The Short Stay Garden

Many people need their garden to look established within a single season; they often don’t have years to wait for it to develop and mature, and they perhaps don’t plan to be living in the house for more than a couple of years. There are plenty of ways to tackle the garden design so that it will look good fast.

This design includes a good mix of surfacing materials that will quickly look established. Gravel looks good almost as soon as it is laid, and plants will quickly colonize it. Likewise the use of wood as the principle hard surfacing gives the garden an organic air that is very welcoming.

The use of wooden decking, gravel, moss-like ground cover, and in particular bamboo fencing that forms the garden’s boundary, all combine to reinforce the Japanese theme implicit in the overall garden design.


As the garden is virtually square, it is particularly effective to turn the garden design so that its main lines run at 45 degrees to the house: this utilizes the longest possible axis and detracts from the rectangular boundaries. The site is gently sloping, with a drop of approximately 45cm (18in) between the house level and the lower right-hand corner.

The area nearest the house is shady, so only a relatively small paved area is appropriate. Here you will use railway sleepers, lay side by side. From here, stepping stones lead across a gravel and boulder area, giving access to the decked walkways that lead diagonally across the garden. The shorter of these crosses the ‘dry stream’, a typically Japanese feature, before dropping down to the main sun deck. Here a simple rectangular seat surrounds a tree.

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short stay garden

The design creates triangular pockets of planting, which can be densely planted with fast-growing plants, summer bedding or spring bulbs to make a fast display. Fast ground cover plants also have an important part to play. Throughout the garden, plants growing through the gravel, lilies in tubs, and carefully sited boulders all give movement and interest to the garden design.

The garden is planted to look established in its first year and mature within three years. Trees, shrubs and perennials all need to be relatively fast-growing, and also likely to flower young: this is particularly the case with the lavatera, buddleja, and the climbers. In such a garden, summer annuals and spring bulbs will play an important role in providing color and interest for part of the year, but this planting concentrates on those permanent plants that might quickly build into a pleasing framework.

The difficulty with planting for the short-term is that, if you are not very careful, you can create problems for subsequent occupants. To avoid this, you should choose plants which, though relatively fast-growing, never become too inconveniently tall. This is true both of the two picea at the end of the garden, and of the Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’.

Saxifraga 'Peter Pan'

Saxifraga ‘Peter Pan’ in bloom

The emphasis is on Japanese plants (irises, hostas, and so on). Saxifraga ‘Peter Pan’ has been used extensively to give the impression of a Japanese moss garden, but one that is easier to manage and which has the added advantage of flowers in mid- to late spring. Herbs are grown close to the house and are chosen with attractive foliage in mind.

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Annual and biennial climbers are invaluable in a fast-establishing garden: Cobaea scandens features in this design, and Eccremocarpus scaber and Tropaeolum speciosum could be other good choices. Clematis orientalis is a particularly vigorous and useful form for this type of garden.


Cobaea scandens

Maintenance requirements are generally low. The buddleja and caryopteris are best pruned right down every spring, but many of the other shrubs require little or no regular work. For a good supply of interesting annuals and annual climbers, a windowsill propagator would probably be a good investment to produce young plants each year.


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