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Down to earth: gardening wisdom

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Unrivalled gardening wisdom from Monty Don.

Written as he talks, this is Monty Don right beside you in the garden, challenging norms and sharing advice.

Month-by-month, Monty reveals the jobs he does in his own garden, that he hopes are relevant to you. Discover Monty's thoughts and musings on nature, seasons, colour, design, pests, flowering shrubs, containers, and much more. Monty's intimate and lyrical writing is accompanied by photos of his own garden.

The perfect gift for the gardener in your life.

"I have written many gardening books but this is the distillation of 50 years of gardening experience. It has all the tips and essential pieces of knowledge that enable you to make your garden grow well, and it also shares my view that gardening is the secret to living well too." - Monty

Dorling Kindersley Ltd
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ISBN 13:
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The Seasons





Walking and Sitting


A New Plot

The Small Town Garden

The Cottage Garden

The Exotic Garden

A Modern Urban Garden

Wildlife Gardening




Flowering Shrubs











Grow your own Veg

Grow your own Herbs

Grow your own Top Fruit

Grow your own Soft Fruit


The Months
















I began ‘proper’ gardening at about seven but had always played in the garden, and at its best, gardening for me still has exactly the same allure that going out to make camps did as soon as I was old enough to run around outside.

But gardening was not always at its best. In fact, throughout my childhood I saw it as another chore that had to be completed in order that I would be free to play in the woods and lanes around the Hampshire village where I grew up. This was chalk country and I now realise that the vegetation of that very particular geology shaped my world as much as any other aspect of my upbringing. Beech woods, hazel coppice, fields waving with soft green barley and the glassy flints that pocked the chalk defined normality.

Around the same time that I was considered old enough to contribute to the onerous business of running a large garden, I was sent away to boarding school. Although a mere 18 miles away, the soil there was thin, sandy and very acidic. From it grew rhododendrons, heather and pines. My homesickness was as much a deep longing for the chalk landscape of my village as for my family.

But gardening came to me when I was about 17. By then I had acquired – by default – a working knowledge and could grow vegetables, make compost and keep the place looking fairly tidy.

One day in early spring I was preparing the ground for sowing carrots when I was filled with an ecstatic sense of being exa; ctly where I wanted to be, desiring nothing but this completely fulfilled moment. Fixed somewhere between simple happiness and mystical ecstasy, this sense of completeness in the garden has never really left me.

That night I dreamt that my hands grew deep down into the chalky loam and took root. I awoke refreshed and knowing absolutely that all my future sustenance and fulfilment would be – must be – rooted in the soil.

But this has always been private and deeply personal. Other than at various stages as a student when I worked in France and England to help finance my studies, I have never earned my living as a gardener. I am an amateur and speak only from knowledge gained from private study and over 50 years of personal experience. I will admit to being completely infatuated with gardening and obsessively studying, with a large library that I refer to constantly. That sense of putting my hands deep into the earth and growing a beautiful garden solely for the pleasure and satisfaction of myself and my family has never left me.

But I believe that all good gardens are as much about the people that make them as the plants growing in them. You are an integral part of your garden. It will not exist without you.

So this book is an attempt to set out and share some of that personal knowledge that I have built up over the years. It is not intended as a text book or a definitive guide. Everything is based upon my own practical experience, combined with the deep sense of meaning that gardening has brought to my own life.

I have visited many gardens all round the world and have learned that gardens have to come from the heart or else they will never reach the head. You have to please yourself first and foremost or else you run the risk of pleasing nobody. And chasing after an ideal ‘finish’ to a garden is doomed to disappointment. Every garden is a work in progress and is as complete as our lives are today. It changes. Always. It can always get better. It often gets worse. Be part of the change. Be flexible.

The process of making a garden is like a river running through your life. The place stays the same but the water, even on the stillest days, always moves.

I am always being asked for the ‘right’ way to do things or the ‘correct’ answer to a horticultural question. It seems we long for experts to dispense information and knowledge from on high that can then be slavishly followed. It really is not like that. Personal experience counts for a lot but the more you learn, the more glaringly obvious it becomes how little you know.

The right answers are few and far between and are nearly always very much less interesting and informative than the right questions. Failure teaches much more than success. Everyone makes mistakes all the time. Not making the same mistake twice is the key.

Even the greatest master – the true expert – is only scratching the surface of the incredible complexity and subtlety in their garden. So scratch that surface yourself if only to find out how little you know. Back yourself. A lot of success in growing anything well is a blend of confidence and intuition. Have confidence in your intentions and build intuition by exercising it. Pay attention. Look carefully. Gradually, knowledge and intuition will combine to inform each other and make the next observation more meaningful. And so it continues.

It is easy to cast yourself in the role of a conductor, controlling every note and beat of the garden. But modesty is the only appropriate attitude. Even the best gardener is not so much a conductor as a cross between the caretaker making sure the light bulbs are replaced and the member of the audience with the best seat in the house.

Life is short and absurd and run through with pain and sorrow. But even in the face of real suffering, gardening can make our days shine with joy.

Gardens heal. When you are sad, a garden comforts. When you are humiliated or defeated, a garden consoles. When you are lonely, it offers companionship that is true and lasting. When you are weary, your garden will soothe and refresh you.

I have had a very fortunate life. I have made gardens with someone that I love and this has brought me great happiness. You need luck to be happy. But make a garden and you increase your chances.

I hope that this book helps make your garden.

The Seasons

Know and go with the seasons. Do not fight them – you will lose. This will not always be convenient, so learn to be flexible. And measure the seasons by your own backyard. When is it spring in your garden? How does winter lie there? At what point precisely is the shift from spring to summer? These are real questions and have precise answers that are different in every garden in the world. It is your autumn, your east wind, your shower of rain.

A good tip is to photograph your garden as much as possible and review the pictures out of season. It is a very useful way to map the seasons in your own garden. It is also an invaluable record of what was planted where and an aid to next year’s planting plans. You will be astonished how memory plays false, both for good and ill.


Wait till your garden is buzzing before planting or sowing too much. After a long and dark northern winter, we all yearn for spring and celebrate every little sign – the first snowdrops, catkins, daffodils in the park, primroses flowering under a hedge – but the most critical indicator is the presence of bees and other pollinating insects. Two things happen in spring: the nights get shorter and the air – and critically the soil – gets warmer. The first process of lengthening days is inevitable and begins in mid-winter. But most spring plants do not really get going until warmth appears, too – not least because pollinators are few and far between in cold weather.

Traditionally farmers would go out into a field, drop their trousers and sit butt-naked on the ground to test the soil. This might raise an eyebrow or two down on the allotment, but the principal is sound. Wait until the soil is not cold to your touch before sowing any seeds outside. Ignore the date – plants do not read calendars – but pay great attention to the feel of the earth and trust your judgement.

March is the month of bulbs planted the previous autumn. Plan for that, enjoy them and do not force the pace. Be patient. Plants or seeds grown later in spring, when the soil and nights are warmer and the days longer, usually catch up and grow strongly and healthily.

Nothing in gardening is so exciting or encouraging as the lengthening days of April and May. Really take note of this increasing light and the way that it shines within the garden so you can plan for next year.

As a rule, spring flowers are best grouped and bunched together to make a localised but powerful hit. Most of the garden is still bare, so if you spread your spring flowers thinly, they can be overwhelmed by wintry emptiness. But if you make one area full of bulbs, hellebores, primroses, pulmonarias or any other early-flowering plants, then it sings out.

As a rule, spring flowers are best grouped and bunched together to make a localised but powerful hit

If you have very little space, pots planted with bulbs can be grouped together to provide that spring impact. As early as late January or in February, Iris reticulata varieties have intense colour, while snowdrops and ‘Tête à Tête’ daffodils all grow well in pots and can be induced to flower a little early to create a focussed display.

If you are not busy in the garden in spring, then you are probably wasting precious time. Yes, spring flowers were planted last autumn. But you can fill a whole long summer with a few weeks’ work in spring.

You can get away with planting almost anything from snowdrops to hedges in early spring. Get it in the ground before the end of April, and it will grow and flourish. It is the time when you can do almost anything and at the very least get away with it.

Although there is a lot to do in the veg plot, pickings can be thin and it is for good reason that mid-April to mid-June was called the ‘hungry gap’. Winter crops are finishing and summer ones yet to begin. It takes careful planning to get round this, with successional sowings of leaves like rocket and radish that grow quickly in cool weather as well as filling the ground ready for harvests later in summer.


Summer has two mini-seasons in most north European gardens. The first is a short but distinct period starting at the end of May, lasting no more than six weeks and finishing around the end of the first week of July. Throughout June the days are at their longest, the light at its brightest and all the deciduous foliage, be it of an aquilegia or an oak tree, is full but still fresh. Roses are at their best, large-flowered clematis are glorious and plants like irises, foxgloves, alliums and lupins crown the borders. There is a real sense of the garden coming magnificently into being but still rich with the promise of more to come.

But although June days can be hot, the nights can be surprisingly cold and these sharp variations are often more damaging to tender plants than the actual temperature itself. Plants from closer to the equator – tomatoes, pumpkins, dahlias, cannas – will react badly to this and their growth can slow right down, which is when they become prone to attack by predators.

Plants from the northern hemisphere, however, are responding to the long days, and as the nights get shorter – albeit hotter – they will start to set seed. In practice, this is when the second summer mini-season begins, and lasts well into September.

There is a gardening convention that August is a difficult month but that is not the case where I live. The Jewel Garden really hits its stride in August and September despite the shortening days, because the nights are warm. Dahlias, bananas, zinnias, tithonia, sunflowers, helianthus, nicotiana and cosmos are flowering exuberantly. This is when the falling light levels coupled with heat make the rich colours like plum, caramel, purple and ruby red glow richly.

The Jewel Garden in high summer


The year turns in on itself on 23 September, which is the autumn equinox. Day and night hang, too briefly, in balance, then tip towards the dark and the year is lost. Autumn can be beautiful. It can be rich with colour and smoky light, and it can be full of flower and fruit, but autumn is always sad. The party is over and the light all over the northern hemisphere is slipping away.

Autumn in Herefordshire smells fruity and alcoholic. A cidery tang floats through the air as thousands of orchards, many still made up of giant standard trees under-grazed with sheep, all hang heavy with their ripening fruit. My own garden with, in all, over 50 different varieties of apple, is dominated by them and although we gather a year’s supply and carefully store them, the ground in the orchard lies strewn with falling fruit, which the dogs gorge on – with appalling digestive consequences.

It is not the chill in the evening air or the lashing autumn rain that carries the message of winter to plants and birds and – I am certain through my own experience – to humans, but the slightest change in day length. We can mollycoddle winter seedlings, using mulches, cloches, fleece and windbreaks to keep them cosy. But none of this is any good without enough light.

Whilst swallows fly south and humans repine, plants are more stoutly practical. Those such as roses, ash and apples have their winter hardiness increased by exposure to shorter hours of daylight, so any of them grown under artificial light, even with temperatures that exactly mirrored those in natural daylight, would be less hardy than identical plants grown under only the sun.

Despite the way that light, colour and human and plant energy are all on the wane, it is important to do as much as possible in autumn to set up the year ahead. As one door closes, another – rather smaller and more distant – opens. It is not so much a time to put the garden to bed as to gently prepare it for action.

This is when you should be planning for next summer, planting, moving and ordering plants. The more that you can get down between now and Christmas to prepare for spring, the better it will be for you and the garden. Of course, the great controlling factor is the weather but the beauty of this time of year is that most jobs can take place at any time over winter. If you have time, energy and enthusiasm, it is always best to make the most of the fading light.

Autumn leaves

There are not many Americanisms that I like but one which I love is the word ‘fall’ for autumn. In every way it perfectly suits the season, with its falling leaves. The degree of colour-change in fall is dependent upon late-summer weather, when hot days and cold nights stimulate the production of chemicals closely related to carbohydrates that produce red pigmentation. The leaves convert starch to sugar to feed the tree, but cold nights stop it moving from the leaf back to the roots. This accumulation of sugar in the leaves often results in red pigmentation and, as the green chlorophyll begins decomposing as the days shorten, so the red comes to the fore. The greater the difference in temperature between day and night – in other words the hotter the days between late July and early August – the more extreme the leaf coloration will be.

Yellow leaves are coloured by a different process. This is essentially the removal of chlorophyll – which produces green pigmentation – to reveal the yellow that is there all the time. The yellowest of all autumnal trees is the English elm, which you will only see in a juvenile version or in a hedgerow as, since 1975, all mature trees were killed off while young ones succumb to Dutch Elm disease at around 20ft or 15 years old. Incidentally, trees with yellow summer leaves will always be slower-growing than trees with green leaves as they are starved of the supply of sugars and starch that the chlorophyll helps deliver.

The leaves fall when cells break down in the layer between leaf stalk and twig. A corky scar forms over the wound that this causes, protecting the tree from infection. Some trees cannot form this scar tissue so they do not drop their dead leaves until the new ones are ready to push them off the following spring, which is why beech and hornbeam keep their russet leaves all winter. Poplar, birch and willow fall early but oak can hang on well into December.

Evergreens do not change colour but very few hang on to their leaves for more than a year. In practice ‘evergreen’ means that the leaves can overwinter before being renewed in spring. However, although they do eventually fall to the ground, do not add evergreens to your leafmould pile as they take much longer to break down.


Leafmould is always useful and you can never have too much. It is low in nutrients but excellent for improving soil structure. This makes it very useful in homemade compost and as a mulch for woodland plants, as well as a general conditioner for a heavy soil.

For some reason, no one has ever commercialised it, although there is absolutely no reason why they should not do so – it is, after all, much easier to gather fallen leaves and make leafmould than rip up and destroy rare peat bogs to market the peat.

However, unlike good compost, which needs turning regularly and has to be made up of a good mixture of ingredients to get the right balance, leafmould is the easiest thing in the world to make. Garden compost is made by a mixture of bacterial, fungal, invertebrate and insect activity, stimulated by heat and oxygen, which is why you have to turn it. But leafmould is largely made by fungal activity and is ‘cold’, insofar as it does not need heat to spur the fungi into activity. You just gather deciduous leaves, make sure that they are thoroughly wet, put them to one side and let them quietly get on with the process of decomposition.

If the ground is dry enough, mowing up leaves is an excellent idea because it chops as it collects them and they have a greater surface area, which means they rot down faster as well as taking up much less space. In fact, I mow nearly all our leaves, very often depositing them on a long brick path in the garden, setting the blades of the mower high, and ‘mowing’ the path, gathering up all the leaves as I go.

They then go into a large chicken-wire container so they have as large a surface area exposed as possible. Most years there is enough rain to keep them moist but in a dry year, I put the hose onto them every month. Either way, we invariably have perfect leafmould by the following October, when the container is emptied into bags. The resulting leafmould is used as mulch and also throughout the year as part of our potting mix. The wire bay container is then empty and ready for the new batch of leaves, to start the process all over again next autumn.

I appreciate that lots of gardens are not large enough to have a permanent large wire container for leaves. In this case, the answer is to put the leaves in a black bin bag, leaving the top turned but not tied. Make sure the leaves are really wet and punch a few holes in the bag to drain excess water. The leaves will rot down very well and can be stored behind a shed or tucked away in any corner for a year to quietly convert to a soft, powdery material that smells faintly of a woodland floor on a sunny autumnal afternoon.

Every fallen leaf is gathered and stored in a chicken-wire cage to make leafmould


Much as most humans might prefer winter warmth, our gardens are much healthier if they can have a few months of really sharp cold weather. Cultivated soil left in clods will break down and become lovely friable tilth simply through being frosted. Best of all, the dozens of fungal spores that afflict our warm, damp gardens are blitzed by sustained cold weather. Overwintering aphids and slugs and snails die off. A month of sustained cold in the garden does more to get rid of pests and diseases than a lorry load of chemicals could ever do.

And cold ground makes life much easier for the gardener. Mud becomes solid. You can walk dry-shod and push wheelbarrows full of muck or weeds over it.

There is, of course, a price to pay for this. The semi-tender plants that most of us grow in our borders, like salvias, penstemons, melianthus, jasmines, camellias and bay, will all suffer if the temperature falls much below –5°C. However, there are other plants – from as diverse a range as garlic to primroses – that need a cold period in order to trigger their spring growth or germination.

Most temperate garden plants have adapted effective means to counter cold. Deciduous trees and shrubs drop their leaves and stop all but small root growth. Herbaceous plants will survive frozen ground perfectly happily because they have shut down all growth and gone into a state of hibernation. Annuals die as plants but leave a mass of seeds that will survive the cold and grow in spring. Biennials establish well enough to overwinter before growing fully the following spring.

Heavy snow is an excellent insulator, protecting plants beneath its blanket. It also is an important source of winter moisture if it thaws slowly enough to soak into the soil. But it can do a lot of damage to evergreens, especially topiary, and should be knocked off – after you have taken your pictures of them magically frothed in white.

Heavy snow is an excellent insulator, protecting plants beneath its blanket

Although extreme cold – below –12°C – will start to kill off a number of otherwise tough plants, cold on its own is not the biggest problem in winter. It is cold combined with wind and or wet that can turn a robust situation into horticultural disaster.

Wind chill can make all the difference to survival. Even a 20mph wind – officially classed as no more than a ‘fresh breeze’ – will turn freezing into –7°C, and –5°C into –13°C, which is into the red zone for many plants. Hedges, shrubs or even temporary netting that will filter the wind, can make a huge difference. In fact, the microclimate within a garden or even within different areas of a garden can vary greatly and mean otherwise quite tender plants survive harsh weather. This boils down to one word – shelter.

Evergreens are particularly vulnerable to damage from wind in winter because they are constantly transpiring and losing water. If there is a cold, dry wind, that water will not be replaced, and it is not uncommon for hardy plants, like box or holly, to have their leaves turn parched and brown, or even for the plant to die of winter drought, especially on roof gardens. This can happen very rapidly if the soil that they are in is frozen, as the roots will not be able to take up any water at all. One of the best solutions in very cold, dry weather is to spray the plants with water, which then freezes and forms a protective film around the leaves.

But there are times when the lack of wind is disastrous to the gardener for precisely the opposite reason. If your garden is on a slope with a building or wall at the bottom, cold air will flow down the hill, meet the wall and eddy back up – exactly like water. If your garden is at the bottom of a slope or in a natural basin, then it is important to let the wind in where you want it, flow through and get out again.

Hardy plants can manage down to extreme temperatures such as –15°C and can sustain cold of about –5°C for weeks or months. Half-hardy plants do not, as a rule, tolerate any temperatures below freezing but can withstand the general, lingering cold that characterises much of April or even May, while tender plants do not survive below –5°C.

Our long autumn and spring prepare plants for winter and summer alike. This is why sudden frost can have such disastrous effects – especially in spring. A plant that might withstand a month of bitter sub-zero temperatures can have half its growth killed by a few degrees of sudden frost in May. It sounds strange but, the longer and hotter the summer, the better trees and shrubs will be able to survive the cold of winter because their wood will have fully ripened.

Too rapid a thaw will kill a plant as effectively as too rapid a freeze. There must be time for the frozen water around the cells to slowly permeate back into them, otherwise the cells will be ruptured – hence the disaster caused by a really late frost, when the early-morning sun is hot and hits the frozen tissue before the air temperature has gradually risen and thawed it slowly.

Any protective layer is effective against light frosts, so cover or wrap tender or exposed shrubs, perennials and even vegetables in horticultural fleece. Insulate the ground with newspaper, straw or a good layer of compost. This stops the surface roots freezing and is particularly important for evergreens. Wrap pots and statues in a protective layer to stop them cracking in frost.

The garden in winter

Plants that survive cold especially well

Trees: Ash, beech, birch, black pine, ginko, hawthorn, holly, lime, maples, Norway spruce, oak, sorbus, Thuja occidentalis, willows

Shrubs: All Alba, Gallica and species roses (other than spring-flowering ones), Buddleia davidii, euonymus, heathers (acid soils only), Kerria japonica, mahonia, philadelphus, Spiraea thunbergii, many viburnums, winter jasmine

Herbaceous and perennial plants: Most true herbaceous plants including: bugle, Echinops ritro, Iris sibirica, Geranium endressii, G. sanguineum, hellebores, Lamium maculatum, primroses, Pulmonaria saccharata

Climbers: Clematis viticella, Hydrangea petiolaris, Lonicera periclymenum, Wisteria floribunda

Annuals and biennials: Agrostemma, cornflowers, nigella, Shirley poppies, sweet rocket

Bulbs: Crocuses, Iris unguicularis, Lilium regale, muscari, scilla, snowdrops, winter aconites

Birds in winter

The relationship between garden and birds changes when the leaves start dropping. For a start, the birds are more visible. They crowd the branches as a series of shapes. The outline of a small tree will suddenly break as a flurry of birds scatters, scared off from gobbling berries.

Winter bird sound is much harsher than in summer – a series of warnings rather than wooings. Occasionally a robin will astonish the afternoon with a burst of song, but November in my garden tends to shuffle with staccato sound, like overhearing an argument in another room.

Winter is heralded by the arrival of the fieldfares and redwings just as surely as summer is certified by the first swallow. But whereas the swallows, supple as mercury, arrive with a kind of soaring familiarity, the fieldfares are a curious mixture of truculence and shyness. Everything about them is harsh and jerky, yet I like them. They are of the season. They adore the apples left in the orchard best of all and will fiercely defend a tree surrounded by windfalls from other birds. They also do a lot of good, eating snails, leatherjackets and caterpillars.

The other winter thrush, the redwing, is smaller, daintier and altogether less intrusive. Whereas the fieldfare has an instantly recognisable grey/mauve head, the redwing is only really distinguishable from a song thrush when in flight, when the red flash under the wing is very visible – although its tendency to flock, like the fieldfare, is a giveaway.


We gardeners have to be on intimate terms with the weather. We deal with it all the time. We look up and read the sky, look around and measure what has happened and how it is playing out.

As far as the garden is concerned, weather is neither particularly good nor bad. It just is. Plants adapt and nearly always recover from a rough time. Most survive anything if they are planted in the right place.

The gardener cannot always get out and do the jobs exactly as planned but usually it really does not matter that much. Be flexible. Pay great attention to the weather and respect it but be patient. Bend to it rather than rail against it.

Rain has many horticultural meanings. Frost tells a story that may take weeks or even seasons to play out. Temperature is critical but subtle. Learning these stories is part of a good gardener’s armoury.

The wind

Every wind comes brandishing a different weapon and every garden has its vulnerabilities depending on planting and aspect.

Get to know the wind. Sometimes it will be a fierce adversary and occasionally your friend, but it should always be familiar. Have a mind map of the wind in your garden and be aware of the implications of its direction.

In my garden, southerly winds are generally welcome because they quickly dry everything out – but it means we scurry round staking because they also buffet. Westerlies invariably bring rain and sometimes storms, northerlies carry snow, and the spring easterlies are devastating in their ability to cut like a blade of ice through everything – including the walls of the house.

Wind chill can turn an otherwise perfectly acceptable temperature into a lethal blast. It can desiccate foliage and stress plants as well as misshape them. Be ready for this and create shelter where possible. If a planting is ailing, always check its exposure to wind even if plants around it seem fine.

Get to know the wind. Sometimes it will be a fierce adversary and occasionally your friend, but it should always be familiar

Gardeners also know – or should know – the detailed variations within their own backyards. Microclimates really matter within all but the tiniest garden. There are always bits of an otherwise seamless lawn that crunch underfoot with frost whilst the rest is still soft. Two identical plants within a yard of each other can fare completely differently because just one catches the wind that is funnelled through a gap in a hedge the other side of the garden.

Good weather for me is measured not by what I wear above the knees but by how I am shod. If I can walk round the garden without wellies, then it is a good day. But if I can garden carelessly, stepping from border to path to lawn with nary a second thought, wearing lightweight shoes, then the weather is perfect.


There is a traditional approach which assumes that gardening is some kind of battle to be won or lost. In this world view, the ‘good’ gardener is the one who triumphs over nature. This still exerts a strong force, aided and abetted by the purveyors of poisons and devices for killing as many creatures as possible in the garden. Whether it be slugs, ants, vine weevils, ground elder, couch grass, wasps, moles, greenfly, cold, mildew, drought, honey fungus – the list could go on – nature is out to ruin your domestic bliss. Only eternal vigilance and – of course – this snakeskin oil, so brightly and attractively packaged and so seductively advertised, can rescue you and your lovely garden from total disaster.

This is nonsense on every level. You need nature more than she needs you. It is not an equal relationship. Serve her well and she will look after you. Abuse her and everyone loses.

Every living thing – flora and fauna – on your land is accountable to you. That account must be paid. The books must balance so never take out more than you put in.

Doing no harm is usually more important than trying to do good. Often the best course of action is to do nothing whilst you watch and wait. Be modest in all things – including protecting the environment. It can usually get on just fine without your help.

Preserve the precious and rare. It is always the outliers – the rare, the small, the tenuous – that go first and when they go, they are very difficult to get back. What always survive are the most common and resilient. This means that species decline faster than individuals – in other words you end up with more of less. Diversity, not the number of plants or animals, is always the best measure of ecological health.

Cultivate insects. Regarding insects as ‘bugs’ or ‘pests’ is absurd. They are the most important visible wildlife in your garden. Value them accordingly. Create suitable habitats, provide food and never, ever, kill insects indiscriminately.

Revere fungi. Gardeners tend to regard all fungi as harmful. But do not be frightened of them. Only a tiny, tiny proportion do any harm at all and the vast majority are essential for life in the garden. Soil without fungi is barren. Fungal filaments can reach parts that even the tiniest roots cannot, and fungi form partnerships with all kinds of plants, from mosses to trees, taking elements from deep in the soil so plants can benefit from them and fungi can then feed on the sugars in the plants. Mushrooms and toadstools are the fruiting forms of fungi that then spread their spores.

Insects are the most important visible wildlife in your garden. Value them accordingly

We are ignorant and new knowledge is exposing how little we know. Discoveries are coming in that are astounding and revolutionary. For example, we now know that bacteria inside certain leaves are nitrogen fixing and that trees can take their nourishment from up to 11 miles away. Eleven miles! Have an open mind and do not cling to established knowledge or conventions.

The virtues of untidiness

Be untidy. Leave long grass, fallen leaves, rotting wood, patches of weeds, grass growing in the cracks, moss on the stone. These are all key habitats for important components of a healthy garden.

Always have some long grass growing. Nothing is more beneficial to insects than long grass. Ideally you have grass of varying lengths to provide a wide range of habitats, but a square yard of long grass will make all the difference.

Worms are as good a measure of soil structure and fertility as anything. There are over 25 species of earthworm in Britain and all play a huge role in tilling the soil. Their industry is staggering: worms move between 100 and 200 tons of soil a year per 2.5 acres, which is as much as any plough can do. Whether we appreciate it or not, the earth is literally moving beneath our feet.

There is still a general tendency to think of anything that ‘disturbs’ our soil, like earthworms, moles or ants, as pests that need controlling or eliminating. But these burrowers play an essential role in opening out the soil and incorporating organic material in it. So the next time a mole rearranges the architecture of your lawn, don’t curse but be thankful for the work that it is doing for you.

Most so-called ‘pests’ are nearly always a symptom rather than the disease. Instead of trying to get rid of them, work out what you are doing to make them so welcome to your garden. Almost certainly you have upset the restraining, self-regulating balance. This is not – yet – a disaster. It can be regained – but not by isolating and zapping pests.

Cultivate bees. No bees, no garden, no humans. You do not have to keep bees yourself to attract them to your garden. Bees like flowers that are wide and open, and a range of these for as long a period as possible from spring through to autumn, will provide a steady supply of nectar for them.

Garden as you would be done by. The planet is not a remote concept but is right here. The Earth is your back garden. So do the right thing. Everybody wins.

Bumblebees love Knautia macedonica


Do not strive to make your garden like anywhere else on this earth. Copy, steal ideas, imitate and derive as much as you like, but only to create something that is unique and imbued with its own profound sense of place – otherwise you can end up going nowhere.

Imbue your plot with your life, your loves, your quirks and foibles. Make it uniquely your own.

Every garden must have its own personality, its own atmosphere and a real, tangible sense of not being anywhere else in the world. So always look to local materials – stone, wood, plants – first. Be true to the place.

We are ephemeral and make things that do not last. The place endures. It is the relationship – the tension – between these two that creates something interesting.

We bring nothing into this world and take nothing with us – but leave something of yourself in your garden. Make it personal. Garden your own story.

All gardens are made in layers, one on top of another, sometimes over many hundreds of years. They might be gossamer-thin or clumsily thick, but all build up over time like the layers of an onion. You are just another layer. It will remain, perhaps overlaid by many others, but it will act like roots, like organic matter in the soil. It will feed the soul of all the garden layers to come.

I would not want any garden of mine to be like anyone else’s any more than I would not want my bedroom to be like a hotel room. I increasingly long for the personal and the idiosyncratic. I want as much as possible to be handmade, one-off and distinctive. I like gardens that have their own accent and their own rules, and are rich in dreams and memories that everyone can share but no one can replicate.

What private gardens have to offer that trumps any kind of public space, however sensitively designed, is the way in which the sense of place merges into the sense of self of the gardener. The boundaries disappear. You become garden and garden becomes you. That is the goal of all gardening, where plant and earth and human flesh flow easily one into another in an undramatic union, carried with all the nonchalant joy of birdsong or the rustle of evening leaves.

Every garden must have its own personality and a real sense of not being anywhere else. Be true to the place

Although a garden has a precise and geographical place, it can never be fixed in time. To try and fix it is doomed to failure. Turn your back and it is gone. We can and must plan and plant for a seasonal future or even years ahead, but time liberates every garden from the tyranny of perfection and precision. Time can promise and tempt and lead you astray, but the fleeting moment is always glimpsed from the corner of an eye. That is not its limitation, but its gift. Nothing to hold, nothing to measure, nothing to compete. Just here, now.


Think long. Be patient. For three years, few will see what you are doing – it will all be in your mind’s eye. Then the garden will reveal its true colours and after five years be looking like a youthful version of itself. At seven years, many will not be able to age it at all and by twelve years, everything save the trees will look mature. Thereafter you will be cutting back and constraining more than encouraging growth.

Only grow what you want to grow. There is a culture of selecting plants and then working out ways of growing or raising them. Turn this on its head. Find out what thrives on your plot and then make the very best that you can from this.

Do not try and be like anywhere else. Be like here. Elsewhere is interesting in its differences.

Do not be aspirational. Big is not better – just different. Scale alters every concept. So a garage for two cars is not the same as a multi-storey car park. Understand your scale and work with it.

By the same token, you can often take a big idea from a large garden and extract its essence so it sits easy in your small backyard.

The importance of beauty

Beauty is essential. It is never a trade-off. Make the most of all beauty and never sacrifice it at the altar of expediency. It is too high a price.

Add nothing ugly. Do not accept any existing ugliness as fixed. Remove and change it if possible, otherwise modify or screen it.

What we most carefully try and create in our gardens is always a good indication of what we lack. Hence the extraordinary lengths that Australians or Californians will go to in order to have a lush green lawn, or the protection some of us will give to tender plants that come from climates very different to our own.

Two plants are usually more interesting than one. How plants interact and complement each other is what makes a garden rather than a collection of botanical specimens.

Get to know every tiny idiosyncratic detail. Be aware of the light at every moment of the day and the season. Notice the shadows leaf by leaf. See how some sections of path always seem to be slippery. Notice how some plants, seemingly planted in full sun, cant and crane towards the light. Notice where the thrush sings as the light falls.

Do not accept any existing ugliness as fixed. Remove and change it if possible, otherwise modify or screen it

Make your garden a tactile place. Plant so you can let your hands touch, dabble and caress sensuous foliage as you pass. And allow different parts of the garden to have their moment in the spotlight and then, when done, retire to the wings for a while. Do not expect it all to do everything all the time. No garden can be performing all the time. Relish the different corners and sections as they come and go.

Water improves everything in a garden – sight, sound, scent, texture, light, range of plants, range of wildlife – and markedly improves the overall health of the whole mini ecosystem. It could be a small bowl, stream or a lake. They all work. But always add water.

Get your structure in early. A good and interesting garden can be created simply by planting hedges interspaced with grass. Then, when you are ready, you can lift the turf as and when you require to create your borders. But plan the structure carefully – moving a hedge is a tiresome business.

Plant hedges and trees when they are still very small. They will grow much faster and better for it, are much cheaper when small and will quickly catch up and overtake plants twice their size.

Do not fight lines of desire. Everybody will always take the most direct, easiest route even if it means stepping over the corner of a border or through a gap in a young hedge. Cater for this. Make utilitarian paths – to the compost heap, tool shed, greenhouse, front gate – straight, smooth and easy for barrows and muddy feet. But if you want to encourage a slower, more meandering route, then have curving paths and close off the sight line to where they are going – so you have to follow the set path to find out. Block off any possible short cuts.

Grow grass. Mow it and call it a lawn. But do not try and make it ‘perfect’. Life really is too short. Smooth and green and smelling of new-mown grass when cut is good enough for me.

Let your garden be charming. This is such an important aspect of a good garden. Only you can be the judge of this, so look for and relish its charm.

Sit in the sun. Choose your places to sit where the sun falls at sitting times of day. If your garden is big enough, have a seat for all suitable sitting occasions – a cup of coffee before going to work, relaxing in the midday sun, enjoying the last lovely light of evening. Just a perch will do, even if it is in the middle of a border.

Make somewhere private. You cannot properly relax in your own garden if you feel overlooked or watched. It might only be big enough for a single seat but create somewhere that is truly private where you can go and metaphorically close the garden door behind you. It will transform your sense of ownership and possession.

Divisions and dimensions

The smaller the space the more you should fill it. Make borders wide and paths narrow. It is a common mistake to make a thin strip of border around the edge of a small garden as it only makes everything look meaner and pinched.

Most small gardens can even be divided up. A long, thin garden can be divided at least once by a wall, hedge or fence accompanied by just a narrow path and perhaps a gate. It will immediately make the garden seem bigger, add range and diversity, and create smaller spaces that are more human. But this rule can be broken with spectacular success.

The basic point of reference in a garden is the human body. You should always refer back to this. So 6ft is a good height for a dividing hedge; an arm’s stretch – 4ft – is good for a low hedge; a pace – 3ft – is right for a narrow path; and a pace and a half – 5ft – is the width of two people walking comfortably side by side.

Watch the sun rise and set as often as possible. Shape the garden to capture this – cut gaps in hedges, prune branches. Let the sun in.

Neaten the verticals. The eye always runs to the edge of things. Keep these edges straight and neat – entrances, exits, edges, openings – and the unruliness contained by them is enhanced, modified and forgiven.

Very few gardens are big enough to hold half the plants we would like to grow and most of us have to dramatically limit our range

Play to your strengths. We all have the desire to do what we are not good at, to enlarge and expand our range and our idea of ourselves. But there is probably a good reason why you and your garden are not successful at something or other. So keep it simple. Do what you do easily and do it well.

Very few gardens are big enough to hold half the plants we would like to grow and most of us have to dramatically limit our range and choice of plants and planting styles simply through lack of space. Make a virtue of this. Edit hard so everything in your garden feels essential.

I love the way that even the tiniest garden can be loaded with all the aspirations of its maker and be perhaps flawed, scruffy or odd, but above all individual. When I fly over the suburban landscape coming into land back in the UK, or zoom through a built-up area in a train, I do not see row after row of identical streets but thousands of back gardens, all lined side by side and all triumphantly different. If that means accepting mess and disorder and ‘bad’ gardening, then three cheers for these things.

The brick path in the Writing Garden was originally the floor of an outhouse

A sense of place

A ‘good’ garden, above all should have a sense of place. In order to come alive, it must above all, be profoundly there. By this I mean that every garden must have its own personality, its own atmosphere and a real, tangible sense of not being anywhere else in the world.

I have often heard people attempt to praise a garden by likening it to another more famous or grander one, but I regard that as failure. The best and most enjoyable gardens are often allotment plots — higgledy-piggledy and cheek by jowl, often in unremarkable municipal corners, all rented and effectively borrowed for a short growing season, and yet every plot claimed and cared for and loved – precisely because they are so personal and direct.

The transience of gardens

Gardens are above all places of flux. The changes are the thing itself, not the spaces between events. Some of that is inevitable and uncontrollable through the agents of seasons, weather and growth. But as a gardener I want to be part of that flow rather than trying to arrest it and pin it down like someone scrambling around trying to lay out pieces of paper in a breeze.

I want my gardens to be transient, dancing and always just out of my control rather than pinned to the page. However, as any good gardener knows, nothing is so hard as to give the appearance of doing nothing whilst still retaining the spirit and essence of what you want from your garden.

You have to give gardens licence to change – and the chances are that this will not happen as you planned or even wanted. It becomes – if you get it right – something more than an extension of your own costive art and craft.

There is a temptation to do what you think you ought to do or what you think others might enjoy. But gardens have to come from the heart or else they will never reach the head. You have to please yourself first and foremost or else you run the risk of pleasing nobody.

Some people would start this process by working on a planting list, refining it as they went with a plantsman’s sophistication. But to my mind, individual plants no more make a border or garden than individual colours make a painting. It is what you do with them and how they relate to each other that matters most. Yes, you choose your palette, which in turn is dictated by those plants that you know will thrive in any given situation, but that is only the beginning of an almost permanent editing process.

In other words, having prepared the site, decided what to plant, gathered the plants together and chosen where to plant them, dug holes and put them in the ground, nothing is finished. The game is just beginning.

The garden in winter seen from the top of the house

Walking and Sitting

There are two types of garden path. One type is purely functional to take you quickly from A to B on a dry, firm surface. This is ideal to go to the shed or compost heap. These paths invariably follow ‘lines of desire’ so make the path simple and straight in the first place or make it impossible to deviate from it by blocking the way.

The second type of path exists to lead you where you can best appreciate the garden through which it passes. This might be a path that meanders through a border, a very wide path to encourage chat and slow walking or a narrow one to speed things up. It might be of old bricks laid on end that has a cottagey feel or chipped bark for a wildlife area or York paving slabs in a formal garden. In other words, the surface and design of the path will strongly influence how you use it and how you feel about the surroundings. Being aware of all the options and effects they have will help you make the best choices.

Finally, a path should always arrive at something or somewhere. Create focal points with containers or plants that make you want to follow the path to them.


Every garden should have somewhere dedicated to sitting, preferably with a table so you can also eat outside. Often the best place for it is at the back of the house – but it is not the only option. In fact, the key to working out the best place to create a seating area in any garden is to ask yourself when and how you are going to use it.

The rule is to follow the sun. If you rarely sit out in the morning, then establish where the sun falls in the evenings between April and October and make your seating area there – even if that means doing so at the far end of the garden. If it is important to you to have an early morning cuppa sitting in the garden, then map out the morning sunshine. The moral of the story is always work with the unchangeable conditions and make the most of them, rather than blindly follow convention.

Every garden should have somewhere dedicated to sitting, preferably with a table so you can also eat outside

Although most gardens only have room for one main patio or permanent seating area, make sure that there are places to sit and enjoy the sun throughout the day – even if it is just a single seat or log set in amongst a border or against a fence.


So often you hear people refer to a ‘riot of colour’ as though that was intrinsically a good thing but in truth, a riot quickly becomes wearying if not downright dangerous.

Colours in the garden are there to be selected and managed as carefully as in any painting or wardrobe. Some work well together, others do not. Some appeal to you, others never feel right however much another may love them. The key is to choose your colours and choose them well.

Don’t let yourself be accountable to the taste police. If you like a colour – any colour – then luxuriate in it. I like orange flowers and would be very sorry not to have tithonias, leonotis, heleniums, eschscholzias, zinnias, marigolds, orange dahlias and cannas, or the orange Buddleia globosa. But I have a good friend who cannot countenance the thought of a single orange flower in her garden. Each to their colourful own. There is never a right or wrong in these things. Just what feels most right for you and your garden.

Combine colour carefully. Don’t just chuck it all at a border thinking that the more colour you plant, the more colourful the result will be. Just like a painter’s palette, too much colour quickly muddies. Choose a colour theme, keep it simple and stick to it.

Opposites intensify and similar shades dilute and add complexity; use both to create the effect you want. So a brilliant blue iris or a purple clematis will become even more intensely blue or purple if orange tithonia is planted next to it. Likewise, the colours of a collection of old-fashioned roses in various ruffles and flounces of pink, set perhaps amongst mauve Verbena bonariensis or lavender, can have the effect of adding depth and complexity to each other without diminishing the overall effect.

The Jewel Garden

Light and colour

Choose your colours to match the light. The light at different times of day and year affects how we see and react to colour more than any other factor. Use this. So rich plums, burgundies and oranges look better in evening light and best of all in late summer and early autumn, when the mix of light and direction maximises their velvet intensity. Pastels, on the other hand, look best in the much clearer morning light. White is lost in midday sun but looks fantastic at dusk.

Under a Mediterranean winter sky, pale, bleached-out greys, blues and sandy shades look subtle and rich with texture. The light is thin but bright and clear. However, in a British winter, you need as much dark green as possible to counter the gloom of brown and grey that dominates once all deciduous leaves have fallen. Use green to create structure, with evergreen hedges and topiary, and you have a winter garden – stark, strong but rich with colour.

Likewise, the soft morning light of a May or June day in Britain is perfect for pinks, primrose yellows and pale blues that glow and shimmer. These would be washed out and lost a thousand miles further south. Similarly, the intense blues, chrome yellows and oranges that look so dramatic in a Spanish or Moroccan garden under the midday sun become lifeless under northern cloud. It all comes back to working with nature – including the natural light.

In my garden we have used colours to define the planting in various areas of the garden. The most dramatic is the Jewel Garden. This uses ruby reds, amethyst purples, sapphire and lapis blues and emerald greens of all shades as the core colours, with gold, silver, brass and bronze touched with the bright oranges of topaz and citrine, and plenty of burgundies and plum colours.

The effect is rich, dramatic and lustrous. But it is rarely subtle, is rather late coming into its own in spring and is at its best in low evening light. It works wonderfully well as a vibrant centrepiece but might be a bit overpowering as the sole colour palette of the garden.

Colours are affected as much by what you do not use as those you select. For example, in the Jewel Garden we have absolutely no white nor any shade of pink other than magenta (a pink so blue that it is almost purple). The Mound has no red at all yet the Writing Garden – officially all white – has touches of pink and pale yellow in spring because it is surrounded by fruit trees smothered in pink blossom and underplanted with thousands of daffodils. Everything needs context.

Green and other colours

You can never have too much green. Every garden should be set amongst lots and lots of green. All other colours then work from this base. A white garden is in fact a green garden with white highlights. Rich, jewel colours glow from an equally rich palette of greens. Green is endless in its variations and is the colour that begins and ends all planting. A garden that is just green can be – and usually is – a beautifully calm and inspiring place.

You can never have too much green

Pink is the hardest colour to get right but it is worth the attempt. When it works in harmony with all the tones around it, neither too aggressively red nor ominously blue, not sickly sweet and not washed out, it creates a mood of buoyant celebration like no other floral colour. Pink works well with pink, with many shades of green, and with pale blues and white. But pale pinks amongst rich colours are mutually toxic.

You have to experiment and allow yourself to make mistakes. When we started planting the Jewel Garden we used white to represent diamond and silver. But it did not work. White is both an absence of colour and a moderator of the colours around it. So we removed all the white plants and now use glaucous blue from the foliage of plants such as cardoons to provide the suggestion of silver.

Colours set the emotional mood as much as any other factor. Walking in the Jewel Garden in high summer is like plugging into the mains, charging and recharging all aesthetic batteries with direct energy through the combination of all those rich jewel colours.

But just a few yards away – separated by the cool green corridor of the Long Walk – the Cottage Garden positively wallows in pastel tones. Mauve, lilac, lemon, pinks of every hue and soft blues combine in an easy jumble of soft shades. This inevitably means that it is a gentle place, short on drama and energy but long on peace and relaxation. Colour has painted the mood.

The Writing Garden is notionally a white garden. But such a thing is at best a compromise and at worst garishly devoid of any colour at all. It is terribly easy to overdo white in any border but especially if the pristine, cool purity of a white garden is your intention. The secret is to have just enough white amongst masses of green of many different shades, and no more. The white flowers should ride the waves of green like the surf rather than swamp it like snowfall.

Ammi majus has the perfect delicate balance of white and green

Marginal colours

Some colours are always marginal. Black – such as Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ – is fun but tricky, whilst the black silhouette of bare branches against a winter sky has a stark, gaunt beauty. Orange can be very right with other ‘hot’ colours but also glaringly wrong. And some yellows just don’t seem to work with anything.

Magenta is interesting. A plant like the perennial Geranium ‘Anne Folkard’, with its lemon-green foliage and magenta flowers that run almost like a climber through neighbouring plants, is brilliant in our Jewel Garden for adding energy to almost everything around it. But in amongst pink roses, it seems crass and crude. Try things. Sooner or later you find what colours work as and when you want them to in your garden.

The colour of hard surfaces really matters, too. Treat them with the same care as you would any flower in a border. Keep them subtle and muted but where possible, also warm. It is the colour as much as anything else that makes York or Cotswold stone so alluring. Fences can and often should be painted but are best acting as a backdrop rather than a coloured feature in their own right. Shades of grey, green and pink can work well but blue is usually aggressively dominant.

A New Plot

Before you can begin to plan what you want your garden to become, you must first take stock of what it is.

There are a number of stages to this. The first is just go and have a good look. It is extraordinary how quickly we stop looking properly at what is familiar. You must sort the wheat from the chaff and analyse carefully what you wish to keep and what you want to reject. So go out into your garden and consciously look at it as though it was the first time you have ever laid eyes upon it.

Then take lots of pictures of it from every aspect. A camera often shows you things that your brain glides over or focuses too hard upon.

Plan to remove everything that you are sure you do not want. Never give anything the benefit of the doubt. You do not have to include anything just because it is there. At this stage, the right plant in the wrong place is wrong.

Measure your garden (you can simply pace it) and draw an accurate scale plan of the site, marking in everything that is there. This can be daunting but I strongly urge you to try because even the process of doing it is very revealing. Inevitably things will be spaced in ways that surprise you. I guarantee there will be much more or less space in some areas than you have been taking for granted, or the garden may actually be much longer and narrower or more rectangular than you have assumed. Only mapping it out on paper will reveal this.

When you have an accurate scale plan of your garden as it is now – even if it is apparently ‘empty’ of all but an old shed, a couple of scruffy shrubs and some bad lawn – then you can start to plot in your ideas and dreams. It is a good idea to use tracing paper for this stage so that the original plan remains unmarked and is always there to refer to. This also means you can have many different tracing-paper versions until you are satisfied that you have got it exactly right.

Once you are happy with what is on paper, you can then transfer the plan onto the ground using canes and thick white string. When you have done this, look at it from an upstairs window and live with it for a few days. The chances are that what seemed a good idea on paper does not quite transfer onto the ground. Paths might need widening or curves and angles adjusting. Make the changes then look again. Take your time. It is much easier to rectify mistakes at this stage than it is later on.

See what works locally

See what is growing well in your neighbourhood – it will not be happening by chance. If there are pines, rhododendrons, camellias and heathers, then you will have acidic soil and anything alkaline-loving, like lavender, rosemary, lilac or yew, will have a hard time of it. However, if there are lots of spring-flowering shrubs like ceanothus, clematis, lavender and philadelphus, then you will not be able to grow ericaceous-loving plants so easily.

You need to be realistic about your soil, aspect and climate. The type of garden you have will inevitably be influenced, in the future if not immediately, by the place where you live, and unless your garden is working with the natural environment, it will not thrive. Plants that need warm conditions will not grow well in an icy, blasted site. Others that need lots of moisture cannot be expected to last in an area with very low rainfall and free-draining soil.

This does not mean that you cannot create artificial environments like a pond or a scree garden, but in general it is best to choose the plants that thrive in your immediate neighbourhood.

Edit, edit and edit again

Many gardens fail because they try and do too much rather than too little. Decide on the one thing that you most want from your garden and make it the central, dominant element, even if that means excluding other desirable aspects.

There has to be some compromise and a lot of editing. The secret is to keep the heart of the garden strong and clear, and dispense with all the peripherals.

So if you want a cottage-style garden, then create large borders packed with a gentle medley of pastel-coloured flowers, along with herbs, fruit and perhaps some vegetables.

If you want a formal, elegant garden, keep it symmetrical, balanced and very simple. Avoid clutter and clashing colours.

But remember that a garden is whatever you want it to be. Challenge some of the preconceptions of a ‘good’ garden. Do you really want a lawn? If you have children, then it is almost certainly a good idea but in a small garden, a lawn is hard to look after and keep looking good. Its function as an open space can often be better performed by a paved area, which will have the advantage of being a firm, dry surface all year round.

Similarly, you do not have to have flowers. I have seen stunning gardens that are entirely green.

Do not be frightened of being generous with scale. Most flower borders are too small. Make them as big as possible. A few large plants make a space seem bigger, whereas lots of small ones will make it feel crowded.

Looking through from the Walled Garden to the courtyard and steps beyond

Divide and rule

Whilst it is important to keep gardens structurally simple and the layout uncluttered, few gardens cannot be subdivided. In many cases, using an obvious device such as a wall, hedge or fence will work perfectly satisfactorily.

However, the subdivisions can be more subtle. A group of pots that you have to walk around can take you into an area of specialised planting either of type or colour. Strategically positioned grasses or shrubs can signpost a change of tone or rhythm. Creating a change of level with steps rather than just following the slope will also create a new space and the potential for a change of planting.

However you do it, think of the garden as a series of interlinked spaces rather than as one complete, integral canvas. The best analogy is with a house. Although it can work to spectacular effect, few people choose to eat, sleep, wash, cook and relax in just one vast room. So it is with any garden. Break it down into its component parts.

Add height

Do not be shy of adding height. Small trees such as crabs, maples and cherries, tall herbaceous plants and grasses that can be cut back hard in winter or spring, freestanding columns covered in climbers, a pergola or summer house – all can work well, even in limited spaces.

Money spent on strong, high fences is a good investment and will provide as much opportunity for a floral display as the borders – as well as providing privacy and protection. The barriers do not have to be impenetrable. Trellis above a solid fence provides support and filters the wind as well as leaving some connection with your neighbours.

Plan for all seasons

When we think of our dream garden it is usually high summer and perfect weather. That day will come but the brutal truth is that there will be many more days of cloud, wind and rain, and limited growth.

The key to having a garden that still looks good on the dankest winter’s day is to provide good structure using hard landscaping and clipped evergreen plants. This could include topiary, low hedges or just the silhouette of bare branches. How you do it will depend upon your chosen style of garden, but always plan from the outset for winter as well as for your favourite flower-filled season.

It also means making sure that certain plants are holding your attention when little else is performing. Early-flowering spring shrubs and trees, shrubs and climbers with superb autumn foliage, shrubs with bright bark, containers filled with bulbs that flower in the first few months of the year, plants that age and weather well like grasses – all these will extend the seasons.

Prepare the soil

Time spent on preparing the soil is never wasted. Dig any areas that are to be planted – including proposed lawn areas – digging them at least a full spade’s depth and breaking the soil up. They can then have compost or well-rotted manure spread over them and worked lightly into the soil; your garden will grow twice as well as a result.

The garden of any new house is bound to have compacted soil as a result of machines being used whilst it was being built. This compaction is usually covered over with a thin layer of topsoil and/or turf but will never go away and will stop almost all plants growing at all well.

If you are unable or unwilling to dig for any reason, then at the very least, add a thick layer of good garden compost or well-rotted manure to enrich the soil and improve its structure.

A new plot at a glance

1. See what is growing well in your neighbours’ gardens as a guide to what will thrive in yours.

2. Take careful stock of what you have, including establishing the points of the compass, and plot it on an accurate scale plan of your garden. Use a scale of 1:50 or 1:100. Trace all your ideas over this.

3. Plan for the whole year, not just for high summer.

4. Use the whole garden, including all the vertical surfaces.

5. Divide and rule – break the plot up into separate spaces.

6. Paths should always take you somewhere different: give them a focal point.

7. Plan the garden around the best areas for sitting in rather than automatically putting your seating outside the back door.

8. Make big borders.

9. Keep it simple and edit ruthlessly.

The Small Town Garden

Most people live in towns and suburbs where space is at a premium, therefore most people have a small garden, and with the population steadily increasing, gardens are likely to go on getting smaller. So it has been pointed out to me – not always kindly – that my own garden is too large to have relevance to an ‘ordinary’ garden.

But there is no hierarchy of horticultural pleasure. The smallest garden can be as rewarding and meaningful as the largest. A small garden is doubly precious precisely because it is small, so everything in it is treasured and noticed daily. Also, small gardens can, with careful planning and plant selection, be extraordinarily powerful and fulfilling, whatever their style or the expectations you have from them. I know of plenty of rather empty, large gardens and tiny ones that are fascinating and deeply satisfying to be in.

What to leave out

The first and most important decision when making the small garden of your dreams is knowing what to leave out. Small spaces can never do everything. The danger is that if you attempt to cram too many different ideas, plants or functions into a small garden, the whole thing becomes a mishmash.

Keep it simple. By far the most successful small gardens do one thing very well. If sitting outside reading a book in the garden is your idea of heaven, then base the whole design around that dream. If you wish to eat and entertain outside, then make the seating area big enough for a table and work around that. If you collect plants of a certain type, then make the garden ideal for them. If your children need somewhere to play, then you are going to have to compromise on precious plants. And so it goes. It means being clear, making decisions and sticking to them.

This applies to borders as well. Work out the effect you are trying to achieve, be it a riot of herbaceous perennials, the cool sensuality of grasses or a working veg patch, and focus on that. It is also easier and less stressful to look after because everything can be geared in one direction.

This is not to say that you cannot have variety and surprise. In fact, not to do so would be boring. But the variety and surprises should work around your core theme or idea rather than compete with it.

A small garden is best working towards a lot of seasonal changes that follow in sequence rather than changes occurring in parallel. So plant for all four dimensions: height, breadth, depth – and time. Use bulbs, annuals, climbers with good foliage as well as flowers – anything to extend the temporal range of display within the garden and thus maximise the potential of the limited space.

Hostas, shuttlecock ferns and primulas thrive in shade

Go with the flow

Grow what wants to grow. Choose the plants that will thrive in your immediate neighbourhood.

So if your garden gets very little light and is in shade for most of the day, make a virtue of that and specialise in plants that delight in shade. Ferns, ivy, mahonias, tiarellas, cyclamen, hostas, hardy geraniums and sweet woodruff are just a few that thrive in the relative dark and which can look superb.

Secondly, prepare the soil well. The great luxury of a small space is that this does not take long even if it involves a major effort. Many new gardens are horribly compacted with a thin layer of topsoil covering a multitude of construction-site sins. Prepare the borders properly, get rid of the rubble and compaction, and add lots of organic goodness. You are asking a lot out of your limited space so you have to put a lot in.

Unless you want a play area for children, lawns are not usually a good idea in a very small garden. The effort of cutting them does not justify a lawn mower and a scruffy patch of grass will always be just that – scruffy.

The most common mistake that I come across in a small back garden is to have a lawn occupying most of the area with just a ribbon of soil a foot or so wide at the base of the fence. This has the effect of emphasising the lack of space. If you want a lawn, consider having a path between borders that takes you to it as a separate space, or having a circular lawn ringed by generous planting that creates an illusion of more space than there is.

Instead of a lawn, it might be better to have a hard landscaped area with exactly the right surface you want – paving, bricks, cobbles, slabs, or whatever you like. A paved area is also much more useful for a sitting area and much less work. And it makes the ideal place for pots.

But you do not need to have an open space at all. The entire garden can be filled with plants, with only a narrow path providing access and a small space just big enough for a couple of seats and a small table, so that you sit surrounded by colour and fragrance. The only rules to follow are the ones that matter to you.


A small garden will take both a large number of small pots packed together as well as a few very large ones. Any outsized object or plant can look perfectly at home in a tiny space as long as you are ruthlessly selective about it. If it does not look absolutely right, then get rid of it. Every single thing should delight you. There is literally no room for compromise. You must ask yourself about every individual plant, every paving stone, each pot, whether it is the best use of that particular space, whether it is the right thing in the wrong place.

Most of us make decisions about what materials we use as a result of practical limitations rather than absolute choice. We have limited money, time and energy and do the best with what we can get. But the smaller the garden, the less that works.

Be painstaking and patient. It is better to use nothing and wait, than use the wrong thing. Aim to get it right all the time and be prepared to constantly alter things in the quest for perfection. This attention to detail is the heart and soul of looking after a small space.


No garden is so small that it cannot be divided into smaller spaces. A long thin town garden can be made into two or even three smaller square or rectangular spaces joined by a path. A square patio garden could have two levels. An empty rectangular garden could have one area that is open and coolly controlled leading to another that is heavily planted and intense – or vice versa. This is not say that it should be, just that you should consider the advantages of breaking your small town garden into separate areas.

No garden is so small that it cannot be divided into smaller spaces

The division could be made with a solid brick wall or with an evergreen hedge like box or yew – semi-solid deciduous hedges that are ideal for filtering the wind and are transparent in winter – or even with a low hedge you can see over but have to walk round, or with trellis that you can see through. Any kind of division will invite you on and in, and also create the opportunity for varied planting or colours.

Of course, each little bit of the garden has to harmonise with the whole. It cannot be assembled like a patchwork quilt but if one area does not work or is spoilt by one bit of bad planting, the whole garden is not ruined. This approach has its drawbacks though – it involves more work than a more unified plan and can get fiddly. But the beauty of a small garden is that it responds wonderfully to time put into it.

Be generous!

One of the most common mistakes people make when designing a small space is to think that everything in it must be small. The opposite is usually true. A few large plants make a space seem bigger whereas lots of small ones make it feel crowded. There are many small trees such as crab apples, maples and cherries that the smallest garden will accommodate, and every garden can include height, especially with tall herbaceous plants and grasses that can be cut back hard in winter or spring so they do not become overly dominant.

Use every tiny space for planting. The gaps in walls are ideal for herbs like thyme, flowers like Aubrieta deltoidea and the tiny daisy Erigeron kravinskianus, while the cracks in paving are perfect for the creeping mint Mentha requienii, Alchemilla mollis and the rock rose Helianthemum nummularium amongst others.


Walls and fences are the same height in a tiny garden as a large one so their vertical importance increases as the horizontal area decreases. Every inch of wall or fence should be used. This also makes for many more opportunities for some privacy – even if it is only a solitary seat – which I regard as essential if you are to fully relax in your garden.

Plant all your climbers at least half a yard from the fence or wall. They will grow much better for it. But plant them close together, every yard or so. You can get away with the inevitable overlap by mixing their flowering seasons. So a Clematis alpina can grow through a climbing rose with perhaps a C. viticella taking over in August.

Use ivy and Hydrangea petiolaris alongside a rose like Rosa ‘Souvenir du Docteur Jamain’ on a shady wall. Mix and mingle them to create the green, soft barrier you need together with colour and scent. I would also invest in really strong trellis to support them.

Within the garden, wigwams can support annual climbers like sweet peas, the cup and saucer vine, morning glory or the Chilean glory flower. These will all grow in a container, too.

Late-flowering clematis like Clematis viticella can sprawl through shrubs or trellis and be cut hard back every year so they do not overspill their space. Small gardens are often very sheltered, so gloriously scented jasmine, Trachelospermum jasminoides and Clematis armandii can thrive, whereas they might be too exposed in a large garden.

The perfect small garden tree

In a small garden, a tree is going to have to work hard to justify its space and must therefore be chosen carefully. The Japanese maple, Acer palmatum, fits the bill admirably, making it the ideal small garden tree, with its low mounds of finely cut leaves glowing with autumn colour. It is as happy in a container as in the ground and, as long as it is sheltered from drying winds and has reasonably moist air, is easy to grow. It does not like chalk or limestone but a good rich neutral to acid soil with good drainage suits it perfectly. A. p. ‘Atropurpureum’ will eventually reach some 20ft in height and the finely cut leaves of A. p. var. dissectum add a level of finesse to what is already a highly sophisticated tree. It is no wonder that the Japanese revere it.

Maples are not prone to any special problems although the leaves can be damaged by aphids, which will make them misshapen. But the biggest problem with any maple is wind scorch. This is especially true if you live by the coast and have salt-laden winds. Grow your maples in a sheltered spot, away from the morning sun so they avoid sun scorch on frosty days and above all are protected from cold, drying winds.


Quite a small amount of water movement can transform an entire garden, adding music, energy and sparkling light, as well providing the setting for a whole range of planting. A dark wall can host a simple cascade made from a spout running down the wall into a basin from which the water is pumped a few feet back up and round again. This then is the ideal environment for shade- and moisture-loving ferns and transforms a difficult area into a really attractive feature.

If you want to be more ambitious, it is perfectly possible to make a stream, complete with pools, rocks and little cascades. All you need is a fall in level from the top to bottom. This can be created in a level site by putting the spoil from the pond at the bottom of the stream at the top of the run and then landscaping the fall/stream with stones and cobbles to make it look natural. The stream can curve and wind through borders or natural contours, or run straight like a canal.

The principle is exactly the same as it is for the wildlife pond, using a waterproof liner along the length of the stream with the edges covered by soil and stones. Stones placed in the stream will break the flow and will add texture to the sound as the water gurgles past them.

On the other hand, the very simplest moving water feature is still wonderfully satisfying. A bubble of water rising up through a container of pebbles breaks and washes back over and through them into a small reservoir below, and back up again. A simple terracotta urn, filled with water, could have a central fountain that just breaks the surface and then overflows down into a reservoir. The urn sits on supports above a sunken reservoir and a rigid pipe for the water is fed through a hole in the bottom of the urn

The Japanese, who mastered the art of making exquisite small gardens more than any other culture, have perfected the delightful Shishi-odoshi or deer scarer. A length of bamboo is hinged horizontally through another, larger vertical section that conceals a pipe bringing water up from a hidden tank. This water spills from another, smaller, bamboo spout onto the hinged wood. The weight of the falling water forces the hinged piece of bamboo down and, as it descends, the water runs out and it flips back under its own weight, banging against a strategically placed stone as it does so and with the bamboo making a musical ‘clack’. Depending on the rate of flow – which is easy to adjust, this can be made to happen at a desired interval.

Whatever you decide to make in your garden, the secret is to harness the musical element that always accompanies running water. It is not only stimulating but also deeply restful.

These small but very effective water features are best planted simply, using predominantly green to reinforce the cool, sensual feel of the moving water. Bright colours distract and diminish the impact.

I love the combination of shade, water and ferns. These are a few ferns that work well.

Dryopteris filix-mas has elegantly arched fronds and loves shade, although it will adapt to moist or dry conditions.

The aspleniums, or spleenworts, with their seaweed-like flat fronds, come in many different sizes, from the tiny Asplenium trichomanes to the dramatic A. scolopendrum (Crispum Group). They are superb plants for damp shade and will grow in the cracks in stone and brick.

The athyriums, or lady ferns, such as the native Athyrium filix-femina and cultivars, need some moisture in the soil.

The shuttlecock fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, is dramatic but easy once established, dying down to a brown knobbly stump in winter from which sprout yard-high fronds in spring.

Maidenhair ferns such as Adiantum venustum with its delicate, shimmering fronds, make superb groundcover.

Blechnum spicant, the hard fern, and the oak fern, Gymnocarpium dryopteris, both relish the shady, damp air of a fountain.

The small town garden at a glance

1. Be quite clear what you want from your garden. Small gardens rarely do more than one thing well but that can be enough to make a beautiful, completely pleasing space.

2. Keep it simple and avoid clutter. If you want lots of different plants, then have large beds and accept that there will be room for little else. Otherwise focus on a core of plants and a planting style, and allow these to come through strongly.

3. Get it right. The smaller the garden, the less room there is for compromise. This does not necessarily mean spending more money but usually means spending a bit more time sourcing exactly what you want.

4. Always start with a seating area and having established the best spot in the garden for this, work everything else around it. It does not have to be near the house but it does have to feel relaxed, sunny and slightly private.

5. Use as many vertical surfaces as possible, both for climbers and within a border. The smallest garden has much the same opportunities for growing upwards as the largest.

6. A small garden should be over-planted initially and then thinned as plants grow. Otherwise you have a few years of bare soil.

7. Do not fall into the trap of lots of little things. Big plants, containers and materials make a small space seem bigger.

8. We can take inspiration from any garden, of any shape or size, and apply it to our own. It might just be a plant combination or the way some steps are made or a climber trained. But there is always something to be learned, however small your own garden.

‘Madame Alfred Carrière’ growing on the west wall of the Walled Garden

The Cottage Garden

Cottage gardens are filled with charm, innocence and a sense of harmonious abandonment. Blowsy, soft, and overspilling with colour and scent, they can and do look superb in any location, urban or rural. No other style of garden works so well to create a flower-filled retreat from the hard edges of modern life.

Although the cottage-garden style that has filtered down to us in the twenty-first century is something much softer and more carefree, the tradition of including vegetables, fruit and herbs mixed in amongst the flowers is still central to its spirit.

Original cottage gardens were never planned, and part of the secret of the good, modern cottage garden is that it should look as though it has grown up organically without any obvious design to it. It is the planting that creates the illusion of carefree abandon, not the layout.

Some key elements

Plan the garden around large borders, ideally flanking a path that you can wander down, with colour and scent accompanying you all the way. At its simplest, this can be a narrow path down the centre of the garden, with borders that take up all the space right to the edges – and that is how I had my own garden in London some 30 years ago.

Small town gardens are ideal for this very simple layout but it is essential not to complicate the design. Keep it simple – a path, either straight or curved (I have a rule that paths that run through borders can twist and bend, but paths that are primarily designed to take you from A to B, should always be straight), and as narrow as is practicable, and with the entire rest of the garden cultivated and planted. That path has to arrive somewhere – a seat is ideal, perhaps beneath a rustic bower smothered with deliciously fragrant roses or honeysuckle.

There should be a sense of the plants taking over the garden, spilling over every path, up every inch of wall or fence and twining into any open window. A word of warning though: this only works for more than a season if the gardener is ruthless and cuts and pulls with unbending rigour. Otherwise the thugs take over and all your more precious plants get swamped.

Mix it up

There is no need for separate beds for vegetables or herbs. Having large borders makes it much easier to mix small trees, shrubs, flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables in the true cottage-garden style. By planting the garden as a happy jumble, you avoid the concentration of pests and diseases that monoculture encourages.

Sweet peas can climb supportive wigwams next door to deliciously edible climbing beans. An apple tree can provide beautiful blossom in spring, structure in summer and, of course, fruit in autumn. Roses and redcurrants can rub shoulders in the border as easily as rhubarb and rheum. I have edged cottage-garden borders with parsley and red lettuce as well as with carnations and primulas.

Herbs like lavender, rosemary, sage, dill and fennel are all useful kitchen herbs that slip easily in amongst quintessential cottage-garden plants like foxgloves, aquilegias, alchemilla, pinks, hollyhocks, lupins, delphiniums, phlox and roses. Mint, however, is always best grown in a container as it can too easily spread and take over a border.


Cottage gardens demand a distinct softness of tone. Pinks, lemon yellows, lavender, mauve, pale blues and white should dominate the palette. Many of the traditional cottage-garden plants like roses, pinks, sweet Williams, snapdragons, hollyhocks, delphiniums, lupins and phlox are all naturally within this range of colours and just by selecting them you set the palette for the garden.

Pink is the key colour in soft, gentle planting schemes and there are more pink flowers than any other kind to select from. Some of my favourites, such as aquilegias, bleeding hearts, lupins, pink cranesbills like Geranium endressii, G. riversleaianum ‘Russell Prichard’ and G. x oxonianum ‘Claridge Druce’, and pink peonies and oriental poppies – are all archetypal cottage-garden plants.

Mix blue with pink and let the spectrum between them of mauves and lilacs have full rein, and you cannot help but capture the true cottage-garden spirit. Campanulas, knapweed, nepeta and Anchusa ‘Loddon Royalist’ are all good blue perennials. A good blue clematis like Clematis ‘Perle d’Azure’ can be allowed to scramble through a rose or other shrub and then be pruned back hard each spring. Delphiniums are a must, and the Elatum hybrids are perhaps easiest to grow.

If the site is well drained and sunny, then the bearded iris works as a true cottage-garden plant. And if you have heavy soil like I do, Iris sibirica will grow happily in a border.

Cottage-garden planting makes a soft jumble of textures and colours


Flowering shrubs are a key element in any cottage-garden border and lilac, philadelphus, potentilla, buddleia, lavender and clematis all mix well with a wide range of herbaceous and annual plants. If you have a shady area, hydrangeas will thrive. Clematis grow surprisingly well in shade. Although there should be a wide and eclectic mix of plants, cottage gardens are not the place for exotica like cannas, bamboos or bananas. The idea is to capture the spirit of the English countryside in full bloom – even if in practice that involves using plants from all over the world.


Spring perennials are important because they perform at a time of year when there is not so much competition for space. So primroses, hellebores, pulmonarias, cranesbills, Solomon’s seal, euphorbias and, especially, aquilegias, should be welcomed. In summer, peonies, delphiniums, lupins, lavatera and phlox are all perennials that we grow as much for the way that they make us and our gardens feel more tranquil and softly rural, as for the way that they look so pretty.

Summer herbaceous perennials like oriental poppies, phlox, campanulas, nepeta, delphiniums, wallflowers, peonies, alchemilla, asters, cardoons and helianthus look good in great drifts and clumps that can be cut back as they fade, when annuals or vegetables can be added to plug the gaps.


Climbing the walls and through bushes should be honeysuckle and clematis, perhaps a rose or two and a wisteria. Choose varieties that are free-flowering, fragrant and fulsome, even if this means filling your garden with very common plants. The whole point of a cottage garden is to create sensual delight based upon utilitarian simplicity. It is not to show off rare or unusual plants.

Annuals and biennials

Annuals and biennials have an important part to play in any cottage garden and can be very easily and cheaply grown from seed. Snapdragons, sweet peas, sunflowers, lavatera, nigella, alyssum, cornflowers, larkspur and marigolds are all hardy annuals that can be simply sprinkled onto the soil in spring, direct where they are to flower, and allowed to weave amongst more permanent planting. They avoid all the expense of raising seedlings under cover.

Annuals and biennials have an important part to play in any cottage garden

Annual poppies, from magnificent opium poppies, yellow Welsh poppies and Shirley poppies, are superb and will pop up in future years having seeded themselves – often in unlikely places. But these random delights are in tune with all that is lovely about the cottage garden.

Half-hardy annuals like cosmos, tobacco plants and annual pinks must be raised with a little protection but a windowsill or small greenhouse is enough to grow hundreds of plants at any one time, and once the risk of frost is past, they can be planted out and will flower right until the first frosts of autumn.

Biennials are tough, quick but not flashy, and tend to seed themselves with abandon

Biennials are tough, quick but not flashy, and tend to seed themselves with abandon. Forget-me-nots, wallflowers, sweet Williams, Canterbury bells, foxgloves – both white and purple – honesty, Brompton stocks, pansies, and sweet rocket can all join the easy jumble of a cottage-garden border. You can either buy young plants in spring or autumn, or save money by sowing seed in spring and raising the plants to put into position in autumn ready for flowering next year.

Cow parsley froths in the Spring Garden in May

Bulbs, corms and tubers

Bulbs such as snowdrops, crocuses, hyacinths, fritillaries, Solomon’s seal, summer snowflakes, daffodils, tulips and alliums are essential, and later in the year, lilies (especially the Madonna lily), crocosmia, gladioli and dahlias are an important part of the planting balance.

Try and weave them through the borders, or use them in containers so they can be moved to where you most enjoy them, then move them to one side after they have done their bit.

Some of these, like tulips, dahlias and gladioli, can and will have garish, vibrant colours that seem at odds with the ethos of the cottage garden, but it is not an exercise in tightly controlled good taste. Bright colours are welcome as long as they act to set off the whole and do not unbalance it.

The cottage garden at a glance

1. Softness is the key to all cottage gardens. This is best achieved by generous drifts and billows of plants and using soft, pastel colours.

2. Mix in all and every kind of plant cheek by jowl. Not only shrubs, perennials and annuals mingle together, but also fruit, herbs and vegetables can grow side by side in the same border.

3. Go for maximum cultivated space. Surround your seating area with plants. If you have a lawn, make it small and enclosed with borders.

4. Grow as much from seed as possible. Annuals and biennials are an important contribution to the cottage-garden style.

5. Topiary is another traditional element. Yew is ideal but any evergreen plant can be clipped and shaped. Be playful and witty with it.

6. Choose your hard surfaces carefully. Brick paths – especially recycled bricks – always look right. If your ground drains well, grass paths are also ideal. Avoid hard-edged modern surfaces like concrete pavers.

7. Make a bower, pergola or covered seating area that supports climbing roses, honeysuckle or clematis to create a flowery, fragrant retreat.

8. Avoid using exotic plants that stand out as unusual or dramatic. This is not the time to recreate the jungle! Everything should create a harmonious blend evoking a glorious English countryside.

The Exotic Garden

Ever since exotic plants from all over the world began to be brought back to this country from the beginning of the seventeenth century, British gardeners have yearned to grow them at home. Now that many of us can jet off and visit tropical paradises for ourselves, that urge to create our own exotic garden at home is stronger than ever. And it can be done, even in the coldest, most northern gardens.

Any holiday-maker to the tropics will notice just how vigorous growth is and how fast compared to the northern hemisphere. It is that green vitality that you have to tap into to create a garden that feels truly exotic.

That tropical lushness is to do with the combination of the heat of the sun, the intensity of light and the availability of water. The first two of these factors are beyond any gardener’s control but if you have reasonable rainfall or can collect rainwater so you can water your key plants if there is drought, then you have a much wider and lusher selection to play with. But enriching your soil will help more than anything else.

It is perfectly possible to create an exotic effect with extremely hardy plants and I do this in my own garden. I use the giant foliage of Hosta ‘Snowden’ and H. sieboldiana, the height of the giant Scotch thistle, Onopordum acanthium, that can reach 15ft in a few months, and cardoons. Both these last two have astonishingly vigorous growth in May and June, and beautiful glaucous foliage that contrasts really well with the rampant foliage of the golden hop, Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus’.

Acanthus is one of those plants that provides an overdose of brilliant lush green but comes with a health warning, for once established, it is all but impossible to get rid of from a border. This is especially true of Acanthus mollis, which is semi-evergreen, surviving all but the sharpest of winters, whereas A. spinosus is decidedly herbaceous and completely disappears between November and April. Both have huge, dramatic spires of flowers that rise up from the great scalloped swell of their shiny leaves.

If you then use large containers to position dramatic flowering plants, you immediately scale up the exotic temperature. Brugmansia works superbly well in this way, as do cannas, phormiums and even the humble dahlia. Growing them in pots also means that you can ensure the right kind of soil and drainage, and makes it easier to protect tender plants in winter.


Dry shade is seen as a major problem for gardeners. But many ferns love it and create a richly exotic corner lurking in the shadows. Given protection from wind, the male or Buckler fern will grow almost anywhere, sending up croziers 3ft tall that smell of freshly cut hay, while golden shield fern, Dryopteris affinis, is another superbly statuesque fern that will grow equally well in sun or shade. As with all drought-tolerant plants, water them well for their first year until established.

Blechnum chilense is a very robust evergreen fern with leathery, dark-green fronds. Like the shuttlecock fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, which needs damp conditions, it will establish a short trunk, similar to a mini tree fern.

In milder areas the real tree fern, Dicksonia antarctica, instantly creates the right atmosphere and mood. It will need protecting in winter and the best way to do this is to fold the ferns over the top of the stem and wrap it in fleece. Tree ferns have their roots on the stem so they like humid air rather than moist soil. A spray with a hose every few days in a dry spell should suffice.


The Chusan palm, Trachycarpus fortunei, always adds a very un-British element to any garden and sets the tone for the planting around it with real élan, although it is the hardiest of all palms and will grow in a wide range of gardens. Good drainage will always improve its health and planting it in a sheltered spot will protect it from the wind.

The dwarf fan palm, Chamaerops humilis, is also very hardy and will form a shrubby clump that creates a good understorey. Again, good drainage and a sunny, sheltered position will help a great deal.

Cordyline australis is not a palm but looks like one, and certainly casts an exotic shade in any coastal or urban garden where the winter temperatures do not fall below –5°C. It needs plenty of water in summer but should be kept dry in winter. In good weather it will flower freely.

Eucomis bicolor growing in a pot on The Mound


With its enormous and, in the case of Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’, deep chocolate and plum-coloured leaves, no single plant is more exotically dramatic than the banana. They demand lots of water, the richest growing conditions that you can create, are not hardy, and need a sheltered spot if they are not to be ripped to shreds by winds – but for all that I consider them essential in any would-be exotic garden.

The hardiest is Musa basjoo but it needs a protective wigwam of fleece in cold areas or, like Ensete, should be lifted and brought indoors for protection before the first frosts. For containers, a small banana like Musa lasiocarpa, which only reaches about 4ft but has wonderful, thick, glaucous leaves and is even hardier than M. basjoo, is a good choice.

Ensete banana underplanted with blood grass – Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’


Their combination of vivid, flamboyant flowers and enormous and striking foliage makes cannas among the most dramatic plants in any garden. I particularly like the mixture of dark or striped foliage with brilliant flowers such as Canna ‘Wyoming’, which has orange flowers, C. ‘Black Knight’, which has red flowers or C. ‘Durban’, which has chocolate leaves and orange flowers.

Even if you live in a very mild area, cannas still need lifting and cutting back by mid-November to give them a rest or else they will not flower the following year. Their roots are fleshy and store enough food to take the plant through its dormant winter season. In this country that can be quite a long time because they are not frost-hardy and it is best not to plant them out till the last possible risk of frost has passed.

I pack the cut-back plants in spent potting compost or leafmould (vermiculite or even wood chips would do) in a large pot in a cool but frost-free shed, to keep them protected and alive but dormant over winter. They should not be allowed to dry out, so water them every few weeks. I then bring them out of storage as soon as growth appears in spring and from mid-April, I gradually harden them off before their final planting out at the end of May.

Cannas like being moist so they should always be generously mulched after planting and watered thoroughly. Each individual flower only lasts a few days but more will be produced from the same flower spike until there are no more buds.

The tree dahlia, Dahlia imperialis, will create a huge plant, reaching 15ft or more in rich soil, but it only flowers in late summer after