I have a new project. It’s a front garden that hasn’t been loved for about 10 years, aside from the regular, heavy-handed hackings of some mowing men.

The client is lovely, mostly. Although just between you and me, she can be a bit of a pain. She is wildly enthusiastic and has good plant knowledge, but when it comes to plant choices, she wants one of everything. She’s keen on grasses and appreciates foliage contrast, but she is teetering on a dangerous cliff edge. She has fallen head over heels with herbaceous perennials.

“Okay.” I tell her. “But this garden is a postage stamp, so we can’t do everything. In this space we need to exercise some restraint – let’s keep the palette simple. We can’t just go ripping out plants, we need to work with what’s already here. Because it’s a rental garden.” I say.

Ahem. Yes, it is a rental garden. And the lovely but painful client is me. Aside from the obvious issue of being caught talking to myself, this is a fraught situation. When you’ve spent sufficient years working with plants, gardening and designing to know enough to make good decisions for other people, it seems incredibly tricky to make a rational, objective plan for your own garden. In my case, add the complicating layer of a garden attached to a rental house and most would choose not to do it – especially when the heavy-handed mowing men continue to visit every fortnight!


Summer flowers of crepe myrtle in a neglected bed

The shabby southern end of the garden

The shabby southern end of the garden

I’ve been living in rental houses for most of my adult life, but this is the first garden in years that I feel is worth investing my time and effort. Often a garden is too ‘finished’ with no space to experiment, or at the other extreme, the space is so devoid of good layout or plants it is a mountain too high to climb. I know this garden will never truly be ‘mine’ and one day I will need to walk away from it, but I feel compelled to play with this space and hopefully make it shine again.

Berberis has rich burgundy new foliage on spiny red stems

Feathery silver foliage of Artemisia

Lush summer canopy of Melia azedarach

This garden has elements of good bone structure and yet has space for embellishment – hooray! There are two arching crepe myrtles at the entrance, which embrace you as you enter – I think they are the variety ‘Zuni’, which become a cloud of hot plummy pink flowers in summer. There are some established clipped Berberis with a rich burgundy leaf, which I can see tie in with a slightly tortured looking Cotinus (smoke bush). The garden contains some grey foliaged plants such as Stachys (lambs’ ears) and Artemisia, which contrast with the plum tones elsewhere. The rest of the garden is mostly background noise to a lawn, but the overwhelming feeling is pleasant – a space that feels intimate, thanks to the borrowed canopies of a Melia (white cedar) and a stunning Jacaranda next door.

Stunning twisted canopy of a neighbour’s Jacaranda mimosifolia

So what shall I do with it and how will I keep this slightly uncooperative self-client happy? Some evenings I stand gazing wistfully at the space, pinching my top lip between forefinger and thumb or pulling purposefully at an eyebrow. So many considerations before I dare to let my mind wander to the palette of plants that dance in my mind like a case full of untouchable jewels.

Dierama - Diggers

Dierama or Fairy’s Fishing Rod. Photo: The Diggers Club

Valerian - Diggers

Centranthus ruber or Pink Valerian. Photo: The Diggers Club

Eupatorium Gateway

Eupatorium ‘Gateway’. Photo: Bluestone Perennials


Grey-green carpet of Ballota

Iris reticulata purple gem - Lambley Nursery

Iris reticulata ‘Purple Gem’. Photo: Lambley Nursery

Velvety-grey foliage of tough Marrubium supinum. Photo: Lambley Nursery

Velvety-grey foliage of tough Marrubium supinum. Photo: Lambley Nursery

I understand the concept of restraint, but confess that in the excitement of the impending project I accidentally bought several plants from a mail order catalogue without approval. I now need to make room for wine-coloured Dierama, pink Valerian, Eupatorium ‘Gateway’, dwarf Ballota, Marrubium supinum ‘Scallop Shell’ and plum-coloured Iris reticulata.

I can see I’m heading towards a compromise. I promise to add some sensible structural planting elements to anchor the areas that feel like they’re dangling. But I also need to unleash my experimental streak and play with that palette of perennials. If areas fail I will get out my trusty spade and try again. The joy will be watching things grow and mingle. Hard work lies ahead – watch this space.