What you need to know about town vs country gardens…

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

Do you think it would be easier to garden in the countryside? Is a town garden less of a challenge? Or is it just a question of scale? This week’s guest post, by Miranda Alexander, is about the surprises she got when she moved from a middle-sized urban London garden to one in deepest darkest Dorset: ‘It has been exciting, challenging, and at times, bewildering. I had no idea how different the rural garden experience was to the urban one. 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.

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.

The previous owners had luckily loved plants, and over the past year I have been discovering many unusual and lovely varieties. They had, however, 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.

Wait at least a year in a new house…

The most important thing I have learnt is that the wait and see approach is essential. At least a year before doing anything radical. Not only do you need to see what each season brings (always much later than in town), but to find out what the weather, a much bigger factor in country garden, is like in your part of the country. 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.

Inward focus vs outward-looking…

The focus in town gardens is almost always inward looking. 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. Beautiful views, but completely exposed to the west wind that whistles in from the sea from across the Atlantic. The gable ends are north and south facing, one with a stone terrace now completely smothered in alchemilla mollis, the other with a new bed which I planted up this spring. I made the bold move of planting three pleached hornbeams to cover the large expanse of wall now exposed by knocking down the hideous sixties garage. I agonised over this (expensive) decision.Too towny? Too formal for Dorset?  Would they grow too big? So far they seem to have met with general approval and the planting below, (hydrangea Annabelle, delphiniums, verbena bonariensis, erigeron, rosemary and knautia) works well.

Pretty bench in a country garden

Where is Poldark when you need him?

Garage to mini meadow

In a fit of rural overexcitement, I ordered some “meadowmat” to cover the area where the 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, just unroll and water, and hey presto, a Dan Pearson meadow. But then I read, a year later, that one has to scythe, 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.

How to mix town and country style

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

Invaders and pests

It appears that I am not the only country inhabitant who likes wild flowers. 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. I guess the only thing is to be philosophical, and try and keep my precious seedlings away from Thumper and his gang.

Anti-rabbit cloches

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

Hiding eyesores – oil tanks and wires…

In London, gas pipes run silently underground and electricity arrives I know not how. 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 lose. 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 which will hopefully soon be covered with white rugosa roses, white summer jasmine and late flowering dark purple clematis.

Self-seeded nasturtiums

Self-seeders in Miranda’s garden include nasturtiums…

Live and let live

Self seeding plants abound in my garden, and I love them. Origanum runs amok in the bed in front of the kitchen window. Nasturtiums tumble over the walls,persicaria appears every year, and creeping wild strawberries grow everywhere. Letting go and letting Nature do its thing is kind of essential in the country. The manicured look is pretty much out of the question. Thank goodness I don’t like it! I take inspiration from many of the wonderful gardens one can visit in Dorset, but my favourite is at 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.

How to balance the ‘romantic’ look…

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 not formality, but 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 one-handed shears, and so long as they are fed occasionally and watered in extreme drought, they live happily for many years.

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. Means I haven’t had to purchase (or store a mower).

The Borrowed Landscape

Eighteenth century gardeners Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton, in breaking away from the formality of earlier styles, would cut vistas through to ‘borrowed’ items such as church towers, rolling hills or distant views, making the scenery outside of the garden’s boundaries seem part of the garden, and thereby enlarging, dramatising the designed landscape.

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. 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. 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.

Boundaries can be blurred or lost to make your garden seem larger. If you diffuse your boundaries, the edges of your estate are more easily camouflaged! This is why using large dramatic foliage in middle sized gardens is such a good idea. Where does your jungle garden end and the next begin?

A jungly profusion of flowers

A jungly profusion of flowers

Go the opposite way and your fence becomes the frame of your view-you could obtain a charmingly framed vignette by cutting an oval or circular hole in an ornamental trellis and you are the master of all you survey in the country if you cut a gap in your hedge and fill it with a non opening gate.

English country garden

Be inspired by nearby gardens – they often have similar conditions to yours

You can see that I got quite carried away with this idea! In town one is almost almost inward looking and 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. 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?

Thank you to Miranda Alexander for writing this week’s post. The Middle-sized Garden blog comes out every Sunday morning – if you’d like it in your in-box, do leave your email top right. And if you’ve got a middle-sized garden you’d like to tell us about, do get in touch!

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.


    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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