Situated on top of a hill, with spectacular and far-reaching views of the countryside all around, we find it important to keep our boundaries as open as possible to welcome in those views, while still breaking the fierce south-westerlies that whip across us, and keeping curious cows from our crops and borders. Our situation means that our fledgling garden is simply laid out, with a central lawn flanked by herbaceous borders and the kitchen garden beyond. There are trees in our borders; a mature beech, birch and horse chestnut, hawthorn and holly, and some wild plums. We have kept the boundary fences that we need to protect us from foraging cattle open, and added native hedging to fill in gaps in the hawthorn at the bottom and to replace the bloated lonicera nitida hedge that sprawled along the field boundary. These trees and hedges should provide a good mix of shelter and interest, for us and local wildlife, while still embracing the landscape beyond.
Not for us, then, any element of intrigue and adventure with a garden revealing itself to you step by step; no subdivided garden rooms, or secret paths to lead you from one tableau to the next. Our garden is too modest in size to employ such devices and still sit well in the landscape, and so we have laid the garden bare to anyone approaching from the house, and borrowed the hills behind to nestle among the hedges and trees.
We are both pleased with the bones of this garden that we are starting to draw together now from the initial chaos. The open lawn should prove family-friendly in the future, and hopefully the borders, while simply laid out, will hold sufficient interest along with the edible delights of the kitchen garden and greenhouse beyond, to captivate us as much as the majestic countryside around.
The approach to our garden, though, is another matter entirely, with something of an elephant in the corner. Still; every problem is an opportunity for a solution, as trilled gaily by the world of marketing, and there is certainly opportunity here for prolonging the ‘reveal’ to create a sense of anticipation. To explain further; as things stand at the moment, as you walk around the path at the side of our house, a low wooden post and rail fence at your side separates you from the adjoining pasture that runs down the hill away from you into wooded valleys below. Ahead, you catch your first glimpse of our modest garden, and if first impressions count then currently you’d be turning around and walking back, as the first sight to greet you is our utility area. A couple of fixed structures stand here, including our cycle store. In dark green they are not quite eyesores, and thankfully nothing stands much higher than four foot tall, but neither are they a natural part of the landscape or in any way a visual feast, and they certainly don’t issue much invitation to the visitor to continue around and explore further.
Moving the structures is not an option, despite their sub-optimal placement, which leaves us with the choice of screening them in such a way that the visitor is drawn onwards around the house until the garden is finally revealed. Elaborate planting schemes and living fences have flirted in and out of our minds over the months as we have concentrated on establishing the main structure of the garden. A traditional hedge or shrub would take up too much of the limited corner space and squeeze the path. And then, in the spring, we stumbled upon an idea that captivated us and has continued to whisper to us through the summer. (Janet, I think you may suspect where this is leading…!).
It was a hedge at the Malvern spring show, in the award-winning Garden For Life created by Graduate Gardeners that entranced us and held us spellbound. Hornbeams were woven along criss-crossed bamboo supports, trained laterally to create a screen that was tall but not deep. Not the hedge on stilts that many people associate with pleaching, as branches provided even coverage from the ground to the top; not just any hornbeam either, the vivid leaves were more serrated than those of Carpinus betula, and the most attractive fresh green hop-shaped catkins hung like ornaments from the branches. We were so taken by this spectacle that I chased down one of the custodians of the garden to ask about the hedge, to be told that it was “hop hornbeam”. Research revealed that several varieties (and indeed species!) seem to share this common name; I later found a program for the show garden that listed the hedge as composed of Carpinus japonica, Japanese hornbeam.
And thus was born our most ambitious scheme yet: to recreate this hedge to shield our unsightly utility area with a beautiful screen that would in winter perhaps revert to a woven tapestry of branches, while in spring and summer it would be amply clothed in the most attractive green foliage, at times adorned with vivid catkins.
This project raised several immediate questions; particularly sourcing the plants and building the framework to train them on. I have spent hours researching pleaching methods, studying the snapshots we took of the Malvern hedge, contacting its designers and looking for elusive stock. Sadly, though perhaps understandably, I was unable to elicit any information about the training of the hedge we saw. However, in theory, with a sturdy framework in place, I believe that we should be able to employ the methods for traditional pleaching, tying in branches laterally and rubbing out shoots that grow in the wrong directions, though extending this to the very lowest branches rather than starting at head height and clearing the lower stems as for the more common stilt-pleaching. I have found mention of training some branches along diagonals as well as the usual horizontal framework of branches, but this part of our plan seems not to be well documented so we will have to find our own way – hopefully just a matter of adding diagonal supports and more tying-in.
As to the question of support: how do we best provide a framework for training trees in this manner? This is still an ongoing debate for us, although one which we need to resolve in the next week or so. A metal framework would have greater longevity, bamboo and timber battens would be more economic, coppiced hazel or chestnut the most visually and environmentally pleasing. The debate continues.
And so to the most important aspect; sourcing the plants themselves. It was relatively simple to trace the suppliers for the show hedge, and they were able to supply Carpinus japonica plants, but only part-trained, the lower metre and a half of their stems already cleared and thus not suitable for our needs. There are other suppliers of specimen plants, but again these are small trees that have already established their shapes and would not have the flexibility we require. Although a much admired tree (I found an article in which Monty Don praised its qualities) there were few suppliers of maiden whips that we could buy young enough and in sufficient quantity for our purposes, but eventually and triumphantly I found a source. It appears that Carpinus japonica is used in bonsai culture, and I found a French company who stocked young plants in sets of 10, which were very reasonably priced too even with shipping.
Thus it is that this week we took delivery of a large cardboard box filled with Carpinus japonica saplings, all in plastic pots and well wrapped in damp pages of le Progrès before being sent on their way. They arrived in good condition, their potting medium still damp and the stems intact. Each plant is between 20-30cm tall, most with tiny green shoots as well as the remnants of this year’s leaves scattered among them, and they are now standing proudly by the house; our own small forest of Japanese hornbeam awaiting planting.
An ambitious project indeed, but hopefully one which will bring us great pleasure in the future, as well as addressing a practical issue. King of the Hill is already planning a space behind the screen for wheelbarrows and other homeless odds and ends to keep out of sight, while still leaving access to these and our bikes. We are hoping to build our framework in the next couple of weeks, and plant the saplings before this mild weather breaks and the ground becomes too hard to work. Time for us to make some decisions on frames and spacings – any advice on these?