What you need to know about town vs country gardens…

August 23rd, 2015
Posted In: Garden style & living

You need to change your mindset – often in unexpected ways – when you move from a town to a country garden

Of course, Miranda Alexander realised that country gardens are likely to be more work. They’re usually bigger, so that makes sense.

‘Whilst my established town garden involved not much more than a couple of hours of ‘outdoor housework” a week, my new country garden has proved much more demanding.’

But she was surprised at how different the rural garden experience was to the urban one in other ways.

A country garden surrounded by farm land.

The essence of an English country dream – Miranda’s pretty Georgian house has about half an acre of garden and overlooks farmland.

She moved into a house with an established garden. The previous owners had luckily loved plants. ‘Over the past year I have been discovering many unusual and lovely varieties.

But the owners had somewhat neglected the garden in the period leading up to the sale, so a huge amount of clearing and weeding was needed before these were revealed.’

Fortunately Miranda didn’t just take a digger to the garden to clear it completely. Gently weeding, pruning and clearing is a good first steps in restoring a garden, as Deborah Baker discovered when she restored her neglected rented garden on a tiny budget in ‘The Secret Garden’ Strategy.

Country gardens are more affected by the weather

‘The most important thing I have learnt is that the wait and see approach is essential’ says Miranda.

You should wait at least a year before doing anything radical. Not only do you need to see what each season brings, but you need to discover how the weather impacts on the garden.

‘The weather is a much bigger factor in country gardens, she says. ‘In London there is something of a micro climate, and gardens are generally protected from the vagaries of the weather.’

A country garden often surrounds the house - making it four different gardens in one.

While one side of the house has open views, the other is tucked into the hill – and each side has a different aspect, too – like four gardens in one. The weather will affect each side of the house differently, creating more micro-climates in country gardens than you get in town gardens.

Country gardens are more ‘outward-looking’

‘The focus in town gardens is almost always inward looking,’ says Miranda.

‘My garden in Dorset wraps around an H shaped house, and so is in effect four gardens all facing in different directions. The house sits on a hill next to a tiny church, facing west across the Frome valley.’

This means she has beautiful views, but is completely exposed to the west wind that whistles in from the sea from across the Atlantic.

The house is also set in the middle of the garden, rather than at one end, which would be more common in most town gardens. The ‘H’ shape means that gable ends are north and south facing, giving her options for sheltered planting or seating between the gables.

‘One has a stone terrace, now completely smothered in alchemilla mollis. The other has a new bed which I planted up in my second spring. I made the bold move of planting three pleached hornbeams to cover the large expanse of wall now exposed by knocking down a hideous sixties garage.’

Miranda says she ‘agonised’ over this (expensive) decision.’Would pleached trees be seen as too town-y? Too formal for Dorset?  Would they grow too big?’

So far they seem to have met with general approval. The planting below them, (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’, delphiniums, Verbena bonariensis, erigeron, rosemary and knautia) works well.

How to mix town and country style

Pleached hornbeams and rustic walls – town and country style mingling happily.

Country gardens need more maintenance

This may seem obvious, but it’s still a worthwhile reminder. If you’re used to the small spaces of a town garden, you may forget to check how much maintenance a new area of your country garden may need.

For example, Miranda says: ‘In a fit of rural over-excitement, I ordered some “meadowmat” to cover the area where an ugly garage had been. This (I thought) was a quick and easy way to create a mini meadow. The turf comes ready planted with wild flowers. You just unroll it, lay it down, and water it. Hey presto, you have a Dan Pearson meadow.’

‘But then I read, a year later, that you have to scythe a meadow, a la Poldark, or strim, at least 3 times a year, leaving the seed heads to set seed before raking up.

As a result of forgetting this step, the oxeye daisies seem to dominate the patch, but I much like the effect, with its mown path leading from the drive into the garden.

See here for tips on how to create a mini meadow in your garden. And if you’ve already got one, but it’s not turned out the way you hoped, see top meadow lawn mistakes and how to avoid them.

Pretty bench in a country garden

Where is Poldark when you need him?

Country gardens have more invaders and pests

‘It appears that I am not the only country inhabitant who likes wild flowers,’ says Miranda. ‘The cows in the field in front of the house LOVE them.

So much that they managed to get into the garden twice, to munch on daisies, snap off the heads of my newly planted fruit trees, and smash a (not very lovely) terracotta urn.

The second time,one of the ladies got stuck on the gate, and the two farmers had a hell of a time extricating her.

So, I have had to pay great attention to fortifying the boundaries against further incursion.’

Country garden invaders include cows.

‘Those daisies look delicous’ – Madam Cow gets a bit stuck looking for wildflower treats in Miranda’s garden.

‘But no amount of fortification can prevent my greatest garden enemy from making merry hell wherever it pleases – Mr Rabbit.

Up on the hill above the house, at dusk, the scene is reminiscent of Watership Down. The little blighters eat anything young and tasty the minute its planted. I tried buying these wire cloches from Crocus, which seem moderately successful, but they are not cheap and I can’t put them everywhere.’

(You can buy plainer, less beautiful-looking ‘King Pieces’ wire cloches from Amazon, which will do the same job more cheaply. Note that links to Amazon are affiliate, see disclosure.)

Miranda has resigned herself to losing some plants and is going to focus on protecting the younger, more vulnerable seedlings.

Anti-rabbit cloches

Anti-rabbit cloches from Crocus. But Miranda can’t put them everywhere….

Hiding eyesores in country gardens – oil tanks and wires…

‘In London, gas pipes and electricity wires run silently underground,’ says Miranda.

‘But here in Dorset we are not on the gas, and old electricity wires swing through the countryside like drunken sailors. When we trimmed the hedge to the west, a whole army of them appeared. So now I have planted three betula jaquemontii to disguise them.’

Smart housing for oil tank

A smart housing for a big oil tank.

‘The oil tank, however, has proved less easy to hide. There are many rules as to where this ugly beast has to be sited (I may have broken a few of these). But the bottom line is that you are going to see it wherever you put it.

I plumped for putting it alongside the hedge enclosed by a wooden structure. I’ve planted rugosa roses, white summer jasmine and late flowering dark purple clematis to hide it.’

Self-seeded nasturtiums

Self-seeders in Miranda’s garden include nasturtiums…

Country gardens can be more relaxed

While there was little room for ‘volunteers’ in Miranda’s London garden, she loves the impact of self-seeding plants in the countryside. Self seeders fill your garden with free colour and need very little looking after (See 25 top self seeding plants to find out more.)

‘Origanum runs amok in the bed in front of the kitchen window. Nasturtiums tumble over the walls and creeping wild strawberries grow everywhere.

Letting go and letting Nature do its thing is essential in the country. The manicured look is pretty much out of the question. Thank goodness I don’t like it!

And I take inspiration from many of the wonderful gardens one can visit in Dorset. My favourite is The Walled Garden in Little Bredy, where the balance between rampant wildness and cultivated beauty is wonderfully achieved.’

Self-seeded wild strawberries

…and wild strawberries also self-seed themselves.

But country gardens also need more structure

If you’re going to have self-seeders romping everywhere, then you’ll need some structure.

In Miranda’s Dorset garden this is supplied by box hedging and keeping the lawns neat.

‘I have just spent a happy hour out in the rain, clipping the many box hedges and bushes planted by my predecessors. ( a meditative and soothing garden job I find).

I am very grateful to them for these plants, as they give a much needed element of structure, to the garden. However much one may like the romantic look, it can quickly tip over into chaos if some degree of control is not exercised.

The dark lines of the box shapes provide this element, without too much maintenance. Clipping twice a year is a doddle with my new Niwaki topiary shears. So long as the box plants are fed occasionally and watered in extreme drought, they live happily for many years.’

However, re-visiting this post after it was originally written, I must add that, sadly box is now being widely hit by box blight and box moth caterpillar. If you want to add structure to your garden, it’s best to check out the best alternatives to box.

Formal structure for a country garden

Formal shapes add structure – essential to stop ‘romantic’ turning into ‘chaotic.’

‘The other element of control that is vital is keeping the lawns mowed once a week. when the grass is cut everything looks SO much better. My ally in this is local cricket ground keeper, Buddy. He brings his excellent and gigantic mower up of an the evening and whizzes round in no time.’

You can ‘borrow the landscape’ in country gardens

Eighteenth century gardeners Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton, were garden designers who broke away from the formality of earlier styles.

One of their top tricks was to cut vistas through to ‘borrowed’ items such as church towers, rolling hills or distant views. ‘This made the scenery outside of the garden’s boundaries seem part of the garden. So it made gardens look larger or dramatised the designed landscape.’

There isn’t usually scope for this kind of thing in towns, as there are so many buildings.

Borrowed views

The view of the church – you can’t tell where this garden ends and someone else’s land begins.

‘On a more humble scale, I decided to create a vista to the west, by cutting a hole in the hedge through the fields and hills,’ says Miranda. ‘

‘I had picked up an old rusty gate at the local antique market, and Tim the blacksmith from the next village, made and installed gateposts.

But we had failed to notice that the field was at least 6’ higher on the other side! So we had to make steps out of rough timbers held in place with a stake to get up the gate.’

Steps made of rough-hewn wood.

Steps made of rough-hewn wood.

‘You could also use a fence to frame of your view. ‘You could obtain a charmingly framed vignette by cutting an oval or circular hole in an ornamental trellis,’ says Miranda. You can even cut a gap in your hedge and fill it with a non opening gate to suggest that you own the land beyond!

‘In town, you’re always trying to disguise ugly features outside your garden, so its a joy for me to turn my gaze outward.’

Further fantasies and plans

‘The possibilities in my middle sized country garden seem endless,’ says Miranda.

‘What about a greenhouse (I fell in love with one at Chelsea) a potting shed ( I am thinking of restoring this rather charming castle shed in the far corner of the garden), a vegetable garden, like my friend Julia’s at Symondsbury or a pond? a rose arch? Stop! stop! One can only dream…..’

Charming castle shed

Miranda wonders whether she should restore this charming ‘castle’ shed or maybe think about a greenhouse?

More country garden tips and ideas

If you’d like to recreate the English country garden look, this post lists the essential elements of this style. And see this post for cottage garden tips and ideas.

Pin to remember the difference between town gardens and country gardens

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What you need to know if you've just moved to a country garden


14 comments on "What you need to know about town vs country gardens…"

  1. rusty duck says:

    I did have a chuckle or two reading Miranda’s post, not to mention deja vu especially when it came to Thumper and his friends! The idea of borrowing the landscape is a good one and I love the solution for hiding the oil tank, they are never pretty things to look at.

    1. I wonder if there is a post on oil tank cover-ups – except that Miranda’s is the only really nice one I’ve seen!

  2. Mark says:

    Great read. We plan on moving nearer to our parents one day and we too will have to tackle the ugly oil tank problem!

  3. What a beautiful garden. Funny how there are always invaders; you have cows, in Alaska we have moose, and in Arizona we have deer. But everywhere, we have rabbits. Thanks for a beautiful virtual garden tour this morning.

    1. Thank you for commenting.

  4. Katie says:

    Fascinating post!! I have a suburban garden which biggest challenge is heavy clay soil, but I always admire coastal gardens and environments when I am on my Blighty holidays, even though know they are the polar opposite! Our Lyme Regis cottage we rent for the summer has a gorgeous walled garden I also admire, always on the look out for new inspiration! Love the blog! Katie

    1. Thank you – I love coastal gardens, too.

  5. Abi says:

    Nice post. What an exciting project. Those wild strawberries are so pretty but they can get everywhere can’t they?

    1. I agree – I think Miranda’s wild strawberries are delicious but we have a rather bitter variety rampaging round our garden, so I tend to pull them out.

  6. Kate Patel says:

    A great post Miranda, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It brought back memories of our own baptism by fire to country gardening a decade ago. We spent five years just clearing one half of the acre plot, while either cleaning up salvageable plants from the original garden or growing on stock in the other in order to afford the garden of our dreams. Small urban gardens may be “instant” rural ones are not. I like your espalier hornbeam hedges, they may help filter that west wind too?

  7. Depending how committed you are, you may need to fence against rabbits. But meanwhile you don’t need expensive Crocus protectors if you get a roll of chicken wire and cut it up into suitable sized pieces to make your own.Chicken wire hooks easily into itself to make a similar cover. Cheap, discrete and effective.

    Hope you are spared box blight, but get in touch should you need help with that one day.

    Xxxxx

    1. Thank you! I will pass that onto Miranda.

  8. lyn says:

    What a great article. I so enjoyed reading this. Nothing in life is easy. Every situation provides its own challenges and opportunities.

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