Growing up the walls

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The Independent Online
Four years ago Mary Keen bought an old rectory in the Cotswolds, with two acres of neglected garden. Today it is one of the best new gardens in the country. While chopping down hedges and collecting skip-loads of stones, Keen wrote a book, Creating A Garden, published this week, detailing her triumphs and disasters. And there were many set-backs for this professional garden designer. She battled with savage frosts, mice which eat spring flowers, and with her weakness for plants she loves but secretly knows will find the going tough. Keen has visionary skills but her book contains tips which can be adapted for the smallest backyard. Indeed, here Keen proves that all you need to start a garden is a wall.

Roses and honeysuckle round the door are one of the stock images of gardening. Everyone responds to houses where nature clings to the walls in a seemingly artless way. Then during the Romantic movement, when communing with nature became fashionable, plants began to appear against walls and framing windows. This legacy has never really left us: we are all romantics at heart. Wisteria draped the facade of classical Regency houses; the Victorians liked quaint old houses covered in creepers; and today, the tendency is to have walls as vertical flower beds - gardeners cram as many different varieties on to their houses as there is space to manage.

Manage is the operative word, since looking after climbers is time-consuming. They need to be constantly pruned, trained and, because the footings of walls offer poor pickings for deep roots, they usually have to be fed and watered as well. All climbers can only root in one direction, away from the wall, so compared with other shrubs they only stand half a chance.

Where there is no shortage of space for growing flowers and the house has a pleasant face, I think there are good reasons for resisting too many climbers. Labour is one, ladders are another.

A better reason, perhaps, than either of these is that houses of architectural distinction often look better left bare. Symmetrical facades with regularly placed windows can be thrown off balance by mismatched climbers. The Regency solution of wisteria-draped fronts with hollyhocks and sometimes a rose below, did give buildings a unity that we have lost. The smothered house is here to stay.

A dull house can be improved by plastering with wall plants, if they are carefully arranged: a single rose, with wooden stems and a dose of blackspot, isn't worth growing for the sake of the few flowers that appear at bedroom-level for three weeks.

On our doll's-house facade we inherited a wisteria across half the south face and Virginia creeper on the other. Had I been strong-minded, after we removed the creeper, I would have planted another wisteria - a different form perhaps, with later flowers - and left it at that. Instead, I repeated the mistake we made at our last house where there was also a wisteria on one half. The yellow Rosa banksiae, with tiny cream yellow rosettes in May, has to have a large south wall to succeed. I am unable to resist it, although I know that a cold winter may kill it and that, when fully grown, it will be out of control. It also looks untidy for six months of the year.

Under the wisteria, we planted silver-leafed Moroccan broom Cytisus battandieri. This shrub, is unattractive against red brick, where its bright, gold flowers look garish. In front of stone it is lovely. Sharing the same wall, a beautiful tender shrub, Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca "Citrina", offers pale yellow pea flowers all winter. Through this - here we start to get crowded - the rose "Leverkusen" struggles to put out a few flowers and the blue clematis "Perle d'Azur" is lucky to escape the mice. They eat the shoots of every clematis in the garden. All these share the narrow central width between the windows.

Near the porch a summer jasmine grows up through the trunk of the wisteria and, at the outer edge, Magnolia "Maryland" shares the wall with Clematis armandii "Apple Blossom". The magnolia will take years to reach the upper windows, so the clematis can have its fling now.

On the windier side of the front door progress is slow. I bought a large plant of the R. banksiae because I thought it would improve its chances in the first winter, but large plants grow less rapidly than small ones. In the corner nearest the porch, which faces south-west, I took a chance on a variegated trachelospermum. It has jasmine-scented flowers with pretty pink and white leaves in winter, but that too is taking time to settle and it will be years before it flowers. The rose "Guinee", darkest of velvet reds, is also a reluctant starter, but as I want to give it a chance it has to have space.

Already a Clematis florida "Sieboldii" is climbing up the wall rather forlornly. It should have the rose for support but "Guinee" has been left behind. The golden eccremocarpus, always supposed to be tender, is proving much less half-hearted than the roses and the trachelospermum, and that too is wandering about the half-empty wall while the other plants fail to grow.

On the windowless west wall under the huge chimney gable, I have shown more restraint. Ceanothus, solanum, roses and tender rarities might have flourished here, but I have planted one fan-trained pear like those I have seen round here on old farmhouses. I do not regret this. A little further on, on the same side, there are windows three-storeys high on the 1920s Arts and Crafts extension. Around these, the rose "Phyllis Bide" and the thrilling pale yellow honeysuckle Lonicera etrusca "Superba" are growing. Through "Phyllis Bide" a plant of cherry-red eccremocarpus twines.

At the back, on the north wall, restraint still rules. The reason for not planting too much here is that this, the oldest part of the house, can be seen from the churchyard and I do not want a lavish twentieth-century planting over the wall to break the spell of unchanged peace that surrounds the church. On the chimney-breast there is a golden ivy, not performing brilliantly due, I suspect, to lack of sun. Outside the kitchen the orange- flowered Lonicera x tellmanniana climbs the drainpipes to spread over the tops of the small windows on the back of the house. A scented Lonicera periclymenum "Belgica" (Early Dutch) would be a bonus here.

The north side of the house is perfect for a collection of honeysuckles. They suit the vernacular style of the building and, in cool shady conditions, rarely succumb to aphids.

On the walls of the gooseberry garden we inherited two roses: "Paul's Lemon Pillar", which will stay, and "Climbing Lady Waterlow", which will go when the fig I have planted needs the space. The walls are south-facing, but so far a bay tree has not made it through the winter intact, in spite of being shrouded in fleece. The secret with all slightly tender wall shrubs is to buy them as large as you can afford, with some ripened wood if possible. A bush of the narrow-leaved myrtle (Mirtus communis var. tarentina) and the lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) are protected by fleeces at the end of the autumn as we are over 200 metres up, which is risky. All these doubtfully hardy shrubs also have heavy mulches of bark. The rose "Alister Stella Gray" is able to cope with the winter and so is a bush of Ceanothus "Puget Blue", out of scale with its neighbours, but useful for keeping an early white Alpina clematis out of reach of the mice. "Alberic Barbier", the almost evergreen rose with creamy flowers, has under a metre of wall space before it turns to climb the wooden arbour in the corner where the walls meet, and through it a vine, Vitis vinifera "Fragola", whose grapes taste of strawberries, threads its way.

On the east-facing wall of the yard, where the cars are parked and people do not linger, huge-scale effects are better than detailed ones. I like the rose "Francis E. Lester," for its apple-blossom flowers. Other old Rambler roses on the yard wall with smaller flowers than "Francis E Lester" are "Adelaide d'Orleans" and "Sanders' White Rambler". On the north-facing wall I have also planted a "New Dawn", which has a much stiffer habit than I like, but it is so dependable, with its shell-pink flowers, that it had to earn a place somewhere.

Below the house, the south-facing sheds to the left of the path that goes down the side of the summer garden are prime sites for climbers. Their scale is small and I have never had quite enough room for everything I want to grow. Nearest the back door is a fan-trained Prunus Mume "Beni- shidori". This is the Japanese apricot which flowers throughout February with bright pink flowers all along its branches. In two years it made three metres of growth. Near it is another plant for winter, Clematis cirrhosa "Freckles". One of the earliest roses, "Climbing Pompon de Paris", with pink tiny flowers, is another neighbour.

I wish I could be more disciplined about climbers, but like all gardeners I cannot always resist the longing to add just one more. Provided they are well-fed and trained, it is possible to grow several in quite a small space to provide a succession of flowers.

Mary Keen, gardening correspondent for the Independent on Sunday, opens The Old Rectory, Duntisbourne Rous, near Daglingworth, Cirencester, Gloucestershire, as part of the National Garden Scheme, 14 October, 10am- 3pm.