Gold, green and blue…

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Sophora Sun King, Tostat, February 2019

Radio silence has lasted for more than 10 days- as we have had the most scarey, but also without a doubt enjoyable, beautiful clear, sunny days with cool nights- days that have got up to 24C by lunchtime.  And so, I have been gardening, with Andy and Jim as heavy-duty diggers and clearers, making a new border where the labyrinth was, and enlarging two established borders, as well as making a new path which completes the circuit of the house without getting muddy feet.  It has been glorious.  What luck, a friend arrives keen to help out with projects and the weather plays the part of good friend for a change.

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The extravagant beauty and construction of one of my rescued wild daffodils, Tostat, February 2019

But the self-same weather is also responsible for the reluctant decision on my part to abandon my hand-grown labyrinth in the back garden.  I trained as a meditative labyrinth facilitator as the last phase of my working and professional life before packing it all in to be retired- and I built my own 5 circuit labyrinth in the back garden, creating the definition of the path with home-grown Carex buchananii ‘Red Rooster’– nearly 400 of them.  So this was about 6 years ago.  Since then, the Carex has really toiled- it really is a case of summers that have lost their traditional pattern dramatically.

Fifteen years ago summers reliably worked like this- 5-6 days of warm, even hot sun- followed by 2 days of stormy rains.  In essence, we have now had 4 or maybe 5 summers of super-hot weather with no storms and very little rain.  The entire family began lobbying for the dismantling of the labyrinth two years ago- and I dug in, adding supplementary water occasionally and replacing plants.  But last year was the end of all that.  I realised that this was like a labour of Hercules- who I do not resemble in any way!

So, I am making a memory of my labyrinth into a tear-shaped border about 3m wide and 5m long, with echoes of the labyrinth path emerging from the sharp end of the tear in 3 wispy arcs of the tougher, remaining Carex.  I am trying out what I hope will be a shrub/plant mix that will take all that our summers can throw at it, without supplementary water after the first year in.  There are some Australians in the mix.  First off, Lomandra longifolia ‘Tanika’.  This is the brightest emerald-green you can imagine, an upright 50cm grass look-alike forming bouncy tufts.  It is frost-hardy to -10C, happy in drought and evergreen.

Also from Australia is Dianella caerulea ‘Cassa Blue’– which is a strappy 40cm plant with blue-green leaves and blue/yellow flowers in the summer, and another Dianella, Dianella tasmanica ‘Wyeena’.

Looking a bit like a galloping Phormium, I am hoping ‘Wyeena’ will make a nice, strappy presence around a small, deciduous tree that I have always wanted to grow,  Koelreuteria paniculata ‘Coral Sun’.  It has the most stunning coral-pink foliage in spring, settles to a beautiful gold colour for the summer and then flames up for the autumn- the photographs below are from a specimen that we planted outside the church in Tostat two summers ago.

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Early foliage, Koelreuteria paniculata ‘Coral Sun’, Tostat, early April 2018
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Going for gold, Koelreuteria paniculata ‘Coral Sun’, Tostat, May 2018

And then back in the new tear-shaped border, I am trying out Philadelphus ‘Starbright’, a new Canadian introduction with purple early foliage and good heat and drought tolerance.  And new to me is Cornus sericea ‘Kelsey’s Gold’ which is a dwarf form of Cornus, which I am hoping will give us a touch of gold in winter stems.

Lastly, because I can’t resist a good perennial, I am trying out two new plants, Parthenium integrifolium ‘Welldone’ and Thermopsis chinensis.  Parthenium promises to be a white umbel flowered clump to about 1.2m, which should handle heat and drought well being a native of of the US Midwest.  Thermopsis chinensis is a medium height spring pea-bush with yellow lupin style flowers, and again, should be on the tough side.  As these plants will be in battle formation to ward off the tufty old grass that made the labyrinth paths, I am thinking of laying cardboard down as a humidity protector and weed deterrent.  Just for the first year, you understand.  It won’t prevent everything from breaching the ramparts but it will give the new plantings a fighting chance.  I would use a mulch but I have other areas in greater need with more dense plantings to deal with.  This is, at least, a new area and so cardboard it will be.

Meantime, wild blue violets are everywhere that I allow them to be, and one solitary wild white violet has re-appeared as a solo plant this year.

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Wild blue violets, Tostat, February 2019
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Wild white violet, Tostat, February 2019

Photographs of the labyrinth memorial will follow even featuring cardboard.

Pilgrim’s Progress…

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Unknown Helianthus, Tostat, September 2017

This year, with so much caramelised garden around me, I am very grateful for the bright and sunny feel that the late unknown Helianthus is offering to the garden.  I used to have massive colonies of it, but over the years, I have resisted it’s charms and turned my head away, ripping much of it out for ‘better’ plants.  But, eating quantities of humble pie, I realise that this tall, wiry tough plant has much to offer with late flowering, bright, jolly colouring and an absolutely bomb-proof manner.  So, though I wouldn’t return to the vast thickets of it that I used to have, I think it is quite fabulous as a spot-planted, intermingled plant, just dotted about and bringing general jollity.  I apologise unreservedly.

Meantime, cutting back the burnt bits and allowing for the beginnings of new growth for next year is the priority for the next few cooler days.  We have had two days of really heavy rain, which at last has penetrated more than a couple of centimetres beneath the baked crust.

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Nepeta grandiflora ‘Zinser’s Giant’ photo credit: http://www.promessedefleurs.com

And that early division of some Stachys ‘Hummelo’ that I tried out a couple of weeks back having been a great success, I similarly tackled some discounted Nepeta grandiflora ‘Zinser’s Giant’ and some Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’, and am about to do the same again for some Doronicum orientale ‘Little Leo’ that I also bought cheaply. Cross fingers for all of these.  I had one spectacular failure in the seed-growing department, and that was Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’, so when I saw the reduced plants at Promesse de fleurs, I jumped at them and hope that my brutal saw and chop tactics of early division pay off.  These are all new varieties to me, so no home-grown photographs yet.

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Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’ photo credit: http://www.promessedefleurs.com
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Doronicum orientale ‘Little Leo’ photo credit: http://www.promessedefleurs.com

But the rain has enabled me to finally get going with the restoration of my lapsed Labyrinth project.  All of 3 years ago, I dug out and created the beginnings of the five-circuit labyrinth in the back garden.  It seems like aeons ago.  I used to joke that you would have to be ‘Donald Trump’ to buy plants to plant it up.  Joke has gone rather sour now.  But the essence is that I chose to plant it with Carex buchananii ‘Red Rooster’ which I thought would be way tough enough to cope with full sun and limited water.  The first year’s seed planting was great and produced about 75% of the plants that I needed, which was a good start.

But the second year’s seed-planting was a disaster, and in the meantime, hotter, drier summers seemed to be accelerating every year.  So, with weed invading and plants struggling, I decided to go for a change of plant, over to the tried and tested Panicum virgatum and keep the Carex that made it, but essentially continue with the Panicum.  A more mongrel look, you might say.  This year, with 130 healthy and good-looking Panicum virgatum plants at the ready, I am carrying on- after much trial and tribulation.

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The Baby Labyrinth part planted with Carex buchananii ‘Red Rooster’ , Tostat, July 2014

I am embarrassed to publish a photograph of how it looks right now, but I think I will be strong enough to brave the challenge in a couple of months once the Panicums have had a chance to settle in.  I think this could be a story of adversity and and not losing heart after all.