Structural Fabric of the Garden
A garden is much more than a collection of plants. It contains important non-living elements too. Some, such as a drive, serve a clearly defined and functional purpose; most, however, like gates, paths and paved areas are not only functional but also set a style or create a feel to a garden. So when choosing the structural elements – strength, durability, ease of use and maintenance – there are also design and aesthetic elements to consider. Here I shall consider the functional aspects:
Paths, Paved Areas and Driveways
The hard landscaping materials used for paths, paved areas and drives are functionally similar and although the range available increases year by year. I shall concentrate on those that I feel have the widest and most important application in the garden.
Brick: Bricks are aesthetically pleasing and functionally fairly adaptable as they can be obtained in a wide range of colours and finishes and, most significantly, can be laid in a variety of patterns (known by such names as stretcher bond, basket weave and herringbone). Being small, they are easy to handle and simple horizontal bricklaying is a relatively straightforward task although complicated effects are best done by a professional. By choosing a garden brick with similar colouring to the house you can link the two areas together visually. It is very important, however, to use bricks that are suitable for outdoor use. They must be frost tolerant and robust enough for the intended purpose. Normal building bricks aren’t adequate; you should use old blue bricks, modern engineering bricks or specially made paviours.
Gravel: I consider this to be one the best materials. Inexpensive and easy to lay, it can be used informally for curved paths and difficult corners or to create formal straight paths with an edging at either side. Large areas of gravel can be relieved by plants or by small patches of other materials such as paving slabs. There is a wide choice in particle size and shape: true gravel has rounded particles through having been rolled in a river but chippings, produced by artificially crushing rocks are equally valuable. A surprisingly wide range of colours is available also, including browns, greys and off-white. The sound made as cars and feet move across gravel is a satisfying one. And also has a security element as intruders will find it difficult to walk unheard along a gravel path. It is important, however, to take precautions to avoid weed growth and this is most readily achieved with a purpose-made permeable plastic sheet, laid beneath the gravel itself. A gravel depth of about 2cm (1/2in) is normally sufficient as deeper layers can be difficult to walk on. Small-sized pea gravel will attach itself to muddy boots so a gravel path is less successful close to a vegetable garden; a rigid material is more appropriate there.
Pre-cast Slabs: Natural stone slabs are now virtually unobtainable new and prohibitively expensive second-hand. Those made of reconstituted or artificial stone are, however, very attractive and often cost little more than plain concrete. When laying a large area, try to break the monotony of the surface by laying slabs in patterns or by introducing other materials.
Sets and Blocks: Sets are brick-like blocks made of natural stone such as granite. They are expensive but can sometimes be obtained second-hand. Blocks are passably convincing artificial versions available in a range of colours and shapes. Both are ideal for arranging in geometric patterns and look particularly attractive in formal, town gardens.
Bark Chips: Various grades of bark are available for different purposes. Use specially designated splinter-free ornamental bark for laying under swings or climbing frames, and cheaper shredded bark, confined by wooden boards, to make rustic paths. A deep layer of 4-5cm (1-½ – 2in) is adequate though it slowly degrades and must be topped up annually or biennially.
There are other materials that, although widely used, I feel have significant disadvantages and I mention them here so you may be aware of their drawbacks before embarking on costly projects.
Concrete is a useful foundation for a shed or greenhouse but on its own, used over large areas, is extremely dull. It can also become slippery and although the surface can be textured to overcome this, the results often look amateurish. It is inexpensive but hard work to mix and lay.
Grass can make an attractive foil between borders and has a limited function as a path, but used frequently, even with a plastic mesh underlay, it soon becomes worn and muddy. Slabs or stepping stones can be inserted but these will require extra maintenance as the grass edges will need trimming.
Wooden decking is currently a fashionable surface but though it may work well in dry climates, it warps and soon becomes slippery and covered with algae in wetter regions.
Pebbles and cobbles are difficult to walk over, although can create a pleasing pattern.
And so finally, to my bete-noir, tarmac; fine for roads and pavements, but not, please, in anyone’s garden.
Once you have chosen your material, remember it will need to be adequately bedded. All hard materials should be laid on mortar or sand but do take into account any drainage requirements beforehand. And an edging material will be needed to contain loose material laid as a path.
Paths: The purpose of a path is to allow people to move about the garden easily and safely. When planning a path, however, do consider how often it will be used and for what purpose. Any path that is likely to have a wheelbarrow or lawnmower transported along it should be at least 60cm (24in) wide while its slope and the sharpness of any bends need to be considered carefully.
Paved areas: Patios, courtyards or sun terraces are for people as well as plants, so it is advisable to plan out what activities are likely to occur on them (like siting of barbecues, setting aside room for a table and chairs and placing of parasols) and choose appropriate materials. You will find that different materials are required for different areas of activity and may well enhance the appearance. Drainage is important too and the safety aspect of changes in level should be considered.
Drives: A higher specification is needed for a drive as the weights involved are considerable. Cost is likely to be uppermost in your mind if the driveway is large but try to choose a material that links visually with the house. Always use a recommended contractor and ascertain if local regulations or other legal requirements may affect your plans.
A gate is so important in dictating the appearance of your garden that it could well be worth having one made specially to order. Wooden gates are the most popular and although hard-woods such as oak are more expensive than softwoods, they are longer-lasting and require less maintenance. Red Cedar is a durable softwood, and is certainly appropriate for garden buildings, but I find it too soft for gates. Wrought iron is impressive but expensive and heavy; coated aluminium or mild steel alternatives may be cheaper.
Front gates: Depending on your property, the all-important front gate may be a small path entrance or something much wider at the opening to a drive. The type and height of the boundary either side of the gate should be considered in making your choice. It the boundary is tall, as it may be in a town garden or very large country one, then for privacy, or to block out unattractive surroundings, a solid wooden gate up to eye-level may be appropriate. Wrought iron gates are considered stylish and allow more light in to a small, dark town garden but offer little privacy. If you drive into your garden from a busy road, automatic opening gates could make your entry safer.
Side gates: These tend to be practical rather than elegant as most people simply require a high, strong and solid barrier, for convenience, a self-closing gate is useful if people are entering and leaving through the gate with great frequency, or if a dog needs to be confined.
All gates must have adequately strong posts or piers of wood, metal, brick or stone. For small gates these are best kept simple but larger gates can accommodate impressive piers with ornaments on top. Hanging a gate is not a task for the faint-hearted and hanging a large drive gate is best left to a professional.
For smaller openings, use the gate itself to calculate how far apart the post or pier should be, make allowance for hinges and latch and use a spirit level to ensure both piers or posts are parallel. Finish off brick piers with a capping stone to protect against weather and allow three days for mortar or concrete to set before-hanging the gate.
There are often legal requirements to define or maintain a boundary. They will protect andyour garden and give your family privacy but they can make your garden more shady, so don’t automatically opt for the highest possible fence or wall as it could restrict the type of plants you can grow. In general, I favour hedges for boundaries but where hedging is not practical or appropriate. Fences and walls need to be considered. Traditional walls are solid and do not offer the 50 per cent permeability that is desirable in a windbreak. They will create eddies and debris may accumulate in your garden. Dry stone walls are a feature of the landscape in some areas, but for most people the choice will lie with brick or screen blocks, the decision usually dictated by cost.
Although inexpensive, softwood fence panels are not durable in strong winds. Where cost makes them a necessity, do use panels pressure treated (not simply painted) with preservative and posts sunk at least 60cm (2ft) into the ground. Modern metal sleeves for posts minimise rotting and make replacement easier. Lengths of trellis along the tops of fences (and walls) will help to break up the monotony.
Interwoven hazel or, better, willow hurdles are attractive and wind permeable. I rate them very highly and use them extensively in my own garden. Picket fencing, made from vertical, pointed timber boards spaced slightly apart and nailed to two horizontal lengths, is inexpensive for a low fence. Traditionally, it is painted white and modern micro-porous paints make repainting a less frequent chore.
A well-placed ornament can contribute much more to the style and feel of a garden than a single plant but there is a danger of overdoing it. The choice is really very personal so I offer two pieces of advice. Use high quality objects for their original purpose and you won’t go far wrong: statues to look at and admire, fountain-heads to spout water, sundials to tell the time. Bird baths to bathe birds, bird tables to feed birds, bat boxes to shelter bats, pavilions to sit under, arbours to harbour; the choice is huge, but significantly excludes staddle stones which aren’t for gardens but for keeping farm stores free from rats.
The pros and cons of stone, wood, lead and concrete are similar to those that I outline in the section on containers but other considerations relate to security and safety. Chaining or cementing in place may be necessary and photographing of valuable ornaments would be prudent.
A shed is important for storing tools and equipment and if it has windows it can be used to work in during wet weather. Site it so it is easily accessible but not an eyesore; although screens and plants can offer some disguise.
Most sheds are made of wood (red cedar is more expensive but much more durable than deal or similar softwood), but you should check if locks, glass, shelving, wood treatment, delivery and assembly are included in the price. Visit several sites to see assembled sheds to check height and space requirements but also to examine the workmanship and finish; doors especially vary greatly. A foundation of concrete is ideal although on a well-drained, paving slabs might suffice. Make sure the shed is secured with a suitable lock; your insurance policy may not cover you if the shed is left unlocked.
Summerhouses, of course, must be placed where they will capture the maximum sunlight and care will be needed to ensure that their presence doesn’t conflict with the needs of sun-loving shrubs, vegetables, greenhouses or other warmth requiring garden components. Most summerhouses appear far too stark because there seems to be a general reluctance to plantagainst them. My first action on purchasing a summerhouse is to clothe the structure with trellis and plant perfumed climbers like roses, jasmine or even honeysuckle to scramble over it. Be sure to have a small paved area in front of the summerhouse on which to stand chairs and table.
Garden furniture should be part of a garden’s structure, and not only when a seating area like an arbour is enclosed. As with everything else, buy the best you can afford. Wood is better than any plastic although Victorian or replica cast iron benches are magnificent. Position the seats where you have a good view of the garden and, if the garden is large enough, plan both for social seating where people can gather together, and more solitary areas where they can be alone with their thoughts.
Supports for Climbing Plants
Although I’ve discussed the way that different types of plant should be supported in the appropriate accounts later, some of the supports used for climbers are large enough to be parts of the garden’s structure. Archways, for instance, are invaluable for marking the change between one part of the garden and another as well as providing support for climbers. Pergolas are more ambitious structures, useful in large gardens to divide off an area as a walkway or shady retreat. In a, a 2m (6-1/2 ft) tall obelisk can add height to a border. Arches and pergolas must be strong enough to support heavy climbers such as roses and honey-suckle. Posts should be sunk into the ground to a depth of at least 60cm (2ft) although concreting will not be necessary.
Trellis is versatile and the wide range of micro-porous paint and wood stain colours now available can make it a very attractive feature in the garden. Use it as a screen in sheltered gardens or fixed to a wall on battens, which allow air to circulate behind, so reducing the likelihood of mildew.
Sections of trellis are readily available at garden centres but do remember that only the smaller sizes will fit in an average car. Large and irregular climbers can be attached to above Sundials, statues walls by lead-headed nails or, much better, by a system of wires attached to screw-ended vine eyes inserted in wall plugs.