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Victorian Town Garden Article

The Brief for the Garden

The clients' front garden is typical of most Victorian terraced houses in Belfast. It comprises a strip of earth in front of a bay window, bounded from the pavement by a low red brick wall. The house and garden are close to the Belfast Botanic Gardens. As the clients love these gardens, their brief to me was to create a garden that brought the Botanic gardens into their front garden. They wanted a feeling on leaving the Botanic gardens that the planting in its lush and packed herbaceous and grass borders continued into the garden of their nearby house. The clients were also influenced by the gardens of Gertrude Jekyll and wanted a scheme that would include mainly pink and blue flowered plants, provide some year round interest and work with both the age of the house and the soft red of the brick from which it is made.

The town garden just after planting

The plot

The existing planting in the plot comprised an old straggly spotted laurel, an old hydrangea, bluebells (of the Spanish variety) and two very old roses. Some ferns were also found self seeded in various positions. The laurel was pruned hard back to encourage new shooting from the base. Once it re-establishes itself growth will be curtailed by regular pruning to produce a shrub about three foot high. One of the old roses with spindly growth emerging from a huge root stock was removed (after great effort) , as was the hydrangea. One unforeseen problem was the stump of an ash tree. The ash had self seeded in the garden and had grown up to the third floor of the house. While the clients had got the tree chopped down, the stump and roots remained. This proved to be problematic, and the roots (the same circumference as my arm) were finally dug out and pruned back to the stump with a pruning saw. The stump itself will be treated to remove it. The bluebells were all dug up and relocated to another corner as were the ferns. Double digging opened up the soil and it was improved with well rotted farmyard manure.


Given the size of the plot, (16 feet long by 2 feet wide) the space was not available to create a herbaceous border on a grand scale. Height too was a limiting factor ; tall plants were ruled out as the window sill is about 3 feet from the ground. A garden could be created, nevertheless, that gave the impression of a herbaceous border by using plants of differing heights, textures and form.


Plants were chosen on the basis of foliage and flower colour and habit. Foliage is mainly in various shades of green from glaucous blue-green to grey green and apple green, together with shades of burgundy as a contrast both to the green foliage and also the soft red brick of the house. In terms of habit, both of the geraniums and the Nepeta racemosa 'Walker's Low' are plants that will weave together and scramble through each other to create the feeling of a dense and natural planting. Despite its name, the nepeta will grow to a height of about 2 to 3 feet (60 - 90 cm). It has purple blue racemes of flowers carried all summer long and is popular with bees.
Geranium 'Brookside' has saucer shaped blue flowers which are profuse in late spring and appear intermittently until late autumn. Geranium 'Anne Folkard' has magenta pink flowers with a black centre. The flowers appear indigo in colour when opening if grown in a semi-shaded spot. This geranium has vibrant lime green foliage and will flower all summer long. Both the geraniums will reach about 2 feet (60 cm) in height.

Cotoneaster horizontalis was planted against the front of the bay window wall to provide a pattern of herringbone branches against the brickwork and also to provide autumn and winter interest with its red berries.

The Carex comans 'Frosted Curls' grass or sedge was used to provide movement and winter colour, and will reach a height of about 18 inches (45 cm). It matches the shape of the box ball in the front corner but the movement of the grass contrasts with the rigidity of the box. Gertrude Jekyll used grasses in her borders in the early twentieth century so they are not a new design feature of this type of planting. The hosta and astilbe are architectural plants, the astilbe especially being quite formal in shape. The astilbe chosen has burgundy leaves with a pink flower head that will provide good winter structure. The heuchera, which is relatively low growing at about 12 inches (30 cm), has chocolate coloured wavy edged leaves with a beetroot red underside and is evergreen. It has small spires of creamy flowers although these are insignificant compared to the dramatic foliage. The Vinca balcanica will scramble about at a height of about 6 to 12 inches ( 15 to 30 cm). This vinca is a profuse flowerer and has intense indigo blue flowers with narrow petals. These will be borne throughout late spring and summer.

The Lunaria rediviva (see "Plant Of The Month May 2003" page) was chosen for its deliciously scented white flowers that are washed with lilac and appear in late April and May. It is planted beside the front entrance for maximum impact.

The key plant in the scheme is probably the Sedum telephium 'Matrona'. This tall sedum (30 - 36 inches , 60 - 75 cm) contains all the elements of the brief : burgundy stems, glaucous blue green leaves and large flat mid-pink flower heads from late summer to late autumn. In addition with the seed heads left intact, it provides a stunning winter silhouette.

Where there is more than one plant of each species, the plants are staggered throughout the scheme rather than being planted in a group. This will create the feel of a Victorian herbaceous border with pockets of colour repeated at irregular intervals along the length and breadth of the garden.

Crucially, many of the plants are ones that can be seen in the herbaceous borders of Belfast Botanic Gardens, for example, the nepeta, the geraniums, and the sedum.

I used more plants than I would normally use for a plot of this size. This was to create the impression of a well stocked border and to create a sense of establishment. Although the plants are currently low in height, they will rapidly grow this year and meld to form a harmonious scheme. The planting may however need to be edited in year two or three. In the meantime the scheme will hopefully create the sense of a herbaceous border that has leapfrogged out of Belfast Botanic Gardens into a nearby garden.

The planting list

Planting List for the Victorian Town Garden

Number required
Planting Plan Key
Carex Comans 'Frosted Curls'
Geranium ' Brookside'
Geranium 'Anne Folkard'
Nepeta racemosa 'Walker's Low'
Heuchera 'Blackbird'
Sedum telephium ' Matrona'
Lunaria rediviva
Vinca balcanica
Hosta 'Halcyon'
Buxus sempervirens
Cotoneaster horizontalis
Rough layout of Planting Plan (from left to right of bay window)

Copyright A Walsh 2002-2007