A garden for all seasons

Sheena Marsh of Oxford Garden Design on getting a garden to shine all year round

A standard excuse that we gardeners use to visitors is that the garden was looking better last week, or will look better in the summer, spring, or…any other time, except now.

Most of us have gardens that have peaks and troughs throughout the year. We might have concentrated too hard on that spring bulb display at the expense of summer perennials - or indeed, entirely given up on winter months.

The key to designing a really good garden is to plan for all the seasons; to select plants that give lasting value and structure the garden to make the best of it all year round.

The owner of this Hook Norton garden wanted it to be as low-maintenance as possible. Above all, this needed to be a garden that looked good whatever the time of year, so we made good use of evergreen hedging and topiary that just requires clipping once a year.

The style of the property cried out for a cottage garden to complement it and there were precious ornaments and statues to be integrated into the overall design. Often winter is a better season for seeing garden art, when there’s less to distract the eye. This little chap tends to get overlooked in the busyness of the summer garden.

The owner of the garden wanted plenty of seating areas where the garden can be viewed from different angles. A simple bench next to the back door becomes a private space of tranquillity.

These rustic chairs create another viewpoint and complement the character of the property beautifully.

Sheena’s top ten tips for creating a garden for all seasons

  1. Make sure the outside space works visually from inside the home. Although a garden is used primarily in summer, it is viewed from the house all year round so consider what it will look like from a window. A garden has to work equally hard in summer as in winter so make sure there is something interesting to see at all times.
  2. Foliage is the pivot on which a garden turns, providing leaves for emphasis and framing more seasonal planting. Choose evergreen stalwarts with care. Holly, pyracantha, euonymus and hebes are examples of plants that look good all year round and grow well in Cotswold soil.
  3. Trees are the backbone of any garden and even where space is at a premium there is usually room for just one. Pyrus calleryana Chanticleer - the ornamental pear tree - is perfect for all seasons. Growing to just 5 x 3 metres in 20 years, it looks good as a feature in its own right or grown as an avenue. The dark green foliage in spring contrasts brilliantly with the mass of single white flowers produced in April/May and it is one of the best trees for autumn colour for the local soil.
  4. Most gardens have a damp, shady area where nothing much will grow, but such space ought not to be overlooked. One of the best plants for such a situation is the shade loving ground cover, Ajuga reptans Atropurpurea. In early summer it raises blue purple spikes above a bed of dark bronze purple leaves and it mingles well with the yellow flowers of our native Primula vulgaris, which enjoy the same sort of conditions.
  5. Perennials are the non-woody plants that can live for several years, they can be evergreen, giving interest for most seasons. The flowers of the Christmas rose, Helleborus niger shine like stars all through the dreary winter months and the leathery evergreen leaves make a good backdrop for summer flowering perennials. Placed in a raised bed or above a wall, to enjoy the nodding flowers to best advantage.
  6. For all-year interest, ornamental grasses are hard to beat. The small neat tussocks of Festuca Glauca, for example, grown in groups, will provide attractive blocks of blue, contrasting well with summer flowering plants, such as Geranium Russell Prichard. The graceful Hakonechloa macra Aureola is very easy to grow in most situations and, although it looks good most of the year, it’s particularly impressive in the autumn when it can produce feathery flower plumes.
  7. Planting in containers is a great way to bridge the seasons by providing temporary colour when the rest of the scheme is past its peak. It also allows you to introduce plants into the garden that wouldn’t otherwise grow in the native soil. An Azalea planted in a large tub of ericaceous compost, will produce a profusion of spring flowers in that gap when bulbs have gone over and summer plants are yet to emerge.
  8. Use lighting for dramatic impact. Subtle outdoor lights extend the feeling of space in addition as being practical. Adding outdoor lighting along paths and walkways can help to define the edges of a path and also illuminate any flowers that are planted next to them. The key thing to remember is that a little goes a long way and remember that darkness can also be used to good effect to conceal any less attractive areas! Decide on the areas you do want to light and focus on those.
  9. Fences can be used as a support for evergreen, climbing plants to give all-year interest. One of the best climbers for a sheltered, sunny spot is the star jasmine, Tracheleospermum Jasminoides. Truly a star, with highly fragrant, delicate, white flowers in summer, its autumn and winter foliage gives it all-year interest.  
  10. Any garden will benefit from a feature to act as a focal point. If your style of garden is modern this could be a sculpture, if traditional an urn or statue might be appropriate. Whatever the season and whatever the weather, a well-placed ornament will attract attention and interest.

Sheena Marsh is the founder and a director of Oxford Garden Design. For over fifteen years she has worked closely with hundreds of individual garden owners to produce practical landscape plans that result in gorgeous gardens. For more information on the gardens that Sheena and her team have designed in and around the Cotswolds - and to get in touch - simply visit www.oxfordgardendesign.co.uk.

Images: Oxford Garden Design