Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Planting up is a nerve-wracking job.

Most of this went in 3 years ago, some 2. Mostly filled out nicely. Its actually a north-facing slope but gets sun for most of the day. Grass is Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’
Planting up a client's garden the day before yesterday. The third winter I have done this particular one. Good design jobs go like this – it’s an illusion, partly fostered by TV design and 'make-over' programmes that you can go in and plant up, and before you can say "Bob's yer uncle" the garden is "done". No garden in ever "done". And ideally, you and the client build up a relationship, you come back and see how it all turned out, you make suggestions, they ask your advice, you come back with more plants, and so it goes on, hopefully with an annual visit. 

       In this instance, a friend and colleague had done the levels and basic spatial stuff, and I came in to do the planting - three years ago. Quite a big site, so we all agree it would have been very foolish to plant up all at once. We agreed a section and I returned a few months later with the plants. The house has a spectacular view, as it is on the top of a hill with a steep drop below, and you can see the house when you drive into their property below. It needed to make an impact at first sight - so lots of big grasses for a long season of impact.

    Most of my initial planting was a series of perennial combinations, each one designed to have a particular colour scheme but to have some interest at all seasons, along with willows and dogwoods for winter stem colour. Doing a planting scheme like this, where the beds have very rounded, flowing shapes is quite a challenge for working out quantities. In any case it is actually very difficult to match a plan with reality on the ground, unless you lay out a grid and relate that to a grid on the plan. The reality of soils and clients is that the ground never really matches the plan - slopes can create distortions, some patches of soil turn out to be unusable, setting out plants can often accumulates errors over large areas, clients shove in their own plants (annoying, but there is nothing you can do about this - I know Wolfgang Oehme would rip such plants out with his own hands while lecturing the client (following to be read in a heavy Saxon accent) "this is not your garden, this is my garden" but most of us are too nice to do this.

     In this case I did not use a plan, in fact I very rarely do these days, I work out lists of plants, work out what proportions of one to another there should be, and then calculate on the basis of how much space they take up. All on an Excel spreadsheet.  Its about a planting combinations, the overall effect, not a precise, 'this looks nice next to this' kind of approach. It saves a lot of time, and therefore the client's money; in particular it makes a lot of sense for big jobs.

    The big stress on site is worrying about whether you have brought enough plants, whether I have got the decimal place right in the calculations etc. But its usually ok. Surprisingly  usually ok. But this first time we had far too many plants - so we just carried on planting another area.

    Next year, you are back, because the client likes it, and the maintenance has worked out ok, so they want more. Hurray! So you do another area. But this is more difficult as there are young trees, and its even more difficult to work out quantities. This time around there aren't enough plants, so the best thing to do is to leave some large gaps - thin planting looks awful so you might as well make the gaps look deliberate. Next summer I came to have a look and to estimate the size of the gaps so as to order more of the same to fill in, plus some others. This is serious guestimating but to my astonishment the other day when I came back with the plants, the quantity was all but perfect. None of this very unprofessional squeezing things in too tightly, or working out how to pad out big spaces between plants. Come on, admit it, every designer has been here.

    This being the west of England the main issue long-term issue has turned out to be geranium management - Geranium x oxonianum management to be precise. This plant, parents from southern Europe (long mild wet winters) is tailor-made to cover gardens in the English south-west, and it seeds. Few complain - it flowers pinkly for a month in June and then again September to November. There are so many hybrids/varieties produced by nurserymen who obviously think "I can name this after my pretty niece and put it in the catalogue and boost my own ego into the bargain rather than throw it onto the compost heap", everything from not-quite-white to the well-known 'Claridge Druce' screaming magenta-pink. The bottom line is this, the worst thing that can happen is that the garden just becomes geranium city. There are far worse fates.