As trees shed their leaves, gaps in screening cover become ever-more obvious, says Peter Dowdall.
NOW that the trees are beginning to shed their summer clothing and will remain naked once more over the winter, it can become quite obvious where you have any gaps in the garden. I’m not talking about gaps in colour down low, rather I’m thinking, up high and in particular, in terms of screening, perhaps neighbours or some unsightly view or feature.
There are certain places where year-round foliage is needed to obscure the view beyond and there are many plants which will provide such cover — evergreens which can be grown as tall hedges perhaps, or maybe a well-positioned large conifer or similar. Tall, evergreen hedges can be quite overpowering though, and particularly in a small space, can act like walls and create the feeling of being too enclosed.
They may be necessary, particularly in some urban and suburban settings, but not always. I would rather keep my hedges to a minimum and use strategically placed large evergreen shrubs or small trees to block a view where necessary.
Sometimes, positioning a hedge or tall plant to screen something can simply draw attention to the fact that you are trying to hide something and have the reverse effect of drawing more attention to that fact.
Using well-chosen and well-positioned specimens makes the garden more interesting and if used cleverly, they will work into the overall garden plan as if they were planted exclusively for their aesthetic merits and just had the secondary benefit of creating a screen.
An underused and under-appreciated evergreen tree is the eucryphia. There are seven species of eucryphia, all of which are evergreen or semi-evergreen and they have a graceful, not too dense a presence in the garden. Did I mention the flowers? Well, the simple white flowers, about five centimetres wide, depending on the species, completely cover the tree from early summer into autumn and are loved by bees. Well, they’re just a bonus aren’t they?
The genus is native to South America and Eastern Australia and of the seven species there are three commonly available in these parts, namely E. glutinosa, E. lucida and E. cordifolia. These three can all reach up toseven or eight metres in height here but in their native lands can reach far higher. I can never understand why they aren’t planted more frequently in Ireland as they thrive in our climate, they like a moist soil, but not one that holds water, and their preferred soil is one with a slightly acidic or neutral pH.
The flowers of all the species are white but there is a cultivated form of E. lucida called “Pink Cloud” and it’s an absolute beauty. Not always the easiest to source, the flowers, as the name suggests are a blush, pale pink in colour, a far prettier way to block an unwanted vista than a Leyland cypress, for example.
There are other flowering evergreens of course and many are truly worthy of planting in the garden, depending on the size of your space and how much screening is needed. Magnolia grandiflora is unlike other magnolias in that, firstly it is evergreen but also its flowering period. It flowers from July onwards and not in the early spring like most of its cousins.
Huge, cup shaped flowers are produced which are sweetly scented on mature specimens. Do be prepared to wait though, as the evergreen magnolia will need to be 12 years old or more before it flowers.
Holly too is of course evergreen and it flowers. You may not think of holly as a flowering plant but of course it is, as where else would the berries that we all know and love come from? It blooms from May to July and when you notice the flowers for the first time you will wonder how you never spotted them before, so pretty are they. The blooms are small and thus you may walk past them but they are quite something when you stop to admire and again, of course, loved by the bees. Hugely important too in sustaining a wide range of biodiversity.
The evergreen magnolia and the holly, along with many other evergreens, are often grown and sold as “standard” plants. What this means is that they are grown on a clear stem, the height of which can vary and this can be a clever way to introduce some screening into your garden where you need it. To grow one of these in the garden to a height of five or six metres could mean that the spread at ground level may also be a few metres, meaning you could be sacrificing some precious space down low where there is no need for evergreen cover.
By planting specimens grown as standards, on a clear stem, you provide cover where you need it, up high, and haven’t lost anything at ground level, leaving you with space in which to plant some more horticultural delights.
I was so excited earlier this year when I received a sample in the post of a new compostable, organic weed-control fabric.
I don’t use or recommend any of the black woven plastic fabrics for weed-block as they prevent the earthworms from “doing their thing” in the soil.
These little wrigglers are the unsung heroes of the garden, constantly aerating and working the soil for us as they travel upwards in search of humus and travel downwards after their feast, depositing nutrient-rich wormcasts as they travel.
The problem with traditional weed-block materials is that because they are plastic, they prevent the earthworms from doing their job and as a result the soil gets compacted, the humus content in the soil reduces, and — in short — plants suffer.
This new compostable, organic weed-block fabric cuts off light and oxygen to the soil surface so no new weeds can germinate but it allows worms to feed on the fabric itself.