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Thinking outside the box

By Exeter Express and Echo  |  Posted: January 17, 2013

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NOW is a good time to take a critical look at your garden. With trees without leaves and few plants to hide behind, you can see exactly what you have got and how it can be improved – or just changed.

Ideas may come from magazines, a TV programme or may simply be inspired by a neighbour's garden or the need to move a few things around to fit in a new feature.

Whatever you decide to do, whether it's creating a new bed or making radical changes with hard landscaping, work out how much time and effort you're prepared to spend on the project and the subsequent maintenance it will require.

It's no use planting a garden full of high-maintenance plants if you're not going to be there to deadhead, water, feed and keep everything under control.

Think about where you are going to site any new project. If you're planning a raised bed for vegetables, make sure it's going to be in a sunny spot with not much shade from overhanging trees, or you won't be able to grow a huge variety in there. And remember veg patches can be high maintenance too, as weeding, watering and feeding is likely to be a regular requirement.

If you're a seasoned gardener, you'll already know what type of soil you have. If not, a simple soil test kit can be bought from any garden centre which will indicate what type of soil you have and, from there, you can find out what types of plants will grow in it.

If your garden is dry, shady, or you have clay or acid soil, you need to work with it. Don't try to fight it by changing the make-up of the soil, because no matter how much organic matter you add, eventually the original type will come through.

If you want to grow acid-loving plants such as azaleas but have alkaline soil, you're best off growing them in pots of ericaceous compost.

If the garden's on a slope, you may need to level the site or install a drainage system. If you're planning a paved area, make sure it's level but with enough camber to drain effectively or you'll end up with puddles you don't want.

Think outside the box and you may come up with a more interesting design. Never, for instance, make narrow borders along boundary fences, because following the boundary lines will just emphasise the shape of your garden and make it look smaller.

If you're creating a new bed or border, the minimum width should be 1m (40in), and even that will restrict what can be grown. It's better to go for a border twice or even three times that width for dwarf shrubs and modest perennials.

Strong shapes are important and need to blend with your house, keeping everything in proportion and making both outdoor and indoor space merge seamlessly.

The general rule of thumb with proportion of planting and features to open space is one-third planting to two-thirds space. Without the space, the planting and features within the garden cannot be seen to best advantage.

Even if you have an awkward-shaped garden, you can create spaces within it which can be explored – it might be a circular lawn or a winding path, fringed by planting and focal points to give it depth and structure.

You may want to create a change of level in your garden to define specific areas, using terracing, or install points of interest along the way such as a water feature, seating or an eye-catching statue.

Consider light and shade, which can also be used to change the shape of a space by creating the illusion of depth and distance.

Of course, gardeners are always interested in new plants, but often the plants which can be guaranteed to steal the show are old favourites, so look at what you already grow successfully in your borders, the plants which like your soil and their situation, and perhaps consider repeat planting further along.

Most of all, when planning, work out what you want the garden for – is it to relax, to experiment with gardening or to use as a family-friendly play area?

If your children are regularly playing football in it, forget a bowling green finish or planting delicate plants around the lawn which are likely to get their flowers knocked off by a ball.

And remember that fashion plays its part when planting. Years ago, hybrid tea and floribunda roses were in vogue but now alliums and tree ferns have become the must-have plants.

You may be better off with something you're happy with on an everyday basis as the basic structure of planting, but you can vary the colour and type of seasonal planting from year to year.

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