The Novice Gardener’s Transformation for Nature
I’ve been craving a garden for years. After renting in London, my boyfriend (now husband) and I moved onto a tiny houseboat with barely enough space for us let alone plants. Yet we still found ways to grow, attaching planters along the handrails outside full of pansies, growing sunflower seeds (mistake) in a miniscule seed tray and then pots that were far too small. As we upgraded to the next boat the container garden grew into large shabby pots made of reclaimed (rubbish) wood and ply which I nailed together in a hopelessly higgledy piggledy fashion but that brought me more joy than made sense. I was a familiar sight to my neighbours in the morning, inspecting which seedlings had grown by half a millimetre, or literally cheering when a tiny iris opened as the first flower of spring (I had had a few mimosas at the time).
I now have my first garden with access to the earth, and it’s been an incredible journey of transformation. It takes over the majority of my brain space. I’ve thought through the layout endlessly, tried (and sometimes failed) to put plants in the right growing conditions, and pushed to be as sustainable as I could, considering water conservation, using materials available to me on site or locally, and choosing plants that are useful both to me and to nature.
My first priority in the garden is to benefit the natural world, having a positive impact on the climate and on biodiversity, inspired by the Knepp Estate and Great Dixter. I want it to be productive, beautiful and interesting in that order. To that end I’m thinking of the space as a circle of 23 linked but varied habitats encircling our home.
Great Dixter Gardens - a beautiful combination of managed beds and wild flowers
At the front of the property is a small (c. 0.2 acres) woodland of tall but slender oak, ash, hornbeam, conifers, chestnut, sycamore and beech trees. There’s a gravel drive leading to the back garden with a few established trees, swathes of nettles, an uncared for lawn full of dock, a patio and an ugly section of deck. A relatively blank canvas of opportunity. Four months later it’s far more varied and full of life, and this is just the very start.
The Dead Hedge
Inspired by one we saw at RHS Wisley Gardens, one of the first things we did when we moved in was some minor tidying of the woodland area and piling of fallen branches and cut brambles into a fence along the front of the property. There was an existing wire fence which we moved to better line with the outside, then we hammered a series of branches vertically into the ground to hold the material together.
While “tidying” in principle isn’t good for bio-diversity, in this case we haven’t removed any material, only shifted it into a pile. This type of habitat is great for insect shelter, and therefore also for songbirds. Wrens and robins very quickly moved in and could be seen hopping around between the sticks.
The Log Piles
Either side of the drive already had piles of decaying logs covered with Ivy. These will predominantly be left to support the beetles and other creatures that enjoy them, but some will be used as a base for raised vegetable beds as the piles are significant. We will also be planting some ferns into this space for a bit of variety, but the piles of logs will be protected as habitat.
The Woodland Stumpery
A large tree root system from a fall is an interesting feature of our tiny woodland, so our plan is to plant the area around it with ferns, adding extra logs to create a stumpery. For water conservation, we will be planting drought tolerant ferns, and we won't be able to sustain lots of moss as you might see in professional gardens, but it will still be beautiful.
The Woodland Wildflower Bed
Another of our efforts as we transform the garden is to disturb as little as possible and follow the no dig approach where we can. I’m an exceptionally impatient gardener so this hasn’t been entirely possible, but we all do our best. Our woodland is wild which is great, but there is a lot of dock in there and I’m yet to hear anyone say anything good about having that in your garden. The plan to overcome this is to lay a cardboard layer down, cover it in top soil, and scatter shade loving wild flower seeds such as fox gloves on top.
The Gravel Garden
Depending on how you look at plants, this garden has already started itself. We removed the black plastic lining that was under the gravel drive when we arrived, and now see wild plants and flowers growing in it. I’d like to extend this interesting edging with other plants that thrive in this environment.
The Ivy Tree Cluster
We are lucky to have inherited some interesting trees, and a cluster of lovely ones is just outside our front door. I love the gingko and judas tree, set against hawthorn, elder and holly with thick ivy lining the floor beneath them.
The Alpine Mound
This is my Knepp Estate garden re-wilding inspiration. I saw Isabella Tree (owner and conservationist), Tom Stuart Smith (garden designer) and Charlie Harpur (Head Gardener) speak at Charleston this year and it was really inspiring. Their previously formal garden (complete with a croquet lawn) has been re-wilded into a mosaic of habitats, as an inspiration for gardeners to prioritise biodiversity while having a beautiful and low maintenance garden. They removed a farm building, leaving them with substantial amounts of concrete, which has been crushed and used as a growing medium. As we have removed decking and dug out hardcore around the house to allow for flower beds, we have removed out some concrete blocks ourselves, which I’m hoping to plant alpine plants into. These are extremely tolerant plants which grow on rock with very little soil or retained water and can cope with both significant heat and sun as well as surviving cold winters.
Simply named for the buddleia, verbena and cosmos that is planted here. The buddleia has already been home to a tonne of mullein moth caterpillars, which hopefully went on to feed the family of bats which sweep out of our roof as night falls.
The Beautiful Dead Tree
Another concept I’ve taken from Knepp’s re-wilding is finding beauty in things which aren’t alive. A tree trunk almost a meter in diameter lies horizontally against our West fence, and it’s a sculpture in its own right, with smooth sun-bleached curves and narrow corridors of the remaining bark.
This was a fun but tiring project. The concept of Hugelkultur is to use the organic matter you have available on site, create a pile, top it with soil and plant into it directly. In essence it is a raised bed, but it saves the time of making compost or the expense, plastic and wider environmental cost of buying it. It also eliminates the need for extra resources to be used such as timber for edging. The depth of organic matter and decaying logs at the core will hopefully limit the need for watering (after the first soak to get it going) and our growing space for vegetables is hugely increased. It’s also fun. I have a nasty feeling it’s going to be full of weeds as we used topsoil already in the garden, but we will see.
I’ve now planted the first mound with seeds I’m hoping will grow despite us moving into autumn: radishes, various kales, pea shoots and winter lettuces. For the moment they will help prevent the soil layers from washing away and provide some fresh crops to eat and look at over winter, and then hopefully we’ll be in a good place to plant up properly in early spring.
The Mini Prairie
The little sun patch next to the shade garden seemed to be pretty dry, with the nearby trees soaking up a lot of the water. I’m trialling a little prairie style bed here with echinacea, grasses, geraniums, asters and sedum, but I’m not sure whether they would survive a wet winter. Geranium Rozeanne and the echinacea have been popular with bees during the summer, and as autumn approaches the late flowers of the sedums are taking over.
The Shade Garden Walk
The Southwest corner of our garden is dominated by two huge spruces, cherry trees, and a magnolia, sinking this section into dry shade. Here we have created a steppingstone path cut from the trunk of an ash tree which had come down due to ash die back. The path leads through acers, Japanese anemones, hellebores, and hostas, reaching a flower bed of other shade tolerant plants such as libertia, delicate white asters and choisia.
The Shade Garden Stumpery
Here we have a bed dedicated to ferns interspersed with the more interesting logs available on site. I’ve watched a bumble bee burrow its way into the earth beside one of the plants, so it’s doing its bit for biodiversity already.
The Shade Mound
This is our answer to the spare earth and turf produced from planting trees and creating flower beds, as well as offering a different topographical feature which is supposed to be good for biodiversity. We are simply piling left overs into a bank beneath our biggest spruce. However, I have no idea what exactly will benefit from this random shady mound so this requires some investigation.
The Pergola Shade Beds
One of my favourite areas of the garden – these beds have lush foliage with rich colours running through. One bed has a fatsia, hydrangea, hosta, ferns and alchemilla mollis. This is followed by climbers – an evergreen jasmine, pink, white and purple clematis, before the bed widens out again with companulas, monkshoods, geraniums, a dog wood shrub, and statuesque angelicas – loved by bumble bees and wasps.
The Pergola Climbers
Our pergola was built from a malus tree which had succumbed to a fungal infection and was dying back. So it really just resembles a line of trees, extending the “woodland” area of the garden. Climbers such as honeysuckle, clematis and solarnum have been planted at the base of the tree trunks, and some are rocketing up and require regular tying in. I’m so excited to see it when we have a proper canopy.
The Ornamental Tree Cluster
This is an area where my novice gardener status combined with enthusiasm for plants and willingness to take any second-hand offering has let me down. I have crammed far too many trees into a tiny space, thinking that I can keep them as dainty small versions of the 20 foot towers that some of them naturally want to be. We have an abelia, wedding cake tree, euonymous, glory pea, seven sons (heptacodium), forest pansy (circus), and two evergreen hoheria sexstylosas to shield us from our neighbours.
I’d read on the labels that you can keep the trees small by pruning, but I’m now discovering that for some of them this will prevent them from flowering. As I’m focused on biodiversity and know that trees and shrubs provide vast amounts of nectar, it feels wrong to prevent these trees from offering their flowers. However, I genuinely can’t think where else to plant them – the ones in this cluster are there because they want good sun exposure and the majority of our space is shady… This might just have to be an experiment.
The bed here is full of dainty flowers across the colour spectrum but in relatively muted tones – pale pinks, blues, purples. The roses are coral pink, peach and cream, disrupted by splashes of deep red. The space has been created with the sunset in mind, as this are gets the last of the evening sun. It’s also dominated by a big hollowed out tree stump, so in an effort to incorporate it into the space I’ve planted big daisy plants into it. Initially they looked a bit confused by the prospect, but now seem to have settled in and bushed up.
The Big Pond
Another future plan. There is an existing large brown deck on the East side of the back garden. It’s ugly, does nothing for the aesthetic of the garden, and takes up space which could be full of nature. When we have time the plan is to dig a larger swimming pond here, but this is a bit of a pipe dream.
The Fragrant Seating Area
Along an existing built in seating area, we’ve dug a bed for flowers which thrive in full sun, and we’ve tried to incorporate fragrance into the space. It’s dominated by a pink lavatera which is wonderfully healthy and low maintenance. My favourite plant here is the delicate creamy Chandos rose from Appuldram Roses – it has the most beautiful scent.
The Glory and Herb Beds
The flower beds immediately in front of our living room have been planted for vibrance. One side combines the purples and oranges of lavender, crocosmia, geranium and delphinium, with useful herbs planted at the front. A patio path cuts through the middle, followed by grasses and more purples (lychnis, geranium, delphinium, salvias, lavender) and starts to blend into the deep reds and burgundies which are my favourite (potentilla, hollyhocks, snap dragons) offset by dainty gaura. Height comes from dark physocarpus shrubs and towering black magic sunflowers in burnt orange-red. It’s beautiful, full of bees but needs work.
The advice of gardener and plant hunter Chris Brown is to plant beds with structural variety. The spikes of plants such as delphinium can be combined with the button shape of a lychnis, and the the fluff of grass heads.
A small bed next to the hügelkultur mounds has been designated for plants that are both beautiful and edible. The aim is to blend the space between the vibrant beauty of the glory bed and the more allotment-style look of the mounds.
The Sunny Wildflower Meadow
A large circle in the centre of our lawn has been sliced out for sowing wildflower seeds this autumn. I couldn’t justify the space given to the monoculture (dock and other weeds aside) of grass, so beds of wildflowers have been neatly cut, merging the wild with the maintained cared for garden space.
I'm hoping that the variety of planting and created habitats will provide huge diversity of food sources and shelter for thousands of species over time, but also provide me with joy throughout the seasons.