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

Come rain, come shine…

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End of the evening with Stipa tenuissima, Oenethora speciosa shutting up shop, and the last of Cerinthe major ‘Kiwi Blue’ in the distance, Tostat, May 2017

This May has been a bit of a rollercoaster, and in these moments, it is hard not to become totally obsessed with the weather forecast, and then what actually happens- usually not at all as predicted.  In summary, the dry soil sun-lovers have really enjoyed themselves and other things have not, some of which have hung on in there and one or two may have bitten the dust.  This is because I don’t water.  To be precise, I do spot-water things in extremis in their first year, but after that, I don’t.  Stubborn or what, you might well say.  But I am trying to finetune the selection and growing of plants that can live here unaided, and now that there is so much variability in the weather at any time of the year, it makes you feel a bit like William Tell trying to skewer that apple with both legs bound, and from a moving platform.

One of the plants that may have crashed and burnt is one of two Rhamnus frangula ‘Fine Line’.  Interestingly, the one that is in the ER wagon is the one in the slightly less hot spot. I so wanted to grow this plant, having chosen it years ago as part of a planting design for my diploma course- and it was the devil of a job to find it here in France.  So I was mightily pleased when I found not one but two plants last year, and planted them in the early Spring.  It is a delicate, airy columnar shrub, which is pretty undemanding and is reputed to cope with almost any conditions, especially frost.  So, I will have to see if it will perk up from the bottom or find a way of making a comeback.   Meantime, some gentle watering on occasion as it is in the ER wagon.

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Verbascum bombyciferum, where it put itself, Tostat May 2017

Some delights have also turned up. That is not to say that Verbascum bombyciferum is entirely a delight as it can plonk itself slapbang where you don’t want it, and then you have to keep beheading it as it is impossible to get out, with a giant root system that practically goes to Australia.  But it is a mighty and impressive beast when it lands where you might not know that you want it, but you discover that you always did!  With us, the first year is quite a small affair, and then, aged 1-2, the giant seems to leap fully formed out of the ground in front of your eyes.  Felted, hairy and covered in custard-yellow small flowers, it is a one-stop insect feeding station.  It keeps the form and stature right through winter until, totally dried out, it keels over and you are tempted to shout ‘Timber’.

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Assorted foxgloves in dampish soil and sun, Tostat, May 2017

Curiously, it has also been a great year for foxgloves- all self-sown and obviously selecting the parts of the garden where they stand a chance.  That is one of the lovely things about not being too rigid about what goes on where, I love being surprised by what pops up and, also, flip side of the coin, by what doesn’t pop up.  Some years, the foxgloves don’t make much of an appearance- but they always return in the end.

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Euphorbia sikkimensis, Tostat, May 2017

Now here is a survivor.  Grown from seed and fairly weedy for a couple of years, this is the year where it has broken through youth to become a real plant of substance.  I think it’s Euphorbia sikkimensis anyway.  It’s at least 5 years ago that I grew it from seed and it wasn’t a happy sowing, as not much came up, and I lost the tag.  This plant is the only survivor of three.  But it really is worth it.  It is going to make a handsome 1m tall and wide plant, with these electric yellow flower bracts that form on the top of each stem.  Unlike some, it is not a thug, in fact, I would put it in the ‘shy and retiring’ category.  It flowers much later than the rest- sometimes as late as the end of June, and it is willing to cope with the driest, sunniest spot in the garden without any visible complaint.

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Evening sun and handling no rain pretty well, Tostat, May 2017

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Clematis viticella, Aruncus dioicus and the foliage of Paeonia lutea var.ludlowii, Tostat, May 2017