In gardening, it is impossible to achieve the perfect plot. In an ideal world, a garden should be big, but not too big and certainly not too small. It should be level for ease of working, but have slopes and undulations to add interest. It should also be sheltered to ward off the worst of the elements, yet be open enough to give a feeling of space and to maximize views.
Types of sheltered garden
Essentially, a ‘sheltered garden’ is one where walls provide a kind of warm microclimate: they face the sun and are protected from cold winds. The garden should not be a haven for cold air either: it should ‘drain away’ without lingering.
The walls provide conditions that are ideal for tender plants, protecting them from the coldest weather and enhancing the warmest weather. You can have a sheltered garden that is protected by tall trees and shrubs, but if the garden is also quite small it will probably be shady, and the ground could be congested with the roots of the windbreak plants. This is not a good combination.
A large sheltered garden, on the other hand, sounds ideal, but is rarely found, for the bigger the plot, the greater the chances of exposure to wind.
For the purposes of this chapter, therefore, a sheltered garden is assumed to be medium to small, with a proportion of protective walls and screening plants that are not too invasive.
The ‘corridor’ effect
Gardens that are long and narrow present a challenge to the gardener. It can be difficult to know how to put everything you want into the area without it looking claustrophobic. Such gardens, especially if they have walls or fences running the length of each side, have been likened to horticultural ‘corridors’.
The aim should always be to design long, narrow gardens to create a feeling of space. You can do this by developing the garden into separate areas, or ‘rooms’. Each one should be different in character, yet they should all link together.
At the same time you should try to disguise the boundaries with plants or other features, such as ponds, rockeries, trelliswork at angles to the perimeter, and so on.
Where the soil is poor, containers can be used to great effect. These also allow you to grow chalk-loving plants if the soil is acidic, or acid-loving plants if the soil is chalky.
Containers also raise the heights and levels of plants slightly, so with careful and strategic placing of containers you can effectively bring another dimension to your garden.
Coastal town gardens
Mention ‘town gardens’ and you automatically think of small gardens in large towns and cities, most of which will be inland. However, there are thousands of towns worldwide that are within 15 miles (24km) of the sea, and so there are millions of town gardens that come within the subject of this book.
The smallest town gardens present a real challenge, especially to gardeners keen to grow as wide a range of plants as possible. Shelter from the walls of buildings and boundaries is a certainty, but there is also a likelihood of other problems, such as draughts, shade and poor, often rubble-filled soil. There are plants that accept such conditions, but will they also tolerate salty air? Fortunately there are a few, including the spotted laurel (Aucuba japonica ‘Variegata’), silk tassel bush (Garrya elliptica) and various ivies (Hedera spp) and hollies (Ilex spp).
Of course, sheltered coastal town gardens also offer great potential as well. For example, the warmth offered by walls facing the sun can be considerable – real sun traps – and the fact that walls tend to deflect much of the rain that falls means that you may be able to keep hardy (and a few tender) succulents and even cacti. Such hot, sun-loving plants will, by necessity, be just a few metres from a shady wall where it will be more appropriate to grow cool-loving woodland plants, giving you an interesting range of plant choices.
Finally, in a town garden where high walls are commonplace, and indeed there may be more vertical than horizontal spaces, there is every opportunity to grow a rich variety of climbing plants, such as the brilliant red flame creeper (Tropaeolum speciosum) and the blue passion flower (Passiflora caerulea). These will do much to engender the feeling of a green island in an urban desert.
A sheltered coastal garden enables you to grow an entirely different range of plants to those in gardens with exposed or windy conditions. You still need to choose plants that are able to grow in an area where there is salt in the air, but the shelter from surrounding walls also protects plants from the intensity of salt air and deposit, so it may occasionally be possible to grow plants that are rather more intolerant of salt.
With a sheltered garden there is a wide diversity of species available. Exotic foliage plants, such as the cabbage palm (Cordyline australis), Adam’s needle (Yucca filamentosa) and the false castor oil plant or Japanese fatsia (Fatsia japonica) are in their element and can form the basis of such a garden. Combine them with showy, free-flowering shrubs such as oleander (Nerium oleander), laurustinus (Viburnum tinus) and Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius) to make a truly exciting planting.
Protecting tender plants from cold
Unfortunately many of the plants that are suited to sheltered gardens are also plants that dislike very cold conditions so there is always a possibility that such tender plants will be killed off in a cold winter.
This can be avoided to some extent if the roots and lower parts of the plants are protected by insulating materials. These could be in the form of layers of mulching material – well-rotted compost and manure (which will also nourish the soil), or straw. Large containers housing tender plants may be wrapped with bubble-plastic to help protect the roots from the intense cold.
Luckily, many of the plants in a sheltered border are quick growing and are thus well able to spring up again from the base. Some will also be easy to propagate, enabling you (if you have the inclination) to keep a few substitute plants, in pots perhaps, as a sort of insurance policy.
Supporting and training plants
Plants growing against or in front of walls are not the same as those growing up them. The former are referred to as ‘wall plants’, whereas the latter are most definitely ‘climbers’ (for a list of recommended plants, see pages 164–71).
One of the best methods of training plants onto, say, a brick wall in a coastal situation is to fix stout galvanized wires horizontally to the wall or, in the case of twining climbers, vertically. Wires should be set from 8–12in (20–30cm) apart and held in position at regular intervals by hooked or eyelet-holed metal pins, known as ‘vive eyes’, driven into the wall. Strong hooks can also be used. Both the wires and the hooks or eyes should be galvanized so that they do not rust away in the salt-laden air.
Strips of plastic-coated steel or wire netting fixed to the walls are also effective. This is very strong, comes in different sizes and meshes, and is fairly resistant to rust, although in time the plastic coating can flake away.
Another method of support is the trelliswork mentioned above. This comes in panels comprising a latticework of narrow laths, coated with wood preservative or paint. The panels can be easily fixed to the wall and held firm with the aid of wall plugs, screws or nails.