Tag Archive: courtyard

Portland inspiration between the paving Ernst Fuller GardensBefore starting to lay foundations for a paved area, decide on the position of plants around a terrace or patio and in planting pockets within the space and leave the areas free of foundation material and paving (wooden shuttering can be used for larger areas). Once the works are over, replace the topsoil of the planting areas with John Innes number 3 compost (and grit if you’re putting in things like Thymes). This will ensure a weed free growing medium with the right nutrients so plants establish quickly.

Source: ‘Short Cuts to Great Gardens’- Reader’s Digest 1999

Old School Gardener

I’ve been writing about my recent trip to Andalucia, and in my last post covered the day we spent in Granada and especially the palaces of the Generalife and Alhambra. One of the powerful impressions of this visit was how water can be used to enhance a particular feeling or ambience of a space, so I took a couple of short videos to demonstrate this. The first is from the Generalife and is of a series of fountains in a fairly narrow court or garden. The feeling I get is of an active space, one which you’re encouraged to move through, onwards to the palace…. would you agree?

The second sound is of the Patio of the Myrtles in the Alhambra’s Nasrid Palace; a  simpler, larger space where the barest burble of water adds to the restful atmosphere, and as I said in my previous post, the space is almost like an ‘outdoor cathedral’ in the way that sound is softened… enjoy…

Old School Gardener


It was our second full day. We left home along mountain tracks and soon found our way onto one of the very good motorways here. I guess it took us a little over an hour to reach our destination for the day, Granada. Deborah and I had been here before, some 9 years ago, visiting our daughter who was studying at the University. I was excited about returning, especially to see the Alhambra, which was one of the experiences that turned me on to garden design.

We spent the morning and early afternoon walking the streets. Oh, and took a rather disappointing open-topped bus ride of the city, which we’d done before, but this time it seemed to be a stagger from one traffic light to the next, amidst heavy traffic and which, I guess, lacked the novelty of that first trip. Still, a nice coffee in the precincts of the cathedral and a wander around the moorish quarter, including a wonderful lunch in a restaurant overlooking the Alhambra, all made for a good start to the day.

The afternoon began with the ascent to the main entrance to the Alhambra, where pre booked tickets are essential as the place gets very busy and you need to have a time slot for the most famous bit, the Nasrid Palace. Ours was for late afternoon so we had a few hours to take in the Generalife (the adjacent palace) and the rest of the Alhambra before the real treat. I seem to remember we didn’t get much of a look around the Generalife 9 years before, so today we began there and it was well worth spending more time amongst its wonderful gardens. Here are a few pictures…

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We wove our way through crowds towards the Alhambra and made it up to the castellated viewpoint of the Alcazaba, just in time to get to our allotted spot at the nearby Nasrid Palace. This consists of a series of interlocking rooms, chambers and courtyards or patios. It was worth the preamble.

As you enter the Palace you plunge into a room of near darkness, only to emerge into the dazzling light of the outside space. I’d forgotten how simple, peaceful and mystical the Patio of the Myrtles was, with its sheet of water and simple structural planting. I sat and took in the scene, which was rather like an outdoor cathedral- you know, even though there are people around and making noise, the space seems to dissipate and soften that so that it forms a sort of background murmur, almost of reverence?

The slow trickle of water from a fountain added to the ambience, quite a contrast to the rushing of the arched fountains in the Generalife (I’ll post a couple of videos comparing them in the next day or two). Here are some pictures of the outer Alhambra and the Nasrid Palace…

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The moorish ornamentation of the rooms and external walls is breathtaking in its complexity, but there is an overall harmony. The light is used cleverly to provide alternating experiences of rich, internal splendour and simpler, but equally impressive outside spaces. The Patio of the Lions was altogether grander and more ornamental in style, the sort of space you can imagine political deals being concluded under the loggia, perhaps having spent time meditating on these in the previous patio? From there we gradually ‘came down’ through simple, lush outside spaces which are more expansive, but still attractive; blocks of colourful planting beginning to re-engage you with the outside world of colour and noise.

Well, I got my ‘fix’. Our drive home was a little more eventful than our outward one, as we had both darkness and rain to contend with. But we rolled safely into the Cortijo and managed a late night supper (I think it must have been 11pm before we ate) round the pool. A quieter day tomorrow, perhaps?

Further information: Granada- Wikipedia

Old School Gardener

A few weeks ago I posted a brief article about how I’d converted an old wooden bicycle rack (saved from the bonfire, as it was being disposed of by the local Primary School) into a sort of vertical plant stand cum ‘Plant Theatre’.

The old Bike Rack before it's makeover
The old Bike Rack before it’s makeover

I decided that the first display would be of  a range of Pelargoniums. Having bought a number of small terracotta pots, and used a mix of old and new plants, I set it up and nurtured my new ‘creation’. Well here’s how it’s looking at the end of June – most plants are now in flower and providing an eyecatching, vertical splash of colour in the courtyard here at Old School Garden. What do you think?

The finished 'Theatre'
The finished ‘Theatre’

I must now start thinking about what to do for a spring display, next year. I’ll try to over winter the pelargoniums and use them again in the summer.  For spring, perhaps I’ll tryt o get hold of a range of that plant that typifies ‘Plant Theatres’, the Primula auricula.

A Primula auricula- something for the 'Theatre' in Spring 2015?
A Primula auricula- something for the ‘Theatre’ in Spring 2015?

Old School Gardener

figs fruit

A Fig fruit

I have a fig in the courtyard here at Old School Garden, growing in a pot and ‘liberated’ as a young transplant when pruning a rather older and very vigourous example at our local primary school a few years ago. I remember gathering it when I helped to plant up the ‘Nectar Bar’ and ‘Eco Park’ there in 2007. Today our tree, along with a Grapevine, Olive and Peach, contributes a mediterranean touch to the space, and with last winter and spring’s mild and wet conditions it has put on some wonderful growth, including a crop of handsome and promising looking fruit. I can’t recall ever really tasting a ripe fig, but my recent experience of fig-flavoured yoghurt is tempting me to try to harvest some this year!

Common name: ‘Common Fig’

Native areas: A native of the Middle East and Western Asia.

Historical notes: The edible fig is one of the first plants that was cultivated by humans, predating the domestication of Wheat, Barley and Legumes, and may thus be the first known instance of agriculture. Figs were also a common food source for the Romans. The fruits were used, among other things, to fatten geese for the production of a precursor of foie gras. In the 16th century, Cardinal Reginald Pole introduced fig trees to Lambeth Palace in London.

An old Fig tree, grown under cover

An old Fig Tree

Features: A round-headed tree, if properly located and pruned, otherwise it can develop a mass of straggly growth (e.g if grown up against a wall and left untrained and its roots unrestricted). Mature height of 3 – 5 metres, it is grown for both its attractive, deeply lobed foliage, and fruits. Two crops of figs are potentially produced each year; the first or breba crop, develops in the spring on last year’s shoot growth. In contrast, the main fig crop develops on the current year’s shoot growth and ripens in the late summer or autumn. The main crop is generally superior in both quantity and quality to the breba crop.

Uses:  It makes a small and elegant tree that is perfect for gardens where space is limited. Grow in a container or open ground. The cultivar ‘Brown Turkey’ has gained the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM).

58571_Ficus_carica_LGrowing conditions: The fig likes dry, sunny, warm, sheltered sites, where the soil is dry or very well-drained. It thrives in both sandy and rocky soil. As the sun is really important it is better to avoid shade. Excessive growth has to be limited to promote the fruiting. This can be achieved by pruning to achieve the desired shape and encouraging fruiting branches and also by restricting root development; by growing in a container or in an enclosed bay in open ground where brick walls or other barriers keep the roots in check. It is also often grown up against a south-facing wall to maximise fruiting potential. I’ve had experience of pruning back hard a few old unkempt examples successfully in spring; alternatively, phase your pruning over a number of years to lessen the visual impact and reduce stress on the plant.  Some varieties are more adapted to harsh and wet climates. It is remarkably pest and disease resistant. 

Further information:

Wikipedia- Ficus

RHS- Figs

RHS- Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey’

How to grow Figs- Daily Telegraph

Barcham trees directory

Old School Gardener

IMG_8433My earlier article described how I put together a new wooden planter for my courtyard garden, made by Woodblocx. I’ve now finished it.

First, I gave the rough planed outside a sand down with a medium grade sanding disc, wiped it over and then applied two coats of Dulux Woodsheen (colour Ebony) to make the finished article match in with the other black planters in the garden. This gives it a nice semi gloss finish. I then fixed some hammer- in studs to the bottom to raise it slightly off the ground (to prevent it being in contact with standing water), and lined it with landscape fabric, stapled to the sides to give a neat finish. This will hold the soil in and also protect the inside surfaces of the planter.

The planter painted and lined, ready to fill.
The planter painted and lined, ready to fill.

I then made up a mix to fill it- roughly 3 parts soil, 2 parts compost and 2 parts horticultural grit, to ensure that the soil is free draining. Having really packed this in and slightly overfilled it to allow for settlement, I arranged a selection of alpine plants I’d bought from my local nursery (£12.50 for ten plants – I ended up buying 20 – and then a few more larger plants to give the planting a bit of structure).

The planter isn’t really large enough for me to create a more ‘mountain-like’ scene with rocks and crevices to create shady conditions, but hopefully the plants that need a shadier spot will be helped by the shade cast by the larger plants. To finish off or ‘dress’ the surface I used a bag of ‘Eco Aggregate’ – this is a range of recycled stones. I chose crushed terracotta (old tiles) which picks up the colours of some of the other terracotta pots, brickwork and floor pavers.

I’m pleased with the result – it will add an interesting feature to the courtyard and is low enough to be viewed from the seating next to it. What do you think? If you’re interested in finding out more about ‘Woodblocx’ click the link on the right hand side.


Old School Gardener

The finished 'Woodblockx' planter- soon to be home to an alpine collection

The finished ‘WoodblocX’ planter- soon to be home to an alpine collection

You may recall that two wooden planters in the courtyard here at Old School Garden, recently ‘bit the dust’. Not using pressure treated timber when I made these a few years ago was certainly a mistake. I was wondering what to do to replace them and a few weeks ago was approached by a Scottish company called WoodblocX to do a trial of their products- they make a range of raised planters, beds and ground support systems using an interlinking set of wooden bricks (or ‘blocX’).

Having looked at their comprehensive website, I decided to go for a raised planter (1350mm long by 450mm wide and 450mm high), and I’m hoping to use this both to replace the old planters and create a new feature – an alpine bed. This should be at the right height to be viewed from the nearby metal table and chairs in the courtyard and if suitably finished off will tie in nicely to the predominantly black and terracotta colouring of the many other planters and pots in this sheltered, sun trap setting.

Well, the planter was successfully delivered within a few days of ordering. Last week (having given the courtyard surfacing its yearly clean), I set about constructing it.

In with the new- my new 'Woodblockx' planter awaiting construction
In with the new- my new ‘Woodblockx’ planter awaiting construction

There was a pack of various leaflets and other material supplied with the pallet-load of parts and having checked these off against the list supplied, I wound myself through this material. Though comprehensive, the fact that there were bits of advice and information spread across more than one document initially threw me and I didn’t find any instructions specifically about how my planter should be built or look.

So I spent a few minutes working back from the diagram on the company website to see how each layer of the planter should be built up. I also began knocking in the various plastic dowels and wedges (which join each layer of ‘blocX’ together) to what I hoped was the correct configuration. Then I discovered that these didn’t match up to the next layer’s holes, as the next layer of blocX has to be laid like a brick course with no joints overlapping each other, so not all of the holes correlate. Still no problem, as I guessed that a couple of spare blocX had been sent and, as I discovered later, it is easy to just saw off the tops af any dowels that are in the wrong place! (there was also a good supply of plastic dowels sent so I could afford to waste a couple).

I decided to take another look at the literature I’d been sent and then – to my embarrassment – discovered a set of instruction diagrams for my planter showing which sized blocX should go where and which holes should have the dowels in! Though I hadn’t worked out the layout to exactly match that shown in these diagrams, I thought mine would work too, so I pressed on with the second and subsequent layers. Hammering in the dowels and then pushing home the next layer of blocX on top was very satisfying and I proceeded layer upon layer, to see my planter taking solid form before my eyes!

Using a rubber mallet, and green plastic tubing to hammer home the black plastic dowels was a doddle
Using a rubber mallet, and green plastic tubing to hammer home the black plastic dowels was a doddle

After the fourth and final layer of blocX then came the simple, but attractive capping, which really finished of the planter very tidily. This is knocked onto another set of dowels as well as four metal corner brackets which help the planter to hold its shape. The whole construction time- allowing for my careless beginning– took around an hour, was simple and good fun, giving ‘instant results’.

These planters can be used in open ground (they come with two long metal spikes which help anchor it into the ground), but in my situation, sat on clay paviours, the weight of the planter (especially once full of earth) will be sufficient to hold it in place. As advised by the Company I could have also fixed it in place with some angle brackets. I will add an inner lining of landscaping fabric to help protect the wood (though it is all pressure treated) and to avoid soil seeping out from underneath.

Though the rough-planed finish of the WoodblocX is attractive enough from a distance, I think I may sand it down a little and apply either some black wood stain or similar treatment to tie it into the rest of the courtyard planters. I’ll do a further article to show the finished item, planted up.

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So, what do I think of WoodblocX?

The planter is very solid and I think will last a long time- especially with the extra treatment I’m planning to give it. The solid construction does not look out of place in the ornamental setting of my courtyard and would also look smart in a more ‘kitchen garden’ context too. I should imagine that the construction system using the plastic dowels would be very effective in a ground retaining role too. The modular nature of the system opens up all sorts of design possibilities if you’re considering a multi/split level garden.

As someone who’s a bit of a DIYer (especially using reclaimed timber), I guess that I could have created a similar sort of planter for a fraction of the cost (the planter that I have would cost just under £200, including delivery). I doubt whether it would look as attractive or be as solid and long lasting though. So, if you’re after a smart look and solid construction, your time is limited or your skill level relatively low, WoodblocX offers an ideal ‘self assembly’ solution to your planter/walling needs. I have a friend who’s considering the system for edging a patio that’s surrounded by sloping ground, and I can imagine him setting this up relatively easily and so avoiding the need to engage a tradesman to install a (probably) more expensive brick or similar retaining wall. The company also offers telephone advice and support during your ‘build’ in case of queries (I didn’t take advantage of this).

So, all in all, I’m pleased with the result and enjoyed the construction process, though perhaps a ‘less is more’ approach to the literature the Company sends out would make the construction a little less daunting at the start. If you’d like to find out more, click on the link on the right hand side to go to the WoodblocX website.

Old School Gardener

Yucca aloifolia flowers

Yucca aloifolia flowers

A genus of about 40 species of perennial evergreen shrubs or trees, Yucca is rosette-forming or woody- based and comes from hot, dry places such as deserts. sand dunes and plains in north and central America and the West Indies. It is also colloquially known in the Midwest United States as “ghosts in the graveyard”, as it is commonly found growing in rural graveyards and when in bloom the cluster of (usually pale) flowers on a thin stalk appear as floating apparitions. So striking are these flowers that early settlers of the south-western United States called them “Lamparas de Dios” or “Lanterns of God”. 

A member of the Agavae family, the yucca is closely related to the lily and has its origins in Mexico and Central America where it was prized by indigenous peoples for the medicinal and nutritional properties of the yucca flower.

North American natives, too, found the plant useful, using it to make clothing and soap (yucca roots are rich in saponins).

Cultivated for their bold, linear to lance shaped leaves and their erect (sometimes pendent) panicles of, usually white bell-shaped flowers. Many species also bear edible parts, including fruits, seeds,flowers, flowering stems and more rarely roots. References to yucca root as food often stem from confusion with the similarly pronounced, but botanically unrelated, yuca, also called cassava (Manihot esculenta).

They tolerate a range of conditions, but are best grown in full sun in subtropical or mild temperate areas. In gardening centres and horticultural catalogues they are usually grouped with other architectural plants such as Cordylines and Phormiums.

Joshua trees

(Yucca brevifolia) are protected by law in some American states. A permit is needed for wild collection. As a landscape plant, they can be killed by excessive water during their summer dormant phase, so are avoided by landscape contractors.

Several species of yucca can be grown outdoors in mild temperate climates where they are protected from frost. These include:-

Y. filamentosa

Y. flaccida

Y. gloriosa

y. recurvifolia

Yuccas are widely grown as architectural plants providing a dramatic accent to landscape design. They can be used as specimen plants in courtyards or borders and in frost prone areas can be grown in a cool or temperate greenhouse or conservatory. Pollination and proper yucca care are necessary for the formation of these flowers on indoor plants.

Be careful to site them away from paths or other places people could be scratched by their sharp leaves. Free-draining soil and sun is all yuccas require.They are fully frost hardy to frost tender and can be propagated by seed sown in spring. Rooted suckers can also be removed in spring and root cuttings can be taken in the autumn. They can be susceptible to leaf spot and aphid attack.

Yucca guatemalensis (syn Yucca elephantipes)

Yucca guatemalensis (syn Yucca elephantipes)

Further Information:


Yucca filamentosa- RHS guide

How to Grow Yucca

Yucca Care

Yucca- Plant Encyclopedia

Old School Gardener


Topiarised Heather in a container

This week’s question is from Ivor Smallplot in Suffolk:

‘I have a small courtyard garden and wish to grow some shrubs in pots. What are the best varieties for this purpose, please?’

Heathers do well in pots, Ivor – even if your soil is rather limey (alkaline), you can provide an acid soil in the containers and so grow the summer flowering varieties. All the Hebes (shrubby Veronicas) are happy in pots, as are the less vigorous Berberis – but mind the thorns!

For winter colour plant the evergreen Euonymus, especially the delightfully variegated ones such as ‘Emerald Gaiety’, ‘Aureopictus’ and ‘Silver Queen’. New Zealand Flax (Phormium tenax) is also a good looker with its long, narrow leaves in many colours, as are Yuccas, with their rosettes of long needle-pointed leaves.

Further afield in the garden, you might want to grow shrubs that are especially attractive to bees. If so try flowering currants (Ribes) and goat willow (Salix caprea) for early flowering. Later in the year there are many shrubs to choose from including the ever popular ‘Butterfly Bush’ (Buddleja davidii), Californian Lilac (Ceanothus), Firethorn (Pyracantha), Lilac (Syringa), Gorse (Ulex) and Daisy Bush (Olearia).

Ceanothus jepsonii

Ceanothus jepsonii

Old School Gardener

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