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Confined to barracks


By kowhai


Gardens have multiple uses and value, not least being as a kind of tableau simply to be looked at when housebound. My garden wasn’t developed with that as its major use, because, unlike the Japanese garden, it isn’t simply a tableau to be looked at and admired from a specific viewpoint, but is intended to be a place to sit in, potter about in, work in, get soil in the fingernails, and generally act as a refuge. However, there are occasions when it can be treated as a kind of living tableau and that is when illness strikes. Fortunately, my current infection isn’t in itself serious, but given a compromised immunity system, the doctor’s recommendation is to be confined to barracks. And this is where the garden as tableau comes into its own.

Since the weather this weekend didn’t actually encourage sitting in the garden itself, the garden had to be experienced from inside the house. Fortunately, partly by design and partly by good luck (the legacy), the garden provides a pleasant tableau when viewed from the dining area or even from the kitchen, while from the sitting area (the dining and sitting areas are open plan) it affords a more distant view which consists entirely of plants of various heights, forms and colours.

We are fortunate that we are, in fact, surrounded by mature trees. The nearest of these are both a blessing and a bit of a bother. The neighbouring copper beech is on then north side of the garden, so doesn’t impose its shade, although, in addition to being thirsty, it does release a huge quantity of leaves in the autumn. If we had a large garden and were dedicated composters, these would be a bonus, but as the garden is small and our composing efforts are modest, clearing up and disposing of the leaves in the autumn is a major seasonal chore.

The other mature tree, a pink chestnut, is to the south, and it does impose its shade on the garden for part of the day. However, unlike the beech, it doesn’t suck up moisture from the garden; nor does it dump quantities of leaves on us in the autumn. So, it’s a pretty benign presence.

Further away, on the eastern fringes of the Close, are several other mature trees, which decorate the sky line without imposing shade of leaves on our garden (although one of them, a sycamore, does loose its winged seeds all around about), and sycamore seedlings have to be uprooted before they grow too large to be pulled up.

Within the garden, we have one major surviving legacy tree: the prunus. This flowers sparsely but prettily in the spring, and its dark leaves provide a welcome contrast to the mostly green foliage elsewhere in sight. However, with its spreading canopy, it does tend to shade the garden for a significant part of the day.

We removed a cherry laurel from the south border, and replaced it with a cluster of himalayan birch. Our inspiration for doing this was a wonderful grove of himalayan birch underplanted with deep red cornus at Angelsey Abbley in Cambridgeshire. Obviously, our version is very modest in comparison, but has worked, with the birch providing wonderful green foliage in the summer, contrasting nicely with the prunus, and white, paper like bark which contrasts with the scarlet stems of the neighbouring cornus in the winter. And, because of its upright habit, the birch grove doesn’t over shadow the garden in the way that the spreading prunus does.

Between the birch and the prunus is another contrast, the variagated elaeagnus. This, too, is part of the legacy, although I moved it to a better location in the south border, and have gradually trimmed it into a less haphazard shape. In fact, it’s a real year round boon, as it provides a sunny splash during the winter when the border is otherwise lacking in colour, apart from the scarlet cornus and the yellow stemmed bamboo.

The vigorous yellow stemmed bamboo is the last colourful inhabitant of the south border. This provides a year round colour, and when the prunus has shed its leaves is more or less completely visible. It shares the lower part of the border with ferns, which are one of the few types of plant to thrive in such a shaded location. Last summer, the party fence finally collapsed, and our neighbour, Pamela, had it replaced, but in the process, the ferns suffered, and some rapid rescue work was involved, not at the best time of year as far as the ferns were concerned! Fortunately, most of them seem to be recovering this year, but one or two are still a bit sickly.

As to the fence, I should have painted it to match the rest of the fencing and the shed, which I had painted several years ago. However, as I was having chemotherapy at the time, I simply didn’t have the stamina to undertake the tedious job of painting a whole run of fencing, and it’s a job that I might, with motivation and money (the paint ain’t cheap!) do this autumn. Meanwhile, the unpainted fence remains part of the tableau which I prefer to block out when viewing the garden.

So, the effort and expense of turning the garden from a characterless and rather barren zone into a place filled with foliage and flowers has more or less worked, and at times when energy levels are low, it provides a valuable vista for the housebound, and, I hope, a will also be a habitat for benign insects and birds. And, who knows, if, as predicted the weather improves this week, instead of just looking at it, we might be able to sit in it!

More blog posts by kowhai

Previous post: The year of the cordyline

Next post: Shade v. shadow



Sorry you have been confined to barrack Kowhai. Your garden looks really well established. I agree about the dirty fingernails and find if I make a batch of scones, the dirt miraculously disappears. Wonder where it

14 Jun, 2010


Makes for tasty scones!

15 Jun, 2010


It's nice to be able to work in the garden but it's also nice to sit and look at it, especially when feeling under the weather.
I used to make lots of nice leaf mould from the leaves that fell in my garden. It was great to add it to the soil.

15 Jun, 2010

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