The Mad Enterprise of Starting a New Garden by Bridget Hannigan

February 1, 2018

in Articles, General Interest, My Favourite Garden

Just over 30 years ago I started making the garden at Veddw with not much else than a spade and a desperate need to have a garden. There was no internet, we knew no-one, and had very little money. But we had a rather depressing house and two acres of field. The internet, I think, would have helped, because I knew so little and I was lonely and in need of friendly help.

So coming across Bridget, starting a similarly mad adventure, I wanted to offer what help I can. And today there is the internet. So I suggested she share her design problems, thoughts, hopes and needs with you all in the hope that would be useful to Bridget and also to anyone else wondering how to design their own garden with sod all help or money.

This is not about plants except where they assist the process. (I came to regard them as weapons, helping me to fill space and subdue weeds). But Bridget can tell you what she needs better than me. Here is Chapter One. All useful thoughts welcome. What would you do?

Portrait Anne Wareham copyright Charles Hawes






Anne Wareham, editor.

Bramleys – Chapter 1 by Bridget Hannigan


Eighteen months ago I moved to the village of Oswaldkirk, on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors.  Driven by a need to be sensible and downsize but also (less sensible) a desire for somewhere with a decent sized plot that I could really get my teeth into.  I’d loved, but outgrown, my previous walled courtyard garden and I wanted to see what I could create, given the opportunity.

The Mad Enterprise of Starting a New Garden by Bridget Hannigan on thinkingardens photo 1.

The garden I left behind.

There is a small border along the front of the cottage and a lawn to the east side but the bulk of the garden (about half an acre) is a south-facing hillside to the rear, above the property.  The views from the top are beautiful. They over-ruled common sense and made me buy the place.  If the new garden turns out to be a little bit crap we can all just admire the scenery instead, can’t we?

View over Bramleys copyright Bridget Hannigan for thinkingardens

Just sitting and looking – that might work?


It’s pretty much a blank canvas.  All I’ve inherited are nine sorry-looking fruit trees on the left side and a mighty old walnut tree on the right-hand boundary. “Don’t worry” said the Estate Agent, “if it ever comes down it will land on your neighbour’s house, not yours”.  A definite selling point.

Walnut Tree copyright Bridget Hannigan on thinkingardens

The magnificent walnut tree

Visiting ‘horti’ friends remark “Oh! It’s steep!” with distinct ‘rather you than me’ undertones.  Still, I’ve cleared the encroaching brambles, ground elder and ivy and am now Gladiator Ready!

So, I have lots of ideas.  Some of them are scribbled down on paper and a few have actually made it to the ground, but most are still floating around in my head, not quite fully formed.  I’d like to acknowledge the history of the place and the people, but create something new for me.  Easier said than done?

I want this garden to be somewhere to linger, to be amongst the plants, to admire the view and feel at peace.  Despite being a professional gardener, this won’t be about immaculate horticulture: that can leave me totally cold if a garden has no ‘feeling’.  There is no big budget (in truth there is no budget at all). Things will happen as time and finances allow, with a little help from friends when I need bigger muscles.

Last winter I separated the area of fruit trees with a curving copper beech hedge.  I want to keep this side of the garden looser and more natural and have added species roses, lilacs, viburnums and spring bulbs.  A new doorway created in the cottage has left me with a big pile of stone and I’d like to use it to build a low, curving wall enclosing a grassy seating area: I like the feeling of being surrounded and immersed within the planting rather than perched above it and emotionally detached.

I dream of a flowery meadow, alive with butterflies and bees.  I stopped cutting the grass over summer and am interested to see what evolves naturally – so far just lots more grass but it’s early days.  The verges around here are full of Campion and Cranesbill so I’m hopeful.  Or perhaps naive.  Has anyone else experience of meadow-making? (yes, – editor)

Plans for the right hand side are harder to define.  I’d like this area to be more obviously ‘gardened’ with a zig-zag path through the planting, up to seating at the top to soak up that view (and recover from the climb!).  I have a rough picture in my head but I know this part will take much longer to feel right.  I don’t want it to be predictable and formulaic but how do I avoid falling into that trap?  I don’t have a specific list of plants as yet; the initial criteria being just that I like it and it will grow happily here.

Whether the Walnut will pose a problem I don’t know; advice seems to vary.  I’m planting shrubs claimed to be ‘juglone tolerant’ near to it, to establish a wind-break on the boundary to protect from the vicious easterlies that can whip through the site.  It’s tough, the soil is almost non-existent here.  The village was home to two limestone quarries and it’s easy to see why.

We all know the advice: live with your new garden for a year, get to know it, then draw plans, do all the hard landscaping and begin your planting. (Whoever ever did that? – editor) Naturally, being a professional, I have ignored this completely (yes I can hear you all tutting at me). The need to get hands in the soil and start creating was too strong.  Well, that and the queue of fifty-odd pots of perennials brought from my old garden, all withering away in the sun and begging for salvation.  Being able to look out from the landing window last summer onto a large border full of flowers was a joy.  I’m paying the price for it now though; the builders are back doing some more work on the cottage and stamping all over it in the process. Two steps forward…

Bridget Hannigan on thinkingardens

Before trampling…

I sometimes wonder if I am a little bit mad doing this?  It’s hard work and takes time and money that I am always short of.  A nice man in the village will keep the grass short, as it is, for £12 a month.  Life could be easy.  But oh what a missed opportunity, what a waste of a beautiful place.  Some of the nicest times here so far have been sitting on the wall with a coffee in the morning sunshine, looking up at ‘my space’ and making plans, growing ideas and beginning something.  Exciting times.  Feel free to advise and to criticise, to contribute and be part of it.  Here goes…

Bridget Hannigan 


Portrait Bridget Hannigan on thinkingardens

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Linda from Each Little world February 7, 2018 at 2:04 pm

Loved reading every word of this. Makes me want to get outdooors except it is snowing and cold here in the Upper Midwest (US). The Rusty Duck blog is working on a strong slope in the country. You might check her blog. You probably are familiar with Derry Watkins garden; she makes me want a sloping garden. Lots of structure but with hedges.


annewareham February 7, 2018 at 3:42 pm

O – yes! Derry (or rather, her husband) has demonstrated so well how not to have the slope running away from you. A garden which is half a sculpture. And his walkway up the hill is just wonderful. Worth a special trip, Bridget. (and you could call into Veddw on the way to say hello and check out more garden on a slope..) XX


Bridget February 8, 2018 at 7:59 am

Linda, thank you. And you are both absolutely right suggesting Derry & Peter Watkin’s garden (a lightbulb moment!) Very interesting to see how an architect tackles the challenge of a slope. I think I’ve come across Rusty Duck too on Twitter – I shall have a better look.
I really need to come and do a tour down there don’t I…


annewareham February 8, 2018 at 9:55 am

Maybe! Xxx


annewareham February 8, 2018 at 9:55 am

Maybe! Xxx


Marianne February 3, 2018 at 7:54 pm

If I had the space that you have, I would study Piet Oudolf’s designs and plant selections. He designed several public spaces here in the USA. They are wild and magnificent!
Good Luck! Sounds like a challenge but an exciting challenge at that!


Bridget February 4, 2018 at 7:16 pm

Thanks Marianne. I love Piet Oudolf’s style of planting; if I could produce something just half as wild and magnificent then I would be very happy! One of his first UK gardens is just a few miles from here and I am heading there for another visit very soon.


christine February 3, 2018 at 3:53 pm

I completely understand your impatience to make a start in your new garden in the first year. Things can be changed, that’s one of the bonuses of gardening. You will have to adapt to the situation, soil, climate and slope so there will be restrictions, we can’t all grow what we’d like to grow. Look forward to seeing how it developes.


Bridget February 3, 2018 at 7:47 pm

Hi Christine. Yes you’re right; this is a new type of landscape for me and a little out of my comfort zone so I will have to get used to different plants and a different style of planting. I don’t expect to get it all right first time and I’m sure there will be plenty of confessions in subsequent posts! Thanks for your thoughts


Gemma B February 3, 2018 at 12:23 pm

I can certainly emphasise with you on this – I also am trying to figure out what to do with my new space on very little money and its all quite a blank canvas! I must admit I did spend the first year (last year) doing nothing and seeing what happened and tbh it felt like a criminal luxury doing no gardening – I spent the warm days relaxing in a hammock and reading books while the grass grew longer and longer around me, so perhaps thats a suggestion if you can bear to do nothing for a while! But the disapproval from many quarters that I wasn’t going to cut it was difficult to fight against! I hesitate to make suggestions wiht my meagre amount of learning but stick to your guns with whatever you want to do and I figure keep it simple, less is more with a lovely view like that! But I’m very much looking forward to seeing/reading about your ideas for the more gardened area, as I too want to try and avoid the predicatble for my space, which is challenging. And no, you’re not mad, it will be your slice of paradise, or else we are all mad too for wanting the same! Good writing and good luck!


Bridget February 3, 2018 at 7:56 pm

Ah Gemma thank you. And what a lovely image; relaxing in a hammock and reading books (I’m now adding ‘hammock’ to my wishlist) You’ve got the right attitude to it all! I think you’re right about keeping it simple here; nothing too clever that is going to compete with the view. I shall keep you posted, and thanks again for your thoughts.


jez young February 3, 2018 at 11:04 am

As I am in wet west Wales on acid… (soil) I can offer no suggestions, but would like to offer encouragement from the sidelines.
I accidentally took on my own mad enterprise 25 years ago, pacing around my hillside in ever increasing circles extending the planting of other peoples cast offs and ignoring all the “rules”. As my experience and confidence grew I would dig up previous plantings , and change the line of paths, all with little or no money, so good luck….
If I had to offer any thoughts … I love the way plants like Viburnum Plicatum with their horizontal branches can look on a slope,
And of course dry or wet soil…. I always mulch, even with lawn clippings…. good luck.


Bridget February 3, 2018 at 8:01 pm

Jez thank you for your support, and what a great story! Viburnum Plicatum – yes, I have one! Though from what you say, perhaps I have not given it a prominent enough position. You’re right though… and I do have the space for another 🙂 Thank you.


barb February 3, 2018 at 8:50 am

Dear Bridget. I hesitate to offer you any advice but would like to wish you well with your garden. I too am in the process of creating a garden in front of my house ( it was an open plan lawn) and had big ideas of a potager garden which, with my husband, started last year. We had not realised how damaging the prevailing wind is – although not constant – we are at sea level! (Well Thames level – is that the same thing?) The main idea for the potager was to use plants that pollinators would like. However the blackcurrants were decimated by the wind, as were the Cosmos; the strawberry plants became boring and scruffy etc. Any veg taken for the kitchen created a gap and we would need a plan for having replacements.
But there is always another season, another year, to try again and this year we have planted 5 Rugosa Alba as a windbreak and only putting in plants that will give ‘good value’ to us and the pollinators. I don’t like pincushion planting so a bit of block planting is going to give a good visual impact.
We are learning a lot as we go along – in terms of the right plant for the conditions; not making too much work to maintain the garden – we are mid 60’s – plenty of life left in us but we also have a big back garden and allotment so need to be realistic in what we can manage now and years to come.
I look forward to reading your updates.


Bridget February 3, 2018 at 8:14 pm

Thank you Barb. I think it can be very easy to overlook the micro-climate; it can often catch us out and I am still learning this site’s little foibles. I agree with your anti pincushion planting – definitely less is more.
PS – mid 60’s, a big garden and an allotment to care for – what is your secret?!


Big Ted February 2, 2018 at 11:10 pm

Am I being obvious? RHS Hyde Hall dry garden does spring to mind.


Bridget February 3, 2018 at 8:33 am

Hyde Hall is 200+ miles further south than here and is will be much drier and milder in winter. Perhaps worth a look at for ideas though, thanks.


Astrid Bowlby February 2, 2018 at 4:08 pm

I have less of a blank canvas, as the person who was here before me (Brooks, Maine, USA) was a gardener, but I can empathize with everything you write. Its a bit tricky only seeing a few images and your writing makes it sound like you have many things already decided, yet I was struck by this feeling of enjoyment you write about at the end – the contemplation, the envisioning. So, although like you I am planting and messing about here and there, I am also slowing down into that contemplation. One thing that struck me about the image from the top of the hill is that it is sunny and open. I think that is a potential attribute. So, how to satisfy the plantaholic while maintaining that openness somehow? A scree garden filled with low growing but sun loving perennials that can tolerate dry conditions might be just the thing. I am not trying to turn you into a rock garden aficionado, but there are so many lovely tough perennials that could go there and intermingle with bulbs and a few self seeders to create a low-growing changeable tapestry (punctuated with miniature evergreens for winter interest). I have a droughty part shade position on a rise (not as steep as yours) on which I am going to try such a thing. A sloped gravel garden. Think buckets of gravel NOT lots of pricy rocks and moving equipment. If you do something like this, things can evolve to the left and right to have a different feeling and incorporate larger plants and shrubs. The other thing I suggest (because I have been doing it myself) is also looking out the windows where you most often sit (if applicable) and decide accordingly what you want to see when you look out of them. I have a large bank of windows in the kitchen right by the table. In the winter, I am there often, looking at the trees and snow wondering if a mixed hedge of twig dogwoods, hammamelis, a few smaller evergreens and winterberry wouldn’t be nice at the top of this little rise I can see out these windows. One final thing that has helped me feel less daunted is vignettes (that will hopefully get pieced together at some point in the future). What I mean by this is: I have decided that a particular shrub is good where it is, so I prune it, perhaps limb it up a bit and I under plant it with perennial ground covers, larger flowering perennials, perhaps tuck in some bulbs, sow a few seeds. That way, when I feel overwhelmed by looking at the enormity of the garden as a whole, I can comfort myself with a pleasing and completed picture in that one spot (that’s the idea, anyway!). Apologies for going on so long, but you took so much time and care introducing your project that I wanted to respond in kind. I look forward to more installments! Best wishes, Astrid


Bridget February 2, 2018 at 6:46 pm

Astrid, do not apologise – thank you so much for all the time and thought that went in to your reply, I really appreciate it. I do like your suggestion of scree/gravel planting, and that would certainly suit the ex-quarry location. I’d considered this but think I’ve been nervous of not being able to carry it off and it looking like an awful 1970’s rock garden!
And the vignette idea; bite-size pieces, make the task seem less daunting… sensible advice.
Your garden is sounding lovely and you are obviously putting a lot of thought and care in to it. Good luck, keep in touch!


Julie Harries February 2, 2018 at 2:54 pm

Bridget I can identify with your situation. Two years ago I took early retirement and left my neat suburban garden in Bournemouth where I could grow almost anything and came to this lovely old house in the wilds of West Wales. Just under an acre on south facing slope: steep – yes, soil – not much, water – lots, plants – none to speak of.
I do have a spring fed pond ( currently full of toads and spawn) and the most glorious view over a wooded valley. Am I daunted? sometimes, but mostly I am filled with joy at the prospect of making a garden in this beautiful place Last year I made a kitchen gardenwith raised beds on the only level part and like you a border near the house to look out on. I have found a man with a digger and a stonemason locally. This wet winter has allowed plenty of indoor time for reading, planning, doodling. This year I intend to get some structure into the lower garden and tame the running water into a stream / rill ( or ditch!). I have been inspired by visits to Veddw to think differently.
I wish you luck up there in Yorkshire, there can be few things in life which are more exciting or rewarding than making a new garden – and no your not any madder than the rest of us.


Bridget February 2, 2018 at 6:51 pm

Julie it sounds wonderful and I can sense your enthusiasm and contentment. Bravo! And thank you for the support and encouragement


abigail higgins February 2, 2018 at 2:54 pm

Wouldn’t you do well to think about water management on that slope before anything else?
~ a h


Bridget February 2, 2018 at 6:59 pm

Hi Abigail. Good point. The soil is very free-draining so there has never been a problem with surface run-off, even after prolonged heavy rain. As far as looking after any new planting goes I can just about manage with cans and a dribbling hosepipe and plenty of mulch at the moment – one advantage of doing the work a bit at a time at least. In the long-term I want the planting to be able to look after itself so haven’t wanted to invest in water pipes and pumps.


John Schucker February 2, 2018 at 2:37 pm

I’ve never lived in a place with flat terrain, nor would I wish to, and nearly an acre of my current garden is on a rather steep slope. Stone terraces provide opportunities for definition and the raison d’être for much of my planted areas. Stonework can be pricey, but as you are paying next to nothing to have the grass mown, perhaps professional stone masons could be worked into the budget. But if that’s really out of the question, and if you feel physically up to the challenge, learning to properly build a sturdy wall yourself can be immensely satisfying and a good way to stay occupied outdoors during the dormant months. It could also be a way to help manage runoff which I could see being a concern. I envy your southern aspect as my hillside faces north. Spring comes a couple of weeks later to my north facing slope.

I would also want to create other destinations along the way up the hill in addition to your ultimate goal at the top end and walls could help provide these. However, you may prefer not to impose man or woman-made walls on the landscape, especially if you envision a hillside meadow.


Bridget February 2, 2018 at 7:06 pm

Hi John. Oh it’s been lovely to hear from so many people who love their hillsides and see them as an asset and not a drawback! I do have a neighbour who builds stone walls and has done many in the village so I was going to ask him for help (and learn in the process). I agree – other destinations on the way, definitely. Thank you.
Have you looked at – see what they have done with their north-facing hillside. A beautiful place.


Elsita Boffi February 2, 2018 at 10:47 am

Your view from they highest part of the plot is too beautiful to intervene. Looks like a lovely meadow. Since you ask: I would re-create a garden similar to the one you had before, close to the house, perhaps a little bigger if you simply must put your green fingers yo work. Two trees on one side of the hill and one tree on the other side with the idea of creating stops on the way up. And at the top: the most beautiful bench, or couple of chairs, ir even a table with chairs. Spend dime Monet on taking electricity up there yo be able to sit and enjoy your favourite music.
Good luck and enjoy !

Elsita Schulte, From Buenos Aires, Argentina


annewareham February 2, 2018 at 11:07 am

Can I speak against music in the garden (except through headphones) if you have any neighbours? It’s one of my worst fears, that we’d acquire a neighbour who does. that.


John Schucker February 2, 2018 at 2:03 pm

DITTO ON THE MUSIC IN THE GARDEN!!! If you cannot be satisfied with the music of songbirds and buzzing of insects and rustling of leaves, what is the point? And if you really love manmade music (as I do, being a professional musician) an outdoor sound system will never deliver the quality of sound great music deserves, assuming one would choose classical music as the soundtrack to a beautiful view. Anne is right. If it must be, then only with headphones. You’d enjoy better sound quality that way anyway. Only a most inconsiderate neighbor would install an outdoor sound system on a lot that small with the certain outcome of annoying fellow neighbors.


Bridget February 2, 2018 at 7:09 pm

Thank you Elsita. I think you’re right; keep it fairly simple and nothing to complicated compete with the view.
(I’m afraid I’m with the others on the music idea though – I like the peace!)


Katherine Crouch February 1, 2018 at 11:35 pm

I will look forward to the progress reports. Living in a rented house with the worst garden I have had in the last 30 years, I envy you the ownership of place, A blank canvas without obvious faults apart from the natural geography is the hardest work with….but you will make great changes – good luck!


Bridget February 2, 2018 at 7:20 pm

Katherine, thank you. I will keep you posted!


Tim Ingram February 1, 2018 at 11:10 pm

Lovely piece of writing. Now why is it that you don’t see more of this from gardeners, looking forward, and writing like this? Resonance with both Bridget Hannigan starting a new ‘garden’ (because it seems like we are, even in a much older one that has become overgrown in places), and with yourself at Veddw and that sense of a (desperate) need to have a garden, which doesn’t really ever leave you.


Bridget February 2, 2018 at 7:27 pm

Tim, thank you. I’m glad it struck a chord with you. Rethinking an old garden isn’t always easy either – trying to see something that is already so familiar to you, but with ‘fresh eyes’ and hoping for that eureka! moment. Good luck!


Martin Kirby February 1, 2018 at 9:34 pm

Sounds very interesting. Keep up the good work at Bramleys. Great pictures.


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