Making a garden: Patience, vision and perspiration (part 1)

‘..A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust..” Gertrude Jekyll

There once was a house. An eco-house with a striking modern look about it. The view from the house led straight to the peaks of the Ariege Pyrenees and the beautiful, pantiled roofs of the mediaeval town on the rise across from the house. It was the perfect place to make a garden.

Looking up at the house from the steep slope of what would be the garden    September 2013

Looking up at the house from the steep slope of what would be the garden September 2013

But there was a great slope to be conquered, and safe access to all parts of the garden established and the view to be cherished and preserved. Many would have fallen at those hurdles, or simply done what the previous owners had done, whack in a few big stones and try and make something of the flattest bit.

But the new owners had some courage, will and vision. They wanted shape, colours, flowers, scents, wildlife encouraged and preserved- and above all, they wanted to make, from scratch, their first garden, for themselves. They asked me to help with a design that would get them started, and then be flexible enough to roll with whatever practicalities or problems making the garden presented.

So, I began work. An essential principle for me was to try and go with the flow of the geography as much as possible, as this would enhance what there was, keep landscaping costs as low as possible, and be true to what was there long before we turned up. First, the view. I planned a flat, wide, oval area of lawn immediately outside the front of the house. I had in mind a feel of ‘infinity’ about it, that nothing would come between the viewer and the immensity of the view. So, the lawn area would present an amphitheatre for the view, and be bounded by a low wall, only a few centimetres high. There would be no planting here, just a perfectly tended lawn, in itself, no small job!

Digging out the footings for the oval shaped wall, Jan 2015

Digging out the footings for the oval shaped wall, Jan 2015

The oval shaped wall drops 1.5m down to a dome-shaped planting area which would moreorless follow the existing shape of the ground. Against the wall, to frame it, will be a row of tall Miscanthus grasses, and then a mixed planting of tough shrubs and perennials billowing down the slope with a cutting area for summer flowers to one side.

The beginning of the grand steps leading past the mounded planting area down from the lawn to the flatter area of the garden.  February 2015

The beginning of the grand steps leading past the mounded planting area down from the lawn to the flatter area of the garden. February 2015

To access the rest of the garden from the lawn, I planned a grand curving set of steps. They were always intended to be generously wide, but in reality, are now a very stately 2m wide, with 16 gentle steps down to the flatter area of the garden below the wide, planted mound. In time, a smaller set of curving steps will be made to provide an echo on the other side of the garden, probably from drystone walling.

The beginnings of the 'infinity' lawn area and the oval shaped low wall framing it, and just a hint of the magnificent view beyond...February 2015

The beginnings of the ‘infinity’ lawn area and the oval shaped low wall framing it, and just a hint of the magnificent view beyond…February 2015

Along the way, we have flexed the design where needed, and also run into unknowns. For example, a giant series of boulders, probably spoil from the original excavation for the house foundations, appeared a few feet below the surface on what was to be the planted mound. The ‘Dragon’s Teeth’ were huge, weighing several tonnes, and could only be moved with the help of a massive machine and a farmer friend down the road. Who would have thought it?

Brought to a halt by 'Dragon's Teeth'.  February 2015

Brought to a halt by ‘Dragon’s Teeth’. February 2015

It has taken enormous patience and will to get this far! Much of the work has been done by a skilled local mason who handled the walling, and a skilled local landscaper who tackled the slope and cut out the shapes that we needed. And a lot has been done by the new owners, who have the muscles to prove it!

So, now we are at the stage where the majority of the heavy duty landscaping is done, and we may be able to get some planting done by early summer. This is the part that I love, getting into the soil and digging in the plants that we have chosen to make the space beautiful. We can almost see it now….very exciting.

More later about the next phase and the plants I have selected to bring the vision alive.

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