My Garden Blog: What Works?
Given the numerous constraints on what is possible in the garden, identifying what will grow and thrive and what will simply fade away has been hit and miss. The first experiment followed a substantial digging over of the south facing border, fertilizing and enriching the soil, and setting the scene for horticultural success. The grand plan included graduated planting, with several nepeta in the back row, fronted by verbena, and with hardy geraniums along the edge. Other plants included campanula lactiflora, penstemon, loosestrife (lysimacia vulgaris) and acanthus.
In the first season, the nepeta, evidently enjoying the refreshed soil in which it found itself, proved to be a bully. The other plants also thrived in varying degrees. The verbena provided the effect intended — dots of bright purple flowers at medium height randomly along the border — but the penstemon proved to be a disappointment — they simply don’t like what the south border offers them. The geraniums, meantime, simply got on with things and in their various varieties provided colour throughout the season, with the indestructible Wargrave pink (gernium endressii) continuing to flower right into the autumn.
From this first season, I learned that best laid garden plans don’t always work out. The nepeta certainly performed, but it simply took over the border. The next season, having no doubt exhausted itself the previous year, it simply sulked and virtually failed to appear at all, so it became a victim to a rapidly emerging principle: if it doesn’t thrive, get rid of it. To some extent, of course, the principle is self fulfilling, since plants that don’t thrive will usually die away, but some can take several seasons to do so, meanwhile occupying garden space which could be better employed by something else. So, I reckon that at the first signs of weakness, plants should be removed and replaced by something else with better prospects (or, if they will thrive in a pot, put them up.)
In the case of our border, this replacement also tended to take care of itself: the hardy geranium, more or less regardless of weather and season, seems to thrive, so what started out as a kind of mixed border has ended up largely devoted to hardy geraniums. Fortunately, they come in a wide range of types, growing habits and colours, the classic type being very similar to the cranesbill, which is the uncultivated form. Some have been acquired as gifts, so a long flowering variety which, if supported, grows to nearly a metre in height, is forever known in our household as ’Pauline’s geranium’. It puts forth a small, intense raspberry pink flower, and these punctuate the mid border very effectively for most of the summer. They are also very robust and seem to tolerate drought, frost, snow, and pretty well everything that the weather throws at them.
This they had to do in the summer of the drought — 2006 I think. The classic herbaceous border, of which ours is a modest example, depends on a damp, temperate English climate. That summer we experienced week after week without rain, and this drought, combined with the heat (record breaking temperatures were recorded) and the tendency of the garden to dry out, thanks to the demands of the nearby copper beech, meant that only the really hardy would survive. This further reinforced my guiding gardening principle, and also led to finding out about drought tolerant plants.
With the advent of the web and the Web 2.0 world we now live in, obtaining information and advice on what to plants where is easy — in fact, potentially overwhelming. Anyway, some web searches combined with a happy discovery identified the salvias as a drought tolerant species.
I had always associated salvias with the fire engine red flowers of an annual bedding plant much beloved of civic gardeners, and I remember my parents planting salvias ‘for colour’. Annuals are a bother — they have to be propagated or purchased and since they only last one season, have to be replaced. Derived from my leading gardening principle is the second principle: give room to plants which won’t need to be replaced. So, salvias weren’t at first something which I had considered for drought free planting, until I realized that the hardy salvia I had purchased as Wisely a year or so previously was one of the drought tolerant variety which , happily, matched both of my gardening principles.
Salvias are, of course, part of the great sage family, and come in a great range of types, from those which form small shrubs, to those which do well in pots, or indeed, both. So, the salvias have, along with the hardy geranium, become a garden staple, and because they don’t form vast, vulgar banks of colour, fit into the fairly muted colouration of the border. They also have a long flowering life, so, as with some of the geraniums, such as Wargrave pink, they provide prolonged pleasure through the season. And, as their survival through last winter demonstrates, they tolerate weather extremes.
So, over nearly ten seasons, the garden has arrived at a point where certain plants are an integral part of the basic structure. Although this means that, in comparison with the classic mixed herbaceous border, there is a relatively restricted range of planting, at least I know from experience that what is there will cope with both the constraints of the site and extremes of weather. And, in any case, there is a range of foliage provided by other long haul inhabitants (such as the acanthus) as well as flower type and colour (loosestrife, salvias, geraniums) so that despite the limited range of planting, there’s a surprising diversity of form and colour throughout the season. In short, a small scale success, which, above all, gives us a great deal of pleasure — which, ultimately must surely be the point of gardening.
- 10 Jun, 2010
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