It’s taken a while I’ll admit, but I’m finally starting to love shrubs. Cottage gardens packed full of exuberant herbaceous perennials have always been my ultimate in garden style. As soon as we acquired our own growing space the aim was to cram in as many plants as possible. I love the hotchpotch of cottage garden planting. We used to live in a house in an impossibly pretty village by the Thames. It was all brick and flint houses and long narrow gardens with meandering paths. The house we rented had a garden that had become a little neglected and unloved, as the gardens of rented houses tend to be. Having a rummage and a poke about through the borders I could tell this had been a garden of someone who loved plants. I have an old sepia photo of my great-aunt Dora from the 1920s, all horn-rimmed glasses and pin curls, standing in a similar garden next to towering hollyhocks and sweet peas.
This type of cottage garden planting, created over time through propagation and seed sowing, rather than the more modern approach of mass purchases for a more instant effect appeals to me. But the charming higgledy-piggledy nature of cottage gardens belies the design skills that go into creating that natural looking ‘undesigned’ space. It’s a bit like trying to create the au naturel look with make-up; it’s harder than it looks and often requires more effort than going for the more obvious option. The best cottage gardens were created by gardeners who had an innate ability to work with plants. Their plonking of a particular plant at the front of a border might not have had much conscious thought but deep down there was a plan or some deep-rooted understanding that it would work in that spot.
What I’ve learnt in the last 6 years is that a backbone and structure need to be there for the stars of the show – the herbaceous perennials – to shine. And this is where my new-found love for shrubs has come in. It’s not as if my early planting plans were a shrub-free zone. The teeny fatsia I bought is now an impressive specimen in my shady border and the box balls planted at intervals along the paths to provide evergreen focal points throughout the year have worked well. The idea that we’ll probably be moving has made me start to evaluate the garden and what has worked and what hasn’t. I’ve been thinking about how I have tackled creating my first garden. Looking back I was quite tentative about what to plant. Shrubs and trees are expensive purchases and I was so keen not to get my choices wrong that in some cases it was easier not to buy at all. And that’s how more herbaceous perennials crept in.
I was a little scarred by the 1980s desire for shrubberies and conifer beds. This idea for low maintenance gardens seemed pointless to the young me just becoming interested in plants. Why would you want a garden that was bland and boring, a garden that didn’t change with the seasons? There’s a form of this still out there, the highly designed, restricted palette look that is suggested as the best way forward for small spaces. And so I brought this shrubby baggage with me to my first garden. Some of my early purchases were a reluctant concession to the fact that I didn’t want to be staring out on to a barren, plant-less space over winter. I’ve discovered though that I need shrubs and my garden needs shrubs.
Choosing carefully seems to be the key. Firstly I don’t want my garden to resemble a supermarket car park, the home to so many a shrub. Secondly they take a while to get growing and finally there’s the hit to the bank balance. It’s tempting when considering this last factor to accept shrubby freebies when they become available. Of course, like any gardener my eyes light up at the prospect of free plants and any semblance of discernment tends to disappear out of the window. Much as I love the now substantial winter flowering honeysuckle that came as a rooted sucker from the grounds at college it’s straggly, sprawling nature doesn’t warrant such a prominent position in my garden. The problem is in a small garden everywhere is fairly prominent. This shrub’s days were numbered and its removal was part of a border redesign planned for this autumn. It has a stay of execution now until we have more idea of when and where we might be moving to. I’ve even found some more rooted suckers which I’ve potted up just in case our next space has the perfect tucked away corner where I’ll still be able to smell its heady winter fragrance.
The shrub I have fallen in love with is the Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ I bought two years ago. I have a while to wait for it to put on show. From spring until August it provides an unobtrusive background to geraniums and Iris sibirica, and then delicate ivory panicles of flowers start to appear, lighting up the shady border. I love the contrast between it and the hot colours of my raised beds on the other side of the path zinging with pinks and yellows. And then, as autumn approaches, the flowers take on a tinge of pink which spreads and deepens as the temperature drops and light lessens. It’s a cracker of a plant. Other additions this year included a sarcocca to provide scent by the path to the front door and I finally got round to purchasing some perennial euphorbia. Why it took me so long I don’t know.
Looking at my garden over the last week I see how I’m evolving and learning as a gardener. I’m often hard on myself about my gardening ability. There’s a desire to have that ‘perfect’ look, wanting my plants to work together and thrive. They do their own thing though, one will grow a little too well, swamping everything else in sight; another, supposedly slug-resistant addition, will be devoured over night. Despondency does occasionally creep in as my gardening pride is dented. But then I’ll catch a glimpse of something that makes my heart swell and I remember why I love it all so much. I was absent-mindedly staring out of the window the other day and focussed on a part of the garden which really captures what I had hoped I might be able to achieve. The view of the liquidambar in all its autumn glory with the pink of Hydrangea ‘Lime Light’, the dramatic leaves of fatsia and fading colour of the sedums. Even the soggy, black seed pods of the irises add form and interest.
I bought a shiny new notebook when I was in Edinburgh. It has sat on my desk since. I’m aware of the blank pages but a sense of creativity has eluded me. I’ve finally decided it will be my garden notebook. It’s going to be filled with ideas from my current garden, from garden visits and from any inspiration I come across from the blogs and magazines I read. The idea is that wherever we end up I will be more confident and less tentative about designing a new garden. In the past I’ve made notes and copious lists but they’re always on scraps of paper which I lose and don’t have with me when I need them. And so, to get me started, I’d love to know the shrubs you wouldn’t be without.