THE other week I went over to help with the design of a garden for a couple. An architect and an interior designer, the house and decoration were stunning, but they had flagged up that they were not gardeners.
Their hall made a massive impression on me, a beautiful, big and welcoming space, comfortable, with lots of colour and light.
The contrast between this and the area immediately outside the front door – a sloping bit of tired tarmac with the odd cotoneaster and berberis struggling on the periphery – was striking.
I became increasingly surprised as they walked me around their garden. The second “border” they directed me to was called “The Horrible border”. I thought they were being a bit harsh about it. “No, it’s dreadful, we hate it. It always looks awful,” was the retort. Apparently nothing would grow well.
It quickly became apparent that they really did not like gardening, but they wanted to have a garden that was simple, stunning and usable. A successful garden should sing for its supper and not be a burden. It was quite refreshing that they had recognised this. A garden has to complement your lifestyle; you have to be pleased to have it.
I adore spending hours weeding (especially at the moment as I have a three-day-old orphan Soay lamb, Violet, shadowing me), but I know many who don’t.
SPACE AND PROPORTIONS
When you are designing for high impact and low maintenance, you need to heavily prioritise your spaces. You want to set the scene, directing visitors to the right door, and employ planting to flatter the house – and deflect from eyesores.
Simple things make the world of difference – getting the space in scale and proportion with the house, and not having distracting wayward slopes at an arrival point are vital. Tucking the cars away from centre stage can be awkward in tighter spaces but arriving into a cluttered car park does not do much for any property, however magnificent. Linking the house to the courtyard, garden or driveway with strong planting around the base of the house and adding or embellishing anything of interest (a magnificent tree, a view, bigging up the front door with large pots or adding a “porch” made of structural planting) can make the space memorable.
These alterations don’t necessarily take any more maintenance than sloping tarmac and scruffy shrubs but they will make you pleased to arrive home each night and make your house look a whole lot more attractive.
My non-gardener’s house will hopefully have a larger, rectangular gravel forecourt that does not slope like Everest. It will have 800mm (31.5in) baseless pots (so no watering) planted with a long season of interest tree (such as Crataegus x lavalleei, standard holly) in each on the corners.
Large timber posts with finials will define and highlight the transition from the drive to the courtyard. The pièce de résistance in this case is some borrowed landscape: to allow a view of grazing cattle in rolling Herefordshire countryside by adding some light, double metal estate/ parkland gates to a hedgeline.
Another essential is an outdoor eating and relaxing area.
By increasing its size a little, adding a few easy plants (such as agapanthus, box or yew topiary), either in baseless pots or growing in gravel, and some strategically placed smallish trees to embrace the seasons (medlars, quince, Persian ironwood, crab apples), the area becomes greener and more defined. Putting in great outdoor furniture that dries quickly after rain, looks good and is comfortable helps pull you out there.
The main problem with this area is that it looks out onto a large expanse of lawn interspersed with almost vertical grass slopes.
Anyone who hates gardening would find it difficult to relax knowing that the acres would require cutting again and again.
Grass is the highest maintenance of any garden element, though it’s used ubiquitously by default.
These lawns form the foreground to a really magnificent view of rural, rolling Herefordshire. Personally, I would recommend a handful of hardy, small Dexter cattle to add interest to the foreground, with metal parkland fencing to demarcate their territory in an unobtrusive way.
Sometimes it works best if a neighbouring farmer grazes for you.
Another alternative is wild-flower meadows to ease mowing, but these usually take more horticultural management.
If you want an easy element with impact, ponds or natural pools can be hard to beat. Many think that they are high maintenance but if you exclude pumps, jets and filters, you can have a lazy bit of sparkling water. It may turn green now and then but will normally right itself as your marginal and submergent plants get going. The wildlife impact is huge, adding a different sort of sparkle. I had a woodpecker on our pool coping, having a good drink. Yesterday I had a pair of mallards.
Make the water big, don’t let any liner be visible and get the liquid level as near to the surface (if you have a coping) as possible to bounce reflections and light from it. This eases the path for wildlife too.
If you really don’t want to fiddle with plant combinations then don’t.
Simple plants such as rosemary en masse, shaped slightly, can form a thick and delightful buxom edge at the transition point between the house and garden in a sunny spot.
Box, yew, holly and phillyrea are other easy plants that can be styled and then left pretty much alone apart from an annual shaping. Roses are easy ground-cover roses (perhaps on those awkward-to-mow banks) that cope with most situations. Add biennials such as honesty, sweet rocket and foxgloves to pop up and remind you spring has come. Clothe walls with self-clinging climbers such as Hydrangea petiolaris that even connoisseurs adore.
“No dig” is gathering momentum. It means once planted you need not turn the borders over. Not digging is often better for the soil, the plants, and for non-gardeners.
Never plant anything before all perennial weeds are dispatched (permanently) and then add a deep mulch after planting. A few big pots of great herbs such as bay, thyme, large-leaved sage and lovage near the kitchen will get even non- gardening cooks out snipping.
If non-gardeners start to enjoy the outside, they soon start to enjoy the odd plant, too. © The Telegraph