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Creating Great Garden Structure

Creating Great Garden Structure

Even on the most dismal winter day, when you look out from your cosy home, the view of your garden should be interesting and please you greatly...

But if that's not so and mostly you see bare twigs and branches, the chances are your garden lacks evergreen structure. In our spring gardening editorial, garden designer, Elizabeth Buckley, shares her tips on using evergreen plants to create a more exciting garden all year round.

"The evergreen! How beautiful, how welcome, how wonderful the evergreen! When one thinks of it, how astonishing a variety of nature!"   Jane Austen

Invaluable Evergreens

With the weather we've had this winter, gardening is probably the last thing on your mind, but now is a great time to assess how your garden is looking, and evergreens are invaluable for creating year round interest in a garden; they remain when everything else has packed its bags and cleared off on its winter vacation!

Grendon Court Garden designed by Tom Stuart-Smith (Julia Stanley Photography)

To quote the influential garden-maker, plantswoman and garden writer, Margery Fish: "You mustn't rely on your flowers to make your garden attractive. A good bone structure must come first, with an intelligent use of evergreen plants so that the garden is always clothed, no matter what time of year. Flowers are an added delight, but a good garden is the garden you enjoy looking at even in the depths of winter."

As a good rule of thumb, at least one third of plants in a garden should be evergreen,  but in mine I have used more to keep it looking interesting all year. The aim with evergreens is to apply a good foundation before adding the 'eye shadow, lipstick and blusher' plants. I was very fortunate to be able to start with a blank canvas so I chose and planted the evergreens before planting anything else; here it is this January:

My midwinter garden everything green is an evergreen. 

You'll notice there are many different shades of green and a variety of shapes, forms and textures. My garden has a formal design so I've used symmetry and some clipped evergreens to emphasise this formality. Contrasting solid shapes with softer textures, like grasses, and narrow, upright forms with lower rounder shapes makes for a much more interesting look. Low, solid evergreens serve to punctuate and visually 'anchor' the soft fullness of perennials. Evergreens in pots are also a great way of adding year-round interest; I have two half-standard, holly trees in stone planters framing the bench at the end of my garden.

My garden flourishing in early June

Avoid Too Many Puddings! 

There's no escaping that some shrubs are rather amorphous; in the trade we call them 'puddings' and too many create a boring effect, so ring the changes by contrasting different shapes and forms. That said it's difficult to exclude 'puddings' altogether and there are some I love because they're great 'doers' in shade, for example 'Skimmia', Aucuba japonica 'Rozannie' and Viburnum davidii. I have also seen gardens where every shrub has been clipped to a pudding shape, often by clients' well-meaning 'gardeners' who seem to like strictly controlled plants; after all you clip a hedge, so why not everything else?! If it has an interesting shape and it's not supposed to be 'topiary', please step away from the hedge trimmers!

Variegation In Moderation

Variegated evergreens can be very beautiful and useful but they are shown off to their best planted next to or in front of something with plain leaves; for example the variegated hollies in front of my plain green beech hedge. On the whole it's best not to plant variegated specimens next to each other; the busyness of the effect is unpleasing and un-restful to the eye. It's also a good idea to think about your overall colour scheme: green/white variegation is neutral whereas green/yellow is not.  This is a great example and my favourite Welsh garden created by Anne Wareham & Charles Hawes well worth a visit!

Wonderful evergreen structure - Veddw House Garden (Image: Charles Hawes)

Choosing Evergreens For Your Garden

Evergreen tastes have changed; conifers and heathers were once all pervasive but their popularity has declined. I'm not completely in the anti-conifer camp; some have lovely form and texture, but I am firmly anti-leylandii! Thankfully the choice of alternative evergreens is vast and far too numerous to list here; I could write a book - maybe I should because I can't find anything modern on the subject! 

A search for 'evergreen trees' on the RHS website brings up a staggering 1466 results but they do have more manageable lists of evergreen shrubs by size and for specific situations although their 'Top 5 Evergreen Shrubs' certainly wouldn't be mine! I'd also encourage you to think outside the tree/shrub box and consider using evergreen perennials, grasses, bamboo, ferns and climbers. I also recommend Linden Hawthorne's book; 'Gardening with Shape Line & Texture'.

To contact Elizabeth about garden design or planting design visit:
Tags: cheshire home and garden, gardening, elizabeth buckley garden design, outdoor spaces, hedging, evergreen

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