Country and Garden: How to plan a joined-up garden

Individually, your shrubs may look fine. But how do you work the magic that turns them into a harmonious whole?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I got married in the year of the casserole. We had 11 as wedding presents: French orange and black, Swedish cast-iron, Spanish terracotta, English stoneware, decorated Portuguese. I learnt every stew recipe I could lay my hands on. We wallowed through osso bucco, drowned chickens of various kinds and anything with boeuf in its name. Even so, I was hard pressed to keep all the casseroles in full play.

But nobody gave us knives or forks, though we had half a dozen silver teaspoons. All our wedding money went on fitting out the Thames sailing barge Falconet, our first home. So for the first 18 months of our marriage visitors brought their own eating irons with them.

After we left the barge, it took a long time for us to put together anything resembling a domestic survival kit, and even longer to accumulate any flotsam - the bits that join up the spaces between bed, table and cooker, and make it feel like home.

This is the way in gardens, too. The basics in the garden are the major furnishings, the trees and shrubs that give bulk and permanence to the plot. A few shrubs are grand enough to stand in isolation, as a Queen Anne chest might. Most look better with a swirl of other plants around them.

Let's suppose that one of your basics is a shrub rose. Most gardens have a rose, so this is a fairly safe bet. You may have sensibly chosen one of the rugosa roses, which are trouble-free, as they never get black spot or mildew. They have masses of bright green foliage and good autumn hips. Let's say it is the white-flowered Rosa rugosa 'Alba', which is out now, with its large, single, papery flowers, each one with a golden boss of stamens. A useful piece of flotsam here would be catmint. There is a natural symbiosis between catmint and old roses. It is partly to do with colour. Catmint is a soft grey-green-blue that fits in well with the white and purplish pinks of these old roses.

Partly it is a matter of form and texture. Roses are usually fairly stiff and upright in growth. Catmint in comparison makes soft mounds of growth and the texture is matt. The foliage is good from spring, when it first appears, up to flowering in June and beyond. I like 'Six Hills Giant', which is a richly generous plant, but it requires room to grow at least 3ft up as well as out. Best to plant it to the side of, rather than directly under, a rose.

When the first addition is in place, there is an irresistible urge to go on adding. Perhaps you will have been to Sissinghurst and come back swooning about the white garden. You buy a handsome white phlox, carefully choosing one of the Phlox maculata types (perhaps 'Miss Lingard') rather than the more common P paniculata. Why? Because it does not get nibbled by eelworm.

You plant the phlox in front of the rose and it does all that you hoped, flowering in luxuriant columns, rather than terminal pyramids. Usefully, it starts its act while the rose is resting. Even so, you begin to wonder whether white followed by white isn't a bit, well, limiting.

And you have been reading a book about foliage in the garden. You have been told that you need some important leaves somewhere in what you are now thinking of as your composition. For leaves, read hostas. You fancy warming the scheme up a bit and decide on a gold-ish sort of hosta rather than a white, variegated one. Because you are feeling impatient, you splash out on three hostas ('Fragrant Gold' or 'Lemon Lime') and plant them beside the phlox.

The whole group swings instantly into a different mode. The warming happens. The balance shifts. Then you begin to worry about the first half of the year. The three bits of flotsam you have introduced will take you through summer, passing the baton from one to the other, but there is nothing there for spring.

Anemones are the answer, the fat-stemmed, chubby 'De Caen' type. Planted in autumn, these will give you three months of spring flowers - white, pale blue, purple, pink, magenta. The foliage is bright green and ferny. Exuberance is what you need in spring and anemones have that in abundance. They are so free-flowering that you can pick a fresh potful every week and still not see any gaps in the display.

All this is padding, but it is what converts a series of lonely shrub outposts into a setting that feels comfortable. The catmint and the phlox, the hostas and the anemones make a web which will reach out to touch other webs that you may weave round other pieces of basic shrub furniture. Before you know it, you will have a joined-up garden.