Monday, 27 October 2014 17:33

New design challenges

Wow, this new place is fantastic - fabulous village, lovely, friendly, interesting people and amazing views. It may be the "middle of nowhere" but it is very close to major roads (though you can't hear them) and Shaftesbury, Tisbury, Warminster and even Salisbury. My new home and garden is on the Dorset/Wiltshire border and I am in heaven.

So to the garden....having searched for a country garden of a quarter to a third of an acre, South-West facing and preferably not on clay, I have compromised – well one has to compromise somewhere. I have found my perfect new home so have compromised a little on the garden. It is only four times the size of the London one ie 120 feet long by 54 feet wide (not even a sixth of an acre with the front garden included!) so it’s still a “small” garden – plus it’s North facing and on the thickest, heaviest clay you have ever seen. So, despite moving from London to the Dorset/Wiltshire border, I shall still be writing about creating and gardening in a small garden on clay.

But now I have many new challenges – starting with the design.  

The situation

I have fantastic views which I need to incorporate and not encroach on too much. In London it was easy. Everything was fences onto neighbours’ gardens and I could hide them away with trees and climbing plants. Now I have a beautifully landscaped estate of farmland and magnificent oak trees to build into my view from the back garden and a wonderfully tree-filled hill view over a common to the front. There is not a house in sight from the kitchen even though I am in a terrace of cottages first built in 1880, plus around six other dwellings on our potholed, unadopted road known as "the track”.

The back garden view

Front garden view

Though North facing, the garden is remarkably sunny for most of the day because of the layout and height of the house.  And as someone said, the great thing about North facing gardens is that the flowers look towards the house, not away from it - something to look forward to. But is also quite exposed and windy being surrounded by open fields and commons. It’ll also be colder than London of course.

And the clay is horrendous. In this area I expected to be on chalk or greenstone or at least something not clay. However, I am on a huge seam of Kimmeridge clay which comes up from the Dorset coast. It is very deep and intensely solid – you could throw pots from it in a minute. The garden has very little added top soil except on the old veg bed.

Clay has its positives. It retains minerals and goodness generally so is rich in nutrients but it cracks when dry (which can cause root disturbance) and holds water, which is not great in a wet winter on a flattish site – think bogs and mud. The previous owners have installed under-lawn drainage pipes to stop it getting waterlogged but I am going to have to work through and around these to create my new garden.

The garden as I bought it

The planting on purchase was a whole bed of self-sown hedgerow willows down the left border, two small trees (Bramley apple and Robinia aurea ) at the front of the lawn and a Rhus typhinia, a Viburnum and a Sorbus at the end of the lawn - all obscuring the view. There was also a young silver birch and a contorted willow which I am endeavouring to build into my plans and keep.

However, between the house and the lawn is a terrace and then a vast sea of gravel about 15 feet long, 54 feet wide and 8 inches deep. The house feels miles from the garden and the gravel is Dorset flint which is big, sharp and extremely difficult to walk on for me, let alone the dogs. So the first thing I had to do when I arrived was to create a pathway across it, for all of us, from old planks and bits of wood I found in the wood shed.

The bridge across the gravel sea - almost biblical?

The second, of course, was to completely redesign it,  which I started doing whilst still in London.

The key design challenges

  1. To bring the garden closer to the house, make it feel integrated and bring the wildlife closer for easy filming
  2. To create height and interest without impeding the views. It is level-ish and wooden fenced
  3. To add a large pond and create more plant borders whilst keeping enough lawn for Pickle and Lottie
  4. To re-invigorate, widen and deepen the existing beds – only the veg bed had any reasonable level of top soil and signs of worm life
  5. To create more planting areas for all the trees and other plants I want to grow
  6. To site the new greenhouse, shed, compost bins and a washing line without them encroaching on the view or casting too much shade
  7. To deal with the utilities. Our four cottages share a septic tank next door and all the pipes run through the back garden - somewhere?! The garden has existing drainage we have to work with, and I need electricity and water to the shed and greenhouse and pond pumps.
  8. To keep reasonable access to the gate into next door’s garden so they can fill their oil tank via my side access – and to facilitate their popping over for a drink, as is their wont, plus dog and child swapping generally which is already a feature of daily life
  9. To create cover for the unsightly oil tank and to disguise a large electricity pole
  10. To create alternative privacy for my neighbours to the right. At the moment this is achieved by a bank of brambles and nettles in the dairy farmer’s field which encroach into my garden – not ideal planting companions!
  11. The planting: to combine plant colours and textures. My last garden was so small it made sense to have a hot bed full of vivid colours separate from the cooler bed. And let’s face it, it’s much easier to do. But now I want to learn how to make them work together without banning a single colour. So there will be orange, purple, wild yellow and red alongside the easier pinks, blues and whites, plus greens, browns and maroons etc. - gulp!

Design process

I made lots of rough drawings but knew the design had to be to scale so a garden design program would be really helpful, as it was 11 years ago. I researched lots of potential garden design programs and eventually invested about £60 in one called Realtime Landscaping Pro 2014 from Idea Spectrum.

Overall, I am very pleased with it. It is easy to use, you can work in plan or perspective view, and view in 3D - as mouse controlled walkthrough or using video cameras. It has a good number of features and items to include in the plan, it’s easy to change them and it also does some cute things. For example, if you add a bird bath you get birds using it and if you plant scented plants you get butterflies fluttering around.

However, it is pretty American! You can choose from a thousand different modern house styles, decking types, swimming pools, patio stones and lawns but there is not a single climbing plant and only one vegetable in the plant list. I can’t imagine a garden without climbing roses, clematis, jasmine, honeysuckle, sweet peas, wisteria , even ivy, let alone the more interesting climbers. And I don’t want a vegetable garden completely full of cabbages either. I have offered to advise them on this for their next version but they have politely turned me down.

Initially I tried dividing the garden quite strongly into different “rooms” but it meant losing views or too much lawn with dividing features (hedges, walls, fences etc). So the final design remains a "whole", with different “areas”. I have incorporated some ideas from my London garden that worked well such as the low walls around the terrace which provide well-drained sites for alpines etc, the stream running into the pond and the rustic swing seat from Duckpaddle over which one can grow climbers, but otherwise it’s very new.

The new design

So the new garden will have a greenhouse in almost the same place as the existing one (which was correctly sited East/West and is in a sunny position). It is on order but won’t arrive until January which is OK for most seed planting. We shall build its base and brick walls in advance. It will be 10’x10’, not 12’x8’ so that it does not interrupt the sight line from the kitchen sink window, down the rose arches, to the view. A matching cold frame will sit the other side of it alongside an outdoor sink. The new compost bins will be at the beginning of the veg/cutting beds nearby.

I’ve moved the shed (which will be a new one) to the other side of the garden so it doesn’t block the Southern light through the side access to the veg garden.
There will be a long, six feet wide path up from the terrace towards the new huge pond and rock garden at the end of the garden. The path will be covered in black metal rose arches covered in climbers and have a long border down the left of it with a gap in the middle to allow movement to the left onto the lawn and to the right into the extended veg/cutting garden. At the end of the path will be more hard standing, the rustic swing seat and a bridge over the pond. I shall keep the existing metal gates in the fence at the end (but hang them properly) so that it looks as if the view through them is an extension of my garden.

The border down the left will be widened, the self-seeded willows (and everything else) removed and a peninsular bed added.

The sea of gravel and misplaced young tress will disappear and the lawn will come towards the house (accompanied by the long border). Two beds have been added nearer the house (so will be shadier beds – but shade beds are a fun challenge), with another around the trellis hiding the oil tank and one by the low terrace wall near the new side gate. The path from the side gate is four feet wide and ends up at the gate into the neighbour’s garden. Everything except the rose walk path is curvy - and it'll look a bit like this from where I sit and work.

The same view in the old garden looked like this.

So I am now happy with the overall design – all I need is someone to build it for me and clear what’s there at the moment… this space!

Thursday, 14 August 2014 19:47

Pickle and Lottie's interim blog

Mum says she is very busy sorting out the new house (boring), working (even more boring) and planning the new garden (crazy!) - this one has a lovely, large, clover and daisy filled lawn for us to play on. We’ve waited five years for a lawn.

Admittedly the garden doesn’t have as many scented plants or a pond for us to fish in and there is a sea of horrid, sharp, Dorset stone gravel between the terrace and lawn (and out the front). We find it very difficult and painful to walk on so we might let her change it a bit. As long as she keeps some lawn for us and sensible paths we shall remain neutral and open-minded about her new design – but watch this space.

Anyway, because she thinks she is very busy, she has asked us to write a quick blog before she fills you in fully (though she has at least made a very short accompanying video – slacker!).

So, what can we tell you? It took lots of lovely people to bark our welcome to in London and lick the be-shorted legs of while they packed everything up in June, and then a fairly long drive to get us here, but now we have a fabulous new home and garden full of exciting new smells on the Wiltshire/Dorset border.

Sadly there are no urban foxes or multi-scented lamp posts and street trees. And we think it is very, very dark at night for our bedtime walk, despite the huge skies, stars and moonlight (which Mum seems to love), so we are finding this quite an adjustment.

However, by day we can scent and see hare and rat, horse (there are even people doing something called dressage out the front window on the church green), and lots and lots of very big, noisy, black and white, munching things called cows at the end of our back garden.

For the first three weeks these cows kept making little ones too – they woke up us at night and we even saw this by day. Luckily, as soon as we arrived, we managed to get through the old trellis fence into the field to bark at the big and little ones more effectively. Silly cows they took no notice, wouldn’t bark back and anyway Mum didn’t seem to think this was a good idea. She got very cross and put chicken wire across the bottom of the fence to stop us – spoilsport! Unhappily she happened to have it with her. What was she doing with chicken wire in Clapham? We need to know.

However, in the house next door there is a Westie who loves to chat with us across the fence – and can you believe she has the same name as Mum? It’s very funny hearing her parents screaming “shut up Rosie” to stop her barking. On the other side there is also a cat and big and little people. We like children and love chasing cats so this is great fun and makes up for the disinterest of the huge black and white cow thingies.

So, we are getting into a new routine. Every morning we walk Mum off the lead most of the way along the footpath, past Alan the blacksmith (who is making things for us), and across Church Green to the wonderful local shop to get milk and the paper (she often seems to buy much more than that too) but of course we put her on the lead to cross the road and go through the churchyard.

We’ve also got a very nice man called Reg who mows our lawn for us. He knows this garden well and Mum obviously didn’t have a lawnmower, so he is very useful. He specially wears shorts with braces so we can lick his legs when he comes.

Not nearly enough people in London wore shorts or had exposed toes, but everyone here seems to. For example, the very famous furniture restorer man (Ivo) who lives in the village and came to quote for mending Mum’s furniture broken in the move, wore flip flops especially for us, as did many builders, roofers, kitchen makers, painter/decorators, oil people and even delivery men who have visited – heaven!

So, overall we are pretty happy. We have tasted lots of new legs and feet but are not getting enough long walks – something we need to discuss seriously with Mum. Our woolly coats get full of seeds which she has to remove all the time – but that means lots of delicious grooming in the evening, so is a good thing overall.

We are still a bit uncertain about the deep, dark night on our last walk of the day - even though she is carrying larger and larger torches to light our way, but the house is now full of comfy chairs and beds and the lawn and carpets are great for rolling and scratching our backs on.

We’ll make her update you properly soon but, in the meantime, please watch her video of a new little cow thing being born, its first walking and feeding, all at the end of our new garden. It’s just a shame she stopped us being in the field with it. We could have added so much more with our conversation, being kicked by a cow or been shot by the farmer. It would have made a much more exciting video but we suppose it’s worth watching and, thankfully,  it’s very short.

Love, Pickle (5) and Lottie (4)

PS She still needs to update the website and welcome video which is all old hat now. Yet another thing on the list she promises she is dealing with while we don’t go on long walks in this fabulous countryside!




Sunday, 25 May 2014 18:29

Home and plant hunting

L to R: 'Woody' the sound man, Tom Mitchell of Evolution Plants, Kaz (sis-in-law), me, Izzy the researcher and Amy the A P/camerwoman for BBC1's 'Escape to the Country', on location in Wiltshire

So now for a bit of real news – I am moving house.  I am leaving London and moving to Wiltshire, just on the Dorset border – new home, new garden!

Obviously I shall be horribly sad to leave my lovely Clapham home, wonderful garden and the wildlife that shares it with me, especially Mr Blackbird and my robins, and also those who visit transiently - no amazing Jersey Tiger moths in Wiltshire I fear.

But my London garden has wonderful new owners who have always wanted to be gardeners - and now will have to be!  They don’t have children so don’t need a lawn/football pitch yet and they have also volunteered to “fish sit” Big Yellow and the others until I have built a suitable pond at the new house. How brilliant is that?

And, of course, I am terribly excited about my new home and garden which is obviously much larger and almost a blank canvas – but more about that later.

This is a roundabout way of telling those of you who saw my Tweet (and everyone else) that the reason I was lucky enough to spend a day with plant hunter Tom Mitchell of Evolution plants, in his private nursery, was because it was my “activity” whilst filming for ‘Escape to the Country’. If you don’t know it, this is a very popular BBC 1 programme that seeks to help people do what the title suggests. They show you three houses (including a mystery house), in your chosen county. You also have to do some sort of ‘local activity’ that matches your major interests – hence my visit to Tom’s place - but not the house move. I have found my new home separately.

However, it was a very special treat. How else was I going to spend a day with a plant hunter in his nursery which was not open to the public when I visited?

On the first day of our three day shoot for the Beeb, Kaz, my lovely sister-in-law (who was my accomplice and advisor on the house hunting), some of the crew, Kaz and I arrived at Evolution Plants and were welcomed and looked after wonderfully by Helen Bailey.

We had to spend the morning filming Tom showing us round, and Kaz and me having to divide and pot on a really rare plant, so I didn’t get to see much of the nursery. However, when Tom realised I was “Rosie’s back garden” and told me he reads this blog (you could have blown me down with a feather!), he invited me back, on my own, for a proper, private, afternoon tour. And what a place it is!

The BBC crew filming Evolution Plants with the, very appropriately alliterative, Ben Budd in the beds

The nursery is pretty huge with polytunnels and beds everywhere, looks onto a beautiful golf course and is right on the edge of a pretty Wiltshire village at the end of a dodgy lane. And it is full of the most amazing and beautiful plants. Tom  has an incredible Paeonia collection, most of which he inherited but the focus is on propagating from the seed he collects from all over the place: from the Balkans to the Caucasus; from Japan to the jungles of Vietnam; from the coastal sand dunes of southern Mozambique to the mountain ranges of western Europe ie all places where the plants are threatened by human activity ie us – deforestation, industrialisation, population growth and suburbanisation, climate change etc..

His mission is to protect these plants, mostly species varieties, by propagating them here and eventually selling them to us in favour of the mass-produced, Dutch grown varieties that fill our garden centres.

He wants us all to grow these purer varieties and turn our gardens into natural arks for the future. His ambition is to inspire enthusiasm for better, more interesting, more exciting garden plants.

If you could only see all the magical and glorious plants he has you would understand why.

Here are just a few photos of his versions of some plant species you will be familiar with. He has hundreds more you might recognise and thousands more you probably won’t.


I would die for this fabulous Paeony foliage - Paeonia tenuifolia


The better known Paeonia mlokosewitschii (Molly the witch)


Geranium Phaeum (wild and as yet un-named) but very stunning! Jo AJ you'd love it.


 And just wonder at the beauty of this daffodil - Narcisus nobilis


A very exotic grape hyacinth - Muscari Leopoldia comosa, better known as Muscari comosum


I am not a fan of double, over the top, Delphiniums. This is a delicate beauty, Delphinium tricron 'ruby falls'


And this beauty is Moraea pendula

I don’t know about you but I am becoming pretty familiar with many garden plant species, their hybrids and cultivars. The idea of being able to grow something completely different and unusual is very appealing. I understand that hybridisation can add to flower form and length of flowering time, hardiness etc and create lots of variety but there is something wonderfully exotic, yet simply beautiful, about the plants Tom is growing for us.

And I have discovered, in my 13 years of being a gardener, that I’m a plant addict. This means that overall garden design and planting schemes can suffer. But, for me, the plant variety is more important than the overall effect. It’s just one of those things you have decide about yourself - are you a plant lover or a garden design lover?

Obviously, I love to design with textures, foliage, colour and flowers together but I'd rather do it with rare or unusual plants than ones from a chain based, garden centre down the road.

I also think a good, well throught through, hard landscaping scheme, with designated beds, can help us plant lovers keep our enthusiasm in check whilst still creating great gardens. We’ll see. I am about to create my new garden!

Since my visit to Tom’s place in February this year, the great news is that his nursery has now been opened to the public, the dodgy lane has been re-surfaced and so you too can go and experience some of the joy I had.  Please do.  I promise you’ll love it if you are a ‘plantophile’. If you can’t, you can also buy a few of the plants online at

So, I've finally met a real-life plant hunter whilst 'home hunting' with the BBC, a fabulous crew and the lovely, intelligent, Alistair Appleton as my presenter. I quickly (over an early breakfast) discovered that Alistair shares my love of proper ie cryptic, crosswords and my hatred of the sandwich - so we got on like a house on fire.

Back, from L to R: Izzy, Amy, Chris and 'Woody'.    Front, from L to R: Kaz, me, Alistair Appleton

Those three filming days were definitely a highlight of 2014. We had a ball and I think the final programme might be quite fun telly. Alistair and I sparred on camera.

Back to the move. The new garden offers huge potential and thus huge blog potential.  Essentially I am starting from scratch, so will be blogging on garden design, garden design software, plants choices, pond building, product choices (greenhouses, sheds, lawnmowers, pond pumps etc) and, this time, you’ll be able to share it with me as I create it and as it grows and matures.

Having spent months house hunting in Wiltshire, and thus expecting to newly garden on chalk/limestone, I can’t believe my chosen home is on a stream of Kimmeridge clay that comes up from the Dorset coast. Gosh, heavy clay again - but at least I know it and that my favourite plants (roses, clematis etc) thrive in it.

I also can’t believe that, having insisted on a South facing garden, my new back garden is North facing (though it has a front garden too).

As a result, this blog will also be full of North facing stuff, shade gardening, gravel gardening, and how to plant lots of trees and shrubs while still incorporating a stunning countryside view into your garden design, front and back etc. - so it will probably be much more useful to many of you. I am very excited about creating it and about blogging it.

Also, the updated website will make sure you can contribute and ask questions ie it will have much better functionality than it does now, I promise!

The big move is supposed to happen on 25 June. I can’t wait!

Wish me luck – and I’ll keep you updated. There are a few more blogs coming from here before I move.

PS Evolution Plants is now open to the public Thurs-Sunday, 11.00 – 6.00pm.

PPS The London element of this site will be saved for posterity under a separate tab, when brother Henry and I manage to do this. I am pretty busy at the moment with the move and work.

PPPS The Escape to the Country episode will be shown in Sept/Oct this year. I won’t know exactly when until about two weeks before but I shall keep you informed.


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