February can be a quiet time in the flowering garden for us. It may sound bizarre to those who live in drier climates, but the mid to late summer period is largely green here. We don’t irrigate and rarely water anything except the vegetable garden. That is the advantage of summer rainfall. It is currently the hydrangeas that bring the most summer colour.
We have never gone in for summer bedding plants and any annuals are self seeded so more inclined to make a show in the earlier months of spring and summer. There aren’t a lot of trees and shrubs that bloom in midsummer and most bulbs peak from later in autumn through to spring. Essentially, it is perennials that give the summer colour and we have only just started getting to grips with that group of plants on a larger scale.
We have made two trips to England to see summer gardens. We do late winter and spring gardens that we do so well here in the temperate north but summer gardens have been a steep learning curve for us. What is interesting about the modern English plantings – heavily influenced as many are by Dutchman, Piet Oudolf – is that they have shaken up the labour-intensive classic herbaceous border into styles which are more sustainable, easier to manage and contemporary in style. This means they are cheaper to run, too.
Our conditions are not the same so there is a trial and error process. We are looking for a midline. Mass plantings of a single variety, a trend much favoured by modern landscapers both here and overseas, are not for us. Frankly, we find them dull in most situations. But too often, underplanting with perennials may aim to be ‘cottage garden style’, or maybe layered, but descends instead into a mismatched hodgepodge of little merit. There is so much to learn.
It is the different plant combinations that make a garden zing for us. Not only must plants be compatible in growth habits and growing conditions, but there is the complex issue of getting a succession of different plants to take the display through the whole season. We don’t want a summer garden that looks brilliant for three weeks. We want it to look good for up to six months and okay for the remainder of the year. That is a whole different ball game.
February will show me whether I am on the right track with my most recent efforts last winter, reworking a couple of areas of the garden. It must be the third or fourth time I have redone one particular area so I am hoping I have it looking better this time. I have gone for much more grouping – larger blocks each containing maybe three different bulbs and perennials to try and take each block through the year with something of interest. Pansies, nigella, white cosmos, linaria, alonsoa and poelmoniums are allowed to seed down to break up any rigidity between the blocks of planting because I want a soft effect, not hard-edged designer style.
I am not going to show it in photographs until I am happy with how it is looking. So my photographs this month are all of combinations that caught our eye in English summer gardens. I would like parts of our garden to look a bit more like these and a little less green in February.
First published in the February issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.