We all want a garden that is beautiful and uplifting, somewhere we can relax and escape the pressures of modern life.
But what makes it beautiful to you is as personal as the clothes you wear.
I cannot tell you what your particular patch ought to be like, but I can guide and steer you to help you achieve the garden of your dreams.
And spring is the very best time to start working on it.
This guide is not going to perform miracles, but it is packed full of hints, tips, advice and inspiration based on my own experiences and passion for gardening…
We all want a garden that is beautiful and uplifting, somewhere we can relax and escape the pressures of modern life. But what makes it beautiful to you is as personal as the clothes you wear. Here Monty Don shares his guide guide full of hints, tips, advice and inspiration based on my own experiences and passion for gardening…
MAKE YOUR BORDERS A RIOT OF COLOUR
Surely every gardener wants to have borders packed with colour.
What those colours are and how they relate to each other is a personal choice, but there are ways of managing them and making the most of whatever you choose.
Now that the soil is warming up, it is the perfect time to reassess existing borders and move plants around, introduce new ones and sow seed for colour later on in the summer.
ONE SUMMER WONDERS
Once you have your shrubs, climbers and larger perennials in place, fill the gaps with annuals – which die after one growing season – that can be bought by the tray.
Hardy annuals such as nigella, poppies, larkspurs, snapdragons and marigolds are ready to be planted out now to flower in June, while tender ones such as tithonia, cosmos sunflowers and tobacco plants need protection from frost and will flower from mid-summer to autumn.
Use both for a succession of colour that complements your permanent planting.
But before you get your hands dirty, the first thing to do is to edit your expectations. Work out what you really want.
This will be partly down to aesthetics. I have an area of the garden where the predominant colours are soft yellows and blues with a little white thrown in, and reds are absolutely banned.
Some colours are lovely in themselves but clash horribly with others, so both are diminished.
I love all the different pinks we have in our Cottage Garden but would never introduce orange flowers alongside them, while in our Jewel Garden we only use intense, rich colours, and here orange works really well with deep purples.
Mix and match but do so carefully.
Colours also dictate your moods and emotions, so work out if you want to be calmed down or spiced up – and plant accordingly.
Also consider the mundane practicalities that will affect your choices.
Do you spend time in the garden in the morning or the evening?
Do you like to eat outside or to sit and have a quiet moment before going to work?
Do you have small children or are there limitations to your mobility?
Finally you must work with nature rather than fight it. So what is your soil like? What is already growing well in the gardens around you?
When, where and how much do you get the sun?
Take the time to answer all these questions and you are well equipped to customise and fine-tune your borders so that you gain maximum pleasure from them.
The next thing to do is to take stock of the size of your flower borders.
To get a really good display you need space. If your borders are narrow strips along the fence with a lawn in the centre of the garden, you need to ask yourself what you want.
Is the lawn more important than the beauty of a colourful border?
If you think you could give up some lawn space to extend your borders, now is the moment to do so.
Lift the turf and dig over the soil, adding some compost or soil conditioner, and you will hugely improve your floral display.
Now think about the structure of the border. For the best effect, you will need plants of varying heights, from climbers or even small trees down to plants creeping along the ground, with all points in between.
To make any colour of bloom sing, set it among green foliage, says Monty
You can have the tallest plants at the back and the smallest at the front but it is often better to mix it up and have a few taller plants in the middle or even at the front of the border so you have to look through and round them.
I like to use plants like cardoons, wigwams of sweet peas and clematis, and shrubs like lilac, buddleia and sambucus in my borders to add height and drama.
Do not neglect the importance of green foliage.
To make any colour sing, be it the palest of pastels or a bright blue, you need to set it among plenty of green foliage – perhaps with some purple leaves too.
Make sure you use fresh compost for every sowing and planting, and buy a bag of horticultural grit to mix into the compost for plants that need good drainage, such as tulips, lavenders, rosemary or citrus varieties
There are a hundred shades of green and these subtle variations can be used in your garden to huge effect.
Border grasses such as miscanthus, deschampsia or stipa add structure, movement and wonderful autumnal and even winter colours, and can then be cut back hard in spring to allow the emerging bulbs and early flowering perennials such as euphorbia, pulmonaria, primroses and hellebores to take centre stage.
But know your soil and conditions because stipa, for example, hates cold, wet conditions whereas miscanthus will grow almost anywhere.
The old mantra ‘right plant, right place’ is always the best advice.
You can add summer bulbs to the border by planting now.
Lilies, gladioli, dahlias and crocosmia add a superb depth and range, and plan in early autumn to plant spring bulbs such as alliums, tulips, irises or narcissi to start the seasonal floral display going with a bang.
Finally do not waste time or money feeding plants in a border and, once every plant has had a generous soak after planting, I never water them again. Feed the soil, not the plant.
So I mulch the soil deeply with high-quality organic matter.
If you have very light soil or heavy clay, a mulch 5-10cm thick of mushroom compost, well-rotted manure or garden compost will improve the soil structure and fertility while suppressing weeds and retaining moisture.
By not watering, plant roots have to delve deeper to find the water they need and thus become stronger and more resilient in the face of drought.
This means that if we do get a hot summer, your borders will still look good and vibrant in the hottest, driest weather.
A garden’s hedges are its architecture
BRILLIANT TIPS FOR BEAUTIFUL BOUNDARIES
A garden’s hedges, trees, shrubs, walls, fences, paths and layout are its architecture, the basis upon which to create beautiful decoration in summer.
In principle I do not want to see my neighbours from my garden and I do not want them to see me.
That may not always be possible, but every garden must have some privacy if you are to enjoy it fully in a truly relaxed manner.
So a fence, wall or hedge is essential around the boundary.
But to create a sense of structure, shape, drama and privacy, anything other than a very small garden is improved by having barriers dividing it up as well as screening it.
Hedges do this job very well and have one huge advantage over a man-made, solid structure because they are extremely important for wildlife. Birds nest in them, insects love them, small mammals use them as cover along the base and it has been shown that they are essential for bats as a kind of road map that they fly along.
Best blooms for brighter borders
- Delphiniums The tall towers of blue flowers (below centre), which can also be shades of pink, mauve and lavender, are essential for a real British feel to a border. Delphinium elatum hybrids are the most available and the easiest to grow.
- Oriental Poppies (Papaver orientale) Flowering at the end of May in my garden, these are a wonderful, intense splash of colour (left). After flowering, cut them right back and they will grow back and flower again.
- Gallica roses These are tough shrub roses that add structure and sublime flowers to the garden in mid-summer. My favourite is ‘Charles de Mills’ (above), which is a rich cherry pink.
- Hostas I love hostas and find that slugs and snails leave them pretty much alone. Grow tough, large-leafed varieties like ‘Snowden’ (below left) or H. sieboldiana and give them a shady corner with rich soil and they will be happy year after year.
- Tithonia rotundifolia ‘Torch’
- A tender annual with sumptuously velvet petals of a deep, intense orange (below). Sow from seed now and it will flower from July through to October.
However, I also use woven hurdle fences and brick and stone walls, and by using walls and fences as supports for plants you can encourage a beneficial series of habitats for wildlife.
GIVE THINGS A LIFT WITH FLAMBOYANT FENCING
As many of us discovered recently, fences are the first thing to be blown down or damaged in a storm.
Ideally, a windbreak should reduce the flow of air, rather than simply deflect it.
The best barriers are therefore woven hurdles, made from hazel or willow.
These are light, easy to put up and, I think, look terrific in any garden.
Larch lap panels, which are made from overlapping, thinly sawn wooden slats, are the most common fencing and are cheap, but they can be made to look a lot better by nailing trellis to each panel, which will also help any climbing plant to smother them.
Close-board fencing panels look better and are stronger. They are made from vertical boards nailed to supporting cross-rails.
Whichever fencing you choose, it will only be as strong as the supporting posts.
Hurdles are normally fixed to round posts hammered into the soil, but all other fencing has to be fixed to posts set in concrete to hold them firm and straight.
If you wish to increase your privacy but do not want to offend neighbours, try putting up a trellis extension to the existing fence or wall – climbing plants can quickly cover the trellis to make a solid barrier.
Fences can be greatly improved and the garden refreshed with a lick of paint. Black or grey fences are a good backdrop for plants, and green wraps a layer of relaxation around the garden.
One final note: be sure to leave a hole or two at the base of any fence so hedgehogs can get in and out.
HOW TO HARMONISE YOUR HEDGES
Deciduous hedges such as beech, hawthorn or hornbeam will provide the best structure within a garden.
Any hedge is just a row of trees or shrubs that have been trimmed so that they remain bushy and dense.
If you leave them uncut even just for a few years, they will quickly start to become the trees they want to be.
So make sure you follow the basic rules of pruning – cutting in the summer to restrict growth and then in the winter, to encourage the bushy, dense growth.
It’s important to remember that the base of a hedge should always be wider than the top.
If you cut the sides dead straight then the top of the hedge will shade out the bottom section.
A slope, or ‘batter’, will let light get to the bottom half of the hedge, meaning it will maintain its thickness and density right to the ground.
If you inherit a very straggly deciduous hedge, do not be afraid to cut it right down to the ground and let it regrow from the base – but be sure to keep it weeded and well watered until it has established itself again.
The key to establishing a young hedge is to keep it completely weed-free for a full half metre either side of the plants for at least the first three years and preferably longer, if possible.
The easiest way to do this is to mulch thickly after planting and repeat that mulch every spring.
Now add a dash of wow factor! Statues, seating, water features, trees – they can all give your garden some extra magic. Here are the best ways to use them…
AIM HIGH WITH THESE COLOURFUL CLIMBERS
- Clematis armandii An evergreen clematis that loves a sunny, sheltered spot. It blooms as early as late January in London and by mid-March everywhere, with frothy white flowers.
- Chaenomeles (flowering quince) A tough wall shrub as much as a climber, ideal for a cold fence either facing north or east. It has lovely blossom (below) followed by decorative fruit.
- Pyracantha A marvellous plant for an east-facing fence that can be trained and clipped hard either as a solid covering or as an espalier. Bees adore its flowers, and its fruit is loved by birds in winter (above left).
- Trachelospermum jasminoides (star jasmine) Has evergreen leaves and its star-shaped white flowers (above right) in the summer are white and scented. It can be frost-hardy, if grown in well-drained soil and a sunny or semi-shaded position.
- Rosa ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’ Many roses are too vigorous for limited fences but I would not be without this one. Its white flowers (below) appear in May and continue into autumn. It quickly establishes if trained and pruned to follow supporting wires.
SEATS You should like the way seating looks and it must be comfortable and strong, but you must also work with the sunlight and shadows. If your seat is always in deep shade when you want to sit there, it will never be used. A sitting area is much more practical if it has a hard surface. Whether you use paving, bricks or tiles, you want it to be secure, reasonably level and hard-wearing even in winter.
TREES Most gardens can accommodate at least one tree, and it doesn’t need to be big to make an impact. I’ve planted a fastigiate (i.e. narrow, with branches pointing upwards) hornbeam, Carpinus betulus ‘Fastigiata’, to create a focal point at the end of a long view. Beech, yew, oak, ginkgo, acer and conifers (left) all come in fastigiate versions. If you have a little more space, then fruit trees make superb focal points with the added seasonal interest of blossom, foliage and fruit.
CLIMBERS A climber supported by a simple tripod or wigwam of sticks is one of the simplest but most dramatic eye-catchers to place at the end of a path or in a gap in a hedge or wall. Try permanent plants like a climbing or rambling rose, clematis (right) or honeysuckle, or annuals such as sweet peas, thunbergia, Cobaea scandens or even pumpkins or squash. Prepare the soil well and choose good, strong supports that are taller than you might think necessary.
WATER FEATURES While wildlife likes ponds with still water and lots of marginal planting, a fountain or cascade (left) makes a great eye-catcher. In my Paradise Garden I have one made from a metal bowl with a hole drilled into the bottom through which a pipe bubbles water up from a reservoir below, fed by a buried pipe from an outside tap. A small pump is driven by electricity and a ballcock stops the reservoir overflowing. The water burbles slightly, but that is enough to transform a basin of water into something compulsively watchable. In a small garden you could try a wall fountain – this is even more effective if the water falls into a basin of some kind halfway down the wall, which then overflows and falls into the bottom basin.
MIRRORS A mirror set at the end of a path or against a fence in a gap in a border can both give the impression of much more space and be a playful version of a more conventional focal point. If the mirror is full-length and set in a recycled doorframe it will give the impression of a doorway leading to another part of the garden.
You can buy garden mirrors set in window frames (below) of various kinds, as well as mock gates. This will not only create a playful element and add a sense of enlargement to your garden, but can also make a dark corner much brighter.
BORROWED LANDSCAPES Finally, for those of you living with a good vista bordering onto your garden – be it a church steeple, a particularly handsome building, fields or trees – you can use what is known as ‘borrowed landscape’ as a focus to draw the eye along a route and to extend the boundaries of your garden. Cut a window or opening in your hedge or fence so you have the view that you want to see framed by your garden and it becomes part of your private landscape too. As well as zeroing in on what you want to see, this technique can also frame out features that you do not want to see.
WHY GREEN IS THE GARDEN’SMOST IMPORTANT COLOUR
At this time of year we are all keen to put winter behind us and make our gardens look as good as possible for the rest of spring and summer.
But take a moment to think about how your garden looked over the past six months.
Did it have good structure and shape, even on the darkest, wettest day of winter?
Because if the answer is no, now is the time to do something about that for next winter rather than waiting until all the summer colour has played out.
Not all colour though. There is still green, the most important colour in any garden.
After all the leaves have fallen and the borders are stripped of every last flower, there is no reason why evergreens should not light up the garden with intense colour.
A garden with a rich evergreen structure will retain its shape and interest through the winter and provide the perfect setting for next year’s flowers as they emerge.
A garden with a rich evergreen structure will retain its shape and interest through the winter and provide the perfect setting for next year’s flowers as they emerge.
Evergreen hedges can be clipped to create form and shape that is important at any time of year, but particularly in winter.
No garden is too small – even a little low box hedge around a small bed or a pair of clipped hollies either side of a seat will define that space.
A single evergreen plant in the dead of winter will do the trick if planted judiciously.
Hebe, choisya, Portuguese laurel, holly, Irish yew, mahonia, yucca, viburnum, camellia, skimmia, pyracantha, euonymus, some rhododendrons, trachycarpus, hellebore and, best of all, the holm oak are all evergreens of various shapes and sizes, and will add value to any garden.
Our only indigenous British evergreens are holly, ivy, yew and juniper. All others are introductions.
I have used yew (still the very best evergreen plant, especially as a backdrop to summer colour), box (although it’s becoming less and less viable as a garden hedge due to box blight and box moth, but if left unclipped it is much more resilient to box blight, if not the caterpillar) and holly as my main evergreen plants, both singly and as hedges that provide green structure to frame out the bleak midwinter.
These range from low edging hedges to a yew hedge dividing two sections of my garden that is clipped at just over 2m.