LOCATION: Peterborough, Cambridgeshire
“Our compact town garden was created from a new build plot on an estate of 900 houses. We wanted height to create privacy and seclusion, with soft, easy-on-the-eye plants and year-round interest.”
HOW LONG IT TOOK:
Installing the pond - 16 hours
Making the pergola - 18 hours
Laying the slab paths - 15 hours
Putting up the greenhouse - 12 hours
TOTAL - 61 hours
Robert Marshall and Richard Handscombe bought their property ‘off plan’ on a brand new housing development in Peterborough in 2003. They instructed the builders to leave the garden as a blank space. “We were fairly new to gardening when we moved here and we liked the idea of making something from scratch,” explains Robert. “The developers had put in a basic lawn and a few shrubs, but we pulled them out almost immediately.” Despite the relatively small size of the plot, the couple were keen to establish several garden ‘rooms’ with a clearly defined shady area, a herbaceous bed with scented flowers, a small pond with water plants, a patio and eating area, with room for some carefully chosen trees and hedges too. “One thing we definitely didn’t want was a lawn. In a garden like ours, our priority is for plants and pleasure, not grass and graft!”
They drew up a plan that included all the elements they wanted and set to work. “The first thing we did was to plant our trees, shrubs and hedges, to create a framework,” says Robert. “We have 12 trees here, but they are all selected for their smaller size, shape and colour. They give us privacy and light shade, but it’s never too dense or dark.” They chose six silver birch trees (‘Grayswood Ghost’), opting for a variety with the whitest bark to create interest even when the leaves have fallen. They also chose apple, pear and plum trees, but to save precious space, these are espaliered (grown flat) and fan trained against the fence so they take up very little room.
Perhaps the most surprising part of Robert and Richard’s garden is that there are no fixed borders. Despite the illusion of lush planting, all of their plants are growing in containers. All 400 of them! “Creating groups of pots is a way of changing the design every year and bringing a different look, depending on what’s looking good or has grown on well. We set them out in groups, contrasting colours and shapes and working with the different heights. Only the pots at the front give any indication that the plants behind might not be growing in the ground.”
Weeding and maintenance is kept to a minimum in a container garden. “We do need to water and feed them in the summer months, but there are only a few weeks when we have to be around every day to make sure they don’t dry out,” explains Robert. “We sometimes water daily if it’s very hot, but it’s usually only twice a week. I give the plants a good drenching, allowing at least an inch of water per pot. If it rains, I still water as it doesn’t necessarily mean that the plants underneath have had enough moisture.”
Once a potted plant is looking past its best, it is removed and replaced with something else that is thriving, which means that the borders always look healthy. “We have a ‘glory passage’ at one side of the house, where we put plants that have passed their best. We usually bring them back to health, although we do get casualties!”
In the main container ‘bed,’ there are scented white lilies, roses, including ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ and ‘Brother Cadfael’, chosen for their perfume. Easy to care for sky blue perennial geraniums called ‘Jolly Bee’ and intensely pink ‘Ann Folkard’ create a tumbling mass of flowers and return each year. Robert is also a big fan of pretty tobacco flowers (nicotiana) and architectural agapanthus with their skinny stems and elegant globes of flowers. “Another of my garden must-haves are daphnes (compact shrubs which bloom in winter, spring and summer). You cannot have enough of them. They are easy to look after and above all, they smell very sweet.” This bee-friendly area attracts many beneficial insects to the plot. “We also like to encourage birds, and have about a dozen nest boxes around the garden, most of which have ‘no vacancy’ signs most years!” He rarely chooses bedding plants: “They may be convenient, but they don’t grow back each year, which makes them an expensive choice.”
In the shady area of the garden, Richard grows a wide variety of hostas in pots. “Slugs and snails like to eat these, so keeping them in containers means that they’re easier to protect. We collect different varieties, and have all sorts, from very tiny ones to those with large, textured leaves.” To minimise the slug damage to leaves, Robert pops out every night during summer and removes by hand as many of the culprits as he can find. In winter, this area is colonised by snowdrops, which are his favourites. A simple bench seat and a statue placed in the corner add to the calming atmosphere of this zone.
Just outside the French doors, a patio has been laid using basic 600mm concrete slabs, arranged in a dogtooth effect. The edges are softened with pots, and the stone has weathered to an attractive pale shade. It provides the perfect basking spot for the couple’s four British Shorthair cats, Artemis, Bosley, Lalique and Ptolemy. Underneath a nearby pergola there are a table, chairs and a chimenea barbecue, where the couple like to cook their supper on summer evenings. “In the daytime, I often bring a coffee out here, or work on my laptop at the table. If you don’t have time to sit and enjoy what you’ve done, what’s the point?” says Robert.
Although the garden is crammed with pots (even the sunny garage entrance has been planted up with tomatoes, courgettes and a pear tree in a container), there is a sense of space and order. “Whatever the size your garden, you shouldn’t be afraid to divide it up,” says Robert. “You can create areas for shade, shelter, solitude and seclusion, no matter where you live.”
Credit: Robert and Richard open their garden under The National Gardens Scheme to benefit charities such as Macmillan, Marie Curie, and the Carers Trust. Visits are by arrangement from February to September at weekends and some weekdays. Tel: 01733 555978
Photos: Leslie Anne Churchill