Inspiration from 2007…

Mix 1 518
The ‘mix’ bit, featuring Libertia grandiflora, self-seeded Eschscholzia, Monarda fistulosa, Gaura lindheimeri ‘Gaudi Red’, Cerinthe major ‘Kiwi Blue’, Berberis thunbergii ‘Maria’, Tostat, May 2018

Three years ago, I tried an experiment.  Could I grow a whole area essentially from seed, or self-seeded perennials, with one or two shrubs added in? The last two years have been a waiting game, but now, I can say that I am on the way.  It was only the other day when reading about the founding of the recently established Königliche Gartenakadamie opposite the stunning Botanical Garden in Dahlem, Berlin that I remembered what had been at the back of my mind as images of how I wanted the ‘mix’ bit to be.  Isabelle van Groeningen works in partnership with Gabrielle Pape, the main force behind the new Königliche Gartenakadamie in Berlin- but it was Chelsea that first introduced them to me.

Isabelle van Groeningen and Gabrielle Pape made a Main Avenue garden at Chelsea 2007- inspired by and strongly evoking the matrix- planting style of the reknowned German plant-breeder and nurseryman, Karl Foerster.  I remember that garden, not in detail, but in terms of the unusual effects it created.  Using plants as singletons or pairings, the garden seemed swarming with plants, but not arranged in clumps, but as a tapestry of individuals who all seemed to get on very well one with another, almost a ‘pointilist’ garden.  Back then, I was only at the beginning of my formal garden design study and it was all completely new to me.  I remember being disappointed that the garden only got a silver medal.

Isabelle van Groeningen and Gabrielle Pape for ‘The Telegraph’, Chelsea 2007 photo credit:

This photograph doesn’t quite capture what I remember, the dotted planting of ones and twos of plants in a tapestry effect, but what you can see is the depth of planting and that crammed impression which I loved.  My version is much more clump-formed than matrix planting in the strict sense, but I have encouraged Stipa capillata to self-seed and this has created a wafty movement at about 0.75m high, which I really like.

Dew Stipa capillata 0418
The ‘mix’ in early April, dew on Stipa capillata veiling Cistus ‘Gold Prize’ and Libertia peregrinans in winter orange, Tostat, April 2018
Mix 2 518
The ‘mix’ featuring Anchusa azurea ‘Dropmore’, spikes up in blue, red spots of luminous Dianthus cruentus, Phlomis longifolia bailanica, Geranium albanum, Tostat, May 2018
Mix 6 518 vs 2
The edges of the ‘mix’, tall flowerheads of Eryngium eburneum, Anchusa azurea ‘Dropmore’, Monarda fistulosa, Cornus kousa, Tostat, May 2018

A key plant, which has take all of these three years to really get going, is Anchusa azurea ‘Dropmore’.  It is a much more intense blue than the photographs suggest and sits a good half metre above the other planting- so it really reaches for the sky.

Anchusa azurea Dropmore 518
Anchusa azurea ‘Dropmore’, Tostat, end April 2018

It is very wafty so I am hoping it isn’t decked by strong winds- always a possibility.  For the past two months, the two self-seeders. Eschscholzia californica and Cerinthe purpurescens have behaved magnificently.  Purple and orange- so good together. Noel Kingsbury has some interesting and de-bunking comments to make about getting holier-than-thou about any one way of gardening,  but whatever else, closer planting helps but will not remove the need to occasionally sort out thugs and reduce competition.  With the ‘mix’ I am stuffing in and also actively managing, not just the plants but also the invaders.  Good news is that a spot of wild carrot is easily removed.

Lastly, I would like to remember Beth Chatto,  who died last week, and a fantastic visit made to her Essex nursery eight years ago on a wet and grey day- she was a one-off.   What a woman.

Gravel Garden 3 vs 2
Beth Chatto’s inspirational Gravel Garden, Essex, 2012

Karl and the Grasses

December grasses 2 1215
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberfeder’, Tostat, December 2015

It was too cold, shady and wet in my Scottish garden to try out tall grasses, and, truth to be told, I was slightly scared that they would overpower the garden- and me!  But 11 years later, in Tostat, I have many different grasses planted throughout the garden, and I adore them, come winter, spring or summer.

In our warmer climate, at least in the summer, Miscanthus can be a vigorous self-seeder, which, I read, is less likely in the UK.  In my experience, the plants take quite a while to settle in, maybe up to 3 years or more, and self-seeding isn’t an issue till maybe 5 years on from planting.  But to be honest, they are easy to spot as babies once you acclimatise your eyes to the slender tufts, and then they are easily hoiked out if you don’t want them there.  So, for my money, not a problem.

We have some great German nurserymen to thank for many of the varieties we grow.  Karl Foerster, the great early 20th century nurseryman, who ended his life as the only supplier of perennials in East Germany, bred one of the best ornamental grasses there is- Calamagrostris acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’.

I grow this here and it is one of my favourites, but to my shock, I realised I didn’t have a decent photograph of it.  So, what you see below, is how it looks today, slightly tatty, but you can maybe see that it is a delicate grass, very upright, with very slim, fine flowering stalks and leaves, in a delicate green, which is now winter brown.  In fact, Calamagrostris ‘Karl Foerster’ doesn’t appear to self-seed at all, and I have had it in the garden for well over eight years.  Leaning across the photograph is the much fatter seedhead of a Miscanthus, so at least you can see the difference!

Calamagrostris Karl Foerster 1215
Calamagrostris acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, Tostat, December 2015

Miscanthus, as a genus, is a star, and one I find very hard to resist. My absolute favourite workhorse Miscanthus is ‘Silberfeder‘.  Tall, pretty much vertical despite summer storms, it creates tall accents without drowning out smaller players, and the movement in the breeze is captivating.  When it flowers, the flowers emerge as bronze-pink and are enchanting against light.  Tough as nails, it will be a little fed up with extended winter wet, but has survived every rainy Spring with aplomb here.  Hans Simon, another famous German nurseryman bred ‘Silberfeder’ in 1955′.

‘Malepartus’ has struggled a little for me, unusually for a Miscanthus, but here it is, earlier in the summer, adding real pzazz to perennial sunflowers.  ‘Malepartus’ was the work of another great German nurseryman, Ernst Pagels, working a little after Karl Foerster.  He was keen to introduce Miscanthus varieties that would bloom earlier than Autumn, and would therefore extend the use of ornamental grasses in Northern gardens.  ‘Malepartus’ flowers more than 6 weeks earlier than my other Miscanthus- you can see how it looked in early August this year below.

Miscanthus sinensis Malepartus 815
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’, Tostat, August 2015

For one of the most stunning displays of grasses, visit Sussex Prairies, just outside Henfield, in Sussex.  I was blown away by my visit there.  Grasses are planted and designed to allow you to experience walking through them and amongst them, and the accompanying perennial planting is stunning. Here are a couple of photographs of my visit there in 2013. Persicaria orientalis, now that’s something I want to try…what’s not to like? Six feet tall, great big tobacco-like leaves and pink tassels?  And what’s more, Mary Keen likes it.


Kniphofia uvaria punching through Deschampsia and Rudbeckia Goldsturm
Kniphofia uvaria punching through Deschampsia, I think, with Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’, another thank you to Karl Foerster, Sussex Prairies, September 2013
Pink Miscanthus against Persicaria orientalis
Pink Miscanthus flowers picking up the pink of Persicaria orientalis, Sussex Prairies, September 2013