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Belfast Garden August 2001 article

The cobbled circle in August 2001, with Buxus Sempervirens in terracotta pots around the edge.

Click image to enlarge

My home garden, a Belfast town garden, is located 1.5 miles from the city centre and measures approximately 40 foot square.

I moved to the house in November 1993. The house was one of a number built in the 1920's for managers of the "Lagan Vale Estate Brick and Terra Cotta Works Limited", a company that owned the land behind the gardens of the properties. This land was one of the sources for the clay from which Belfast red bricks were made, and hence the soil in the garden is also a natural heavy clay. I have improved this over the years by incorporating home made compost and home made leaf mould.

The back garden faces south east, and gets sun for most of the day. When I moved in it was almost a horticultural blank canvas. It comprised a lawn, which sloped downwards away from the house, bisected by a straight concrete path that ran from top to bottom. There were two old fruit trees (a pear and an apple) planted three feet apart in the bottom left hand corner and a small bed of roses to the left of the concrete path. Privet hedges provided boundaries at the bottom and on the left hand side, and a three foot high wire fence which had fallen down divided the garden from the neighbouring garden on the right hand side.

In order to establish if the garden had any hidden bulbs or perennials, and also because the house required a lot of work, the garden was left virtually undisturbed for almost a year. Before moving to this house I had lived in a terrace house with a backyard and so I took with me to the new house the "potted " garden which I had cultivated there. Many of these plants remained in their pots for the first year, although some were heeled in at the bottom of the garden (as a temporary measure) as they outgrew their pots.

Looking across the garden from the top left hand corner in July 2001, with the cobbled circle just visible.
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Planned unplanned

The style of gardening which I have been interested in for many years is that which attempts to mimic nature in its planting. The planting is designed to look natural or, as I prefer to say, it is "planned to look unplanned". This "planned unplanned" approach also contrasts the natural planting style against the planned formal hard landscaping of the garden. I have developed the garden over the last seven years in this style, and it continues to evolve.

Having lived with the garden for most of a year, I decided to get rid of the old apple tree which was being smothered by the much larger and more stately pear tree. I am unsure when this pear tree was originally planted, but it is sufficiently gnarled to give the impression that it may have been the first thing planted in the 1920's garden. The space occupied by the apple tree became a paved seating area using reclaimed concrete slabs. The spaces between the slabs were filled with a gravel to encourage self seeding by grasses and perennials. This seating area is now shaded by the pear tree. Directly beneath the pear tree is the only remaining part of the original lawn, measuring about six foot square. This small patch of lawn is abundant with snowdrops in early February, followed by snake's head fritillaries in April and May. During the summer, the grass is cut weekly using a push mower, but no weed killer is applied. As a result the lawn is not "bowling green" standard, but then daisies and clover seem to like it.

The shaded seating area in August 2001.
Click image to enlarge

The area behind the seating area was planted with shuttlecock ferns (Matteuccia struthiopterus), harts tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium), hardy geraniums (Geranium Phaeum "Mourning Widow", Geranium x cantabrigiense 'Biokovo', Geranium endresii "Wargarve pink", ), Alchemilla Mollis, Helleborus corsicus, Helleborus orientalis, Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium and Tanacetum parthenium 'plenum') and wild violets. Hawkweed (Pilosella aurantica) has colonised the gravel between the paving slabs.

The straight concrete slab path was re-laid to sweep diagonally from the top right hand corner of the garden to the bottom left hand corner. It passes, on the right hand side, a cobbled circle, nine feet in diameter with eight box balls in terra cotta pots around the circumference. This cobbled circle was laid three years ago to replace a circular lawn.

The rest of the original lawn was dug over and replaced with a "planned unplanned" planting of herbaceous perennials and grasses with a backbone of shrubs. Two of the grasses are Stipa tenuissima and Stipa gigantea, while the herbaceous perennials include Solidago (Golden Rod), Cephelaria Gigantea (Giant Scabious), Verbascum Chaixii Album, Verbascum Olympicum, Linaria purpurea and Geranium maderense. The broken wire fence on the right hand side was replaced with a six foot high panelled fence.

Looking diagonally down the garden from the top right hand corner.

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The garden now

The garden is now sufficiently mature to reflect the style that I had wanted. It is also a haven for wildlife including at least four frogs (although there is no pond), and a host of bees, hoverflies and butterflies (mainly small tortoise shell) in summer. In the recent RSPB national birdwatch day in February 2002, blue tits, great tits, coal tits, robin, greenfinches, chaffinch and male and female blackbirds, were recorded over the one hour survey time.

In winter the foliage of the perennials melts away to reveal the starkness of the hard landscaping against evergreen shrubs such as Leucathoe "Rainbow" and the box balls in pots. Striking verticals are also provided in winter by the seed heads and stems of Anenome japonica, verbascums, the giant scabious, perennial sunflowers and grasses. This contrast of seed heads and evergreens in winter against the hard landscaping is particularly pleasing. In summer, the planting is dominant but in winter the hard landscaping slowly and surely regains the spotlight.

Although the dense planting does inhibit weed growth in summer, this is by no means a labour free garden. In spring about half a day per week is spent tidying the garden, removing weed seedlings and moving plants. Any loss of planting as a result of winter weather is also an opportunity to rethink the planting design with a fresh mind and to shuffle the planting partners or introduce new plants. Any plants which have self seeded and are in the wrong place are lifted and either moved to a more appropriate position or potted up and given to friends.

The garden is also probably now at a stage where a critical eye is required to seriously edit the planting for the first time. For example, the hawkweed has moved so prolifically between the paving slabs in the shaded seating area that I will have to curtail its spread this spring. This will restore some order to the area and prevent it from looking merely overgrown. That is perhaps one of the secrets of this type of planting. Yes, the planting is supposed to look natural and the success is in managing the planting scheme rather than rigidly controlling it. Plants must be let self seed and move around, but there is a fine line between preserving this natural style of planting, and having a garden that just looks neglected. Recognising that crossover point is all important, and now is the time for me to step in.

Any gardener will tell you that a garden is never completed. As well as the ongoing work of editing the current planting, I intend to get rid of a large old shed this spring and create a further seating area in its place. This area will be approximately ten foot by five foot and as it faces south it will have sun all day. It will be a contrast to the shaded seating area. A plain rendered and painted block wall will be built as a backdrop to this new seating area and to create privacy.

Photographs from the current year (2002) in the garden will be posted to the web site in autumn. In the meantime, the following photographs show planting combinations in different areas of the garden over the past three years.

Narcissi under Cotinus Coggygria 'Royal Purple' with Skimmia Japonica 'Rubella' in the background. (March 2000).
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Rosa 'Gertrude Jekyll' with Alchemilla Mollis and Geranium maderense in the background. (July 1999).


Cotinus Coggygria 'Royal Purple' with Alchemilla Mollis, both bordering the cobbled circle. (July 1999).
Click image to enlarge

Click image to enlarge
Geranium maderense with the blue flowers and silvered buds of Catananche caerulea in the foreground, part of the planting scheme at the top of the garden (July 1999)

Pilosella aurantica ("Hawkweed") with Lilium pyrenaicum subsp. Ponticum ("Turks Cap Lily"). This planting is part of the scheme in the bottom right hand corner of the garden.
(June 2000).
Click image to enlarge

Click image to enlarge
Solidago (Golden Rod) provides a background to Cephelaria Gigantea (Giant Scabious), Verbascum Chaixii Album, Verbascum Olympicum, Echinops' Arctic Glow', Echinops 'Blue Glow' and Rosa Graham Thomas, in the top left hand corner of the garden. (August 2001).

Copyright A Walsh 2002-2007