it will move more easily through wet soil).
  • Sometimes it can be difficult to gauge when to water. This can be ascertained by digging into soil. If the soil below the topsoil is moist, there may be no need to water. If it is dry, it’s time to water. It is important to factor in certain soils such as sandy that will feel more dry and clay that will feel more damp. Although, the ultimate measure is your plant’s leaves: darkening or drooping may indicate water stress.
  • Gauge your soil type. Some soils (clay) are better at holding moisture, and can be watered less frequently (but with more water), while others will need frequent watering (sandy soils).
  • Water in the morning and evening when less water will be lost to evaporation.
  • Dig channels, basins, or funnels to avoid run off.
  • Mulching, either with organic or inorganic materials (gravel) will help maintain soil moisture and protect soil life from the sun’s rays.
  • Forgo turf. A perfect lawn is difficult to maintain and will require constant watering in the summer months.
  • Funnel rainwater from your roofs to waterbutts. A simple modification to your guttering will provide much needed water in times of drought.
  • Much of the water your household uses is good to reuse in the garden. Greywater recycling has the additional advantage of reducing the water sent back to water companies, which sometimes ends up in rivers, destroying the ecosystem.
By far the best way to reduce water use, this simple modification to your drainpipe will provide thousands of litres of water year on year.

Hügelkultur beds

Hügelkulturs are raised beds constructed from rotten logs overlaid with organic matter and soil. They aren’t enclosed and therefore slope; henceforth the name: hill/mound (hügel) culture (kultur). Hügelkulturs can significantly reduce water use as the decaying wood acts as a sponge, soaking up rainwater that it slowly releases back into the soil. The beds are so effective that after the first year, there will be no need to water your crops for many years, provided the bed is of a certain size.

Constructing a hügelkultur is relatively simple, but they have to be of a certain height (between two to six feet). The height is important as it determines how effective it will be at holding water. In general, a six foot bed will require no watering after the first year, while a two foot one will hold moisture for three weeks. Upon construction, a bed will begin shrinking, and a seven foot bed will become six foot, so they should be constructed higher than the desired height. To avoid excessive compaction of the soil, and to maintain good aeration, it is recommended that you build your beds with steep sides (45 degrees).

A hugelkultur bed with cds to scare away birds. Picture credit: Maseltov (2005) licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0.

Certain trees are unsuitable as some trees are allelopathic, that is, will harm your crops with allelochemicals that will persist in the soil. Others take too long to rot. Most tree logs should be fine, and there are lists of allelopathic trees and scrubs online, so do some research. Known trees to avoid include include cedar, black locust, black cherry and black walnut. Excellent species to use include alders, apple, cottonwood, poplar, willow, and birch.

Before building your own bed, it is worthwhile to decide on whether you want to construct it entirely above ground or in a shallow trench (about two feet deep). The latter, lower in a ditch, will not impose on the landscape and will be easier to construct. (Try throwing soil six feet high!) It will also save on digging, as you can reuse the materials acquired when digging the trench, and not dig up other sections of the garden. Building above ground is preferable if you already have materials on hand, or find digging difficult. Constructing on top of sod has the additional advantage in that once the plant matter breaks down it will produce nitrogen for the soil.

hügelkultur beds

Once you have decided upon the above, simply pile your rotten wood, whether it be logs, sticks, timber or chippings, with the biggest at the bottom. Then give it a good drenching. (This will aid decomposition.) Fill in the gaps with kitchen waste, grass, leaves and manure. (Adding organic matter is useful as during decomposition wood will both take in, and then release nitrogen, so it is possible that the soil may be nitrogen deficient at points.) Then add a layer of sod upside down. (You can acquire turf when building a trench. If you have none, just use soil.) Next comes more soil as so the wood is fully covered. The degree the wood is encased is a matter of preference, although anything from a few inches to half a foot works best. Finally, top it off with mulch such as straw that is traditionally used.

Now your hügelkultur bed is complete, it is recommended that you start planting to prevent erosion. (Henceforth, it is useful to construct in time for the growing season.) Over time the wood will decay into rich humus, but at first, the soil will be fairly dense, so certain crops may be unsuitable for planting in its first year. Great crops to plant in this time include members of the cucurbitaceae family such as squash, melons and pumpkins.

Jorge at PrimroseJorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!

His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.

Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.

See all of Jorge’s posts.

Decoration, Garden Design, Garden Furniture, Gardening, Geoff Stonebanks, How To, Planters, Plants

My multi-award winning garden, Driftwood, is located by the sea in Sussex, on the coast between Brighton and Eastbourne. Over the years it has seen 14500 visitors and raised £76000 for charity. Last year it featured on BBC Gardener’s World and was a finalist in Gardeners’ World Magazine, Garden of the Year Competition too. Every year it is a challenge to create a variety of garden rooms that looks a little different, so the many returning visitors see something new and fresh. In order to create a flexible and fairly easy to change garden, I’ve always used terracotta containers of all sizes. I’ve probably got a collection of over 150 now. I’ve never been keen on plastic ones, they just don’t look at home in the garden, whatever the colour. OK I hear you say, the advantage is that they are not as heavy as the real thing, but there really has never been any competition for me, despite the weight! Now roll on the years, I’m 64 this month and I’ve been forced to reconsider how I create a different look in the garden this year. I’ve been using a trolley in recently to move containers around , but even that has started to get more difficult, especially in a garden on a slope with several steps to negotiate.

driftwood garden

So, this year I decided I needed to try and ease the burden, by investigating some lightweight pots that still looked like terracotta. The obvious place to check on line was Primrose, as they seem to stock everything anyone could need for the garden, and I have purchased quite a few things from them over the years. 

Two areas of the garden that rely very heavily on the use of containers, are these central steps in the garden and the patio area at the back of the house, which resembles a wall of plants on either side, like corridor of plants!

On investigation, I found what looked like the perfect solution! The fibre clay containers seemed to fit the bill perfectly for the steps, as I needed to find ones that were the right size to sit perfectly on the brick steps. They look absolutely at home, even before they have been filled with annuals for the summer season. These containers are all 30 cm tall and will work well, creating the waterfall effect I need to achieve. Look at last years results to see what I aim to create.

Fibrecotta Troughs

On the other hand, at the back of the house, one of the features I had within the wall of flowers was an old Victorian wooden cart which sat under a large potted camellia. On moving it to tidy up last month, it disintegrated and I’m left with the 2 axles and a side panel. I therefore needed to fill a large space, so two fibre clay containers, the tall one 64 cm tall and the lower one 37 cm tall. They look amazing in the space already . Granted, these are so big they will probably never be moved but all the others are perfect for ease of movement each year as needed. I also needed 3 troughs to sit on tiered shelving as part of this area of the garden. The 3 from Primrose fitted perfectly, which will also make life a lot easier. Just imagine how they will look when we open the garden gate to our first visitors on the 11th June. The garden is open 14 times for public days this year but also by arrangement from 1st June until 3rd September. If you live around Sussex, or are planning holidaying in the area this year, why not come and visit the garden yourselves. Full details can be found at www.driftwoodbysea.co.uk 

Look out for the next blog this Summer, so you can see what the containers look like when our visitors view them in the Summer.

Geoff StonebanksGeoff Stonebanks lives in Bishopstone, near Seaford in East Sussex and spends all his time gardening and fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support. Using his multi award-winning garden, Driftwood, he has raised over £76,000 for various charities in 7 years, £40,000 of that for Macmillan. The garden, which first opened to the public in 2009 has featured on BBC2 Gardeners’ World, Good Morning Britain and in many national and local media publications. In his spare time, Geoff is also the National Garden Scheme’s Social Media & Publicity Chair as well as an Assistant County Organiser & Publicity Officer in East & Mid Sussex.

Brian Rees, Decoration, Garden Design, How To

When you have a standard fence, it might seem too staunch or generic next to your artistically designed home and lawn. To help your fence match your design ideals without building a new one, there are several amendments that can be made without using a lot of tools. Although some of these project ideas are more advanced than others, all of them are suggestions that can become the curb appeal solution you have been looking for.

Fence in garden design

Beyond a simple coat of paint

Although adding a fresh coat of white paint to any fence makes it look clean, the white color might not fit in as well with your overall curb appeal as well as another one. Instead, consider using an exterior paint that will provide contrast against your current house paint color. For solid wooden fences you can also create a mural effect by using each individual fence post as one solid canvas.

Using the power of zip ties and decorations

Many fences cannot withstand a lot of extra weight from items hanging on them without shifting over time. However, decorations can be placed on the ground and leaned against two fences with ease. To create some extra security, use zip ties to hold the decorations in place. Good examples are large wooden stars that are repeated in a pattern along a fence in order to provide decorations that are appropriate for the lawn.

Having fun with DIY molded concrete features

Decorating a brick, stone or masonry fence may not be easy until you get a taste of custom concrete lawn decorations. In many instances, molds can be purchased online, and making a small batch of concrete is easily done with a bucket and a stick. Once the concrete is poured into the mold and sets, the end result is a decoration you can use for your current stone fence. In addition to plain concrete finishes, you can also paint concrete.

Creating a false hedge or window

When you need a strong fence but hate the way it looks, putting something in front of it is often the best solution. For example, by soaking long twigs, you can weave them onto poles to completely conceal your current fence to create a look that resembles ordered bramble. Other ways to conceal a fence include using strips of canvas fabric to hang on the fence as if they were curtains hiding a large door or window.

Decorative screening rolls

In the same vein, you can also get rolls of decorative garden screening to attach to your fence. Simply fix them in place and your existing fencing will be hidden, replaced by something much more attractive. It’s great for quickly creating a different feel, such as using bamboo screening to enhance an oriental theme or willow for an English country garden.

bamboo screening

Using ropes to create decorative effects

If you want your fence to create a visual backdrop but do not have a lot of money to spend on something that will get stolen or will blow away, consider buying some rope and doing some macrame. While it might take some tinkering with cheaper nylon rope to get the design you want, there are many simple knots that can be beautiful decorations for fences when the right type of rope or silk cord is used. Along with making knots, other items can be used to cinch two pieces of rope together to create a netted or quilted effect. For a more dramatic effect, use a larger diameter of rope.

Choosing the right creeping plants

When you have a fence that is difficult to decorate and local neighborhood housing codes deny your ability to decorate your fence in the way you want, the only remaining option is to pick something that will grow into and over your fence. Instead of picking a typical rosebush or boxwood hedge, consider using other types of unexpected plants that give you the height you are looking for. Good choices include newer types of grasses as well as classics like bamboo or Bermuda grass.

Hanging baskets on fences with no plants

Do you have a fence that looks boring and also hangs out in the dark all night? You can kill two birds with one stone by decorating a fence with hanging baskets, a but instead of putting plants inside of them, strings of LED lights can be used. In addition to metal hanging baskets overflowing with LED lights, there are also larger rectangular planters with open framing that can allow for more creativity when filled with outdoor LED light strings.

Using bamboo poles to create curb appeal

One of the hardest fences to decorate is the chain-link fence. While some chain-link fences have decorative plastic woven into the metal frame, these pieces soon crack, fade or become displaced. A better and sturdier solution is to weave pieces of green or freshly cut bamboo into the chain-link fence. If weaving the bamboo is not working, using string to tie bamboo to the chain-link fence is often just as beautiful to onlookers.

Brian ReesBrian Rees is a media relations representative for Exterior Expressions. In his spare time, he enjoys writing, music, and spending time outside.

Dakota Murphey, Garden Design, Gardening, Plants

It’s ironic that one of the most influential men in English gardening history was actually Irish. William Robinson was born in 1838, and studied horticulture at the National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin near Dublin. As a teenager, he worked at a grand garden in Waterford, then on the estate of an Irish peer, before moving to London in his early twenties.

Gravetye Manor Hotel
Photo by Nigel Freeman

His job at Regent’s Park – looking after hardy plants and wildflowers – must have had a major influence on his gardening predisposition, and Robinson soon became a vociferous opponent of mixed herbaceous borders of hardy perennial plants and the strict, formalised Victorian gardens of planted-out bedding arrangements.

At 29, Robinson began working for the influential magazine, The Gardener’s Chronicle, and in 1871, he launched his own magazine, The Garden. He also started writing gardening books, of which The Wild Garden (1871) and The English Flower Garden were the most successful. First published in 1883, The English Flower Garden went on to become one of the world’s best-selling gardening books of all time.

William Robinson changed the face of English gardens, turning his back on the rigidity of flower garden design at a time which had, he noted, ‘thousands of plants set out in formal and geometrical array, the result, a bad carpet’. His ideas about growing hardy perennials in mixed borders to create a more natural look were radical at the time and were directly opposed to the Victorian practice of planting numerous annuals in large formal blocks. Robinson even criticised the Garden of Versailles, calling it ‘terrible’!

Robinson was most vocal against ‘pretend’ Italian and French gardens, standard roses, and other ‘tricks’ common in garden design at the time. He preferred, instead, to use close-packed plantings of perennials and groundcovers that expose no bare soil; alpine plants in rock gardens; and the liberal use of native plants and hardy perennials. These ‘wild’ plantings furthered Robinson’s ideas of a garden being one that blends into the larger landscape of the water’s edge, the meadow and the woodland.

In 1884, using income and royalties from the magazine and his books, together with money from some property deals, Robinson bought Gravetye Manor, an Elizabethan house and farmland near East Grinstead in West Sussex. This is where he lived until his death, planting, experimenting, writing and acquiring more land – eventually he owned more than 400 hectares.

Much of the estate had been managed as a coppiced woodland in which Robinson planted huge drifts of cyclamen, scilla and narcissus (in 1897 alone, he planted somewhere in the region of 100,000 narcissi). On the edges of the woods, and in cleared spaces, he oversaw plantings of lily, Japanese anemone, pampas grass and acanthus, together with hundreds of shrubs such as stewartia, nyssa, and fothergilla.

In flower beds closer to the main house, he planted red valerian, which he allowed to spread naturally around paving stones and staircases. Under the trees that surround the lake, he planted thousands of daffodils that in spring present a truly amazing sight.

William Robinson
Photo courtesy Gravetye Manor Hotel and Restaurant

In the first chapter of The English Flower Garden, Robinson compared gardening to art, and wrote: ‘The gardener must follow the true artist, however modestly, in his respect for things as they are, in delight in natural form and beauty of flower and tree, if we are to be free from barren geometry, and if our gardens are ever to be true pictures. And, as the artist’s work is to see for us and preserve in pictures some of the beauty of landscape, tree, or flower, so the gardeners’ should be to keep for us, as far as may be, the living things themselves.’

In 1899, Robinson extended the house, adding stone walls which were the perfect backing for perennial beds and a formal garden. A short distance below the house, he created a wildflower meadow and also planted hundreds of trees. Among these is a handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata), which is one of the oldest and largest in Britain.

The extraordinary walled vegetable garden he created is oval-shaped, south-facing, and covers an area of nearly 1 hectare. Walled gardens are known to be substantially warmer than the ground outside and at Gravetye the difference is around 3-4 degrees Celsius.

Unfortunately, when Robinson died in 1935 at the extraordinary age of 96, the gardens were neglected until the 1950s, when Gravetye Manor was opened as a hotel by Peter Herbert, who worked on renovating the garden until his retirement in 2004.

The new head gardener, Tom Coward, is following in Robinson’s footsteps, ensuring colour and ‘wildness’ in the formal and informal flower beds from late March until the end of October, and overseeing some much-needed restoration projects.

Garden enthusiast, Dakota Murphey, wrote this article. Working alongside one of the UK’s leading garden designers, Andy Sturgeon.

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