Though it is just in its infancy and unfinished, with more open ground than planted, the new garden beyond the barns has already deepened our connection with this place. Dubbed the Sand Garden, the working title which will probably stick, it has provided me the same opportunities as the sandpit my father made for us when we were children. I think it was Jung who theorised that if you could find the place where you lost yourself as a child, you could find a place of deep meditation and calm as an adult. And sure enough, the familiar feeling of being lost in a world of my own making, enhanced in this case by the very sand I’ve used as a top dressing, has rewarded me with the same opportunity for play all these years later.
I have always known that the act of gardening is my place of retreat and contemplation, but somehow the sand has emphasised the connection in this extension to the garden. The sand radiates light and is warm to the touch and I can already see plants that would struggle on our heavy loam responding favourably. When writing earlier in the summer and to reiterate, part of my experiment in the sand garden has been to cope with our increasingly polarised weather patterns. Drier growing seasons and wetter winters are a challenge when selecting drought tolerant plants and few are adapted to both. The sand should provide free-draining conditions in winter to open up a range of plants that simply aren’t possible on our heavy clay loam.
It has already been interesting to see how the 15cm sand mulch has responded to the summer and in turn how the plants have responded to the sand. Though this has not been the summer I was planning for in experimenting with a more ‘Mediterranean’ palette, when it has been dry, the sand has capped to form a crust and effectively hold in the moisture. We have not had the same cracks opening in our heavy soil where I have mulched with compost elsewhere, so the plants have needed no more water than at planting time. When the weather has been wet, the sand becomes immediately workable again and easy to weed the wind-blown dandelions that quickly take a grip on our heavy soil. I have been deliberately careful not to use many plants that seed too freely in the new palette, but there will always be surprises that are bound to decide that the sandpit is also exactly where they want to be.
Time of course will tell what does well and what doesn’t and, in the spirit of experimentation, all the plants are new to the site and the majority the first time I have grown them under my own watch. The Australian winged everlasting, Ammobium alatum was a ‘filler’ in my mind whilst I was establishing the perennial layers, but its coral like growth and starry bracts are certainly something I would want to retain. Though a perennial in its native Australia, reading up suggests it won’t be winter hardy here. It was easy from seed sown in the polytunnel in April and planted out after frost and it was equally quick to run to flower. It also hasn’t stopped so I will be sure to save seed and see if the sand will help in the winter to pull a few plants through. Having to work a bit in the sand to find the nutrients also helps to retain a stockiness in the plants that often helps out in winter.
I have revisited Echinacea pallida ‘Hula Dancer’, which I also grew easily from seed. The plants that were originally planted in the main garden were soon overwhelmed by company, so my aim here is to try and keep more air in the planting and for the light to fall throughout the garden to the ground level. In Japan the word Ma, refering to ‘the space between’, is an important word in composition. So I’m aiming for more Ma despite my love of plants and tendency to plant more rather than less as a result. In this damper than usual of summers a battalion of slugs the size of babies’ slippers emerged from the grassy banks in the evenings to decimate all the echinacea within easy grazing distance. I was surprised to see the slugs not faltering as they glided over the sharp sand and soon learnt that the front line along the bank edges were where I had to plant the plants they prefer less. The salvias all remained untouched as did the filigree Dianthus plumosus. Next year I will be weaving more ‘Hula Dancer’ into the middle of the planting.
The legumes have loved the sand. The white flowered Baptisia leucantha, which hated the heavy ground here seems to be doing better. The Spartium junceum, which I haven’t grown since my roof garden days in Vauxhall, has doubled in size. The broom has the air I want, but the Bituminaria bituminoides, which I have only ever seen growing sparsely in dry Italian meadows, might prove weedy if they survive the winter and re-seed. The plants have obviously got their roots down into our nutritious loam beneath the sand and are not behaving at all as I’d expected. If the sand were deeper and the nutrient levels lower, this beautiful legume might be a keeper in the learning curve of experimentation.
The new garden has extended the cultivated wings that run to either side of the house by pushing out west beyond the barns to meet the plum orchard. The main garden to the east takes in the morning light and is our point of gravity then, but the Sand Garden provides at the other end of the day when the light swings round as the sun descends behind Freezing Hill and back lights it. The light here is one of the joys of this place and to take in the great arc from dawn until dusk is a wonderful thing to harness in a garden. With nowhere to sit yet, I have set up a number of perches to take in the evening and to watch the light fall full length down the valley one way and then in reverse and through the new planting the other.
The light in the planting is as important as the Ma, so I have chosen light catchers and plants that absorb it as contrast. I will have to wait for the tree broom, Genista aetnensis to make its ascent and throw its wiry shadows, but the mounds of felty Phlomis italica are already providing the matt around the water bowls. Backlit, the phlomis will catch as much light in its soft pink flowers as it absorbs in the leaf. The Stipa tenuissima and Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), which I’ve grown from seed are gently staggered throughout the planting and will not make a show until next year, but their feathery inflorescence will be good on a light-filled breeze and against the still uprights of verbascum.
The upturned pots that litter the spaces that are yet to be planted are my placeholders for an order that is yet to come from Olivier Filippi in France. More phlomis, a list of cistus and Mediterranean natives which are not easy to find here now we have been severed from Europe. I have had to jump through a number of hoops to get the plants I want, but the wait also provides useful thinking time and a garden is a good place for both thinking and importantly, play.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 16 September 2023