The tall and the short of it

I struggle to appreciate bedding plants. I really do. To me, they belong in dated floral clocks and on traffic islands. Maybe in the occasional garden bed in public gardens to appeal to older folks who have not updated their ideas since the 1960s.

I don’t have many photos on file of bedding plants but these two are from RHS Wisley, south of London and they are certainly not representative of 99% of those magnificent gardens. But there are requirements for such places to be all things to all people. That Is Enid Blyton’s Famous Five clipped amongst the blue which speaks volumes about the age demographic for that particular garden. To this day, it worries me that George on the right looks from behind as if he is having a pee.

Mark is inclined to dismiss the scaling down of plants, rendering them more suitable for suburban gardens. Our garden is anything but suburban but, by all means, if your garden is smaller and you crave a suburban look, stack it with these compact versions of the original. He doesn’t often name-drop, my Mark, and usually only in private but he reminded me that he had discussed this very matter with the late Beth Chatto when we met her and she was in complete agreement with him. He felt vindicated.

The compact form of helianthus is a named variety, though I have mislaid the name.
The larger form of helianthus, rangy, brittle but with a grace and presence I prefer

I was thinking about this because the helianthus are in full bloom. One day they were just the promise of buds showing, the next day they were in flower – one of the last of the summer glories. The common sunflower is a member of the helianthus family. Until this year, I had only seen the compact form of helianthus bloom here and very showy it was. Then my gardening friend, Susan, gave me some of a large form which I put into the Court Garden. I had been waiting for it to bloom, worrying as some of the outer stems snapped off from their weight. It is not a tidy plant, but look at it. It is glorious in its late summer raiment of garish yellow. I love it at this time of the year. And I love the big, rangy form, brittle though it is, more than the tidy, compact form.

The carpet of blue asters which I refer to as ‘the Kippenberg aster’ because I will never commit its full name to memory

Don’t get me wrong; the scaled down version is very good and it has its place in the garden but the bigger, more open form delights me more. The lower version is knee-high on me, the taller one is shoulder height. So, too with the asters. I have used the compact little blue carpet aster which I think bears the full name of “Aster novi-belgii ‘Professor Anton Von Kippenberg’ “ – sounds like those extended names given to miniature horses. In fact I have two carpets of it in the Wave Garden where it is much loved by the bees and the butterflies. I say carpets because, at its best, the plants form a carpet of blue at about 30cm high.

We have a number of taller asters and this gentle cloud of small blue flowers is likely a species, or close to it, It is certainly less obedient but I like its grace and lightness in the garden.

I haven’t come to grips with the aster species (Michaelmas daisies) but Kippenberg is either a dwarf species selection or a dwarf hybrid, probably the latter. The other asters we grow are much taller and rangier – think chest or even shoulder height and I have used them more extensively because they blend well with other plants rather than being best as a mass carpet.

I have noticed with both the aster and the helianthus that the dwarf versions mass flower in one hit. All the blooms open at once, which is very showy but once they are over, that it is for the season. The rangier, taller versions set flowers down the stems which come out in sequence and so give a longer season in bloom.

We only have one dwarf dahlia and it is banished to an insignificant spot
We do, however, have plenty of these larger growing types and our preference is for single blooms

I am not sure about dwarf dahlias. Years ago we were given a little red one and while it is a tidy little plant and it blooms well, I do not find it charming. I much prefer its larger, less controlled relatives.

So too with alstroemerias. Yes, the big ones can be problematic. They need support and they are inclined to spread rather enthusiastically. Unless you dig out every last bit of their fleshy roots, they also stage a second coming. But I like them.

Very (very) compact. Barely ankle height.

I was given one of the compact new dwarf varieties. Okay, it flowers very well over an extended period and it is easy to divide and increase. But it is so stunted, to my eyes. So… tidy. I don’t dislike it so much that I have dug it out – yet – but I would never buy one.

It comes down to taste and garden style in the end. We have plenty of space. In smaller gardens, just beware of stacking too many of these tidy, compact, scaled-down versions in unless you like the traffic island look at home.

If you only have a small area and are looking for inspiration on how to create a garden that is less suburban and constrained in style, you may enjoy having a look at Christchurch gardener, Robyn Kilty’s site. She has managed to fill her small spaces with a garden that looks deceptively free, graceful and exuberant while not being wild or out of control at all. It takes more skill to garden in this style but it can be done in smaller spaces.

Look at all the buds still to open down the stems of the helianthus

8 thoughts on “The tall and the short of it

  1. chris webb

    Hi Abbie
    An interesting article which I enjoyed reading
    I agree 100% in regards to miniature alstromerias,Not my thing
    I bought a tall growing Helianthus from Joy Plants this week for late colour with my tall zinnias

  2. tonytomeo

    Exactly! Again!
    Bedding plants are even more ridiculous here in California where we should use less water (because of a nonexistent drought that is another story). When I was working, we commonly installed vast beds of annuals at the entrances to sites that were otherwise landscapes with (fake) natives to conserve water. There was more than one landscape that had bedding plants installed down an embankment below a parking lot or lawn, where they were only visible to those who ventured to the very edge and bothered to look over. A narrow border at the very edge would have been just as effective (but less lucrative).

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I hadn’t even thought about the water needs, given that we live with a climate where even public plantings don’t get watered but you are so right. They make even less sense where water is a scarce commodity.

  3. Paddy Tobin

    There was a small garden here in town which was always laid out perfectly in bedding plants. It had become interesting because the style is now no longer seen. It is also less seen in large public gardens as the cost of maintenance is nowadays considered too great…thankfully!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Well, interesting in the way that gardens planted in dwarf conifers planted in black plastic then covered with scoria are interesting as historical artefacts. Did they have standard fuchsias placed strategically as dot plants?

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