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Small Is Beautiful

Article reproduced from Ireland's Homes, Interiors & Living June 2000 - Article by John Cushnie (BBC Radio 4's Gardeners' Question Time) - Original photographs By Ashley Morrison.

I had arranged to meet Adrian at his home in Belfast at 2.30 pm. I was a little early and thought that I had got the wrong address because the front garden is covered by a hard surface for car parking. There is no side garden but the surprise of the back garden was pure quality and It more than makes up for any lack of space.

Adrian took over the house about five years ago and describes the rear garden as a sloping grass area with a centre path and a large pear tree growing in a heavy clay soil. The pear tree remains - but only because it provides some shade- not for the fruit that, while plentiful, ripens and rots in a few days. There is a rumour, spread by Adrian, that the framework of the pear tree is going to be used as a support for a climbing rose.

There are still parts of the original grass under the tree. It is only about ten feet by seven feet and the quality of the turf is poor, but it is laced with snowdrops and fritillaries. The whole garden is only about twelve yards by seven yards and well screened with a timber fence (painted moss green) and privet hedges.

Growing space is at a premium so pots are used for a whole range of plants such as pinks, hostas, lilies and grasses. There is even a pot of Bishop of Llandaff dahlias with their deep bronze red foliage. Some of the herbaceous plants and lilies are obviously tall and benefiting from support. This support is effective and simple and made by Adrian from metal coat hangers bent into shape and looped together. They get brownie points for not rusting.

The paving slab path steps down to the lower part of the garden and is overhung by plants of every hue, shape and size. It passes an eight foot circle of cobbles and I mean the old square setts lifted from Belfast streets, purchased by Adrian from a salvage yard and laid by himself. There are eight clay pots painted a bright blue and planted with box plants.

The association of plants is evident, with ladies mantle underplanting the smoke tree (cotinus) and the rich crimson foliage softened by the grey green leaves and sulphur yellow of the alchemilla.

At the end of the path, there is a superb specimen of purple-leaved Acer palmatum Dissectum Atropurpureum with Cosmos atrosanguineus (smelling of chocolate with deep crimson red flowers), closely separated by Sedum spectabile with its pale matt green foliage.

There is a buddleia, but Adrian had the sense to plant the variety Nanho Blue which is a compact growing variety with pale blue flowers. A recently planted clematis Duchess of Edinburgh is scampering along the timber fence, its large double white flowers sitting well out from the foliage. Ligularia stenocephala The Rocket, flowering at six feet, towers over the patio with its black stems and black yellow racemes of flower. The leaves are deeply cut.

Half-way down the garden I did a silly thing. I asked Adrian to name his favourite plant. There are three and they are families rather than varieties. Hardy geraniums come first with varieties like Kashmir White and a beautiful specimen of Geranium maderense with its enormous panicles of magenta flowers. Penstemmon are another favourite group, especially the ever-changing blue of Catherine de la Mare. Then there are the verbascums. V. chaixii Album has white flowers with mauve centres; V. Helen Johnson with its rusty brown flowers is a recent addition but, like me, Adrian is a bit disappointed with its staying power.

At the bottom of the garden there is the best example of Populus candicans Aurora, the variegated poplar, that you could wish for. It is pruned hard every year to build up a mass of young growths that produce the brilliantly coloured leaves and allows the height of the plant to be curtailed.

I am not into ornamental grasses but two stipa caught my eye. Stipa gigantea was making great effort with its six foot high oat-like panicles and S. tenuissima was like a low floating cloud with feathery buff-coloured panicles moving in the slightest breeze.

Right at the bottom of the garden there is a small sitting area complete with a table. It is secluded and very shaded and is defined by ferns, slug food (hostas) and hellebores. I suppose it could be called the quiet corner. By now the typical shower had become a downpour, so I had a quick look at the home-made compost that seemed fine and headed for the verandah.

We finished with a quick fire round of questions. Favourite rose? - Graham Thomas, a scented double yellow shrub rose. A plant grown for its scent? - Lavender, especially English Lavendula. A bulb you enjoy growing? - Alliums, any of them. A plant that you would like to buy? - Verbascum Olympicum which is one of the biggest of the mulleins with white woolly leaves and a clear yellow flowers. The plant you would least want? - Golden Leyland Cypress, and I must admit that what ever the garden is, it is not a garden for a 'Leylandii'.

As I drove away my final thought was that small can be interesting
and enjoyable, as well as beautiful.


Copyright A Walsh 2002-2007