It’s all about the garden bone structure
Sue has lived in SW France for 15 years and founded the website French Properties Direct. Busy creating her second French garden, she wants it to be eye catching, filled with interest, and productive regardless of the season.
Now is the perfect time to reassess your garden in terms of the previous year’s successes, your future ambitions and your plans for structural changes – let’s look at the garden bone structure.
Ahead of next year, the fallen leaves from deciduous trees and shrubs have been swept up and added to your leaf mold bins, and annuals are, similarly, rotting down in your compost bins. Many perennial herbaceous plants have died back and are either displaying winter stems and seed heads or have been cut back and composted and most of the vegetable harvest has been safely gathered in. Your garden is at its most stark and sparse.
Add to this the peculiar quality of cold, low, slanting winter light and you have the perfect conditions in which to critically re-evaluate the design and balance of your garden and plan what changes you want to make over the next year.
In no particular order, here are four elements to consider when giving your garden its annual appraisal:
Study the lines of your garden. You will want any paths or border arrangements to lead somewhere. It may be to a practical destination (like the front door) or it could be to some focal point, such as a favourite pot, statue or water feature. You may also want your vista to draw the eye to borrowed landscape features (something beyond the boundary of your own garden). This could be a view, or distinctive tree, or maybe an attractive building on the horizon.
The edges of flower beds become untidy during the year, planting plans may change and existing plants mature, all of which mean that your beds may no longer be the right shape or size. Use a rope or hosepipe to reshape the border and form an outline. Then stand back, even looking at it from an upstairs window, and reshape until you are happy. Next, go along the edge of the rope/hose with your border spade or half-moon shaped edging iron and dig out a shallow trench marking the new outline.
Do this for every border that you plan to change and, when you are satisfied with how they relate to one another, start to dig over the reshaped bed(s). Remove the top layer of turf with your spade (or turfing iron) and re-use it to fill in bald patches in your grass, build up hollows in existing lawn or create a turf stack. If you store the turfs upside-down they will gradually rot down and create some topsoil for future use. Dig over your new border at the beginning of winter, turning the earth over to bury any remaining grass, and any frosts will help break up any clods and kill unwanted greenery.
Hard landscaping is the non-plant element of your garden (terracing, paths, walls and structures). These permanent features come into their own in winter when much else has died back. Think about the texture (stone, brick or wood structures, gravel, paved or grass terraces). Try to marry the material to its environment. For example, a meandering bark path through a woodland garden would be more sympathetic than tarmac.
Think also about practicality and purpose. A boundary wall is immediate and will provide greater privacy than a hedge and although it costs more initially, it needs less longer-term maintenance. However, if you are creating a barrier against the wind then a hedge will be more effective as it filters the wind whilst a wall will create turbulence.
These come into their own in the winter months when they are starkly revealed – a real garden bone structure. Tightly clipped evergreens give colour and shape all year round and form a pleasing contrast to the comings and goings of bulbs and perennials during the year. When clipped, Hornbeam will keep most of its dead, brown leaves throughout the winter adding extra colour and texture. Some deciduous trees have wonderful barks. The birch tree Betula Utilis, for example, has a ghostly white trunk whereas the paperbark maple (Acer gGiseum) has a spectacular peeling bark that turns orange/red in winter. Both trees also have attractive leaves and form which extend the interest throughout the year.
As seen with the great gardens of France, good design looks good all year round. We may not have a garden on the scale of Versailles or Villandry but we can ensure that our own patch of France has a bone structure that enables us to enjoy its appearance throughout the year.
First published in the Dec 2020/January 2021 issue of The Local Buzz
Images: Shutterstock and Sue Adams