Thoughts on planting and weeding…

Verbena bonarienisis with Daucus carota, Tostat, July 2019

Forced inside by the massive heat last week, I took to reading about gardens rather than gardening. Also, I am in a reflective state about the garden at the moment as I am noticing the changes from having less ‘arm’ to do maintenance, and I am curious about how this will shape up over the summer. So, picking up Noel Kingsbury’s article about planting density, which I would ordinarily have saved for a rainy day, set me thinking. I won’t recount all the detail as you can pick this up via the link, but working backwards from his reasons as to why more dense planting makes sense made great sense to me. He posits three main reasons for dense planting:

  1. Denser planting reduces the need for weeding
  2. It increases biodiversity, providing more cover and food opportunities for essential garden wildlife
  3. More plants mean more biological activity which supports an effective ecosystem

So, possibly post-hoc rationalisation, but here is what I think is going on in ‘The Mix’ my perennials/grasses/shrub combination underneath the cherry tree at the back. A spot of analysis follows…

The Mix, Tostat, May 2019

This May photograph is a little late to qualify as Spring, but it will do. You can see the massive importance of the wafty Stipa tenuissima, the tall Allium nigrum coming through, and the pink of the Oenethora all work well together.

Just now, early July, those Alliums are still there as seedheads, but the whole look has gone up a gear in height and variation. Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ is sparking red through the planting, and an annual tall daisy, with many small, white flowers, which self-seeded itself last year, and has really romped this year, has taken the eye up further, whilst the Phlomis longifolia var.bailanica is giving stature with seedheads, and the grey-silver of the Helichrysum rosmarinifolius ‘Silver Jubilee’ (now also seen as Ozothamnus) planted 2 years ago is poking through nicely.

The Mix, Tostat, early July 2019

In mid July, the whole scene will change as Monarda fistulosa, which has just begun to open, will ripple through the scene with warm pink long-lasting flowerheads and will compete as the daisy goes over to take over as the main theme. Later, Patrinia scabiosifolia will come in at early August with electric-yellow umbels shooting through leading to Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’ in September.

The first flower, Monarda fistulosa, Tostat, early July 2019

All that I have done is chosen some plants and threaded them between one another fairly closely, allowed a little room for self-seeders, and other than removing the odd dandelion or plantain, I have left it to sort itself out. What I have realised is that between me and it, we have built up a flow of plants that move into the foreground and change the dynamic as time passes- giving way to others as they go. Very little has needed to be removed, and the shrubby elements, the Phlomis bailanica, Berberis thunbergii ‘Maria’, Helichrysum rosmarinifolius ‘Silver Jubilee’ and Miscanthus ‘Gracillimus’ have created the beginnings of a permanent structure as a backdrop.

The other article that continues to set me thinking was Alys Fowler’s article last week on weeding. I always like her thoughtful articles, and this year weeding has taken a back seat in Tostat. I have been surprised at how little this has bothered me, and I have learnt that I have only to wait for plants to grow up and over, thus hiding the interlopers. Then summer heat will finish most of the rest off. I just need to stay calm for the month or so in the Spring when it looks as if all is lost. I am going to go easy again on weeding next year. I adore the combination of the Verbena bonariensis and the wild carrot, Daucus carota and will welcome that back. (see top)

Where I will not go easy is my eternal battle with bindweed. But, 3 years ago, I grew and planted out Tagetes minuta all over the garden where we were under siege from bindweed. Tagetes minuta seedlings have continued to work away since them, and we have a very different garden thanks to them. I have ordered more seed for next year to bulk up the population.

Tagetes minuta still doing battle for me, Tostat, July 2019

Me and the Assistant Gardener…


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The Assistant Gardener resting in the grit bucket, Tostat, May 2018

I am really delighted that the sun has been shining in Scotland, where the Assistant Gardener normally lives, but am pig sick that we are back to 8 degrees and pouring, cold rain and wind for the last 4 days.  I can’t quite believe it, as it had looked as though we were beginning to emerge from a very wintery spring. I try not to moan, but usually don’t succeed.

Still, last week before all this came upon us, the Assistant Gardener volunteered herself into that role and we smashed our way into a much neglected part of the garden- the area in front of the pig shed and adjacent to the sunken gas tank.  It is actually more promising than that description sounds.  But, as the southern outpost of the New Garden, the area which we cleared of snakes and bramble to have a go at making a garden out of the naturally rocky, stony soil and not much else, it merits more work to it.

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New Garden, Tostat, May 2015

This is a bit of a Terminator section.  I have lost more plants than I can bear to remember in taking a long time to understand how to manage a hot, dry, stony garden area which, in the winter, is bleak, cold and half-wet.  What I have learned the hard way is:  that, unless you are an Olympian gardener with muscles to show for it, this area will defeat you unless you can accept a balance between deliberately cultivated plants and naturally arriving plants aka weeds.  So, the last few years have been about building that balance.  The existing planting is mature and so can take a few invaders without complaint- the difficulty arises in getting to that point of mature balance.  And knowing that the balance will need intervention on a big scale in late Spring when the invaders are settling in nicely and can be uprooted when the ha-ha soil is damp.

2015 shows what I was trying to do.  Much of this still remains though bigger and tougher, but in this very wet winter I did lose a super-big and lovely Halimium, leaning out over the gravel in 2015.  Last year, I laid a plastic cover down on the area to combat some of the invaders, and this was largely successful.  So, the Assistant Gardener and I set to, with the new set of hopefuls that I had auditioned for this tricky area. They included:

a dwarf pomegranate, Punicum granatum ‘Nana’, for its glossy green leaves, gorgeous singing-red flowers, and general toughness

Ononis spinosa, a tough dry-soil ground cover

Achillea nobilis, another tough dry-soil running plant

Salvia ‘Anthony Parker’, a fantastic Salvia, sadly not really winter-hardy despite what some say, but it flowers like a train, is a gorgeous deep blue, and I dig it up and stick it in a pot for over-wintering.  It can be huge!

Euphorbia pithyusa ‘Ponte Leccia’, new to me, one of the smaller euphorbias flowering later in June..

and Salvia ‘Hot Lips’, Verbena bonariensis, Echinacea purpurea, some repurposed bits of Sisyrinchium striatum and Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ where the soil is just a tad better.

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Linking the new planting (to the right) with the established stuff, New garden, Tostat, May 2018

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The New Garden planting, pig shed to the rear, Tostat, May 2018

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The New Garden, a long view, pre-planting with plastic still in place, May 2018

We did a good job.  Clearing the ground happened,  the plants went in, and they will have benefitted from the 4 days of rain, even though I moan.  The Assistant Gardener learnt that you bang the plant on the bottom while it is in the pot, not when you have already taken it out.  I was a little slow with instructions.  And so now we keep an eye on it all for the first year and then after that, it’s all on its own.

Must get round to trimming off the brown bits.



Hiding from the storm…

This is a tricky time for gardeners.  Impatience can be the name of the game, as warm, sunny days are followed, as now today, with battering winds and rain.  I am sitting here looking out apprehensively as a tall pine tree, within reach of the house, twists and turns in the wind with a full canopy of leaf and branch.  Our mad dog, Dave and I, were out earlier and beat a hasty retreat when a large 15′ tree branch crashed to the ground about 5m from us.  The only good thing is that, usually with us, a storm that brews up so quickly dies down quickly, even if it is a bit dramatic in spate.  I hope the daffodils, the first ones just ready to burst buds, are supple enough to take it and bounce back.

So, the mind turns to Spring and the new plants, as well as old favourites, that I am trying this year.  I have taken a firm line with my Miscanthus seedlings, dug them out, potted some up for a plant exchange in the village in April.  The same thing has happened to a slightly over-enthusiastic clump of Hellebores, orientalis and foetidus, all of which have been potted up for the plant exchange.   I really value Helleborus foetidus for its elegant, almost tropical foliage, and the beautiful red lip on the inside of the flower, which is glorious if caught in the sun.   It is also known as the stinking hellebore, something to do with the leaves when wet- but I have never noticed this.  With me, once established, it will sprint for England, so tight management is required.

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Helleborus foetidus in evening sun, Tostat, March 2015

This year, for the first time in years, I am having a go at using shrubs properly, and have invested in some that are new to me.  Monty Python has not exactly helped the shrub- nor indeed, has the over-enthusiastic use of quite boring ones in British gardens of the 60s and 70s.  But for several years, Noel Kingsbury, who I very much like as a garden writer, has been heralding the return of the shrub- so I thought I would join him.

So, at the front of the house where I inherited some rather tired old bits of hydrangea, one of which I am keeping, I am planting 2 Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum  ‘Shoshoni’ between the windows where their width won’t get in the way of the shutters being folded back.  Here is a second cousin of ‘Shoshoni’ which I saw at the Inner Temple Garden in London last April, and really liked.

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Viburnum plicatum ‘Mariessii’ ( I think) at the Inner Temple Garden, London, April 2015

‘Shoshoni’ will, I think, be wider, flatter shaped and only about 1.5m high, ish.  But it will give a fairly classical look to the front of the house, which I don’t think wants a riot of colour, unlike what I love at the back!  My plant is currently about 20cm tall, so it will take a while, but, given the vagaries of rainfall, I think I am better off waiting with a little plant that will toughen up, than spending much more on a big one that could fail.

And, pairing up with ‘Shoshoni’ will be a couple of Deutzia gracilis ‘Nikko’ growing under the windows.  A small, slender, spreading deutzia, it will look very pretty there and not irritate the windows.  Now, it may be a little sunny there for the Deutzia, but there is a fair bit of rain run-off from the roof, which keeps it on the moist side of dry.  I was inspired to try this by the great blog written by Carolynn’s Shade Garden, whose selections are delectable and knowledgably written of, and photographed by Carolynn.  I don’t have a lot of shade, but she is a great reference point and thoroughly to be recommended.

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Deutzia gracilis ‘Nikko’ photo credit:

About 10 years ago, passing a super-cheap bag of Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ bulbs at a Homebase somewhere, I bought the bag and planted them at the front of the house.  I have now mostly lifted them all to make way for the new shrubs, but it’s a blessing because, owing to the aforementioned rain run-off, these Crocosmia have spent their entire life flattened and flowering horizontally.  So, they will go to a better place in due course.  I adore Crocosmia, the colours, the fine, upright (well, except for these ones) leaves and the fact that they are totally bomb-proof.  I wish they flowered for longer with us, usually the late summer heat cooks them a bit.

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Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, just before flattening, Tostat, June 2015

I have another Crocosmia rain run-off problem which I hadn’t thought about till the last couple of years.  Underneath our beautiful and much-loved banana, well, actually nearly 2m away, I planted a stand of an unknown orangey Crocosmia, smaller than ‘Lucifer’, which I got at a plant stall locally from an old chap.  Trouble is, it only takes one big rainstorm in the summer, and the banana leaves create a Niagara Falls-type effect, pretty much flattening the Crocosmia altogether.   Here’s a snap of a really bad banana deluge after a massive storm in 2014.

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Banana and Andy, Tostat, summer 2014

So, the Crocosmia need to come out, be found a new home, and a more robust solution found.  I feel another shrub coming on…