Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Battling the borrowed view

Wednesday’s garden takes the notion of ‘borrowed view’ to an entirely different level. It’s one thing to appropriate visually your neighbour’s Betula utilis var. jacquamontii as a focal point for a particular view in your garden. It’s quite another when your every boundary is surrounded by the most breathtaking scenery; turn one way for the rolling downs with their patchwork fields and woodland; turn another to gaze out over the village church and country cottages, oast houses and orchards. In a very obvious sense this location epitomises what it is to be gardening in the Kentish landscape; look up from your weeding and it’s there, rolled out before you in all its glory.

It would be misleading to suggest that this borrowed landscape intrudes; it’s too pleasing a view to be unwelcome in any respect. If there’s any downside in being surrounded by such a generous expanse of loveliness – and, being British, I’ll have a good stab at locating any downside – it’s that any sense of ‘garden’ you try to establish can all to easily become overwhelmed by the wider context of the glorious countryside. Tall hedges and structures artfully arranged to create a sense of enclosure, opening up at strategic points to provide choice glimpses over the surrounding weald would certainly be high on my list of solutions for starting to address this tension. But other factors are at work – cost, time, client preference – calling for approaches of a subtler nature.

I think that’s why the area in the photograph is one of my favourite spots in this garden. Out of shot to the left, and down a rolling bank, a group of sedate birches provides a visual stop, while a mature purple smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple') provides the top and right hand edge of the frame. Standing here, the landscape beyond is perfectly visible, but you are conscious of having to look through the garden to see it. It’s a sensation that lasts only fleetingly – a few steps down the slope and you’re back out in the open, glorious rolling Kentishness on all sides, but it gives a hint as to what can be achieved without having to resort to great blocks of evergreen hedging.

As for the spot itself, it’s an area into which a fair amount of thought and work has gone, though perhaps you wouldn’t know it to look at it. The image shows the cotinus in semi-recumbent pose – a combination of waterlogged soil and winter winds have done their best to fell the old soldier, but we’re hoping he’s made of sterner stuff. The majority of the root system is in the ground, and we’ve done our best to protect that which became exposed. I’ve also elected not to perform my annual hard prune for larger leaves at the expense of the smokey flowers – the plant has been under enough stress as it is and, in any case, the loss of some of the roots will inevitably lead to a degree of self pruning in the aerial parts, if it survives at all. So far the signs are good, with the tiny dark red buds emerging with encouraging vigour. The foot of the shrub has been rescued from a tangle of uninspring vinca, no doubt planted due to its chief quality of being decidedly unappetising to rabbits, from whose attention this garden suffers greatly. In the rich soil, however, the vinca can quickly become rampant, and an unruly mound of its arching stems did nothing visually. Wisely, the furry critters have also chosen to leave un-nibbled the native digitalis and hellebores that have replaced the periwinkles. The lilac coloured primrose, not somethng I’d normally choose, seems to have settled in of its own accord, and I think it can stay, certainly for the moment. While I decide what to do about it, it can be left to enjoy the view – although, apparently unimpressed, it appears to be facing entirely the wrong way. One presence here, at least, that would rather gaze into the garden, than out to the landscape beyond.