Architecture in some shape or form is a part of almost any garden yet we seldom think of it as the main ingredient, probably because as gardeners our minds naturally gravitate towards the beauty of plants. But even boundary garden walls can contribute much to the atmosphere of a garden. Faced with something of a blank canvas I would initially create an organised structure, frequently with free-standing and retaining garden walls and then use greenery to flesh out the bones afterwards.
Walls can be an invaluable device for defining space by creating separate areas in a garden. Garden walls can guide the eye towards a distant focal point, framing a vista, and can simultaneously hide less glamorous parts of the garden: an unkempt vegetable patch or perhaps a covered swimming pool. Strategically placed retaining garden walls can make useful flat surfaces. But walls can also be the main event, a plinth or backdrop for stately pots, or the sort of curvaceous dry-stone sculptural affair in the style of Andy Goldsworthy. Classical layouts, Renaissance gardens and famously the collaboration of Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll are all about this sort of structured framework and usually there is a fair amount of brick or stone wall involved.
Size and scale of your garden wall
Size and scale of your garden wall are important. Too tall can feel intimidating and soulless, too short and they go almost unnoticed and contribute little, especially if they get hidden by the plants in front. A garden wall at 1.5m can make a seating area intimate and shield you from nearby neighbours, yet when you stand up you can see over the top and views are kept open. A curved garden wall can enclose a space to make it inviting. A straight garden wall can encourage faster walking alongside. If the budget won’t stretch as far as you want then you can supplement walls with cheaper green architecture. Or hedges, as they are sometimes known.
Garden wall planting
By day, garden walls can make a wonderful foil for planting, providing a superb contrast of hard and soft. Green leaves against rich orangey brown Corten steel or black timber cladding simply looks awesome. At night, with lighting any garden wall can take on a beauty of its own as it emerges from the shadows. The vertical planes emphasise the third dimension when you bounce light off them, silhouetting the shapes of architectural plant forms in the foreground. Alternatively you can wash a garden wall with light from above or below, picking out the rough texture of stone and brickwork as the light grazes the surface. Direct a beam on to gently moving water and you can project dancing ripples on to a garden wall at the water’s edge. The effect is entrancing.
Materials for your garden wall
There is something deep in our psyche that makes us respond to natural materials. Stone garden walls should ideally use a local material to tie it into the surroundings. The vernacular style of building can be employed perhaps with a traditional dry-stone wall look but a more uniform crisp coursing of cropped stone can feel immediately modern without losing any of the warmth of the material itself.
Most of the fine houses in Bath or the Portland stone found on Buckingham Palace are good traditional examples of ashlar, smooth, finely cut stone cladding with tight joints, yet in a garden setting this look tends to feel quite contemporary. Gabion baskets are equally modern and are a relatively inexpensive solution especially for retaining garden walls. Wire baskets can be assembled and filled with stone, and I hear it can be a good family event to put the children to work. Waste materials from the site including brick and concrete can fill them or something a little fancier can be put in the visible face to smarten things up.
The choice of material for your garden wall is a useful way to make strong visual connection with the house itself. A combination of brick and stone often works well, and echoing the brick in step risers and other details makes for a really cohesive design.
Thickness of your garden wall
If your budget is limited then a good solution is rendered and painted blockwork with a stone coping. Don’t skimp on the thickness of the stone or your wall will look cheap. Anything less than 30mm is risky. A coping is essential to keep frost and penetrating water out of the wall and it must overhang and have a drip groove cut in the underside to shed water or it will run own the wall and makes streaks.
Turning a sloping garden into terraced flat areas can be an engineering feat. Try to minimise the number of garden walls not just because of the expense but because of the visual impact. For safety you can plant above walls to keep people away from the edge and at the bottom to break their fall. Children, adults, dogs and gardeners are all at risk. Just avoid roses and Berberis.
Andy Sturgeon is an internationally renowned landscape and garden designer. He is the winner of eight Gold medals at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, including Best in Show in 2019. andysturgeon.com