The terraces are a practical solution to a recurring problem here: how to get the garden down the hill. We live 200m above sea level (that’s a shade over 600 ft – or the height of a respectable cliff) in the Blackdown Hills, a gentle landscape of undulating fields, lanes and hedgerows and long views across hills blueing into the distance.
Everywhere is either up, or down. There are two flat patches in my garden: the vegetable garden, and the bit directly around the house. Linking the two is yet another slope. Or at least, it would be if someone way back in the annals of the house’s long list of owners hadn’t built walls and terraced the whole slope into three broad plateaux.
I fret, sometimes, about what to do with my slopes. In places, they’re precipitous: the house sits in a bowl, as it used to be a quarry. Maps dating back well into the early 1800s show our quarry once stretched around the side, where there’s still a bit of rough ground in the cow field behind, and up the hill into what’s now a smooth sheep pasture with not a hint of earthworks to be seen. In our garden, though, the scars of mining gravel and limestone, as well as the chertstone rock (a kind of fractured flint) from which our house was built, mark deep into the earth.
The hedgerows in the back garden grow on top of these near-vertical slopes, and I have been known to trim them while hanging, monkey-like, by one hand from the lower branches and wielding a petrol hedgetrimmer with the other. Don’t try this at home, folks.
I could take my cue from the terraces and turn them into a series of narrow (but flat) ribbons, stepping down the sides of my garden like paddyfields. But I baulk at the major work involved: I could bank up sleepers, perhaps, but I don’t much like the idea of forbidding walls of wood.
Stone walls would be more in keeping – and god knows there’s plenty of stone to build them with – but even so, it’s a huge job and I’m not convinced the end result wouldn’t look a bit… well… over-engineered.
Just now I’m thinking the softly softly, sympathetic approach is needed, and all that’s required is to cut paths winding through and up the cliffs, and maybe landsculpt more manageable, plantable slopes in between. We’ll see.
Here’s how the same space looked when we moved here in 2010…
I am having a bit of a dilemma.
I’m in the middle of that bit of the year in which I realise (and this happens every single year) that my ambitions are slightly outstripping my ability to turn them into reality.
It’s all going quite well in the workaday veg garden bit: an impending deadline helped get the potager-style fruit garden finished (it remains the only ‘finished’ or even ‘started’ area of my garden), and now I’m in the middle of extending and redesigning the veg-growing bit to look, I hope, the way I’d always dreamed it would.
But there’s an area around where we usually have barbecues which is currently a bit of a weed-strangled jungle, bar the half of it I keep cultivated mainly in order to grow those plants I acquire at random: they’re quite nice, but not exactly coherent at the moment.
This is what I call my ‘pot pourri’ garden. Not because it’s a mishmash, though in its current state you’d be forgiven for thinking that; more because I decided in my initial plan that I’d grow all the ingredients I’d need to make my own pot-pourri there. This, I reasoned, would mean lots of lovely scented things and would also mean I could have fun experimenting with making my own ground orris root and such like.
It’s quite a large area: and a good thing too, as my list of pot pourri ingredients is increasing the more I look into this. A few Apothecary’s roses, some Iris germanica (that’s the orris root), lavender, rosemary and sweet marjoram; oodles of bergamot, chamomile and clove carnations; big boys like eucalyptus (coppiced), jasmine and honeysuckle; and little beauties like mignonette, violets, scented-leaved geraniums and tansy.
But my dilemma is with the scent. Or rather, scents: doesn’t the bergamot clash with the roses? And if you’ve got honeysuckle pumping out the perfume, doesn’t it rather interfere with the sweetness of eau de jasmine?
You can, of course, pace your scented plants so they’re not all performing at once. The spiciness of a wallflower is over well before the richness of roses pervades the air; essential oils of sage and rosemary are released only on a hot summer’s day, so shouldn’t interfere with the more delicate spring scent of violets. And some, like honeysuckle and nicotiana, only rev up when the sun goes down, considerately leaving daytime hours to roses and carnations.
But what happens when you’ve got a powerful scent near a scent that’s delicate? Or – possibly worse – two powerful scents at once?
Then you get clashing scents, or a jumble of scents which are indistinguishable one from the other – and I’m not sure I like the sound of that.
There’s very little written about this particular consideration when you’re gardening with scent: on the whole, the advice seems to be, pack in as much of it as you possibly can. Even the trustiest books in my gardening library are no help here: they go on about not forgetting to include the ‘extra’ element of scent, but forget to tell us how.
In my experience there are different scent effects for each scented plant (and I’m not just talking about the type of perfume). Some scents fill a garden when they’re at full throttle: the kind you walk out into your garden one day and think, ‘What is that?’ Christmas box, most of the daphnes, philadelphus on a sunny day and climbers like honeysuckle and jasmine do that for me.
Others stay put, occupying the small area around the particular shrub or plant so you only really experience it when you’re right next to it. Roses, mignonette, wallflowers and my lovely stately Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’.
Then there’s a third category: the ones you have to crush a leaf, or tread on, or otherwise damage for its occasional – and usually powerful – puff of fragrance. This includes most of the scented-foliage plants: herbs such as lemon verbena, lemonbalm, chamomile, bergamot, eucalyptus and scented-leaf geraniums.
So I’m going to work on that basis. The strong scents I shall use with caution: I’ll think hard whether I want them at all (jasmine in particular is a real thug when it gets going) and spread them out where I can: winter honeysuckle not summer, perhaps.
I shall make sure I don’t plant any of the second category next to any from the first. And the third lot I think I can probably get away with sprinkling with gay abandon through the whole thing.
But since I’ve never tried planting a garden based on scent before, I may be entirely wrong. This, I have a feeling, may turn out to be something of an experiment, as all the best gardening tends to be. Let’s hope it doesn’t end in a terminal case of olfactory overload.