How to bring nature into a gravel garden

Sue Potter and her dog
Sue Potter, with Sylvie, has sought advice from Helen Yemm for her brand new garden

Some of what you read should be taken with a pinch of salt and that little sentence tucked at the bottom of the page: “Helen Yemm can answer questions only through this column” is a case in point.

When, last spring, I received a despondent email from Sue Potter, shortly to swap her home of many years with its spectacularly situated garden on the edge of the Kyles of Bute with distant views of the island of Arran, for a bleak rectangle behind a modern, practical house in rural Norfolk, I think it is fair to say that, as a surviving sudden-life-changer myself, my heart went out to her.

The fact that I am not a designer tutored in the use of hard landscaping ensures that my gardening advice is very much plant-based.

The drum I bang with ever increasing insistence, is the message that the dominant colours of a garden should be a complex mixture of greens, that “real gardeners do it with plants” and do not need a huge amount of money to create an outdoor ambience that both stimulates and soothes.

The mass of gravel the garden once was, although low maintenance, not quite what Sue was after Credit: Andrew Crowley

The fad for low-maintenance gardens that involve the overuse of membranes, paving and dreadful decking has too often created virtual no-go areas for plants. But as time passes, many blighted properties (particularly smaller ones) often fall back into the hands of keen gardeners who may have to, literally, pick up the pieces and start again.

The Norfolk garden about which a disheartened Sue sought advice sounded like a nightmare for anyone used to open countryside and with serious dirt under their fingernails: Estate agent pictures Sue sent revealed the following: The back of the house faces roughly south towards flat-ish, open farm land.

A rectangular plot (roughly 7m wide x 10m long), there was little greenery to soften its harsh 2m high larch-lapped boundaries, while the view of the farmland (where Sue had already obtained permission to walk her beloved boxer Sylvie) was crudely interrupted by another lower, bright new larchlap fence, behind which lurked a low mixed country hedge.

Close to this end boundary, a brutally pruned, oddly placed ornamentalsilver pear further messed up any potential view. There was “'hideous pampas grass”’ elsewhere, and a huge tree stump.

Apart from a small paved area near the house, the entire garden was gravelled over, with a few stepping stones and a couple of “decorative” paved circles. In Sue’s words there was “virtually nothing living” in it.

Although they maybe space fillers, silver pears can look strange in a country garden Credit: Martin Pope

From golden-heathered hills and silvery light on shimmering water – to this? Readers, is it any wonder I felt it my duty to get involved?

So began a series of conversations between us in the course of which, with the aid of pictures, I got a feel for Sue’s gardening style and helped her work out what she needed to do. My advice to her went roughly as follows:

Dear Sue, don’t despair – it may be hard to imagine now, but you will make something of this. The low orange fence has to go, to be replaced with a simple, rustic post-and-rail affair (with, if necessary, chicken wire in the base to keep rabbits out).

The pampas grass simply had to go  Credit: Alamy

Letting the countryside in to your garden like this will make the world of difference, instantly, and will lift your spirits. And the revealed hedge, even if it is a bit scruffy, can be enhanced with honeysuckle or wild roses, or cut so that the ends are higher than the middle, creating a subtle “shape” to the rural vista.

It is a shame you can’t take your huge “sitting rock” with you from Argyll – it would have looked fabulous tucked in the far left-hand corner (as viewed from the house). A bench on a slightly raised area will make a good substitute, however, and you could make a space here for the English roses that you loved in your old place.

Honeysuckle can brighten up any hedge Credit: Alamy

The dense, ugly umbrella-shaped silver pear has to go, too. It is overwhelmingly “urban”, in a silly place and just wrong. How about a hawthorn in the corner, or even an apple tree?

Either would connect better with the countryside and in due course would form a canopy that would “frame” the view. Another small tree (an amelanchier?) would provide you with a little height, interest and privacy from neighbours planted diagonally opposite your new sitting space, not far from the house.

You may also want to make a small paved area by the house. Try to avoid a straight edge, however: give the area a more informal shape, with perhaps some lavender or rosemary where it joins the (newly laid) lawn.

All the gravel can go (someone else may want it for a driveway – you never know) to be replaced with more turf than you need so that you can play around to create a gently shaped lawn and borders that carry the eye outwards to the view. A stepping stone path to your field access gate may be a good idea, too.

You don’t need me or anyone else to tell you how to make your new garden. What you have already learnt through trial and error will translate itself into a skill you are probably unaware that you possess and you will have fun when you get “stuck in”.

Roses would be perfect for Sue's garden Credit: Alamy

One or two tips: Tall shrubs against the fence at the back of borders, perhaps enhanced in due course by easy late flowering clematis to thread through them, may be easier to maintain than climbers and will neither overburden the fences nor put relationships with new neighbours under pressure.

Improve your soil before you plant and everything will grow as if on steroids for the first year – which will cheer you enormously.

Enjoy the pleasure of stocking manageable-sized borders, but take it from me (I previously had lots of space to play with, as you did): difficult access and limited light in a small enclosed garden will probably bug you forever.

Latest news: The fence went – replaced by an open post-and-rail boundary and gate – shortly followed by the pear. The gravel, decorative circles and stump are no more.

Then, last week, with an excited email simply entitled “Green!” I received a picture of a bemused-looking Sylvie the boxer, lying flat out on acres of newly laid turf. Border planning is next. Sue and Sylvie regularly sit and watch hares cavorting in “their” field.