A modern formal parterre garden in a beautiful walled courtyard
We came back from holiday and were amazed at the transformation! We are looking forward to watching it flourish in the coming years.
P.S. We remembered that Sophia likes her tea cooled with cold water!
A beautifully renovated coach-house, in an idyllic rural setting, with a walled courtyard, deserves a great garden.
The clients hadn’t succeeded, and called me in. After a half-hour meeting they told me I had provided them with more ideas than half-a-dozen landscapers, and I was hired!
The design was to be formal, yet gentle, in the courtyard, and the woodland parking area was to be functional yet attractive. A complete re-design was required.
The courtyard was quite damp, as evidenced by the moss growing within the gravel. Ground elder was endemic. There were some nice shrubs, but most were over-mature.
There were large tree stumps and lots of hard landscaping material to remove.
The tiled door sills needed removing.
Drain surrounds needed renovating.
In the car park, the dry stone wall needed repairing and the gravel scraping off and renewing.
Well, you can see the solutions at the top of this page!
I released the story of this build, as a blog, to a website called Restoration and Beyond, run by two dynamic business women, Christine Pearce and Paula Smith.
The story begins:
Day 1 and the first hurdle has been encountered: the concrete paving that was chosen last year has gone out of commission this year... The ethics of Indian sandstone have been considered and we have decided that it's a marvellous price for real stone and whilst there can be poor labour conditions, at least the Indian quarries are providing work. So, Raj Green it is.
Site clearing has got off to an excellent start though. I've talked with the contractors about a 'Performance' Specification (not just the list of materials and standards that has already been written), whereby I indicate the most important features and how I want the end product to look. For example, the paving circle must be very carefully set out; whereas for the dwarf wall in the car park a higher degree of tolerance is acceptable. They liked the way that this informed their work. Happy contractors mean a happy designer.
The site is in a very rural location and the last photo was taken just across the road!
Day 3: ‘Garden archaeology and how to use what you find’
Brilliant progress! The garden has been completely cleared and the dolomite foundation laid for the path and patio. A wacker plate is used to compact the layers of material so that the paving on top doesn't move, ever!
A note on recycling, today: the grey material in the photo isn't the usual yellow of dolomite, because this is an upper screed layer using the old gravel from the car-park area, which would have otherwise been thrown away at a land-fill site. It is nicely binding together to form a finer surface than the dolomite can be made into. Great to re-use rather than throw away.
Also, if you look closely at the 'dirt' at the bottom of the photo, you'll see lots of cobbles mixed in. Well, what a surprise! The house was a coach-house after all, and subsequent owners merely covered over a complete layer of cobbles that must have been the surface the horses walked upon all those year ago.
We're (again) covering over the cobbles and soil where the gravel is to go down, but where we are digging out for flower beds, the cobbles are going to be rescued and used decoratively for the water feature and elsewhere. A lovely link to the past.
Last night I dropped by the site to check how things were going. A significant feature of the design is to include the antique drain cover within a new stone feature circle in the main path. Last night the area around the drain cover was all dug up and the cover left at a rakish angle which left me a bit worried that the cover could be at risk of damage. But no, my contractors had all our best interests at heart, and today I found the cover, carefully positioned in the middle of the path-to-be, with a nice blanket of floor-mat and gravel, to keep it safe!
Such an interesting garden to work with!
Days 5 & 6: Great progress!
There's one day's work between the first and second photos here: the clients are really pleased with the speed at which everything is progressing. This garden build is going very smoothly, but I've still been running around and sorting things out.
A consequence of changing the stone used is that other materials can need to be in different colours also, to still tie in.
I'm learning that Indian Sandstone is not predictable in colour. We ordered Raj Green, but I'd say the material we received was more like the Autumn Brown sample I saw at the warehouse...
In fact I'm quite pleased with the colour, but had to drive 30miles to the gravel suppliers to get up-to-date samples to ensure that the gravel colour would complement both the stone and the house. Whilst I was at RocksRUs I took the opportunity to personally select the stones that are going to be laid within the deco circle on the main path. An hour in the sunshine, collecting flat beach pebbles and chatting to the owner who loves all kinds of rocks and stones, was very pleasant!
The work I do during a garden build is officially called 'project monitoring', rather than 'project managing'. This is because there are different legal responsibilities tied in with the different titles. 'Monitoring' is all about ensuring that the project is run to the client's satisfaction whereas 'managing' is about making sure supplies arrive on time, etc. In reality, I think I do a little managing within the monitoring! An example is the stone spheres, which I wanted to choose personally, so I have also ordered them and had to do so in good time for their use. With the gravel, I had to gather the client's opinion, so we made a choice together; admittedly from the samples that I had pre-selected as suitable colours and textures.
The farmer that has been taking away the debris has also come up with some spectacular manure that has been in a pile for about 15 years! This is going into the woodland flower bed to increase the moisture-holding capacity, since the two giant Sycamores will withdraw loads of water all through the summer. The new plants chosen are all 'woodland under-storey', so they should cope with summer drought, but there's no harm in giving them some assistance. In the car-park panorama photo, the manure pile is the rich brown one to the right of the top-soil pile. The car park area looks quite like a bomb-site!
Day 8: stone cutting.
This day greeted us with a labour of love! Actually, the air was quite blue in my absence, as in order to cut the Indian Sandstone circle down to my specified dimensions, the contractors' expensive diamond saw blade wore down by two-thirds and it took him a whole day... Another consequence of having had to change materials. The octants left out will have these hand-sorted pebbles laid on edge bedded in mortar, to reflect the lines within the drain cover. Yet another revised choice is what mortar colour? grey or brown? With grey, the colour would be easy to adjust; with brown the contractor will have to buy in new dye and the flags could look too bright. Subtlety is what I am after as this will be a really special feature within the garden...
This garden had ground-elder, that gardener's bane! I have asked the contractors to remove at least 300mm depth of topsoil as they cleared the garden and to bring in fresh weed-free soil to fill the parterre beds. Let's hope there's no roots surviving below 300mm, but ground-elder is, happily, not usually a deep rooter. The parterre beds look luscious and inviting now, topped up with that lovely old manure!
To take a photo from my usual spot I had to stand behind the contractor's bobcat. He has quite a collection of diggers: a man who loves his machines! Very useful too.
Day 10: all about gravel and membrane.
The membrane we are using is Terram 500, a non-woven cloth made from 70% polypropylene and 30% polyethylene. It won't rot or be eaten by insects and as long as it is out of sunlight it will last for years and years. In my specification drawings I have shown that I want the edges to be tucked underneath the wood flowerbed edging to hold it in place. There's nothing worse than seeing the membrane in a garden, it completely spoils the look.
Membrane stops weeds from coming through from below and stops the gravel from sinking and disappearing into the soil. It's still possible to get weed seeds germinating in the gravel though, so regular raking and weeding has to become part of the maintenance regime. Maybe the Japanese decided to make a chore into a pleasure...
I planted grape hyacinths into the gravel over a membrane in one garden, it was very successful. There was enough debris and moisture caught above the membrane for the bulbs to be fed and watered: they do well but don't take over, as this species can. You can also plant through the membrane by cutting a cross in it; you just pull back the gravel and replace it afterwards. Only possible if you've left soil below though!
Just to the side of the nearest flowerbed is a hole for the water feature. Can you guess where the contractor walked next!
Day 12: Design considerations.
Good garden design considers many many things and an important element is unity. This refers to bringing together existing elements within a garden and its environment, alongside new elements which enhance the existing, and giving them a common theme, thereby unifying the entire environment. This can be immensely satisfying to the eye: within this garden I have sought to capture the dominant features of the house, namely the arches and circles of the doorways, and I have repeated the circular shapes using the stone spheres and the circle within the path. Unfortunately, budget constraints have led to the removal of the wooden trellis archway I wanted to place between the stone gate pillars as the main arched feature, and the clients did not wish to include my suggestion of a wrought-iron plant-support arch within each of the largest parterre beds. So, circles have won the day, not arches!
The courtyard garden is beginning to have a distinct character now, complementing the house. Outside the courtyard though, all is still in the thick of excavation and development. You can see three of my most important things: tea; clipboard, and strong gloves!
Days 16 and 17: Snagging
Now the courtyard build is finished I'm creating a snagging list of imperfections I want fixing before the contractors leave the site. I replaced the red quarry tiles below the window sills with the Indian Sandstone to add to the period feel, but they need mortaring in, no gaps left for weed seeds to germinate into!
There will be automatic irrigation for the pots and hanging baskets, but not the flower beds. I try to keep clear of creating a water dependency in my gardens. Hanging baskets and pots run out of water and the plants cannot extend their roots deeper to find water as they can in a flower bed, so it is important to water before pots dry out. Even for the flower beds, in the first year it is essential to water twice a week unless there is a downpour. But watering must be really thorough, to wet the soil all the way down to the water table, so that when the soil dries out from the top the roots are driven downwards and so that later, in years to come in dry periods, the roots are already well down and able to reach lower level water and sustain the plant. From year 2 this garden shouldn't need watering unless there is a drought.
By now you may have realised a garden designer has to be many things: saleswoman, surveyor, specifier, draughtsman or CAD specialist, plantswoman, technical supervisor and above all a creative designer who can pull together all these strands into a beautiful, long-lasting whole. A perfect job for an ex-scientist who found her creative roots!
Days 17 & 18:
Well, this has been the most stress-free build ever! No rain to delay the contractors; no nasty hidden surprises underground; all the materials obtained on time, and everything looking good when it was built and, amazingly, built sooner than expected. Phew!
The last two days involved clearing the car park and the driveway alongside the road, then putting down the gravel and compacting it with the Wacker Plate. Since fairly weed-free gravel was in place before, I decided that we didn't need to lay membrane below this gravel: the ground was well compacted and full of gravel already and also... a layer of cobbles!
The huge flower bed created will be planted with woodland under-storey plants such as polygonatum, geranium, pachysandra, euphorbia and lots of ferns. It looks really open and bare now; in three years the soil will be invisible and there will be gentle flower colours and endlessly interesting foliage contrasts.
Because of the rural location, rabbits are a threat to the plants, so my planning was done with the assistance of a wonderful little handbook called 'Gardening with the Enemy'. Hopefully my plant choices will be the rabbits least favourite ones...
My next blog is all about the planting, which I organise from the plant designing, to purchasing the plants, to organising a team to go in there and do the planting and mulching, and finally guarantee for three months. This garden has 870 plants to be put in!
The story turns to weather..
We planted the courtyard on Day 18. Although there was a fine start to the day, the rain soon descended and I became so muddy that I didn't want to touch my camera because it would have become quite filthy! So the first photo is from two days later, when I had to go to the site to water the plants... The soil was quite sandy and dry so when we planted we watered the planting holes first (Yes, I know, even though it was raining!) and added a special Mycorrhiza mix under all the shrubs. It is also important to water everything in really thoroughly: 'puddling in'; the water descending through the soil pulls soil down into any gaps the planting may have left, so that the soil/water mix ends up in nice close contact with the roots and gives the plant the best chance to thrive.
The Mycorrhiza fungi penetrate the plant roots and exchange sugars from the sap for minerals that are essential to the plant. The Mycorrhiza travel through the soil faster and further than the plant roots and it is said that oak tree Mycorrhiza spread for up to 3 miles away from the tree, so you can imagine the nourishment this fungi is able to provide. There are various Mycorrhiza linked to plants, so I have hedged my bets by buying a blend!
I offer a guarantee on the plants, if my company have sourced and planted them, so all these measures are well worth taking.
A few days later, Day 22, (hoping for a dry day!) we planted up the car parking area. The rain wasn't too bad this time...
I do the setting out, which means putting all the plants in the places I drew up for them. So, I stand there with my tapes and scale-rule and the plans (in a nice plastic cover...) and then do lots of bending and moving of pots and checking and re-placing when they rolled down the slope and...
My team dug holes, exchanged gossip about computers, planted, heaved mulch all over the place (6 cubic metres went down), drank tea in the rain (too soggy to step indoors) and generally really enjoyed themselves in the fresh air!
The last photo is a great figurative summary of the process: tape measure, pots stood on the soil; plants in the soil and then the mulch barrowed in and spread all around them.
Ah mulch! What great things there are to be said about mulch. It: keeps the moisture in the soil; stops surface weeds from germinating; provides an insulating blanket against the cold, and finally, slowly rots down and feeds the soil below. So, go on, use it in your gardens!
This mulch is farmed coppiced willow, dried and chopped up. Lightweight to handle and pleasant to see around the plants.
Did I tell you I like mulch?!
Well, this draws to a close and it's been a very interesting journey. It's not been a historically accurate reconstruction since then we'd have only a cobbled courtyard instead of a garden! But, to create a garden that feels genuinely matched to the house has given me great satisfaction.
The brief was:
'The front courtyard should be welcoming, attractive and characterful. The link between the car-parking area and the house should prepare the visitor for the gorgeous living space within. You want to wipe the slate clean and have a complete re-design of the space. The design should be formal, yet gentle. The car parking area needs to be functional yet attractive: the hard landscaping renewed and some attractive planting put in place under the trees.'
There could be much to say still about the garden, but I have truly satisfied the client's brief and generally the pictures speak for themselves!
Goodbye and thankyou for reading,