Tag Archives: herbaceous plantings

Summer gardens – the starting point

I garden so I have a lot of thinking time. And it struck me this week that the reason why good summer gardens are a rare occurrence in this country is because most New Zealanders start a garden by planting out the trees and shrubs, then the hedgings and edgings.  Herbaceous underplanting is more of an afterthought, not unlike adding cushions to a sofa. A filling in of remaining spaces.

If you want a good summer garden, start with the herbaceous planting and build from there. That was my moment of clarity.

New Zealand does great spring gardens. Magnolias, flowering cherries and crab-apples, soft foliaged Japanese maples, azaleas, rhododendrons and a host of other pretty trees and shrubs grow with a lushness and froth of bloom. You would be hard pressed to find prettier spring gardens and that takes in the length of the country.

Le Jardin Plume in Normandy

Northern New Zealand also does year-round, sub-tropical gardens very well. All the lush greenery of palms, cycads, bamboos and some lesser known small tropical trees with many ferns, clivias and bromeliads – albeit often sustained by irrigation or misting units over the hotter summer months.

Good summer gardens are a scarce event in this country and I think it is because we start with the trees and shrubs. There aren’t that many woody plants that flower in summer. Hydrangeas and jacaranda do but even so-called repeat-flowering roses peak in spring and then rather stagger on from there without ever achieving that mass, new season glory again. There is a very limited selection if you want summer-flowering woody plants.

New Zealanders generally want gardens that ‘have interest’ all year round. Some gardens boast of being a garden for all seasons when in practice they are spring gardens with spots of bloom and colour at other times.

Summer at Auckland Botanic Gardens

Classic twin herbaceous borders at RHS Wisley Gardens

I have seen impressive summer herbaceous plantings at Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens but those are large-scale, public plantings which are different to home gardens. They are probably worth a visit right now if you are in the area. I have also seen a fair number of classic, twin herbaceous borders, but mostly overseas. They are more commonly classic twin mixed borders in New Zealand, where the shrubs will dominate over time. It is not the herbaceous borders that have made me do a double take of envy. It is the more contemporary herbaceous plantings with fewer rules, considerably less maintenance but more colour control that inspired both of us. We won’t know if we have succeeded here for another year or two and then the proof of sustainability is if it still looks good a decade later, but I am optimistic at the early results.

Bury Court – superb planting combinations by Piet Oudolf

More Bury Court

So far, I can say that a good summer garden needs full sun with open conditions. My plantings started with the herbaceous plants and bulbs. These are plants that like well cultivated soil so it is easy for them to spread their roots. There are some trees and shrubs, but mostly used to give definition and form to the area without intruding into the herbaceous plantings and without the potential to cast shade where shade is not wanted. It is a very different style of planting and management to the rest of the garden. Once the principles and techniques are mastered, the fun comes with plant combinations.  Our conditions are so different that we need to trial plant material and work out our own combinations rather than working from overseas plant lists and examples. But we have learned from looking at some highly skilled combinations and the difference between cobbling together plants based primarily on flower colour and the genuine flair of knowledgeable gardeners is noticeable once you get your eye in. It is the detail that is possible in private gardens that often makes a huge difference.

Wildside in Devon

That is what we have travelled overseas to look at and to reinterpret for our conditions at home.

Our blank canvas three years ago with just the foundation shrubs and trees to define what will remain open space

The Chelsea chop comes to New Zealand

Lobelia, phlox, campanula, aster, pensetemon and coreopsis - all candidates for the Chelsea chop here

Lobelia, phlox, campanula, aster, pensetemon and coreopsis – all candidates for the Chelsea chop here

We are fairly dedicated viewers of the long-running series BBC Gardener’s World. Of late it has been on free to air Choice TV (interspersed with huge quantities of advertising) and sometimes it turns up on the Living Channel. There was a programme that screened here last November which demonstrated the technique of the Chelsea chop. I tried it in a small way and will be doing a great deal more of it this coming year.

The Chelsea chop came by its name, apparently, because at the end of the annual Chelsea Flower Show, many surplus plants were returned to nurseries. These plants in full growth, nearing or at their peak, were often cut back hard. Presumably some were plants forced into early growth to peak for the show and that early growth can be leggy. Plants responded with greatly increased vigour and put on extended floral displays with much bushier and more compact shapes.

Thus did the term the Chelsea chop enter the lexicon of English gardening.

Right, I thought. Chelsea is towards the end of May which translates to November in our hemisphere. I headed out with the snips to experiment. It seemed extreme because I was cutting off flower stems which were already well advanced. In some cases, I cut half and left half. I can now report that it works and I will be doing a great deal more of it next spring.

Important points to note are that we are talking about perennials here, not shrubs or bulbs. You need to understand your perennials because it only works on varieties which repeat flower. If you snip the ones which only flower once, such as irises or aquilegias, you won’t get any flowers at all.

I tried it on perennial lobelias, sedums, penstemons and asters.

The unchopped lobelias have shot up their flower spikes to over 1.5 metres and they have promptly fallen over in the welcome rain this week. The plants I Chelsea chopped are only a few days behind in their stage of flowering but have tidy, sturdy stems about 50cm high. They are much better in the garden borders.

Sedum, left to its own devices and falling apart already

Sedum, left to its own devices and falling apart already

Many readers will understand when I complain about the sedums which grow brilliantly from such tidy rosettes at ground level but when they reach a certain point of being top heavy, they fall apart. The Chelsea chopped ones are a more compact and holding together at this stage.

I cut the asters because I didn’t want them to flower until late summer and they were threatening to do it too early. They are just opening now, on lovely bushy mounds of plant, and should take us into autumn.

I see the Telegraph website advice is to do it with Campanula lactiflora (which can get a bit too tall and fall over if you don’t stake it), rudbeckias, echinaceas and heleniums as well. Their writer advises to prune back by a third. Essentially it is a more extreme version of pinching out plants at their early stages to encourage bushier growth.

Perennial gardening is our current learning project here. We have been working on it for a few years now and the more we learn, the more we realise there is to learn. New Zealanders don’t have a great record in perennial or herbaceous gardening. We lean more to bunging them all in together in mixed borders, or working from a very limited palette in large swathes of the same plant.

Sedum, cut back last November and holding itself well. Flowering is unaffected

Sedum, cut back last November and holding itself well. Flowering is unaffected

The mix and match approach to perennials is very English. They just do it so much better than anywhere else we have seen. Underpinning it (at its best) is a wealth of experience in successional flowering and good combinations. It is not just flower colour combinations, it is also compatible growth habits. This may be growing a naturally leggy plant (such as Campanula lactiflora) through a plant that is sturdy enough to support its leaning companion. It is making sure that a big voluptuous plant can’t flop all over a low growing, more retiring specimen. It is getting variations within the foliage as well as the flowers. It is getting the plant shapes right.

And it is not just peak flowering looking its best for three weeks of the year. It is understanding which combinations will take the garden through the season from spring to autumn, so as one finishes, another star takes centre stage. Judicious use of the Chelsea chop can extend the display, staggering flowering through the season.

There is a lot to it. No wonder people opt for mass plantings of the same plant. It is much easier. So too with the cottage garden which does not require the same level of skill. This type of intensive gardening is not to everybody’s taste but we are finding it interesting to learn. To be honest, I had not appreciated the skill that goes into putting in a really good planting of herbaceous material.

I will be doing my best impersonation of a garden hairdresser come this November. I will be out there snip, snip, snippin’ away.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

From meadows to motorway sidings with the classic border inbetween (part 4 English summer gardens)

Nobody does steps quite as well as Lutyens did

Nobody does steps quite as well as Lutyens did

Note: this follows on from the earlier column: English Summer Gardens – part 3.

I wrote two weeks ago about the English summer garden being a continuum stretching from natural meadows through to plantings on the sides of motorways or NZ traffic islands. I was gently drifting my way along this journey until I reached my word limit around the classic English country garden as exemplified by Penelope Hobhouse and the late Rosemary Verey. I had to stop there because suddenly there is a great big punctuation point with the late Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter.

Great Dixter can be controversial. Mark stood in the garden and commented that it was a bit like an ongoing negotiation with nature. At its best, it is gifted and has clearly had an enormous influence on the direction taken in many New Zealand gardens. In the middle it can be somewhat serendipitous, but there are parts where there is a suspicion of the emperor’s new clothes. As a garden it sits between the meadow gardening–wildflower end of the spectrum which relies on a great deal of self seeding (and good chance) and the controlled Edwardian arts and crafts style synonymous with Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll. Christopher Lloyd experimented all his life but his legacy to modern gardening is arguably the mixed border (using shrubs and clumping perennials in tandem and brave colour combinations) and the managed meadow. In New Zealand, we seized on the mixed border as if it was our own but alas it is not often carried out with the panache of Christo Lloyd and is frequently rather dull.

Historically Lutyens and Jekyll pre-dated Christo Lloyd and in fact Lutyens redesigned Great Dixter for the Lloyd parents. But on my continuum, they are more to the ordered and managed side. We travelled in part to see their legacy. Famous examples are Sissinghurst and Hestercomb but we also visited lesser known gardens. The spirit of the Lutyens-Jekyll style was formal landscaping by Lutyens in the Arts and Crafts mode (confined and defined spaces of the garden room type), softened by sweeping plantings designed by Jekyll. If you imagine beautiful stone work, clipped hedging, masses of blue delphiniums, extravagant fluffy pink peonies, pink and white roses and drifts of underplanting such as lambs’ ears (stachys), you will be on the right wavelength. It is very pretty although the borders and beds could be a bit on the narrow and busy side and it can get a little formulaic when you see a number of such gardens in a row. I suspect that it may be a little dated now. Certainly the very narrow borders worried me and I would want to rip them out. Keep the trademark Lutyens rounded stone steps, though. Nobody does steps like Lutyens.

Fortunately it was towards the end of our trip that we ended up at Wisley because there we saw a range of garden styles which gave us the framework to make sense of what we had seen.

Gifted and unusual colour combinations at Hyde Hall

Gifted and unusual colour combinations at Hyde Hall

Cue in the classic long border. Yes Great Dixter has one but Wisley sets the standard. Hyde Hall has a shorter long border divided into colour segments. Lots of gardens have the long border. At its Wisley splendour, it is two parallel borders with a wide grassy path between and we are talking a hundred and thirty metres long, each, and (here is the rub for many home gardeners) six metres wide. Beth Chatto’s garden is a whole series of freeform borders which curve and flow but are still following the principles of the long border. Such borders are often planted on terrain contoured to give extra height at the back. Because they froth out at the front (alchemilla mollis is a great favourite to achieve this effect and seems to be regarded as colour neutral), there is often a boundary of wide pavers defining the edge. This stops the frothing from killing the grass. Generally plants are layered from tallest at the back to lowest at the front and the crux of this type of planting is combinations of plant foliage and flower throughout the season. There is no mass planting. Many plants will need staking and deadheading and it is all extremely labour intensive. You need plenty of space for this type of voluptuous display.

For us, this is the zenith of summer gardening. On the days we visited, we ranked Beth Chatto top of the list for plant combinations and quality management of this intensive style of gardening, Hyde Hall top in genuinely original colour and flower combinations and Wisley all round top in the total package of scale, design, plant combinations and management.

But, Wisley does not stop at the long borders. Dutch designer Piet Oudolf has moved herbaceous planting on a few steps and, in front of the spectacular new glasshouse, Tom Stuart-Smith has taken it further. There is an element of modern pragmatism and indeed we were told that the new borders only require a third of the input of the traditional long borders and that is a huge difference. The Oudolf borders have attracted both praise and criticism. They are a great deal more controlled. The plant palette is restricted and most of the plants chosen do not require staking (or, I think, regular dead heading) and they are pretty much of a standard height. But it is not mass planting and the skill of striking plant combinations remains to the fore. Oudolf has worked with parallel borders again but used different plant combos in rivers flowing across, more or less in diagonal lines when viewed from above. Each river is comprised of three or four different types of plants.

Tom Stuart Smith has further refined the Oudolf technique, bringing it together with the sweeps of colour first espoused by Gertrude Jekyll and the prairie meadow concept currently in vogue to give grand sweeps of herbaceous plantings for the larger canvas. Much of the detail and complexity of the long borders has now gone, as has the need for intensive maintenance. But plantsmanship and design lifts it well above utility mass planting and while it may not appeal for smaller scale domestic gardens, it is a modern and more practical approach for public plantings.

So how do we end up at the traffic islands filled with tussock or the motorway sidings of utility clumpy plants? Take the simpler blocks of colour planting done by Tom Stuart-Smith. Eliminate any plants that are pink flowered (not fashionable), anything that is deciduous (need foliage 12 months of the year), anything that is grown more for its flowers than its foliage, anything that requires more than a very occasional clean up. You are left with reliable, utility, evergreen clumping perennials which in recent years have become the repertoire of many landscapers for mass plantings – the liriopes, mondo grass, ligularia type of plant. Now reduce the range further. Take out any plants which are less than 30cm high, any plants which require good soil conditions or shelter, any plants which look sufficiently desirable to be stolen, and any plants which are not available dirt cheap and preferably from a native plant supplier or prison nursery. You are left with mostly tough grassy type plants which on their own are as dull as ditchwater. It is the end of the road.