Cleve West: '"Presents" given as some sort of subconscious, subversive leg-cocking can ruin a planting scheme at a stroke'

Urban gardener

I’m having a peek through the railings of a garden I designed last summer, one I’m keen to keep tabs on, but something’s awry. The property, a semi-detached Regency town-house, dictated a fairly formal design. Nothing wrong with that. The straight path dissects an elliptical box hedge that morphs into two large spheres that might encourage a pause just before steps to the front door – nothing amiss there either. Flemish pavers used on the path that replaced the more traditional, but treacherously slippery, old York stone paving aren’t the problem. Neither are the shade-tolerant plants flanking the path: vinca, polystichum, luzula, and, er, fennel? Ah-ha! There’s the culprit.

Quite how three 9cm pots of Foeniculum vulgare were planted among ferns and periwinkle in probably one of the shadiest gardens I’ve ever seen I can only guess. Either the contractors had some left over from the altogether brighter and more sun-lit back garden, or the client put them in after they had gone. Of course, there’s a chance it could have been a gift from a friend. Well-intentioned this may have been, but I’m not the only garden designer that sees “presents” given to the garden owner after the implementation of a new landscape as some sort of subconscious, subversive leg-cocking that can ruin a planting scheme at a stroke.

While it’s possible for fennel to accidentally self-seed in a shady location, it naturally prefers plenty of sunshine, so really doesn’t associate well with the other plants I’ve chosen for this shady garden and will have to be removed if I’m to maintain my street-cred in west London. The centrepiece is a mature mulberry that spans the width of the space. On the boundary, an old chestnut (not a beautiful tree, but a mature one with a preservation order on it) makes a crude and futile stab at stealing the limelight. It offers little to the garden aesthetically but in a way has been a tremendous help as it has restricted the palette of plants that can be used in the given conditions. With both trees being deciduous it’s easy to be fooled (during the winter months) into thinking that there is more light than there is. Come summer, as the canopies of each tree collide and burst with new growth, a horticultural black-hole is born, consuming not only light but also small dogs and even the occasional junk-mail distributor. OK, I’m exaggerating: some light does sneak in, but it’s really no place for fennel.

It is, however, fine for the existing camellias, which were retained in spite of the fact that each shrub carries a different flower colour – as they offer valuable, mid-size evergreen structure. The conditions are also fine for ferns, and several large specimens of Dryopteris filix-mas, salvaged from the original planting scheme, have been re-used to provide loose, flamboyant summer foliage among ground cover of Vinca difformis, Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae and Symphytum ibericum. Such potentially invasive ground cover, not to mention existing ivy, which will be allowed to run through railings at the base of said chestnut, might sound like trouble, but I’m hoping that the restricted palette will accentuate the simplicity of the design and actually reduce the amount of weeding in the long term. Mini explosions of spring bulbs, hellebores and Iris foetidissima with exclamations of Digitalis purpurea should prevent the garden from being too sombre and while the green theme that several designers adopted at Chelsea last year may not be in vogue by the time the garden matures, I’m hoping it will retain a timeless appeal.

Being a long-time advocate of foliage and evergreen plants in my own garden, it’s always exciting to get the chance to pare down planting palettes in an urban setting. All too often we are seduced by the sheer number of plants that can be grown in our temperate climate so when options are restricted by shade from trees, don’t curse your luck; more often than not, it’s a blessing.

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