Sometimes a garden design just takes hold of you. It fills your head with non-stop thoughts, invades your dreams and makes you forget about that morning coffee you're desperate for. As much as you need to move onto other projects and work it just will not let you! The Exploding Atom garden is that kind of design, a one of a kind concept garden for Garden Ninja. It answers the question; what would I design if you had an open blank canvas?

The Exploding Atom garden has been my muse since moving house from the non-stop Manchester Cityscape to rural solitude in Lathom, a 6 square mile sleepy historical village. Talk about juxtaposition! The move brought a new perspective on my garden designs. Rather than small awkward city spaces with multi-functions, what would I design for a large open space with minimal function? The questions of what would I design if I had a blank canvas with no defined purpose seemed easy. However, once I started to brainstorm I realised that a blank canvas can actually be a creative curse! It had stopped me in my tracks.

Beauty and the creative roadblock!

I’d ruminated over it for months and months. What about this style, what about that feature, what will be the focal point, what would be its defined purpose? Then I’d look out over the blank field, start to daydream and wonder whether a couple of raised beds and some potatoes would be best for now. ie Kill the creative quagmire I was in and get digging for victory! I had partitioned the space with a Griselina hedge which took away some of the issues around sizes. I knew I wanted part of it to be left as potential agricultural land or as a wild meadow and decided on the top half. I’d drawn up my scaled survey blueprint of the lower area but this did nothing to inspire my design. Frustrated I got the coffee on and completed some other design work for clients who actually knew what they wanted!

Exploding Atom Garden Layout

I’m not sure when, or how the idea started but suddenly I realised that this garden was my chance to embody something other than function and beauty. I’ve always been one to throw myself in, feet first. At swimming pools I never tentatively dipped the toe, I was straight in breathless and spluttering!

Stop being so prescriptive and start being more spontaneous. Cause a ripple I thought. Then it came to me, imagine a garden that explodes metaphorically? Where the centre is a hive of activity and then these savage shards of planting fire out, mixing some textured hard elements with an array of native and wild planting. A garden that’s part delicate part chaos theory. My mind ran wild in a giddy haze of ideas, plants, colours textures and the kind of delicious beers I would drink sat in the garden after it’s completion. Running at a million miles an hour, the design had started, the Exploding Atom Garden was born!

Blueprint of the Exploding Atom Garden

I quickly got to the drawing board and started firing out (excuse the pun) all sorts of items. I can’t count the hours I spent digging through books on nuclear reactors, fusion, physics and even watching videos of the layout of the earth’s crust in cross section. The outline became immediately clear with a few pencil drawings.

Garden Ninja Hand Drawing

By using the central red-hot core as the focal point the remaining areas of the garden would be shards that have been blasted out from this nucleus. The journey to the centre would be through these areas. Accessible from any side and from every angle the design took on a life of its own. From red-hot lava-like planting to wild native Birch trees inhabiting the calmer cooler outer rings of the atom as its shards cool down. All these design ideas and concepts swirled around inside my head and again took over my waking and sleeping thoughts.

Drawing up the Design for the exploding atom garden

Once I had the outline concept I then painstakingly drew out the core of the exploding atom and the shards around it. Being careful and considerate to match the proportions of the house and established trees surrounding it. There were so many walks back and forth with hose pipes to lay out markings and measuring tapes. The act of measuring twice cut once is something I always advocate for any garden design work. Check and check again. It always saves time, tears and tantrums later on!

Checking the viewpoints and establishing that each access point should have its own unique and partially visible view of the red-hot core was a must. Once I was happy with the overview of the design I then started to draw up by hand the design.

Marking out the Exploding Atom Garden

The next phase is probably the hardest in terms of skill and accuracy with such a geometric design. Marking it on the slightly sloping lumpy field surface. I won’t lie, the marking out of any garden always starts out with bags of enthusiasm and excitement before slight brain melt and frustration. Designing on paper is one thing, then mapping it out to any ground space is where the errors, oversights or ground issues emerge.  Six hours passed and amendments where made whilst I spray lined the plan onto the area. Circular angles easily get confusing!

Standing on the top of a ladder to see the overall view and walking through the grass path network was essential. I checked the layout from every angle before committing my trusty tent pegs to the ground and joining them with string! With any garden mark up, change will happen and amendments are more than likely to be made. However, don’t despair this is all part of the iterative approach to a successful garden design.

Lifting the turf for the plant beds

Now, regular viewers of my Youtube channel will know I’m a dab hand with a turf cutter. So I’d estimated it would take me a full 2 days to cut the turf from the garden design and a further 3 days to manually lift the turf.  What I hadn’t factored in was the horrendous weather that would cause significant delays to this plan. The rain and wind meant to try to lift the wet sodden turf almost impossible without injuring myself or ruining the rest of the garden. 

The delay in lifting the turf resulted in it started to matt back to the original soil. This meant rather than simply rolling and moving I was having to recut with a spade the turf as I went along. After 2 days of hard graft, I submitted to ask for help from my mate Gareth Wilson and his team. The lesson learnt was this; if you’re cutting large areas of turf try and lift the grass immediately. If you wait for a big reveal like me, the weather or other delays may result in making the job harder than it needs to be!

Planting the Trees

Winter is the perfect time for planting bare root and root balled trees. During my design phase for the exploding garden, I was really keen to use as many native UK plants and trees as possible. So I knew that classics such as Acer campestre (Field Maple), Corylus avellana (Hazel) and Fagus Sylvatica (Beech) would be making an appearance.  However, I wanted to use them as design features and not just planting. So after much research, I chose forms that would lend themselves to the exploding atom gardens out there design.

By using a mix of multistem and fastigiate forms (which is a fancy word for collum or to a point) I was able to not only use beautiful native trees but use them in a new and exciting way.

With bare root and root ball trees, you need to order them in advance as there is only a short window in which to have them lifted and then replanted. Don’t let that put you off though, winters the best time to plant them when they are dormant and its really good fun seeing the trees turn from leafless twigs to trees in the spring.

What is happening next?

The next stage of the exploding atom garden is to plant in the bare root and root balled trees to give the garden its height structure. Come back soon or check out my Diary Video Guide on my youtube channel below.

The Exploding Atom Garden Video Diary will be updated soon with further progress!