In Spring 2017 I set about turning a small unhappy front garden in South Bristol into something that would look as cheerful as possible the whole year round. The garden is directly North-facing; although this means it receives almost no direct sunlight, it benefits from being sheltered from harsh winds and driving rain. North-facing gardens, often thought to be difficult, actually have lots of advantages.
See the plant list here; scroll down for the full story.
The dull bit. This entailed removal of the eye-wateringly heavy slabs (not by me - I couldn't even lift them), rebuilding the failing wall, a whole day of digging out infested bluebells, and then two days (my turn) of digging out clay and rubble to nearly 30cm deep. It was lifeless, claggy in Winter and rock-hard in Summer, and nothing would ever thrive there. It was hard work, but the most important bit.
The fun bit. I now had a 3m x 1.5m space roughly divided into two by rubble stone along its length. I filled it with bags of spent mushroom compost, top soil, home-made compost, lots of grit and sand, and mixed it up into a recipe for plant happiness. It cost about £50, but worth every penny because of the impact it will make in terms of plant health and vigour, reduced watering and weeding.
This garden is disgracefully and purposefully overstuffed. I bought all the new plants I wanted, and then interplanted with available 'fillers' so there was no bare soil. (Normally you'd space them out more and wait for them to grow, but I wanted it to look instantly full). The fillers were plants from the back garden that I had split and propagated, otherwise it would have been costly. (More on propagation below). By Spring 2018 it will be crowded so I will thin out and pass on the spares. Over-stuffing is all do-able and good fun in a tiny garden, but would be madness in a larger one.
Click on the gallery for close-ups of the plants, (accidentally deleted the name captions, will add them back in asap).
How to save money
Buying so many plants from a garden centre in 1 to 3 litre pots would have cost a small fortune. Fortunately there are a few ways to keep costs lean, and not only do they save you money, but they make it all more enjoyable too.
The Acer was a gift, a tiny plant costing £3 from Morrisons. Stuck straight in the ground it was barely visible for two years, and then suddenly it was a metre tall. Nurture your inner buddha: patience in the garden is deeply rewarding.
Buy less: I (mistakenly) bought 3 x Vinca difformis, which were so successful so quickly that I could have bought just a single plant, and taken plantlets from it within the year. I suspect I will never need to buy another for the rest of my life.
Make friends with gardeners: Some plants are so popular, easy to propagate and fast-growing that if you know people who are into gardening, you can be almost guaranteed to get them for free. These are marked in the Plant List with an asterisk: in my case, many were split and given to me by my mum or friends over the years, and I've carried on the tradition.
NGS open days: If you don't have plant-loving folks around you, go to NGS Open Days in your area this Spring. You'll be amazed at the bargains you can pick up, all grown within the garden you're visiting, with the funds going to charity.
Get propagating: All of the plants in the Plant List marked with an asterisk can be easily turned in to more plants. Buy a heuchera early one year, and by the next it should split comfortably into three. Likewise all of the deciduous plants - last Autumn I split a single 2-year-old Brunnera into 9 plantlets, and it looked all the better for it. The black elder was from a cutting; I grew it in a pot for 18 months, then put it in the ground and it took off. Once you've started, it's addictive.
The garden in Autumn
Planted in early May, here's how things were looking by mid-September. The Acer, a lovely apple green colour in Spring, was just starting to develop orange tinges on the leaf margins.
Click thumbnail for slide show.
By mid-November the Acer has turned a deep orange and will drop at the end of the month; the Hellebore is coming into flower as is the Cyclamen; the Campanula, pulled out by the handful after the flowers went over in August, is coming back into flower again that will last until early January. The Elder, in this sheltered North-facing position, is still holding on to its lovely black leaves; its parent plant in the South-facing back garden was bare by the end of October.
Click thumbnail for slide show.
Trials & tribulations
A few plants flourished from small 9cm pots into handsome significant growth (up to 30cm dia) within a few weeks, and have thrived without attention. Being evergreen they are stars all year round:
Slow burners & Fatalities
A couple of plants struggled initially, a couple died, and one got eaten but survived:
Maintenance & Lessons learned
Because I used new growing media, planted everything so closely, and used a well-rotted bark mulch, I've seen three weeds in a year. No doubt seeds will blow in, but it's proving that all the prep was worthwhile.
There are slugs - there are always slugs - but since most of the plants are evergreen they're not causing any problems. They will have a go at the crocuses though, so I will set beer traps soon (cheap weak lager in small plastic tubs) hidden below the fern foliage. Revolting but astonishingly effective.
I will publish a new post when I have picture updates to share from Winter and Spring.