THE PHOTOGRAPHS that Anne Ettlinger sent with her letter showed a garden roughly 45ft long and 20ft wide with larch lap fencing down both side boundaries. The fence on the right-hand side seemed to be balanced as uncertainly as a card on its edge, and the border in front of it was too narrow to accommodate much more than a single line of plants. A eucalyptus in the middle of this strip had shot to the sky, as is their way, leaving only a bare trunk to contribute to the border. New fence, wider border, stool eucalyptus, I thought. And get rid of the pampas looming like a man-eating tarantula at the prominent corner where the garage juts into the garden.
By the time I arrived, Mrs Ettlinger, a wonderfully besotted and enthusiastic gardener, had already done all these things and filled up the right-hand border with some good plants. The eucalyptus tree, stooled, had sprouted a wig of good juvenile foliage, silver-pewter in colour. Taking this as her key, Mrs Ettlinger had added perovskia, variegated sage, scabious and penstemons.
The problems remained: the slightly forbidding wall and the integration of the space behind the garage. I also felt that the narrow space in the bottom left-hand corner, where the garage came close to the boundary fence, needed plugging, as the garden gave the impression of slipping through the hole. Beyond lay the car, dustbins, concrete - nothing you particularly wanted to see. If you filled this gap with, say, an arch and a see-through gate (a solid one would give too prison-like a feeling), the eye could be diverted to more intriguing prospects.
There was a possible prospect on the other side of the garage, where, because of the odd angle at which it sits, you have a ready-made false perspective: a gradually narrowing piece of ground which, with a few stage props, could give the illusion that the land behind the garage stretched on much further than it actually did.
If you put a beam from the front corner of the garage across to the right-hand boundary fence, and then a parallel one from the back corner, also to the boundary fence, you would create a kind of tunnel: not exactly a pergola, but an enclosed space for your eye to travel down. At the far end, it would need to meet something that made the journey worthwhile. A large pot (cheaper and less pretentious than a statue) would probably be the answer, with something sculptural in it. I suggested a big cordyline.
This vista would line up very neatly with the outlook from the french windows of the sitting-room, which open directly on to a small paved terrace. It would also help to resolve the problem of the slightly wasted space behind the garage. At the moment, you do not feel any compulsion to explore it. The wide tunnel, swathed in climbers, would draw you down to the far corner of the garden, where if you did a prompt turn to the left you could survey a completely different little garden, made in the lost 15 x 10ft formal rectangle there.
Viewed from the house, the angle of the garage seems strange, but it is in fact built parallel with the back boundary wall of the Ettlingers' house. There is a drop in level from the back right-hand corner of the garden into the area behind that needed to be resolved. This drop could be turned to advantage if you made two shallow, broad steps running the width of the space (10ft) to carry you down to the 'new' garden. This would give extra, different possibilities for planting between the cracks of the paving stones (thymes, sedums and the like) and would prepare you, as steps always do, for the different experience ahead.
You could create quite a formal little garden here. The garage is blinding white, evoking the Mediterranean. I would be tempted to plant two rows of three tall, thin junipers either side of the space, along in front of the garage wall and along the back boundary, and gravel the whole of the area. You could expand on the Mediterranean theme by growing something outrageous such as Campsis x tagliabuana 'Madame Galen' on the garage wall. It faces south.
By doing this, you would tie the garage into the rest of the garden; it now looks like a party guest hovering at the edge of a conversation. The garage with a gate added on one side and beams one the other would physically be connected with the whole, which mentally would make you accept it as integrated.
The boundary wall behind the garage is brick, but low, and Mrs Ettlinger wanted to create a more effective screen between her property and the adjacent house. She was thinking of planting an informal hedge of Cotoneaster x 'Cornubia'. I have not grown 'Cornubia' and have not seen it in action as a screen, but I feel it would be too large for this position; you would have to be constantly clipping to keep the shrubs within bounds. Mrs Ettlinger was thinking of planting the cotoneasters at 3ft intervals along the boundary, but with a natural height and a spread of 20ft they would soon get out of control, taking light from and spilling all over the neighbour's glass lean-to.
I would be tempted to fix a large, square-pane trellis above the wall, which would take the boundary up to about 6ft. Then I would grow passion flowers, clematis and large-leaved Vitis coignetiae over it. No cover in winter, of course, but sumptuous in summer. In winter you would still have the wooden structure itself screening the view.
That left the tall wall, which rears up immediately outside the french windows, forming the first part of the right-hand boundary of the garden. It is the wall of the next-door house and Mrs Ettlinger had already been to ask her neighbour if she could fix some supports for plants on it. What sort? You could go for decorative curved panels, though they would not allow the plants to climb very high, or fix long strips of chicken wire on it. This kind of galvanised wire is cheap and practically invisible. It would need only four strong fixers at each corner. I use it a great deal, to wrap round posts or to provide scrambling footholds for climbers on odd pieces of wall. Or perhaps Mrs Ettlinger could get her artistic younger daughter to paint some trellis and plants on the wall. It would save on the pruning.
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