A few years ago, I wrote about the making of a courtyard garden in Kent, a very generous 40th birthday present from Jonathon Ringer to his wife, Vanessa. That piece centred on the contractors doing the work and the kind of problems that are likely to arise in a space such as this.
At the time I first went to the Ringers' place, drains were top of the agenda. That's likely to be the case with any courtyard garden. By its very nature, it will have to take account of all the water pouring off the roof of the house, as well as any subterranean pipes or electricity cables leading from the house itself.
The Ringers' courtyard is a square of roughly nine metres, surrounded by the house on three sides and by the drive on the fourth. As Vanessa pointed out at the time, it's an important space because you look into it from so many places inside the house. When I was there back in late 2011, the groundwork had been done and the drains conquered, and the contractors were beginning to lay the Yorkstone paving.
But at that stage, of course, there wasn't a plant to be seen. The design for the garden had been commissioned from Sarah Price, who, at the time, was heavily involved in the planning of planting for the London Olympics. Vanessa knew she wanted some kind of water feature in the courtyard, a tree – there'd only be space for one, so it would have to be the right one – and a general sense of lush leafiness. She's become a very keen and knowledgeable gardener, while Sarah has established a name for producing sensitive, painterly plantings. So I was keen to see how the courtyard had turned out, now that the planting has had some time to settle in.
Given a square courtyard in which to garden, most of us would probably work round the edges first, then plonk something in the middle. But if you start at the centre and work outwards, you are likely to find a much more interesting way of dividing up the space. It's always instructive to see how a professional designer sorts out a space – and I think Sarah has done a brilliant job.
From the gravelled drive at the open end of the courtyard, you look straight across at the water feature installed against the far wall of the house. A tank of Corten steel (almost 6m long, but only 60cm wide) stretches across the wall with a flat, tray-like lip above, about 1m wide, that delivers a fine sheet of water into the tank. Corten steel has been much used in show gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show and I'm not surprised it is popular. Designers fell for it because of the way it rusted. But it's also robust, it lasts a long time, and the colour and texture of the material make a sympathetic backdrop for plants.
The biggest planting area is a square bed, roughly 3m across, aligned with a bay jutting out from the kitchen. This is where the one tree would go. Deciding which tree was almost the hardest decision Vanessa had to make. Magnolia wilsonii? Amelanchier? She finally went for an autumn flowering cherry, Prunus x subhirtella 'Autumnalis', an elegant, delicate tree that starts to flower in November and keeps going, intermittently, until late April.
With trees, it's tempting to put in a big one, to cut down on the time you have to wait until it fills the space. I think this is a waste of money. In a show garden, a designer has no choice but to use something big. But in real life, it creates extra problems. These "heavy standards", as they are called, have to be anchored underground and take much longer than a smaller tree to establish themselves safely. But Vanessa successfully got away with it. There was quite a lot of dieback, but the tree subsequently made a heroic recovery.
The cherry is underplanted with a lovely mix of plants: an excellent, deep purple violet; shiny-leaved asarum; plenty of ferns (the bed is shady) such as polypodys and hart's-tongues; autumn-flowering cyclamen; ground-covering woodruff, enchanting at this time of year with fresh foliage of a particularly bright green; feathery clumps of Selinum wallichianum (cow parsley given a designer makeover); and a very handsome cut-leaved hellebore, H. multifidus. Around the edges, mind-your-own-business (Soleirolia soleirolii) spills on to the stone paving, softening the edges of the bed. Three uplighters are set under the tree, giving dramatic shadows at night.
Two further beds, each about a metre and a half wide, stretch across the courtyard, parallel with and in front of the big square bed. One is slightly raised within an edging, about 15cm tall, of Corten steel, the other separates the courtyard from the gravel drive. Both are packed with plants that have excellent foliage: big clumps of Valeriana officinalis, thalictrum, gorgeous freckled hellebores, Iris 'Gerald Derby', its sword leaves streaked with purple. Clumps of snowdrops and narcissi come and go with the seasons.
The house, like many on this Kent/Sussex border, is clap-boarded with long planks of oak, weathered now to a soft grey. It looks wonderful, but is not an easy proposition when it comes to planting climbers. You don't want to introduce anything that will worm its way between the boards and prise them apart. So the courtyard has only one climber, a handsome self-clinging hydrangea, H. seemannii, which has white flowers in summer. It's less well-known than H. petiolaris, which also climbs, but H. seemannii is evergreen – a great advantage. It's also quite frost-hardy – not fully hardy, but here in the courtyard the temperature is unlikely to ever fall below -5C.
Big billows of box dominate the planting round the edges of the courtyard, some clipped into shapes, others left shaggy. They anchor the house into the space and give the place that lush, generous air that Vanessa had been hoping for. Lusty evergreen myrtles are planted either side of the back door – just the right place for a shrub that smells so good. I love the courtyard. So, more importantly, does Vanessa. Is there anything she'd change, I asked? "Not a thing," she replied.
WHAT TO DO
* Set celery plants out in trenches, well-laced with muck or compost. They need plenty of food and water. Position them about 30cm/12in apart in a double row, one each side of the trench.
* Sow sweetcorn in a warm, sheltered place outdoors, if you have not been bringing seeds on inside. To get a good set of cobs, arrange the plants in a square grid about 45cm/18in apart each way.
* If you buy strips of bedding plants at the garden centre, choose plants that are compact and leafy. Avoid straggly plants, even though they may be in flower. A bedding plant that is already flowering in mid-May is usually signalling that it is starved and wants to get the whole business of producing seed over as quickly as possible.
* Lilies will benefit from a mulch of leaves or compost. Those in pots will need a weekly feed of liquid fertiliser. Spread slug pellets round any that are still close to the ground.
WHAT TO SEE
* There's a Rare Plant Fair tomorrow (11-4) at Kingston Bagpuize House, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, with a great line-up of specialist nurseries. Even without this treat, the gardens, set round a fine Baroque house, are well worth a visit. Admission £5. 0845 468 1368; rareplantfair.co.ukReuse content