Wednesday 13 June 2007

Death by Gravel

Having built and demonstrated the strengths of Gravel Gardens I find myself being asked to help others do the same. Starting from scratch is often easier than doing a re-design which was what I was asked to do recently. I wasn't sure I was up to this task when I saw the absolutely huge expanse of gravel that lay before me. What was the drive and where did the garden start and finish? It was really hard to tell there was so much gravel and so little planting.

But my Clients were really good folks and honest about the weaknesses of their newly acquired garden. They had seen the gravel garden at Afton Park with it's flowing grasses, architectural shapes and pools of seasonal colour and realised that their own gravel garden was wanting.

Fortunately, I knew a little of the history of both the house, site and garden so between us we were able to piece together what must have been the rationale behind this mass use of gravel. The site was indeed demanding. Over the years it had been used as a builders yard where concrete blocks were at one time manufactured, then a joinery workshop and finally a conversion to a beautiful barn home. The gravel had simply been poured down to conceal a multitude of sins, the worst of which was vast areas of solid concrete. The only redeeming factor was that the owners of the joinery workshop had laid some decking paths and tracking in and around the gravel which broke up this mass surface area. A huge concrete cruciform and two chronically congested wooden planters with a palm and dogwood desperate to be re-planted had been used to 'give interest' to the gravel plus a motley collection of pots of all persuasions with a curious collection of everything from miniature conifers (yuk! sorry but just don't like them) to Pennisetum grasses (lovely!). The previous owners had clearly tried but lost their way in this sun-baked, shallow soiled expanse of building materials.

But how to proceed? A closer examination of the planting within the gravel was revealing. It was clear that several plant species were holding their own and indeed beginning to colonise this inhospitable area. Stipa tenuissima was doing well, Alchemilla mollis , Calendula officinalis, Linaria were all self-seeding into the gravel. Large carpets of 'Snow in Summer' with its lax grey foliage and white flowers was dominating the edges, but lacked the all important contrast of a stronger colour nearby with the two exceptions of a stunning pool of magenta dianthus and a couple of mounds of Armeria maritima or Common Thrift. I was encouraged by these survivors and felt by adding to the pallete of plants within this garden and upping the ratio of plants to gravel we could alter the whole character of the garden.

As ever, I began to make my mental list of plants for hot, dry, situations over shallow soil. What I was looking for was a contrast in leaf shape, texture and form. Stronger colours were needed to punctuate the blandness of the gravel. More grasses were needed both tall spires and more flowing examples. Flat, creeping ground-huggers would offer another dimension also. I was definitely beginning to get excited. Then my Client took me over to their newly built Alitex Greenhouse which had some newly acquired stunning architectural plants in it. Now we were cooking . . . . .

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