Jeff Stephenson looks at garden maintenance issues designers should consider
The most successful gardens aren’t just those which have provision for aftercare, but are those in which there is facilitation for aftercare. As a horticulturist, there’s nothing more frustrating than walking into a new creation and having to peer over my glasses at it – rather like a reproachful headteacher with an unruly pupil – venting an exasperated sigh and thinking “Well, that’s going to die”, and “How am I supposed to reach that?”
Get in there
I’ll start with access. If an area is difficult to reach, then it is unlikely to be serviced effectively. A simple example is creating paths to reach hedges (as traditionally encountered in established estates). Having a densely planted border finishing tight against a hedge means that plantings will inevitably get damaged during high season when the hedges are trimmed.
This also applies to access for equipment and machinery. There is little point in installing a tall pleached hedge if it’s nigh on impractical to fit a suitably sized ladder through the property to prune it. Likewise, why incorporate a large highly manicured lawn if access restricts the larger machinery which is needed to spike and scarify it?
While on the topic of lawns: ensure that mowers can traverse over them and turn comfortably. They should never be planned to extend into areas of deep shade, excessive wear or within the dripline of trees. These scenarios always lead to bare patches and dissatisfied customers.
Pave the way
Paving choice is a highly contentious issue for maintenance teams. Gardeners prefer to spend their time tending to plants and not continually battling with algae and moss removal or attempting to scrub out faint imprints of leaves left by organic acids on unsuitably pale surfaces. I’m referring principally to stone which has a relatively high porosity, such as Portland stone. These surfaces may look great in open sunny aspects during a drier summer, but once they are damp (and particularly if in shade or under trees), they ‘foul up’ with an absurd speed, detracting from the ‘clean contemporary’ settings in which they are too frequently placed. Easy-to-clean ceramics would be the preferred option.
Undoubtedly, planting schemes are a horticulturist’s main consideration. Poor choice and inadequate specification results in a woeful experience for gardeners, as specimens will invariably decline in health and die out. Having a full appreciation of actual site conditions is necessary. Factors such as prevailing wind, proximity of air-con outflows and shade cast by adjacent trees and buildings would not be obvious from a plan viewed in isolation in a drawing office, but all help inform plant selection.
Dense planting to replicate show garden fanfare is a short-term fix which is not sustainable as plant competition ensues. Trees planted beneath existing mature canopies might look impressive for a year or two, but with the passing of time they will distort and die back. Plant choice should also reflect current issues. For example, it is seemingly pointless to continue to specify Buxus spp. in some regions due to the prevalence of box tree caterpillar – this will only court substandard displays and embittered gardeners. It must be mentioned that although gardeners are the people best placed to deal with arising horticultural problems, there shouldn’t be an expectation that they have a ‘magic bullet’ for all issues.
Effective communication of design intent can alleviate many problems. Some herbaceous plants may be destined as ephemerals whilst the main scheme matures, but without explanation, this may not be implemented, to the detriment of the evolving scene. Equally, a specific pruning regime may be expected but never realised if undirected – an example being the pollarding or coppicing of selected trees and shrubs at a specified age to perpetuate juvenile stem or leaf display. Perhaps it was visualized that a particular tree should remain feathered – however, a gardener may decide that legging up is preferable.
Here we come to the garden’s performance and evolution over time. Gardens will always change and embrace new character. The designer may remain involved, nurturing an ongoing relationship with the client and garden team, returning at intervals to advise. However, some customers choose to lead developments (it is their garden after all), but can dictate their wishes contrary to professional advice, resulting in tensions between all concerned.
Like great novelists, the best designers are not only narrators of their gardens but have the insightful ability to place themselves within all the characters, understanding the perspectives of both the expectant clients and the captious horticulturists, from the beginning and throughout the advancing chapters of the story.