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’ is my 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.