Downsizing

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Part of the new front garden of my friend

There seems to be lots of downsizing going on amongst my friends and acquaintances at the moment, with people leaving larger houses and gardens for more compact spaces as their children leave home and a change of lifestyle beckons. As one of my recurring nightmares is being told I have to leave my garden, I won't be doing it myself any time soon, but I know that eventually most of us have to make the decision to downsize. Last week I visited a friend who made the move seven months ago.

Unusual Begonia growing in the new garden

I was amazed at how the garden at the new house has already been transformed by my friend from what was a 'lawn, hedges and weed mat' arrangement into a series of delightful colour-schemed flower borders containing many treasures from the old garden. More than 100 pots (most containing more than one plant) made the journey from the original magnificent garden and have now been planted out. Choosing which plants to bring forces a gardener into picking the very best and most favourite from a collection amassed over a lifetime: no easy task but it does mean that only the top performers make the cut.

Long-flowering Fuchsia hybrid in the garden gives months of colour

In a more compact space, a lengthy period of flowering is a prime consideration, and in this garden Dahlia, Fuchsia specimens (including a gorgeous pink-flowered Fuchsia triphylla), Salvia, perennial Phlox, many Hydrangea, and cane and shrub Begonia specimens are already providing a long-lasting floral display. Interesting foliage plants have been planted to provide colour and form through most of the year - such as multi-hued coleus, steely blue rue (Ruta graveolens 'Jackman's Blue'), a diversity of Hosta, a striking golden-leaved Hydrangea quercifolia 'Little Honey' and silvery Stachys byzantina.

The huge flower of Hydrangea arborescens Annabelle is still beautiful as it ages

In a smaller space, more compact trees and shrubs are the best choice to form the bones of the garden. Whereas the previous garden had space for a vast collection of Camellia, for example, now these worthy shrubs are represented by slower-growing, smaller versions, such as the cute pink 'Baby Bear'. Abutilon, Buddleja (including the lovely silver-leaved cultivar 'Lochinch'), Hydrangea and cane Begonia have been planted to provide the shrubby layer of the garden and will be clipped to keep them within their allotted areas. Dwarf forms of some favourites - such as Weigela - have been planted, and there are many such smaller cultivars of larger shrubs available these days. The big types of Salvia are ruled out, but there are many compact ones to use, such as S. microphylla and S. greggii cultivars.

Clematis Rooguchi, one of a number in the garden

The trees that have been planted include a crabapple, maples and a dogwood. Instant height has been created by installing a sturdy wooden arbour to lead from one section of the garden to the other - which conveniently gives scope for planting climbing roses, including reliable 'Pinkie'. The use of metal obelisks for Clematis to clamber on (these climbers being a particular feature of the previous garden) also provides a vertical element in the garden.

Brunnera and Pulmonaria in a shaded part of the garden

One of the most effective features of the original garden was the excellent use of groundcovers to provide a beautiful tapestry effect. A number of these groundcovers were brought to the new garden and have already made themselves right at home: in shade, Lamium species, some choice Pulmonaria (another favourite genus), Saxifraga stolonifera, Brunnera, Corydalis flexuosa and a dark-leaved Ajuga; in sun, Nepeta, species Geranium cultivars (including a special favourite, G. x magnificum) and Anthemis nobilis all mingle to provide a very pretty cottage garden effect.

The garden beds have been made by gradually nibbling away at the lawn and digging in plenty of organic matter to improve the very clay-ish soil. As in the previous garden, compost will be continually added to the beds. Some plants such as Nicotiana species and sultry-leaved Perilla have already started to self-seed in the garden, providing a feeling that the garden is well established.

Rainbow chard growing in a pot in the garden

In a new garden without a lot of tree cover, there can be more sun, allowing the flourishing of plants such as tall bearded Iris, Pelargonium, roses and Salvia. Paved areas allow the use of large pots to extend the planting possibilities, including vegetables.

My friend is full of more ideas for the garden: only a central circle of lawn in the sunny front garden will ultimately remain, with grass paths providing access to deeper borders; and there are plans afoot to create a woodland area in an elongated side garden: removing all the lawn and installing some small trees underplanted with hellebores and Hosta. Years of gardening knowledge and experience applied to the new space - and one which is an eminently manageable size - have fast-tracked it on the road to success. I left the garden clutching a bag full of cuttings and with the comforting realisation that downsizing doesn't have to mean heartbreak but can instead be an exciting new gardening challenge.