Creating a garden from scratch is an opportunity to live and learn

They say building a house from scratch is easier than renovating an old one. It certainly applies to gardens. Planting on an empty plot of land is much less trying than moving plants around or correcting past mistakes – especially if they are someone else’s. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing your own efforts flourish. A gardener who had a bare terrace alongside the house in the countryside she moved into about five years ago was able to give free rein to her vision of what a country garden could look like – and then learn to adapt that vision when faced with practicalities and Mother Nature’s own designs. The west-facing terrace, originally a vegetable patch, had lain fallow for decades. The new owner was lucky enough to get initial advice from an experienced gardener who provided her with a list of plants suitable for the location and type of soil, and gave her some instructions on how to get started. Some of those instructions were forgotten in the owner’s eagerness to see the space covered in vegetation. One of the most important was not to plant shrubs too close together. Three small rosemary bushes planted against a south-facing stone wall to form a backdrop for smaller plants were positioned at what the owner thought was a sufficient distance apart. However, within three years they had ballooned into huge shrubs, crowding out not only each other but other plants as well – which were fortunately small enough to be moved without sustaining any damage. Impatience also stopped the owner from making sufficient improvements to a poor soil before actually planting. The terrace was infested with Oxalis pes-caprae (Bermuda buttercup, agriada). It carpets the ground with a soft green in winter and produces tiny yellow flowers, then withers in late spring, only to reappear with a vengeance the next year due to the relentlessly spread of its underground network of hundreds of microscopic pellet-like bulbs that need to be dug out. This was an extremely time-consuming and painstaking job, and one which neighbours thought would be better accomplished simply by spraying with herbicide. This advice was fortunately not followed and the owner restricted herself to digging out the bulbs in the area where a particular plant was to go. «It is an impossible task to remove it all so I just focus on pulling them up in the areas around the plants themselves so they don’t get choked,» said the owner. The soil is enriched every autumn with rotted goat manure and compost made on the site from the plentiful weeds which are dug up en masse every couple of months while the rains last. Design To give the long terrace an impression of width, a path was built in a broad curve to an open area at the other end, defined by a rock border and covered with gravel over a layer of perforated black plastic to inhibit weed growth, yet allow rain water to seep through. The owner did not want to achieve a trimmed, manicured effect, preferring to allow the garden to blend in with the surrounding countryside, so all interventions are done with a light hand to achieve «controlled profusion.» There are no neat rows, but there is method in the seeming anarchy. Plants that bloom in spring are scattered among those that flower in summer, autumn and winter so there is always some color. Creeping plants grow along the stone border, spilling over on to the path. Taller shrubs are generally nearer the wall. However, weeding and pruning are done regularly to encourage growth, and plant species are chosen for their hardiness and resistance to drought. A drip-watering system is turned on to flow just once a week in winter; in summer, this is increased to every second or third day. «I don’t want the plants to get used to a lot of water, but if they look very thirsty they get an extra drink in summer,» the owner explained. No pesticides are used – companion planting is followed where possible, such as planting a clove of garlic next to a rose bush to prevent black spot. Last year, the owner bought a shredder to chop up prunings to help them break down faster into compost. The shredder also chips pruned branches that can be used as mulch, to prevent soil evaporation and keep weeds in check. Nearly all the plants are native to the Mediterranean or originated in other parts of the world with a similar climate. Most have proved hardy. Those that haven’t are given one more chance and if they don’t recover are sent to the compost heap, their place taken by others that appear to like the conditions. «In the beginning, I kept discovering new plants and wanted to try them all. But I soon learned to be warier, first of all because too much anarchy is messy, and then because not everything works,» said the owner. She is not afraid to move plants that need more or less sun than they are getting, or are suffering from too much wind exposure. «Gardens are never finished,» she said. «You learn all the time. It is very satisfying to see things grow that you yourself have planted.»