With its hidden alcoves and twists and turns, it’s hard to believe that this garden is less than four metres wide. “It appears narrow at the outset, but as you walk along the path, it seems wider because you can’t see it all at once,” says owner Liz Wells, who has created the space with her husband Will. Adding to the illusion are boundary fences which are carefully built up with climbing plants, trees and shrubs, none of which take up much space. The couple first saw their three-bedroom terraced, Victorian cottage in Berkshire in 2008. “Our previous garden had been only slightly wider, so I knew we could do something with this,” recalls Liz, an actor, whose love of gardening stems from her childhood. They moved in during August. The long lawned plot was totally exposed to the neighbours and the elements, apart from a large sycamore tree which overshadowed the far end. Over the winter, plans for the garden evolved as Liz envisaged possible layouts based upon a series of intimate, outdoor living spaces.
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“I had this idea of creating secret living spaces, with patios in various spots, linked by a decked path so that they were slightly hidden, but easily accessible,” she explains. The plot is north facing, so Liz carefully noted where the sun fell at different times of the day, before settling on three separate seating areas. She planned sofas near the kitchen for the morning sun and, to catch the evening sunlight, a paved patio with a dining table at the far end, partly obscured by a large phormium. “Once summer’s here, we always eat out, and the patio heater adds another month once the weather turns cooler.” The third seating area in the middle is situated beneath a pergola clad in ivy and clematis, that casts shade throughout the day. As Liz sketched out ideas, Will, a retired chartered engineer and trained draftsman, drew each to scale to check it would work. “Although I’ve a reasonable eye for measurements, I’m not precise, and where space is limited, there’s little margin for error,” explains Liz. They also took care choosing the hard landscaping materials, ensuring just three different surfaces. Any more, and they felt that the garden would not seem unified. Once the final design was drawn, Will built all the structures, including the pergola and planked path that sidesteps down the garden. “We’re a good team,” notes Liz, “because we each work to our strengths with little crossover.”
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Working with timber is one of Will’s passions, but he admits that building the wooden slatted path was both challenging and time-consuming. “It was hard work, so I built it in sections at weekends because I was still working full time.” He first laid a weed-proof membrane, before installing concrete foundations to support a sturdy timber framework. “Since it’s an odd shape, it’s the only part of the design that I worked out on the ground as I went along.” It is laid on level ground, since the garden’s gentle slope is terraced, with two steps near each end. Once the path was laid in full, the focus shifted to planting the borders on each side. “I like to have everything yesterday, whereas Will’s happy to have it in a couple of weeks.
We bought mature trees and shrubs so we didn’t have to wait for them to grow!” says Liz. They chose beautiful specimens such as Magnolia grandiflora, dense clumps of bamboo, a Chusan Palm, spiky New Zealand flax, miniature pine tree and box balls from Architectural Plants, a specialist nursery that not only supplied but also planted the borders. In addition, there are several large rhododendrons. These need acid soil and the garden is alkaline, so they were planted in ericaceous soil in large pots which were submerged in the borders. The emphasis is on evergreen plants that create a lovely view from the kitchen window, even in winter. “I didn’t want bare twigs and earth to look out on,” says Liz. “Many gardeners don’t mind and want to follow the seasons as leaves fall or buds unfurl, but I prefer year-round interest.” Initially, the Wells’ lost several prize specimens to harsh frosts, but as the plants have become better established, they seem to be hardier, surviving mild winters without need of protection. Some did not settle in their first position — the cherry has so far been moved three times.
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“A garden should never be static, and you shouldn’t be afraid to move things around, but if something is obviously unhappy, don’t worry – just replace it. Even professional gardeners have their failures,” Liz advises. Other plants are grown in pots, adding great flexibility. “When a bare patch developed on a fence because the ivy had not grown, we simply moved a potted camellia in front of it.” With its mature evergreens, decked walkway and borders mulched to suppress weeds, this is a relatively low maintenance garden. “I’ve done a lot of gardening in my time, and I wanted to keep this as easy as possible,” says Liz. She has succeeded, starting on a decked patio immediately outside the kitchen with what, at first glance, appears to be lawn, but closer inspection reveals to be artificial grass. “It doesn’t need feeding or mowing, we simply hoover up any debris. There is also a piped watering system, a godsend in hot summers because it takes an hour by hand to water the garden, which is essential because any plants below the fence quickly dry out.” Other maintenance is restricted to regularly snipping back wayward branches to prevent crowding the path, dead-heading and removing yellowing leaves. “And the path has to be painted each year!”
The calming sound of a gushing fountain fills every corner. “I like noise around me when I work, but Will prefers silence and he finds the fountain a bit noisy, especially at breakfast time!” The idea of a white water fountain came from a public park in Lille, France. “There was this huge fountain splurging up white, as opposed to clear, water,” recalls Liz. Back at home, an electrical supply for pump and lighting was installed at the outset of the redesign. The feature required a large hole to house the water tank and electric pump which was then covered in a metal grill that supports the sandstone rocks. “I love to watch the water splashing onto the rocks, and running down in different directions,” she says. Both the water feature and lighting are controlled from a switch in the house. “Lighting is an absolute must, the garden is magical at night.” While there is much about the garden to enjoy, several aspects stand out. “It’s lovely just wandering through, appreciating how well it has all come to fruition, especially in spring when the azaleas are a blaze of colour,” says Liz. Best of all, though, she likes sitting at the far end and looking back towards the house, framed by the arch and pergola. “It’s a completely new vista, like waking up and finding yourself in a different room!”
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As Liz and Will Wells discovered with their Berkshire garden, evergreen plants are the gift that keeps on giving. When autumn wind and rain set in, the glorious glossy green leaves hold fast, lending multi-textured interest to borders and beds. And in the depths of winter, those vibrant shades look even more gorgeous with a dusting of frost. In Britain, we are lucky as we have a huge range of evergreens to choose from, in all shapes and sizes, but selecting the right one for your space needs some careful thought about the job you want it to do, as David Chanell, of Outdoor Living Garden Services (www. outdoorlivinggardening.co.uk), points out: “In a small garden, the backbone and structure of the planting needs to work hard and create interest throughout the seasons. This doesn’t mean your evergreens need to be just a boring green backdrop, though.
The huge range of variegated, architectural and flowering specimens out there can give your garden appeal all year round.” David uses the staying power of the evergreen to make his gardens shapely, and provide that all important green skeleton for winter interest: “Evergreen shrubs are really effective when used in repetition to give the garden rhythm and flow because, without their height and structure, a border can become very flat. If you can add plenty of variety of evergreen foliage in your outside space you have the recipe for a successful garden design.”
Most evergreens are happy with autumn or spring planting, but it’s not a good idea to plant them out in the middle of winter. If they’re to live in a pot, be sure that the roots don’t get waterlogged with winter rains. Give the shrub or tree a big drink of water before you plant it, to make sure the rootball is thoroughly soaked. It’s not essential to dig a really deep hole for evergreen shrubs, as their roots spread widely rather than deeply. Just be sure the hole is deep enough to keep the rootball covered, and dig the hole much wider than the roots. Many gardeners swear by digging a square hole rather than a round one, as the roots find it easier to spread into the corners. Before you plant your shrub, loosen the earth at the base of the hole with a fork to allow for adequate drainage when watering in. Mix in a little soil improver, such as farmyard manure (£4.99 for 50 litres, www.homebase.co.uk) with the soil you use to backfill the hole, and then water your shrub in well.
AVOID THE THUGS
We’re all keen to keep the green in our gardens in the winter, so it’s tempting to buy a fastgrowing filler that will cover fences and bare earth until spring flowers arrive to cheer us up. Some speedy greenery, however, can run riot in a small garden. Most people know to steer clear of the galloping growth rate of the Leyland cypress, but seemingly innocent evergreen groundcover perennials, such as common periwinkle, can take over a border and suffocate the other flowering plants unless it’s kept in check regularly. Lusty evergreen Clematis armandii, with its big pointy leaves, can grow into a heavy thicket that can break a pergola, even though its sweet-scented flowers are a joy. Cherry laurel, too, can run rampant if it’s not clipped into submission regularly.