I’ve been working on an interesting garden design project recently. It’s a London garden overlooked by an imposing but handsome three-storey Victorian house. This is divided into three flats with a back garden carved into corresponding chunks; you walk through the first to get to the second (this is the garden I’m working on), and through the second to get to the last plot.
The two main challenges are access and privacy. And while this is very much a city garden, the problems it poses are relevant pretty much everywhere. Here, screening is needed to make the space feel private and secluded. Elsewhere, it’s a great way to hide an ugly shed, an overbearing outbuilding or simply to divide a large space into something more manageable and cosy. For this garden I’m using venetian-style wooden screens to mark the boundaries with the other two gardens and also to divide the garden a little within the space. It’s the ideal solution here as it will provide a little privacy without boxiness and without alienating the neighbours. Unlike solid fences, they will be airy, letting through plenty of light to the garden and, of course, the plants. Net curtain rather than full-on velvet drapes.
The venetian-style screens will be similar to these, built for a garden I redesigned a couple of years ago, here coupled with two planters used to screen the side return
A gravel path heading straight down under a rose-planted arbour, then turning left and right, will make the journey through the middle garden interesting rather than purely practical. You’ll want to stop and smell the roses, stoop to brush a hand through the lavender and peer through the tall Stipa gigantea to see what’s planted beyond. Generous perennial beds with tall, airy plants such as grasses, Verbena bonariensis and veronicastrum will give the space a lovely intimate, secluded feel. There’ll be a sandstone patio tucked away behind one area of planting, and a gravel seating area that extends out from one section of the pathway. Right now it’s just a scrappy lawn with overgrown, straggly beds on either side and no way of knowing where one neighbour’s garden becomes the next. I’m looking forward to seeing the transformation in a few weeks’ time.
Gorgeous Stipa gigantea, a beautiful airy plant for veiling with movement
Because this is a garden that will realistically only be used in summer, I’m not constrained by including a huge amount of evergreen structural planting. There are some lovely mature trees in the garden already, bringing vertical interest and definition in winter. So I’ve been able to give free rein to colour and height from perennials and climbers, and it’s been fun putting a planting plan together. I rarely leave out star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), as it’s a wonderful combination of glossy evergreen foliage and heady summer scent – in fact, it’s probably my number one climber. I’ve added a scented climbing rose, too, to cover the arbour at the entrance and extend onto one of the venetian screens at the entrance to the garden. The Pilgrim is a repeat flowering soft yellow rose, so with a bit of deadheading, it will look great from June right through to October or even beyond. I’m adding some clematis to the planting around the arbour, as in my view you can’t plant a rose without clematis. They look great together. I’m going for Hagley Hybrid, as it’s pretty foolproof and will also flower all summer, side by side with the Pilgrim.
Trachelospermum, newly planted, to clamber through a wooden screen
Of course, this is all screening on a small scale. Trees are the ultimate natural screen and windbreak, and can be as imposing as you like. My childhood best friend lived an hour’s drive away in Worcestershire, and we spent a lot of the holidays together. Up on a ridge above their house was a line of tall, shimmering poplars, glimpsed now and again on the winding lanes en route. A sign that we were nearly there. Poplars are still one of my favourite deciduous trees.
While evergreens such as conifers may be a tempting choice for privacy, you should never plant a row of them along the boundary with a neighbour. It’s just too rude and overbearing. Consider instead silver birches such as ornamental Snow Queen with its glowing white bark, crab apples (fruit as well as screening) or hornbeam. Pleached versions are lovely if you want a more formal look, but only use them to screen a road or your own outbuildings; like evergreens, they block out a lot of light.
Multi-stemmed silver birch trees at RHS Harlow Carr in Yorkshire
I hope this helps if you have a less than Insta-worthy shed, barn, water butt or neighbour that could do with taking a more secondary role in your garden. The options are as varied as they are beautiful.
Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer