Magnolia Hill

I’ve been building up to this for some time. Up until now I’ve been dealing with small borders around the house; the side border: a narrow strip between the dividing fence and the path that runs along side the house, the bay window border: a small patch in front of the lounge window, the semi-circular border: a slender crescent of planting in the drive that borders the pavement verge – home to the famous white picket fence.

This is small-fry. While I was busy with reclaiming these initial small patches, the real borders, out in the main garden, remained covered over with landscape fabric; untouched, unworked and unloved.

Polythene Border

Until now.

In the last few weeks – with the help of my other half, the electric tiller, lots of compost, topsoil and manure and several trips to numerous garden centres (my favourite part), this section of the first large garden border has been dug over, rejuvenated, sculpted and planted. This was no mean feat, the soil in this garden is a dense, impenetrable, perennially wet clay that is so airless it actually smells foetid if you dig it up. This bad smell is due to the anaerobic action of the soil bacteria, the soil is so compacted it has no air. Anything planted into this kind of soil is fighting a constant battle to keep its roots growing quicker than they rot in the wet. Below this heavy layer of solid clay is an even heavier layer of compacted sand. Indeed when we were digging through the clay, we were surprised to suddenly be digging up sand. This is no ordinary sand though; it’s compacted fine sand, so fine that water has trouble percolating through it. We didn’t have to dig very far into the sand to discover the water table. Hint: it’s not that deep.

With the water table so high and the soil so bizarrely heavy and sandy-clay-ey the only option was to raise the level of the border and mound the soil up, but I didn’t want raised beds all around the garden, this would be a mounded border, highest in the centre. I also didn’t want to simply pile top soil on top of the landscape fabric; as useless as the heavy clay is in its current state, clay soil is enormously rich and fertile, it just needs a bit of help to transform it into the right soil structure that will unlock its potential. By gradually adding the compost, topsoil and manure and churning it all in with the electric tiller, the clay was broken up and finely blended into this new soil mix. Hopefully, it’s mixed in so well with the additional manure, compost and topsoil that it won’t revert back to the heavy clay slab it originally started as. I will have to keep topping this soil up each year with a manure/topsoil mulch and after a few years, the plant roots will bind the soil together and complete the rich, fertile border soil that will make the garden thrive.

That’s the plan.

With this first section of new border, we mounded the soil up high and at the top, planted the jewel in the crown. This is Magnolia Hill:

Magnolia Hill Year 1It looks even neater now that I cut the grass since taking the picture. Magnolia Hill is a round border that is almost a metre higher at the centre than the  rim; crowned with a Magnolia “Heaven Scent” at the top and surrounded by small to medium sized common shrubs chosen for their fragrant flowers or contrasting foliage.

Following the rim from the back left round to the front, round to the arch and behind we have:

  • Hostas: divided from the patio pot collection a mix of various colours and shapes
  • Iris: unknown variety, these were propagated from seed years ago and I don’t even know their flowers. They could be Iris Sibirica given their leaves
  • Sorbaria Sorbifolia “Sem” or False Spirea: this is a pretty, incredibly hardy shrub with striking foliage and a lovely pink-ish hue to the new leaves
  • Abutilon Megapotamicum: Years after buying this plant and keeping it confined to its pot, I have finally set it free in the ground. It may be just in time too as it doesn’t look very happy right now. Hopefully it will bounce back, now that it has the run of the border instead of the pot it was restricted to all this time.
  • Philadelphus Coronarius “Aureus”: a wonderful mock orange with highly fragrant white flowers and striking golden foliage. This grows to a medium-sized shrub and the flowers will conveniently be at optimum sniffing height.
  • Iris Sibirica: variety unknown, but the flowers are blue so that narrows it down. These were in the patio pots and I split them as they went in. They are all beginning to flower for the first time this year.
  • Rosa “Graham Thomas”: This is a David Austin rose that came with us from the old garden and remained orphaned in a temporary pot on the patio for all of last year. Fifteen months later, it is finally home in the ground again, growing up the very arch it was separated from.
  • Euonymus: this is a compact euonymus growing under the rose to protect the modesty of the bare lower rose stems.
  • Weigela: in the old garden we had a mature variegated Weigela that flowered with its back to us since south was facing the wrong direction. I went for a dark foliage variety this time, though the variegated form might also make an appearance elsewhere in another part of the garden. I particularly like the bright flowers against the dark leaves.
  • Ceanothus “Skylark”: We spent a long time trying to find the same Ceanothus as the wonderful specimen we had to leave behind in the old garden. We think we’ve found it in “Skylark”, it’s similar enough in terms of leave size and flowers.
  • (difficult to see) Spirea x Arguta (“Bridal Wreath” or “Foam of May”): I loved this plant when it flowered in the spring in the previous garden and so I had to have it here too. Unfortunately, it had just about finished flowering when we bought it, but I am used to waiting for flowering displays and I look forward to seeing this next spring.
  • (behind the rose tower): Philadelphus “Belle Etoile”: this is a smaller mock orange with highly fragrant flowers, which are white with a striking purple blush in the centre. This is a plant that followed us from the old garden and is heavy with flower buds this year.
  • The rose tower is supporting the Rosa “Strawberry Hill”, this has particularly lovely flowers with a fragrance very much like scented hand cream. Unfortunately, one’s nose will probably be too far away to smell it given where it is currently perched. It is one of the roses that came with us from the previous garden, where it was growing up an arch. Like the “Graham Thomas”, it also spent a long time in temporary accommodation before being released into the ground. It looks as though it could flower quite heavily this year given the number of buds on it already.
  • The small shrub to the left with bright pink flowers is a deciduous Azalea
  • The small shrub to the left with bright yellow flowers is a Rhododendron “Luteum”. You would think that we have enough rhododendrons in the garden with one side forming a massive hedge but this one is well-behaved and has fragrant yellow flowers – unusual for this species.
  • The lone cane towards the front-right is supporting a Sambucus “Nigra”. This will grow to be quite large and will contrast well against the bright foliage of the Abutilon, Philadelphus and Sorbaria.

Border Hostas

Hostas planted into the shadier side of Magnolia Hill

Weigela

Weigela in flower

Iris Sibirica

Iris Sibirica and the “Graham Thomas” rose

Rhododendron "Luteum"

Rhododendron “Luteum”

You’ll see plastic pots sunk into the ground between the plants; these are a watering aid that can be filled with water that will slowly drain into the soil at the level of the roots. I’ll be regularly watering from the top too but delivering water straight to the roots via the pots is highly effective. When the plants are established, I will remove these pots and the holes left behind will be the perfect size for clematis to fill the gaps (you see what I did there!).

I’ve saved the best for last; Magnolia Hill is called such because of what will be one of the most stunning plants in the garden in years to come: the Magnolia. Out of all the different varieties and forms available, I wanted to be boring and go for the Magnolia x Soulangeana, of which there are several large specimens in the area. However it turns out that trying to buy Magnolias in garden centres and nurseries after they have flowered is almost impossible. I didn’t want to wait for another whole year for them to come into season again so after a bit more searching, we found Magnolia “Heaven Scent”, which has a nostalgic connection as there was a large specimen growing in the local garden centre close to where we used to live and where we spent many hours browsing through plants and eating in the adjoining cafe. Magnolia “Heaven Scent” grows to be a large tree, which I have given to future-me as a problem to solve.

For now, Magnolia “Heaven Scent” came with – and is still hanging on to – one last battered flower for this season.

Battered Magnolia Flower

Heaven sent “Heaven Scent”

Despite the seemingly random collections of plants, trees and shrubs that have gone into this new border, there is a method to the madness. The Magnolia is the spring centre-piece of the border. Interest later in the season is provided by the other shrubs dotted around. The current planting is only the first tier; I like planting in layers and there are still the herbaceous perennials to go in as well as the winter, spring and summer bulbs. Finally, there will be the clematis, there’s space for nine ear-marked in the border.

There is a strong sense of nostalgia in this border too with many plants having come from the previous garden and new plants being the same as the ones we had to leave behind. While I don’t want to recreate the old garden in this new one, I want to have a reminder of that first small garden, it beautiful plants, its variety and its year-round flowering season.

Magnolia Hill is the culmination of 12 months of work and is a significant milestone for the garden. Having said that, Magnolia hill is only one end of one garden border. It’s not even the largest one too. When seen in context of the rest of the garden, especially viewed from the patio:

Magnolia Hill from the Patio

I realise that I’m still really only at the beginning and there will be lots of exciting progress to come.

15 Comments


  1. Whooohooo! Well done the pair of you for all that back-breaking work. We have clay here too, but far enough down not to be a worry. The planting is lovely, and don’t worry too much about the magnolia, they can be pruned to size – and in any case, with a garden that big, it will be years before it worries you!! I have a Graham Thomas Rose, and in a former garden I had the early Spirea, which I loved….. mmmmm! I have room for it again! Lovely to have the iris’s breaking into flower too. I look forward to the same bed in next year’s pics.

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    1. Hello Mrs Mac, I can’t wait for this bed to grow and mature too. It also will be planted with some herbaceous perennials this summer, bulbs this autumn and then there will be the clematis in a few years so this is by no-means finished!

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  2. Sunil, Magnolia Hill is already lovely and I’d venture it is going to be absolutely stunning next year. All that hard work has paid off. I will be interested to see how you like Strawberry Hill. That is one Austin I don’t have (yet.) The yellow iris are so pretty. A good combo with Graham!

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    1. Hello Lynn, I really like Strawberry Hill, it smells of hand cream! I’d describe the form of the flowers as “a beautiful ruffled mess” – not the most elegant and sophisticated, but it still looks very pretty a especially so at the moment as it’s now in full flower and up the length of the rose tower. I’m looking forward to this rose getting to the top and filing out.

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  3. Wonderful selection of plants, and not random at all. I really like the mounded bed idea, in fact your post makes me think I should maybe convert one of my raised beds to a mound.

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    1. Hello Jason, I like the mounded bed too as it gives a little more interested in an otherwise flat garden. We also didn’t have much choice as we needed large amounts of compost, soil and manure brought in to “dilute” the heavy clay we have otherwise we wouldn’t be able to grow anything in it. It also raises the plants above the water table – which is very high in the garden – so they don’t drown.

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  4. You must have spent the gardening budget for May several times over! I am sure it will look beautiful. It is a very good selection of plants.

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    1. Hello Alain, when it comes to gardening, there is no budget! I’m looking forward to seeing how this bed develops in time and whether I’ve planted everything too close together (almost certainly the case). There are still many more plants to go in, but the structure of the bed with the shrubs is now set.

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  5. Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!! I love it! That sorbaria will look fabulous with your magnolia. I also love the mounded bed idea. Brilliant! 🙂

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    1. Hi Tammy, there’s and interesting (hopefully) mix of foliage colours and shapes as well as flowers in the shrubs for this border. The Sorbaria suffered a lot in recent windy weather and we lost almost half the plant in snapped stems. It is gradually coming back though, I’ve heard it is a very tough plant given its native habitat.

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      1. I saw sorbaria growing all over Toronto so it should definitely thrive in your mild climate.

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  6. What a beautiful collection of plants! It’s already looking lovely, and will be gorgeous when the plants grow up and fill in a bit more. I’m very interested in your Philadelphus choices, because this is a plant I want to include in my new fragrant garden. Alas, it looks like these are only marginally winter hardy in my area.

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    1. Hello Jean; thank you! We now have three types of Philadelphus, “Belle Etoile”, which is one we brought over from our previous garden, “Coronarius ‘Aureus'”, which is a golden-leaved, large and fragrant Philadelphus planted in this border and recently Philadelphus “Virginal”, a highly fragrant double-flowered Philadelphus. There are many more varieties available and I hope there’s some hardy for where you live.

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  7. Fantastic, I can see Magnolia hill looking very special even by the end of this Summer. Our soil is very similar to yours Sunil, plants seem to be coping though.

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    1. Hello Alistair, we’re taking no chances with our soil; with the water table so high and the clay so compacted, I’m looking to completely rejuvenate it so I can grow a much larger range of plants rather than those are going to enjoy the boggy, airless conditions.

      Reply

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