Garden design is like getting dressed; you assemble a style, one you hope suits you, that flatters and is practical enough for you to live in. It works when it is well edited. You don’t get dressed by putting on every piece of clothing you like, and you shouldn’t approach your garden this way either. Too many gardens and borders are made up of every plant that looked nice in the garden centre. This is rarely successful, particularly if you chose one of everything.
So decide on your style – cottage, modernist, jungle, Italianate, Japanese, French potager or whatever – and then choose plants to match. I’m not saying that bananas in a cottage garden won’t work, but grouping plants that naturally grow together is a quick way to effortless style.
Above all else, be practical: you cannot swim successfully in a ballgown any more than a sun-loving plant can thrive in shade, or acid-lovers grow in chalk. Give the garden a rhythm that draws the eye from one place to another. One way to do this is to choose a structural plant that repeats through the garden. Box, formally pruned or not, shrubs such as hebes and currants, repeat-flowering roses or perennials such as globe artichokes, veronicastrums, giant cannas and bananas, tall miscanthus and other grasses, even biennials such as echiums and angelicas can work – the trick is to choose something that has presence for a large part of the year.
Between these structural elements, weave a palette of colours. Dusky colours and muted hues suit cottage gardens; primary colours suit more tropical schemes – or use different plants of the same colour. In very small spaces, this can be dramatic. I have a thing for all-green gardens, where you can wallow in shades and textures.
Gardens are not merely extensions of the interior; they are dynamic, changing spaces. You can start spring with acid greens, brilliant yellows and purples, spend midsummer with softer hues, and by late summer, when the light slants and stronger colours are needed, these can fade into burnt oranges, sunset yellows and brilliant reds.
It’s rare that this happens flawlessly; sometimes a red starts to bloom a little too early, there’s often a clash, but if you wear these discrepancies lightly, no one takes much notice.
Often the best bits in a garden have little to do with the gardener because they’ve been relaxed enough to let nature take centre stage. Self-seeders are a wonderful example. Poppies, forget-me-nots, honesty, foxgloves, honeywort (Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’), umbels of any kind, tiny violas, wild strawberries, fleabanes and marigolds are just a few that will take themselves where they please and look all the better for it. If all else fails, plant lots of Verbena bonariensis: it fits in everywhere.
Of course, rules are to be broken. Bend them all at once if necessary – but do so unapologetically and with flare.
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