I have spent quite a lot of time this year assessing my garden, noting what has worked and what hasn’t. If we move I want to learn from my mistakes, if not there are aspects of the garden which most definitely need an overhaul. Surprisingly for someone who considers themselves a plant lover the path we added to the back garden is one of the most successful, and perhaps one of my most favourite elements. I don’t tend to like garden designs which are heavy on hard landscaping. Often show gardens at Chelsea leave me feeling cold because the expanses of sleek and sharp paving are too large in comparison to the areas devoted to planting. That’s not to say though that I don’t appreciate the importance of paths, walls, terraces and patios in a garden but it’s all about getting the proportions right. In my mind the hard landscaping is there to provide the backdrop to what should be the main stars of the show – the plants. So often though vast expanses of paving have replaced plants altogether. Over the last few months I’ve been reacquainting myself with the language of house selling. I know when I see the phrase ‘low-maintenance gardening’ in estate agent blurbs it tends to mean no plants at all and an awful lot of pink paving slabs.
One of the reasons why hard landscaping is so hard to get right is partly down to the cost. When we move into a house we often inherit someone else’s taste which doesn’t match our own, but budget often doesn’t allow full-scale change. Most of us have other demands on our money when we move, so digging up a perfectly serviceable but interestingly coloured patio isn’t top of our priority list, particularly if there’s an even more interestingly coloured bathroom to be removed. And so gardens end up with a hotchpotch of hard surfaces which read like a potted history of the DIY centre. In years to come Time Team archaeologists will be able to stratify our gardens – crazy paving – 60s and 70s, coloured paving slabs – 80s, the remains of decking – 90s.
When we moved into this house we inherited an expanse of inoffensive concrete slabs for a patio but the only way to get to the shed was across a patch of grass. In hindsight this blank canvas was fantastic but I spent that first winter cursing every time I slid my way to the shed to collect logs for the wood burner and trod muddy footprints across the kitchen floor. A garden path moved up the priority list pretty quickly. In fact it ended up top-trumping the new bathroom.
There was a lot of graph paper used to come up with the final layout of the path. It needed to provide access to the shed primarily but also to the space behind it – that place where old compost bags reside and the stumpy remains of plants which have seen better days. It also needed to provide the demarcation for the new borders. Beds need to be in proportion with the height of the boundary behind so they should be the same depth as the height of the fence or wall. There was also a tricky part of the garden, a shady spot under the crab apple tree. Grass hadn’t thrived there. Rather than the path go nowhere we decided to make this into a semi-circular terrace, although terrace is perhaps too grand a term for somewhere so small.
I knew what material I wanted for the path before we even moved in. I have always had a thing for old, reclaimed bricks. I wanted any path we created to look like it had been there for a while and old bricks are perfect for creating this lived-in, established look. New landscaping materials just don’t age very well. Even new bricks don’t have the depth of colour and quality of Victorian versions. The idea that we were reusing something too, rather than buying a new material appealed.
From the kitchen window I look out on to the path every day and I love it. It has served its practical purpose of providing access to the garden, but has done so much more than that. It has defined the planting areas. In late winter and spring the path lets me get close to the tiny bulbs which line the path. By May voluptuous geraniums and alchemilla tumble over the edge. There comes a point in June when the plants take over and I have to shimmy my way through. Never once do I think about cutting these plants back – I love the exuberance they create. In autumn the path is festooned with leaves from the acer and liquidambar. As winter arrives the herbaceous perennials die back and the path is visible in its full glory providing structure. I’ll idly watch blackbirds scoot about eating fallen crab apples as I wait for the kettle to boil. The free-draining sandy gaps between the bricks where they were bedded in provide the perfect conditions for grasses and primroses to self-sow in among the crevices, which I then prick out and pot on. Then there are the mosses which have colonised the shady part of the garden creating a green carpet. A couple of bricks have cracked due to frost but I even like this as it again gives the garden a feeling of age.
Ultimately the path has become the backbone of the garden and I love it.
Is there something in your garden or on your allotment which has transformed the space?
P.s. I know, I should have taken more photos of the ‘before and after’. I trawled through my photo archives in the hope I’d taken more, but I hadn’t. It’s funny how blogging has changed my ideas about recording what I do with the garden. It won’t happen again!!!