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On a Chalk Hillside August 2017

Building a Pergola

Before I turn to the Pergola, I am very aware of the hot dry weather’s effects on our garden this year.  I don’t water the flower garden (except new plants for a short while), and the drought we have had since Spring has caused them to grow smaller, set flowers quicker and go over quicker than usual.  Normally, for example, I am in a dither with the hardy geraniums about when to do the Hampton Hack (cutting them to the ground after the first flush of flowers to promote new foliage and flowers later in the summer).  My geraniums never seem to have gone over enough even by mid-July to warrant such extreme pruning, so I wait and wait, and often the moment passes with them flowering enough to make me pause and leave them for the bees and butterflies.  This year I was actually in no doubt they were past their best and cutting the first back the very weekend of Hampton Court Palace Flower show.   Also, I have planted some Bronze Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’) and Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) in front of Rosa 'Fruhlingsanfang' the big single white shrub rose which flowers and is finished by mid-June, in time for the fennel and cardoon to grow up and mask it.  This year, they are both about 45cm shorter – more my shoulder height, and very puny growth with it - rather than towering statuesquely over my head both making dustbin-sized girths.  All because of the drought.  In two of the gardens I have visited locally recently I noticed the same thing with their fennel as well.  
Why did I want a Pergola?  I was influenced by the Laburnum Walk in Rosemary Verey’s garden at Barnsley House near Cirencester but probably not for the reason you think.  We visited late summer, and what impressed me with it was that it made the garden seem much bigger.  The Laburnum Walk is to one edge of the garden, and the uprights of the pergola are so well spaced apart that paths and vistas run from between them across the garden, so that you have an urn or statue you can see through the pergola uprights from down a path at right angles to the pergola which suggests the garden goes along way past the pergola, and not just 2m or so.  Also when you are in the Laburnum walk and look out from between the uprights you see other vistas framed across the width of the garden making it look wider that way too.  
In our garden it would give height, but if it went across the garden or to the left-hand boundary it would block the view, and put everything the other side of it in shade, we agreed it should go down the utility path on the right hand side.  It would be a way of disguising the boundary on the right so that from the house the garden looked wider, and give us the feeling of enclosure and privacy at the top of the garden nearest to our neighbours’ houses.   
Obviously we needed to determine where exactly it should start and finish, how wide it should be and how far apart the uprights should be from each other.   But also what to make it of – what colour and shape should the structure be.  What were we going to grow up it?    We had seen many different structures and were in general agreement that it should be made of wood.  As I don’t seem to be able to find my photos of Barnsley House Gardens let me show you three pictures of the pergola round the outside of the Southsea Rose Garden, which I took in June, to give you an example of the type of structure and effect we were after.

I hope this gives you an idea of the feel we were after – thicker downposts and lighter, shaped roofing struts.  In our case both were to be made of wood, and painted green.  The third picture I hope shows you that the downposts are spaced quite a long way apart, allowing you to see across the garden, but also to see through the pergola to what is behind.  The seats and narrow beds behind mask the high wall and storage sheds behind it, blurring the boundaries.  
You may recall from the penultimate photo last month that I had left the leylandii stumps in the ground.  This was because they already had tree ivy growing up them (hedera helix in its mature form that flowers in autumn) and it would be an evergreen feature in what was currently a very bare run of fence otherwise.  It would be the focal point of one of the paths through the rose garden, with a seating area at the other end so you could look across the width of the garden (and through the rose garden) to the ivy mass at the end through the pergola.  To ensure we had the pergola uprights positioned so that this could happen, part of that path had to be roughed out in advance, see below.

We put in the upright posts at each end of the pergola run with the posts either side of the new path much closer together than the remaining spacing.

  You can see how close next door looks!  I planted a Buddleia Davidii, that was a seedling of one that arrived in our London garden, to the left of the post by the fence you can see here as a quick fix planting that would grow up each year to fill the gap between hedge and the beginning of the pergola and could be cut down to knee height each spring to keep it in check.  There was just enough soil to get it in between the concrete path and the old tree stump, I mentioned last time which I left to rot down, and as it did so planted ferns in it.  (Hart’s tongue Fern Asplenium scolopendrium and the Male Fern Dryopteris filix-mas both types dug out of my Step-Mother’s garden steps in the Lake District.)    

The next photo shows all the downposts in, which then had a notch cut out by hand so that the roof side timber could be fitted flush with the top of the post.

And below is a picture showing it with the roofing struts in place, each one with a notch cut in each end to sit over the support at the side.

As you can see from the following picture a narrow bed was cut on the left hand side of the pergola.

Between the second and third downposts along we planted a Rosa 'Zephirine Drouhin', a thornless climbing bourbon rose, which has semi-double pink flowers and a beautiful scent.   It felt right to have an old-fashioned rose near the other shrub roses, and it was supposed to be more drought-tolerant than some, which on our light soil we felt was an advantage.   
Here is a picture of the right hand side at the end of June that first year to show you the planting then whilst it was still a sunny side.

Apart from the Leylandii stumps the only other original plants were the lovely white rose – a very delicate double floribunda-type, and a Thalictrum which had lovely ferny foliage but very small flower heads.  As you can see the stems bent over at right angles very easily so required staking.  I have gradually removed this plant from here over the years.  In front of the Leylandii stumps I put in some temporary planting whilst the ivy expanded.  This included some Euphorbia oblongata (an annual) and two biennials I had grown from seed – Digitalis purpurea, and Viper’s Bugloss, Echium vulgare.  This latter plant is a native wildflower of chalk grassland and I had never met it before (in London I had seen Echium pininana growing in Inner Temple garden but it was not hardy).  If you grow Viper’s Bugloss in a border it can grow to a metre in height and breadth, and bees love it, (in chalk grassland it may be 30cm in height and girth).  I will probably feature it in several more blogs in the future as it’s a plant I love, but here is a close up showing why it gets it common name – can you see the viper’s head? 

In order to survive in a grassland and not get eaten by grazers it is very very scratchy. Even with gloves it prickles, and it is a labour of love to harvest seed from the flower heads as it feels like working with a cactus – the spines go through gloves into skin, and are almost invisible so very hard to get out.  

Next time I’ll talk about the planting on and beside the pergola and how it has developed as the climbers grew and one side got shadier and shadier over the years. 

Sheila May




Posted by Sheila May

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