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You can make a magical garden almost anywhere

1. THE DRY GARDEN

The Dry Garden was made in early 2004 from a yard in front of old stables we had used to store building material over the previous decade. 

It had a Tarmac covering, which I unpeeled with a shovel to reveal a solid bed of stone.

This is the old red sandstone that lies under the garden and is soft and, critically, very porous. 

A BIRD’S EYE VIEW: This map of Longmeadow (with the house towards the bottom right) shows where the gardens and features on these pages are

BEFORE: The Dry Garden was for many years a yard for dumping and storing building materials (pictured)

BEFORE: The Dry Garden was for many years a yard for dumping and storing building materials (pictured)

AFTER: THE DRY GARDEN: This space was made in early 2004 from a yard in front of old stables but is now filled with plants (pictured)

AFTER: THE DRY GARDEN: This space was made in early 2004 from a yard in front of old stables but is now filled with plants (pictured)

Water flows through it and roots work their way down into it with surprising ease. 

The magical mystery of the soil beneath our feet

It has been said we know more about the outer reaches of the universe than we do about the soil 15cm beneath our feet. 

One-third of all organisms on this planet live in the soil, yet we have only identified about one per cent of them. For most of my life I’ve believed ‘improving’ the soil was the holy grail of gardening.  I used to pride myself on my digging endurance and technique. But after half a century of believing that digging was at the heart of all good garden cultivation, I have amended my views.

Monty surveying his soil

Monty surveying his soil

The best manager of soil is not the spade or the plough but the earthworm. There are 25 species in this country – and more than 3,000 worldwide – and they are remarkably efficient at bringing in, digesting and incorporating organic material. In other words, that spade can be put away. There is no need to dig anything, other than planting holes.

We excavated 5-7cm of the stone – which was hard pick-and-shovel work – and added literally just a few inches of topsoil mixed with garden compost. 

The result was two beds flanking a curving path that were sheltered, sunny all day long and with a maximum depth of 10cm of soil before reaching the bedrock.

I confess that I seriously doubted if anything would grow at all as the net effect was rather like raising plants in a shallow stone trough. 

I need not have worried. From the first, not only the conventional dry-loving plants such as Mediterranean herbs, and sedums and bearded irises, loved it, but miscanthus, cardoons, cistus, foxtail lilies and even roses flourished. 

Since then it has been one of the garden’s least demanding areas.

The one part of the garden where we can grow bearded irises well is the Dry Garden and, for a few glorious weeks at the end of May they are the richest, most voluptuous flowers in the entire garden.

Lavender mostly struggles with our high rainfall, even when grown in pots made up with exceptionally gritty compost, yet is carefree and completely at home in the Dry Garden. 

In the Jewel Garden, sedums flopped in the over-rich soil, whereas on the poor fare of the Dry Garden they are half the size but upright, hardy and very, very happy.

Everything grows tough in this spot and the combination of the necessary robustness and the extra-good drainage means that there is not a hint of trouble from any so-called pests or diseases.

In 15 years we have never watered, never mulched, never fed. 

We encourage self-seeding and we like the tapestry veering towards jumble that inevitably follows this laissez-faire approach.

The contrast to the rest of the garden, with its rich, fat soil and overwhelming lushness, is so strong and so unexpected that it has expanded the range of the garden far beyond its actual layout. 

And there is the excitement of realising that, despite climate change and the baking heat and the lack of soil and the way that almost every rule is being broken, if you select the right plant for the right place, you can make lovely gardens almost everywhere. 

British gardener Monty Don (pictured) has shared how his different gardens have changed over the years

British gardener Monty Don (pictured) has shared how his different gardens have changed over the years

2. THE PARADISE GARDEN

The Paradise Garden was made in 2018 after I had spent much of the previous year visiting Islamic gardens around the world for a television series. 

After such a complete immersion in the various styles of Islamic gardens, I wanted to make something that would be a memento of what had been a profoundly enlightening experience.

The Paradise Garden (pictured) was made in 2018 after Monty had spent much of the previous year visiting Islamic gardens around the world for a television series

The Paradise Garden (pictured) was made in 2018 after Monty had spent much of the previous year visiting Islamic gardens around the world for a television series

Islamic paradise gardens were created primarily as places of shelter from the burning sun and as sources of the most precious commodity of all – water. 

Using peat is eco-vandalism

Around 95 per cent of British peat bogs have been lost in the past 100 years. 

None will return in our lifetime – if ever. This is eco-vandalism on a grand scale and is entirely unnecessary. 

There are excellent alternative growing mediums that make peat redundant.

Every time you use a peat-based compost, you are deliberately participating in the destruction of a non-renewable environment that sustains some of our most beautiful plant and animal life. 

No garden on this earth is worth that.

But here, the western fringes of Britain, in Herefordshire, we are long on rain and lush green but short on arid desert, so the garden had to be adapted to the realities of our climate.

The paradise-garden idiom dictated lots of fragrance as well as colour, and that the plants should be based primarily on fruits. 

In Islamic gardens the four fruits – dates, oranges, figs and pomegranates – were essential. 

Dates were not a viable option in Herefordshire but the other three grow well in pots.

It had to have a building of sorts as a pleasant shelter and I seriously considered making a rill as they feature strongly throughout the world of Islam, but the budget stymied that (the Paradise Garden was made on a shoestring, costing about as much as the sandwich budget for the average Chelsea Flower Show garden). 

In its place we have a very simple bubbling fountain set in a metal bowl – originally a fire bowl but with a hole drilled through it and a copper pipe passing down into a concrete tank below. 

The water feature is as much about sound as sight. 

It creates a continuous gentle murmur as the water bubbles up and spills over the edge of the bowl, to be recycled back down and up again from the cistern below. 

The water feature (pictured) in the Paradise Garden works well but was cobbled together from bits and pieces

The water feature (pictured) in the Paradise Garden works well but was cobbled together from bits and pieces

3. THE COTTAGE GARDEN

When I first designed the Cottage Garden, back in 1992, I intended it to be a square lawn bounded by pleached limes and hornbeam hedges. 

It never happened. A local farmer came with his plough, and as the soil was exposed I saw that it was the most wonderful, rich loam. 

This, I thought, was wasted on a lawn. So that area became our vegetable garden and this is how it remained for the next 20 years.

Over the years it became increasingly formal, with clipped box hedges replacing the original woven-hazel fencing around 24 beds and eight large Irish yews – originally planted in the Jewel Garden and moved in a wheelbarrow by my wife Sarah and me in 2008 – adding structure. 

BEFORE: When Monty first designed the Cottage Garden, back in 1992, he intended it to be a square lawn bounded by pleached limes and hornbeam hedges

BEFORE: When Monty first designed the Cottage Garden, back in 1992, he intended it to be a square lawn bounded by pleached limes and hornbeam hedges

AFTER: The Cottage Garden is still evolving, but the big change came when Monty began to replace vegetables with roses

AFTER: The Cottage Garden is still evolving, but the big change came when Monty began to replace vegetables with roses

It was architectural and ornate, and more potager than allotment. In 2013, it began the transition to a cottage garden, where flowers, fruit and vegetables traditionally grew side by side in a lovely carefree jumble.

Cottage gardens evolved around the homes of the rural poor, living in tied cottages with a scrap of land where they could supplement their incomes by growing vegetables. Occasionally a flower was allowed to enter into the mix. 

However, what has filtered down into popular gardening culture is something much softer, a loose, informal style of gardening that has become identified with rural charm, innocence and a sense of harmonious abandon.

Cottage gardens were never planned or designed. You plant according to the dictates of surrounding plants and your own intuition. You can mix shrubs, flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables in an entirely unstructured way. 

This takes quite a lot of confidence and courage, but the results are both truly modern and much more like old-fashioned cottage gardening. It is also absolutely in line with modern organic theory. 

By planting the garden as a happy jumble, you are avoiding the concentration of pests and diseases that monoculture encourages.

Our Cottage Garden is still evolving, but the big change came when I began to replace vegetables with roses. I planted more than 40 different rose varieties in the beds and, for a glorious few weeks in June, they dominate the garden.

4. THE HERB GARDEN

The current Herb Garden is the result of the most dramatic forced change to the whole garden. 

This area was a stony yard when we arrived covered in 1.8m-high nettles. It is backed by the hop kilns to the south and a path runs north into the Cottage Garden and down to the Damp Garden. 

Another path crosses this, and is the main route from the house into the garden. We pass through the Herb Garden scores of times a day so it is much more than just a place where we grow herbs.

BEFORE: The current Herb Garden is the result of the most dramatic forced change to the whole garden

BEFORE: The current Herb Garden is the result of the most dramatic forced change to the whole garden

AFTER: Monty planted 18 Irish yews to re-create the grid and repeated rhythm of evergreen plants

AFTER: Monty planted 18 Irish yews to re-create the grid and repeated rhythm of evergreen plants

For many years this space was occupied by 64 clipped box balls. I loved the repeated simplicity and the evergreen rhythm that ran through the seasons. 

But disaster struck in the shape of box blight, so in 2017 we dug them all up and burned them. For a day the empty space was desolate but it then became an exciting new opportunity.

I planted 18 Irish yews to re-create the grid and repeated rhythm of evergreen plants, but on a vertical framework rather than a low horizontal one. 

The planting holes of the box have been filled with poor, gritty soil for Mediterranean herbs like thyme, oregano and sage, and I planted pleached limes to separate this new area from the herb beds near the house. 

Given the chance I would have my (healthy) 64 box boulders back. But nothing in gardening ever stays the same.

5. THE ORCHARD 

For the first five years, The Orchard was a field occupied by an extremely bad-tempered Shetland pony. 

He was given to me by a friend and I quickly found out why, as Charley Farley bit everyone except those he chose to kick. I grew rather fond of Charley, but he had to go before he hurt someone badly.

In the winter of 1997-98 the Orchard (pictured) was planted with 39 different apples

In the winter of 1997-98 the Orchard (pictured) was planted with 39 different apples

PIG PROBLEMS: The Orchard Beds were created to repair the damage caused by three piglets – a present from Monty's son

PIG PROBLEMS: The Orchard Beds were created to repair the damage caused by three piglets – a present from Monty’s son

Then his field was freed for the orchard I dreamed of. There was evidence of long-fallen apple trees beneath the tangle of grass – clearly there had been a sizeable orchard on the site, probably for centuries. 

I wanted to plant an orchard here again, mostly made up of local varieties of apple. In the winter of 1997-98 the Orchard was planted with 39 different apples and we now have enough to supply us with stored apples for ten months of the year, plus hundreds of bottles of apple juice. 

When the trees are all in blossom, The Orchard is my favourite part of the garden.

6. THE MOUND

Like so much in this garden, the Mound has evolved slowly. For the first ten years it was the site of our spoil heap. 

Then in 2002, I hired a digger and a driver who turned it into a square plateau with gently sloping sides. 

I sowed it with grass seed and within weeks it became a smooth grassy knoll, where we instinctively gravitated to lie and look at the clouds or the stars. 

The Mound (pictured) has evolved slowly. For the first ten years it was the site of Monty's soil heap

The Mound (pictured) has evolved slowly. For the first ten years it was the site of Monty’s soil heap

Then the children’s trampoline moved there, later replaced by a high-sided swimming pool that left a circle of bare soil. 

So we hired a digger again – this time operated by my grown-up son – and made it into two terraces with the sides somewhat steeper. 

Brick steps lead up from the rest of the garden to the top terrace, and a brick path takes you to a paved seating area beneath a simple wooden frame. Not only does this look good, but it has saved a lot of very awkward mowing.

STARTING POINT: The Lime Walk (pictured) is a 36m avenue of pleached limes that runs across the width of the garden. Monty always enter the garden from the door that opens at one end, so everything else unfolds from there

STARTING POINT: The Lime Walk (pictured) is a 36m avenue of pleached limes that runs across the width of the garden. Monty always enter the garden from the door that opens at one end, so everything else unfolds from there

A moveable feast in the vegetable gardens

Although the vegetables have shifted around the garden, essentially the same crops are grown in the same way in the same soil. 

Wherever it is situated, the Vegetable Garden is always one of the busiest parts of the garden.

The first Vegetable Garden remained until 2011 and is now the Cottage Garden. 

I then made a number of raised beds in a new area (where the wooden greenhouse now stands) and this meant we could grow a much greater quantity of vegetables and to some extent, better quality, as raised beds meant better drainage and they were earlier to warm up in spring.

Although the vegetables have shifted around the garden, essentially the same crops are grown in the same way in the same soil

Although the vegetables have shifted around the garden, essentially the same crops are grown in the same way in the same soil

But when we began filming Gardeners’ World here in 2011, the paths were too narrow for the cameras so I made new ones and a whole new vegetable plot.

I added another plot a few years later as a kind of overspill – so we are a two-veg-garden household – yet I still feel short of space to grow the amount and diversity of vegetables that I would like. 

Perhaps like work and time, vegetables will always expand to fill the space allotted to them.

 

Now get 50% off Monty’s book  

The new edition of The Complete Gardener by Monty Don is published on 4 March by DK, £27. © Monty Don 2003, 2009, 2021.

Pre-order a copy for £13.50 at whsmith.co.uk by entering code DMMONTY at checkout. Book number: 9780241424308. Offer valid until 15 March 2021. T&Cs apply: www.whsmith.co.uk/terms


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