The centre piece of my vegetable garden is this formal pond, which was started in 2012. It’s overall size is about 6′ x 11′, but this is an illusion as it is actually two ponds, with the bridge covering the dry land between the two. Each pond is created from a rigid fibreglass preformed pond liner.
lants that naturally grow in woodlands often flower very early in the year before the woodland canopy closes and light levels fall. For those of us that grow such plants this can mean a very short season of interest. However, by carefully choosing plants with dramatic and contrasting foliage, the naturalistic woodland garden can continue to look good throughout the year. Here are nine foliage ideas from my woodland garden beds.
Woodrush (Luzula sylvatica)
One of our showiest native sedges. It forms thick evergreen tufts of foliage, up to 18 in (45cm) across, which emerge in bromeliad-like whorls. Give it a shady damp spot, and it will reward you with lush strap like leaves throughout the year. Foliage interest: all year round.
Brunnera Macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’
Beautiful, rough, heart shaped leaves with dramatic green-veining on a silver background, emerge in spring along with their tiny blue forget-me-not like flowers. Once established Brunnera tolerates fairly dry shade, and clumps up nicely. Not at all invasive. Foliage interest: spring – autumn.
The narrow vertical lines of this iris create a distinct pattern, contrasting well with rounded or fern-like leaves. They emerge quite late in spring and push their way up from among lower and earlier plants. They grow vertically at first to 14in (35cm), before becoming more lax and arching. Foliage interest: late spring-autumn. The dead winter leaves are initially brown, and may be of interest in some situations.
Lungwort (pulmonaria longifolia)
These rough spear like leaves are spattered with irregular silver spots. In the summer each leaf is 8in long (20cm) together forming bold clumps – quite eye-catching if given the space to develop. However, when they first emerge in spring the leaves are smaller and narrower, growing along emerging flower stalks that carry their purple and blue flowers so beloved by bumblebees. Foliage interest: spring – autumn.
Barrenwort (Epimedium versicolor ‘sulphureum’)
The shield-shaped leaves, 2 to 3 in long (5-7cm) are quite distinct, especially with their red and green veining. Although they are evergreen, it is often best to cut them down in late winter so that when their flowers emerge in spring they are better seen. Fresh new foliage appears soon after. Foliage interest: late spring – late winter.
European ginger (Asarum europaeum)
European ginger has glossy, leathery kidney-shaped leaves, 2 to 4 in across (5-10cm). They spread slowly forming evergreen mats, with a hint of ivy about their character, but more controllable. Some say slugs can wreck them but I’ve never had a problem. Foliage interest: all year round.
Sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata)
Not a fern, but a perennial umbellifer with bright green leaves, repeatedly dissected into fractal leaflets. The foliage emerges from the ground in mid-spring in an extraordinary unfurling, quickly expanding to create airy clumps 2ft (60cm) across. Being a culinary herb with an aniseed flavour, its leaves are useful as well as decorative. Foliage interest: late spring – autumn.
Variegated ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria ‘Variegata’)
Striking cream variegation transforms this common invasive weed into a thing of beauty. To control its wandering nature grow it in a pot. When it starts to flower cut it back hard and it will regrow fresh foliage in a matter of weeks. As long as it does not dry out completely it is tough and easy. Foliage interest: spring – autumn.
White foxglove (Digitalis purpurea ‘Alba’)
The bold clumps of this biennial have softly felted foliage – wild but not coarse. In second year the clumps swell before pushing upwards to flower. The white variation (alba), has pure green leaf stems, unlike the more common purple foxglove which has hints of its flower colour suffused through the stems. Foliage interest: all year round, but best in spring.
Why choose a lean-to style?
A lean-to style greenhouse is one that is built against a wall. The benefits of this are many:
- The wall retains heat keeping the greenhouse warmer for a longer time into the night.
- A greenhouse attached to a wall will be stronger than a freestanding one.
- A permanent set of wires can be fixed to the wall to allow plants to be tied in.
- Aesthetically, a wall in a greenhouse gives a sense of privacy and solidity
- When the wall is constructed from brick it can be very attractive.
You can see examples of such structures in the magnificent greenhouses of Victorian and Edwardian kitchen gardens. I am most familiar with the ones at West Dean Gardens which have been restored magnificently to working order. These great greenhouses had a big influence on my far more modest design ideas. I knew I couldn’t compete with them in terms of scale or authenticity but I could take some of the design cues and make them work for me.
Aluminium or timber?
The two obvious choices for constructing the greenhouse are aluminium and wood. Aluminium is long-lasting, low maintenance, and because the struts are so thin, lets in a maximum amount of light. However, it is a poor insulator, and to my mind always looks insubstantial, even ugly. There are exceptions; if money is no problem, then you can get an Alitex greenhouse. They replicate traditional Victorian timber greenhouses using cast aluminium and they look fantastic. Their strap line is “Aluminium made beautiful” which it certainly is, but when you see the cost you will need to go and sit down. Or sell the Jag.
So, aluminium is out. What about wood? Wood is warm, tactile, substantial, sustainable. I like wood. But it is far less durable than aluminium, and if you choose badly, it can be high maintenance or even simply rot in a couple of years. The most common durable greenhouse is cedar (western red cedar). It contains natural preservatives that mean it is virtually immune to fungal decay or insect attack. It knocks spots off even the best pressure impregnated softwoods. So cedar it has to be!
What kind of base?
As well as protection from water, timber needs protection from the soil born microorganisms (mainly fungi) that cause decay. So, whilst all timber lasts longer if it is raised above ground level, even timber close to the ground will eventually rot because rain water splashes soil on to it carrying the decay organisms on to the wood. Hence, to protect the cedar it should ideally be at least a foot or more above the ground. This was the main reason I wanted a brick base for my greenhouse, to keep the wood clear of rain splashes.
When I started researching greenhouses it became clear that the standard ‘dwarf wall’ style is not very dwarf at all, standing about 70cm high, half way to the eaves. Manufacturers, I realised, simply leave off the bottom panel of the greenhouse (see fig 2).
Fig. 1: The standard glass-to-ground configuration provides the maximum light, but has several weaknesses. Firstly, and as already stated, decay is more likely with the timber so close to soil level. Secondly, the lower panes are prone to soiling and algae build up. Thirdly, the lower panes are prone to impact from spades or feet when working near them. Finally, there is minimal insulation.
Fig. 2: In the standard dwarf wall configuration the entire bottom pane is lost, and the structure sits atop a dwarf brick wall, about 70 to 80cm high. This increases the insulation value of the greenhouse, but considerably decreases light entering. This basically rules out growing anything at ground level. Consequently greenhouses like this are usually used with staging (work benches) all the way round, and little is ever grown below this height.
Fig.3: My solution was to raise the entire greenhouse up about 35cm on a much lower dwarf wall. This maximizes light, whilst protecting the structure from ground contact and rain splashes. It affords physical impact protection at low-level, and increases insulation. It does, of course, increase the cost as the ends of the greenhouse have to be modified. This is a relatively minor adjustment and did not add too much to the final bill – certainly this modification was considerably cheaper than a full bespoke design.
Greenhouse style and rear wall
OK, so far so good, but I wanted a lean-to style – one with a brick wall running along one side. Current planning laws only allow a boundary wall between properties to be 2m high. Any higher and you’ll need planning permission. As my wall was to replace three fence panels which were themselves 2m high I needed a greenhouse design that would work with a wall of this height. Initially I had imagined a lean-to, but this was not as straightforward as I imagined. Lean-to greenhouses (fig. 6) are designed to go against the side of a house or other tall wall, which need to be at least 2.5m high – so that was out. My second idea was the vinehouse (fig. 5) as this can be erected against a wall as low as 1.95m. This seemed ideal, until I started considering the dwarf wall. If I wanted to add a dwarf wall as per fig. 3 above and jack up the main structure than the wall would be higher than 2m and hence need planning permission.
Finally I turned my attention to the standard greenhouse design (fig. 6). With an eaves height of 1.55m I could jack the main frame up 0.38m (five courses of bricks), and still be within the 2m height restriction for a boundary wall. So that’s what I did.
I decided on traditional swing doors, rather than the standard sliding doors (shown in fig 4 – 6), mainly for aesthetic reasons. As I have said, I wanted to capture some of the feel of the great Victorian greenhouses, and only a traditional swing door will do that. This is, however, a case of style over practicality. The down side of swing doors is that they can get caught by the wind and smashed about if you do not secure them. Sliding doors do not suffer from this. Also, sliding doors can be left ajar just as much as necessary for ventilation, but swing doors are either open or closed (although I intend to install brass hooks to latch them ajar). Having considered all of these options I couldn’t bring myself to specify sliding doors – they are just too ugly. For example, the top track always sticks out beyond the roof line (see fig 4-6) . I have not regretted the decision since.
Painted or natural cedar?
Cedar is often left unpainted. Its initial reddish hues look fresh and inviting, and it seems almost sacrilegious to even consider applying paint to it when it stands before you all freshly and new. However, like all wood the sun will gradually bleach it no matter what you do, and it will change in time to the standard silver-grey of all old wood. True, it will lose almost none of its famous durability but after a couple of years it won’t look half as smart as it did to start with.
For me, there were additional reasons for painting:
- To borrow from that traditional Victorian vernacular.
- To match the black and white styling of our house and other garden buildings.
- To ensure the cedar was protected to the utmost (lets see if we can get a 50+ years lifespan out of it!)
The final design
Here is the final design, and a picture of the greenhouse soon after construction:
Added benefits with this design are that the eave height is nearly 2m on both sides of the greenhouse, giving plenty of vertical growing space; In the first season I had cucumbers and tomatoes growing to the full height on both sides of the path. That extra height gives a sense of space and stature. My dwarf-dwarf-wall has proved itself an excellent choice, protecting the timber from knocks and splashes whilst letting ample light in to the permanent beds. I am pleased I chose a Gabriel Ash greenhouse – their attention to detail reminds one of how good English engineering can be. They provided an excellent personal service from start to finish, and were always patient, courteous and helpful even though I changed my mind (and the design) several times before finally placing my order.
My original plans were for a long shed with a pitched cedar tiled roof like the Cabin which we built a few years earlier. Aesthetically this would have helped the new ‘shed’ fit in well visually in the garden. However, a few days before I was about to start building it I discovered quite by chance that the planning regulations had changed and my planned design would now be illegal!
The current* regulations stipulate that any garden building built within two metres of a boundary must be no more than 2.5m (8′ 4″) high. This meant that only a flat roof structure would be possible… Back to the drawing board.
These new regulations are, presumably, meant to limit offence to neighbours by minimising the height looming over the fence and blocking light etc, but they do not necessarily work: With a considerately designed pitched roof the eaves to the rear (close to the fence) could be as low as 1.8m (6′) – i.e. level with the top of the boundary fence. Sure, the ridge would be higher, but the roof to it would slope up and away from the boundary, minimising the visual impact and shading potential. The requirement to limit the maximum height to 2.5 m makes it almost impossible to design a sensible pitched roof structure that complies – and a flat roof needs to be close to the full 2.5 m high to work, if that is, like me, you wish to use full height standard doors (2.1m including frame), and have a sensible pitch. This means the neighbours look out onto a vertical rear wall rising 60cm (2′) above the fence line – far less attractive and more intrusive.
The ‘shed’ I designed, therefore, would have to have a flat roof. However, I turned this limitation into a creative opportunity and created a green roof. This was no small matter – green roofs require considerable attention and planning to make them successful! (See Green Roof design details here)
Designing for function
This shed contains three internal rooms to serve a range of functions:
- A garden office room in the central section looks out over the garden and contains garden furniture and ample cupboards. It is used as an informal office and project room, but can quickly be configured as a garden room for evening meals or as a sitting area during a garden party, or as a den for teen sleep-overs.
- A potting shed at the north end is used to store garden tools close to the vegetable garden, but also houses a freezer and open shelves for storing garden produce.
- A woodwork shed at the south end contains basic woodworking tools for the kind of DIY projects I do around the garden and home.
The external styling is based on a local vernacular – black clapboard with contrasting white windows and doors. Similar features can be seen on many local country buildings e.g. on the Goodwood estate. The colours harmonise with the other garden buildings (The Greenhouse and Cabin) and follow the theme of our house which has black window frames and off-white walls.
The design includes plenty of eco-features, including a green roof, local grown timber for the cladding and sheepswool insulation.
This is one of the most structurally ambitious DIY projects I have undertaken, close in many respects to timber-framed house design. If you are thinking of building your own house one day, I would recommend you start with sheds and other garden buildings – no building regs to worry about, and less costly if you make mistakes.
Like all my building projects, I start by creating many quick designs on the back of an envelope. When I have one I like the look of I draw a scale drawing on the computer. Sometimes in MSWord (Insert drawing), other times in Open Office Draw. I draw each piece of timber, windows and doors and fit them together on the drawing to make sure it all fits properly – this is particularly important where you are working within height restrictions.
I literally build the structure piece by piece from the ground up on the computer screen, as detailed elevations. As I draw in a rectangle for, say, a 2″ stud I am thinking about the fixings, rigidity, material economy and sequence of work. During this process I often find I am not sure how to approach a certain detail, but having identified it I am able to seek expert help from the internet, books or the local timber merchants for example.
I find the process of creating accurate scale construction drawing an essential step, and would strongly recommend you do this yourself before you undertake any shed construction. The benefits are numerous and include:
- Identifying areas of difficulty in advance, minimising mistakes.
- Clarifying the construction sequence so you don’t waste time.
- Enabling the creation of an accurate order list for materials.
In practice I often deviate somewhat from the initial drawings as I find that once I am actually working with the materials new ideas and innovations suggest themselves. This does not mean the initial construction drawings were pointless – far from it – they provide most of the essential thinking needed to enable anything meaningful to start. Unlike house building, though, where planning control often restricts modifications to the specified design, with a garden building the design can be modified somewhat as one goes, in response to the reality in front of you.
I find the whole exercise of design, planning and execution intellectually challenging and stimulating. It lets you be architect, quantity surveyor and builder – highly recommended!
*Check your local building regs – don’t assume that what was true when I built this building will be true for you!