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"We visit Adrian Walsh at home in his Belfast garden, and discover the spontaneous and natural gardening style that helped him to win the BBC Gardener of the Year accolade.."

Article reproduced from Gardener's World February 2002 edition

Winner Adrian Walsh is not a gardener who likes to go mad with a pair of secateurs, or someone who maintains his patch with impulsive actions. His method of gardening is anything but frenetic. In fact, his garden was left to its own devices for the first year of ownership.

Adrian moved to his south Belfast home eight years ago, and his 12m (39ft) square garden, which has just helped him win the coveted title of BBC Gardener of the Year 2001, looks nothing like it did then. "There wasn't much here when I arrived, just a lawn, a few roses and three fruit trees but, rather than just rip it all up, I decided to wait a year and see if anything else grew. The grass and the weeds did well, but that was about. it," he says.

His patience in waiting a whole year before getting to work is typical of his gardening philosophy. "It's important not to rush in and be too ambitious about the number of features in the garden or it can look contrived, like it's been bought off the shelf," he says. Today Adrian's garden is anything but off the shelf. Planted in a natural style, with mainly grasses and herbaceous perennials, it is highly distinctive and a testament to his gardening skill.
Having started gardening as a teenager, transforming his parents' garden, Adrian has developed his own style of planting and design. "When you're young you try lots of different styles until you find one you're happy with. When I came here I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted a planned-unplanned garden. It's about managing, rather than controlling. The planting is designed to look unplanned, as though it. just happened." The scarlet, starshaped flowers of Lychnis chalcedonica, forcing their way through the cracks in the paving, show he is serious about this.

The borders are waist deep with flowers and foliage, the roses and lawn have vanished and all that remains of the old garden is a stately pear tree. This now provides shade for a seating area surrounded by majestic shuttlecock ferns, Matteuccia struthiopteris, which is linked to another patio near the house by a gently curving path of plain, reclaimed concrete paving slabs. "It's become plants versus the hard landscaping," says Adrian, and it's a contest the plants seem to be winning.

The planting design uses a framework of shrubs to give strength and structure to the garden. Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple', with its circular, deep-purple leaves, is the perfect companion for the delicate Japanese maple, Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium', and together they give just the right effect for Adrian. "I like to use plants that, complement as well as contrast. Foliage and colours have to work well together," he says.

The theme of colour contrast continues with valuable evergreen screening provided by the combination of a deep green, glossy-leaved cherry laurel, Prunus laurocerasus, and the tiny golden-leaved, shrubby honeysuckle, Lonicera Nitida 'Baggesen's Gold'. "The evergreens are good in winter, especially with the dead stems and seed-heads of the perennials left to die back naturally," says Adrian.

Despite letting plants take the upper hand in his garden, Adrian is not a slave to maintenance. "In the spring I spend about half a day a week working in the garden, and during the summer perhaps only half an hour. I like to let things get overgrown, but I also like to be there ready, in case something gets out of hand," he says.

Adrian's low-maintenance garden is a place for relaxation and enjoyment, rather than hard graft...

The time he does give to the garden is spent looking after the grasses and perennials that grow around, through, over and under the shrubs. "You don't need rolling acres to achieve a prairie style," he adds. The grasses give important. vertical impact to the garden. The flowers of the giant feather grass, Stipa gigantea, sway in the lightest of breezes, while the bronze flowers of its smaller cousin, Stipa tenuissima, scramble over Geranium procurrens, giving a strong textural feel.

Adrian explains, "The grasses are really important to me and I keep finding new ones. I want to replace the Stipa gigantea with Molinia caerulea ssp. arundineacea 'Windspiel'. It forms tighter clumps, and the stipa doesn't like wet winters." In a garden like Adrian's. it's clear that there is no point in using species that struggle. This is survival of the fittest. This policy ensures a dynamic garden that is never the same two weeks, or even two days, running.

This constant change becomes evident when Adrian is asked about his favourite plants. "Oh gosh!" he exclaims. "Every day there's something that looks great. Geranium maderense is doing really well at the minute. People say it's not hardy, but I've got about 20 of them in pots. They like the microclimate of this garden." At other times of the year different plants feature at the top of his list. "In winter, the scent of Daphne laureola is fantastic," he enthuses. This dwarf evergreen bears clusters of yellow-green flowers beneath strong leathery foliage in late winter, when most gardens look bare. He continues, "I've got several Buxus sempervirens, the common evergreen box, in pots. I really like their formality against the rest of the garden in winter, especially when the frost settles on them."

It is apparent that, in spite of Adrian's claim to the contrary, his "planned-unplanned" garden is actually very well planned indeed. "It's not difficult though," he says. "If you just plant what you like and you plant closely, using species that spread randomly and do their own thing, then you can just sit back and let it happen."

For Adrian, gardening is never a chore. "Having a garden is similar to a partnership that you're wedded into. It's about the sheer possibilities of what you can do together," he says.

He is clearly dedicated to his garden, which is successful on so many levels. This applies not only to the plants and the planting combinations but also to the lack of hard work involved. There is no need for cutting grass or weeding, as dense planting ensures there are no gaps for weeds, and the mass of plants ensures a continuous display. Its many contrasts and moods combine to make a beautiful year-round garden, providing Adrian with a little piece of paradise in the midst of the suburbs. "I don't want to be big headed, but I don't think there is a bad bit in this garden. It'll never be finished and it's always going to evolve. but right now it's at a stage of maturity I'm happy with."


Copyright A Walsh 2002-2007