The end of November still brought us beautiful, crisp, sunny days and some cold nights with frost when the silver birch looks at it’s most regal. But it was still warm enough to garden and to keep working on the changes for next year. It is true that there is a lovely clarity about the slightly-felled winter garden which often really helps when thinking about changes…which I always am. It’s not about restlessness, more about continually working away as things themselves evolve, and create new possibilities. There are always too those corners which, for some deep psychological reason, I occasionally torture myself with by leaving them to fall into decrepitude. I am then forced to the altar of decision by the mess that I have allowed to develop. Strange business, the mind.
But, after a few days enjoying a wintery London, I came back to a freezing mist and was slightly amazed that the car started first time in the airport carpark. Back home, dawn the following morning, was a delight. Light creeping into leaf shapes and cracks, dusting the top of iced plants and so, despite the fact that my usual dressing gown was supplemented by my winter parka, I rushed back into the house to get the camera and do my best with it. Piet Oudolf is quite right, the best plants die well as well as grow well.
I have come to really love the whole world of Phlomis. So many great plants, especially for those of us who are drought-challenged on occasion, and, in my garden, there is a phlomis doing something all year round. I never set out to have so many, but I adore the shapes, the foliage, the flowers and the strong scent (which even I can smell) that the summer-flowering phlomis give off when the temperatures mount.
I have often blogged about Phlomis russeliana, so I won’t repeat myself. Suffice to say that the foliage can be a bit dog-eared in the winter if it is a wet one, but, if not, it holds up really well and the hairy leaves attract the frost quite beautifully.
Phlomis purpurea started blooming for me in February, carrying on in full flush until the end of April, and still flowering off and on even now. It may have regretted this, as February was a very wet month, and one of the plants is having a bit of a dieback right now. But my experience of this plant is that it does periodically take the hump, but, usually, there are newer shoots that remain alive and kicking, and so some judicious pruning will allow those to carry on. With me, growing in a hot and sunny position in poor soil, it reaches 1.25m high and wide. It is a very sculptural shape, making a big bowl of standing stems with the delicate colouring of the flowers as a bonus.
The plant that started it all off for me was given to me by Professor Katherine Worth, of Royal Holloway College in London way back in the mid80s when Andy taught there. She gave me the Phlomis variety that is probably the most commonly grown in the UK, Phlomis fruticosa. Against our garden fence in Surrey, it soon reached a massive 1.75m or so height and width, and made a very queenly statement in our first proper garden. It remains evergreen all through winter, and is a truly great shrub in my view, but does need space. I was forced to take action against ours last year, but really what I need to do is make that area a priority for next year, so that it gets the space it needs. Hence, it looks a bit straggly in the photograph.
I know I did have a Phlomis tuberosa ‘Amazone’, but I can’t talk about that as it has disappeared from the scene. This has happened once before, so it may be telling me something. But a tall, slender Phlomis cousin is doing very well and producing lots of little ones that I am busily potting up. Phlomis ‘Samia’ is spectacular. Upright, statuesque spikes with paired heart-shaped leaves are then joined by pale lilac, almost dusty brown flowers in the classic Phlomis whorled shape. It takes a while to get going in my view, and absolutely prefers hot, sunny spots with poor soil, and no additional water than whatever turns up as rain. It really doesn’t need good soil and would risk getting too wet in the winter which would kill it. So I would recommend ignoring good soil requirements on many sites and in many books.
Olivier Filippi, the topclass nurseryman and author on dry gardening, produced a hybrid bred from longifolia and fruticosa stock, and it is a superb plant. Phlomis ‘Le Sud’ has a warmer yellow flower than fruticosa and more vivid green leaves with a hint of longifolia about them, and makes a mound just a bit more than a metre high and wide. It is as tough as old boots but much prettier. Very drought resistant, evergreen, undemanding.
And another phlomis that I fell over, and am also fond of, which is, I think, going to be a little smaller in habit than ‘Le Sud’ is Phlomis longifolia var. bailanica. It is often described as being only marginally hardy, but I would agree with Beth Smith of the Plant Heritage Devon Group. She describes it as being hardy to -15C. You can see her own photograph on the link which shows the longer, slimmer leaves better than mine.
If you would like a more exotic tint to your foliage, you could try this.
This tall phlomis, Phlomis x termesii, with a very upright habit, has wonderful golden-kissed felting on the young foliage, and longer, slimmer longifolia type leaves. I bought this from Olivier Filippi’s nursery three years ago and it gets better every year. Recently, from the new owners of La Petite Pepiniere, I bought my smallest Phlomis. Phlomis cretica is a tot by comparison with the others, and doesn’t look much right now, but I know it will come good to make a small shrublet of about 0.5m high and wide. It is a tiny star in the making.
This year is proving to be very confused. This week, we have gone from 15 degrees to nearly 30 in three days, and the wind has been a bad friend as I moaned about in my last blog. But, some plants in the garden have really enjoyed the oddities of the season, and really did their best.
I planted this Cornus kousa more than eight years ago, when I was a very serious novice in our garden. It is definitely a bit too dry for it where it is, but as it is now more than 2.5 m high, it is probably staying. This May, though, with our cool, wet weather, really pleased it, and I have never seen the flowers so bright and long-lasting. They are bracts rather than flowers, but present themselves in this charming way, like a waiter bringing several plates at once. We never quite get to the fruits as, by then, it really is too hot for it and autumn colouring passes over very swiftly, but, it is a pretty vase-shaped tree, and if our springs are going to be more volatile, it may be that my planting error will not such a miss, more of a hit.
I grew several plants of Cenolophium denudatum from seed about 4 years ago. It is a beautiful umbel, offering up wide, lacey plates of flowers and pretty, dissected foliage in mid-summer. Entirely undemanding, other than moderate levels of moisture, and full sun, it makes a lovely clump about 1.2m high by 1m across in a couple of years.
I grow it over my Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussy’ as it starts to appear just as ‘Brazen Hussy’ fades and so they are good companions. But, my best clump was very pathetic this year, and on closer inspection this week, I think it is one of those plants that needs splitting and refreshing every 3-4 years. It had clearly died out in the centre and was doing its best to splinter off at the sides with new, youthful growth. Of course, I had slightly missed the boat for this year, so I dug it up anyway, split and re-potted it, and have put the new ones in the observation ward for the next few weeks. In fact, I’ll probably wait till next Spring and stick it back then which will give it the best chance to regroup.
The jury is out a bit on my annuals this year. This sounds as if I am an experienced annual grower, the truth would really be the reverse. But, with some new areas opened up in the garden, I decided that I should brave my fear of annuals and give it a go. I loved the seedling look of Nasturtium ‘Milkmaid’. One or two pretty cream flowers appeared, but, on the whole, the plants were not happy with our weather conditions and looked so scrofulous that I ripped them out last week. But so far, Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Xanthos’ is hanging on, maybe not in the best form, but not yet scrofulous, so in it stays. The early flowering colour is a bit more yellow than I had hoped, but goes creamy as the flower matures, which I prefer.
This Eupatorium capillifolium ‘Elegant Feather’ has loved our wet, windy and cool weather. I am amazed. It has always been a bit on the mewly side, not quite doing ok, not quite fizzling, but to look at it now, you would never know. And it has really shot up, and it is easily holding its own with the Phlomis russeliana behind it. The brother plant has not liked his second re-location, and so he is back in a pot in intensive care for a second year, having come very close to fizzling. I think I am just going to plant them together next year and be done with it.
I am so pleased with this! I struggle with pinks sometimes, they can be too Barbie-doll, and so-called salmony shades often look too like, let’s be plain, the after-effects of a bad night out.
But this Lychnis chalcedonica ‘Salmonea’ is really delightful. I grew it from seed last year sent to me by the Hardy Plant Society and it survived murder at the hands of our non-watering housesitter last autumn. This year, it has come back as single 0.30 m high spikes of bright green foliage topped with this unusual combination of pinks in the flowering head. Photographs show the flowering heads shaped as domed balls, but mine are definitely flat!
Not sure about drought tolerance, I am growing it in a dappled shade part of a new area, under a cherry tree, and so far, it is handling everything well. I probably should have nipped off the top growth to make it more bushy, but well, never mind, bushiness will come in the future if it continues to make it. Some people unkindly call this plant ‘Salmonella’! I don’t agree.
And, to close, one of only two Lilium regale out of ten that do not resemble the Hunchback of Notre Dame…so it has been worth it!
This weekend, we are in Paris to catch the ‘Jardins d’Orient’ exhibition at the Institute du Monde Arabe. Andy did some of the translation work for it, but I am keen to see the exhibition which will be a rare opportunity to learn about the history of Islamic gardens, and also to see the contemporary Islamic garden that has been designed specially for the exhibition by Michel Pena. More of this to follow.
I thought it would be best to confess. I am one of the world’s greatest cultivators of couchgrass. Well, I assume it is couchgrass although, according to various authorities, it may well be something else botanically. But I am sticking with couchgrass as a generic term referring to what you see in large clumps above on my shitty bank. My shitty bank is essentially stones and spoil from the swimming pool excavation, and so you may say, what do I expect? And you would be right. I have no expectations of not growing couchgrass. But this late Spring season when, like last week, you get the fatal combination of warm sun and rain, is when the couchgrass seriously moves in.
And I am much more relaxed about it than I was eleven years ago. I now understand that it just comes with the territory in a largely agriculturally surrounded village. And, although I will welly in later when the rain stops and do some pulling up, knowing that this wet period makes the soil, such as it is, able to loosen its grip on the couchgrass roots- I also know that time will help me. In about six weeks or so, shitty bank will be crispy dry and the couchgrass will burn and dry. As long as I have made a bit of a dent in it with my pulling activities, time and weather will keep it at bay till the frosts come. I also know that there is no point in planting small, delicate plants on shitty bank as they will not rise above the couchgrass guerrilla tactics.
Here is an example of how I have learnt to live with couchgrass in a damper part of the garden.
Here, by the ruisseau, is a sunny and dampish part of the garden, which also increases the likelihood of bindweed. Here, after various attempts at handling the couchgrass, I am opting for ground cover that will blot out most of it, leaving only what I call ‘wisp management’- same technique as above, but again, only after rain, the gentle, sharp tug will bring out root and all…for now.
Just to the left of this group, I have a new colony of Phlomis russeliana, which will do a grand job in a month or two. I read about Phlomis russeliana as a weed suppressant in the helpful Noel Kingsbury blog. He helped me see what I could have noticed for myself as I love this plant and have lots in the garden in all sorts of different spaces. But, in the photograph above, you can see that the Japanese anemone works too…You just have to always manage the suppressor as well. Otherwise the suppressor becomes the tyrant.
On the subject, briefly, of bindweed, I have also grown Tagetes minuta from seed, following helpful advice from Sarah Raven’s website and the Wellywoman blog, another great source of help and advice. I have about 25 good looking small plants, which I am going to plant in a couple of places and try out. It sounds as if you need to plant them in groups around the affected area and the chemical extrusions from the tagetes root is what deters the bindweed. It’s got to be worth a try, and at the worst, you have extra, feathery foliage that looks quite nice without much else in the flower department.
But meantime, I did do one thing in time this year- staking the herbaceous paeonies, and this one, not sure which it is, looked terrific even after another blasting by heavy rain. Good for the soul.
Well, sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Workhorses are those plants that are utterly failsafe, reliable doers that actually often get overlooked by me because I know them so well. But it’s in early Spring that you are reminded of what good plants they are, and how it’s your own whims that dictate their survival in the garden, not their intrinsic qualities. So here are three of mine. They suffer because I can get irritated by their self-seeding and I can get snobby about them because they seem so obliging. But they really do work for me, so I am giving them their moment of glory.
Teucrium hyrcanicum ‘Purple Tails’ ismy first unsung hero. I got seed from Derry Watkins. She is the amazing woman who runs Special Plants near Chippenham, and whose seed catalogue would bankrupt me if I weren’t firm with myself. I had never been very successful with perennials from seed, but a few years ago, I made much more of an effort to get the conditions right, and Teucrium hyrcanicum ‘Purple Tails’ was one of my first successes.
And here is one of the reasons why I love it. I have just been moving some clumps around the garden in a gail force wind, and yet, in early Spring, it is already energetic, bursting with pretty foliage and raring to go.
You can tell that it’s an early summer bloomer because it is already up and running, but it will give you a good month of flower and then you will have seedheads once the flowers are over. It will self-seed, so then you have the choice of pulling out, making more clumps, or just enjoying it. For me, it likes goodish soil, not too dry, but it is perfectly happy with normal rainfall and warm sun. It is quite an insistent clumper, so it doesn’t let other stuff invade it. It grows to 2′ or so, and one year I must have a go at Chelsea-chopping some of it to see if I can prolong the flowering a bit.
Phlomis russeliana is my second choice. It works all year. Big plate-sized, thick leaves make sure that nothing else creeps in where it is growing, and then, in early summer, tiered candelabra soft creamy yellow flowers shoot up on straight, tough stalks. By late summer, the flowers have gone over, but the seedheads remain statuesque right through till early Spring the following year when they can be cut back. Winter frost looks stunning caught in the phlomis heads, and so it really is a truly four season plant. It will take rubbish soil, heat, very little water, sun and is altogether obliging. Here it is growing in what I call ‘The New Garden’ made out of a caved-in barn space at the side of the house. This was another of my Beth Chatto type challenges, to grow plants that work in unenriched, poor, very rocky, free-draining soil. Look how happy it is amongst the kniphofia and perovskia.
And my last hero is, Bronze fennel or Phoeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’. It is a light, airy wonder of a plant. The bronze foliage is at its most striking in early Spring. Here is a fennel baby coming up right now in the garden alongside a pal, phlomis russeliana.
Completely tough, it will self seed everywhere, so you will never be without it, especially in a veiled planting next to roses, the feathery, dark foliage is stunning. The yellow seedheads are really pretty in themselves, and it will be happy in both good and poor soil, but will need sun.
There’s nothing common or garden about these three heroes.