Challenging places by Diana Guy

It is every designer’s nightmare to be asked to create a garden of loveliness in a site that is unhospitable. I have had a few in my time; pure sand under Holm oaks (Quercus ilex), poor soil beneath mature pines, north facing in the teeth of a gale, a baking hot rock bank. Then you have unrealistic hopes and desires from the clients who have a vision that will be impossible to achieve in such conditions. ‘It must peak in August’ ‘I want the tree to grow quickly to two metres and then stop’ The final throw -away remark is usually that the owner, with no knowledge or understanding of gardening would like to maintain the garden themselves, so it must be low maintenance. This is marginally preferable to leaving it in the not too capable hands of the resident gardener who delights in ‘pruning’ everything into a fetching blob shape, thus ensuring that there will be no interest at all from the plant at all, whether August or not.

I have used some interesting plants that have coped surprising well in some of these challenging places. Brightening up gloomy corners with poor soil is tricky and Astelia chathamica ‘Silver Spear’ has never let me down. I realised its potential when I saw it growing in the bush in the New Zealand under a dense canopy, and have used it since in a wide variety of settings. Its sturdy steely foliage reflects every scrap of light and it looks especially effective against the glittering backdrop of the sea.

I was baffled by a pure sand bank beneath towering pines that dropped buckets of needles daily. The solution stared me in the face. Add more pines. I planted a copse of Pinus mugo, carefully choosing characterful shapes in varying sizes. The effect was enchanting, a veritable gnome’s forest.
It was a Pinus mugo that saved the day for me when a client wanted a chunky mature tree that would not grow too tall. I managed to source a wonderful mature specimen at 2 metres tall, about the optimum height for this delightful pine, and the perfect backdrop in this coastal garden The trouble is, now she wants me to match it!

Diana Guy, a BBC Gardener of the Year, is a Garden Designer and Consultant, writer, Horticultural Speaker and Lecturer and may be contacted at