Tag Archives: Ligularia reniformis

Low(ish) maintenance shade gardening

016 (2)It is clivia season here though it may not be clivia season for those who live in colder areas. Despite being much favoured by modern landscapers, these plants do not like more than a light touch of frost at most.

There are reasons why clivias are loved by landscapers. Of all the options for shady areas, they must be one of the most tolerant, forgiving and easy-care there is. For the better part of the year, they sit as a tidy clump of strappy foliage requiring little or no attention and when they flower in spring, the showy blooms last for many weeks. Plants can be left for years requiring no attention.

I looked at a photo of a property where the owners had used a reputable landscaper and the shady side of the house consisted of an access path with two narrow borders either side bounded by a solid fence. Both borders had been planted with clivias in single file, surrounded by bark chip as mulch. It is a very tidy, utility solution which, if the fence and path are smart, can even look stylish. If you like that sort of look.

Everything looks better with ferns, in my opinion. Ligularia reniformis.

Everything looks better with ferns, in my opinion. Ligularia reniformis.

Clivias are not a great choice for inland areas unless you are confident that you are frost free, which most of Hamilton and the Waikato won’t be. Sometimes such borders are beneath the eaves of the house and that will afford protection. But you will often see the same look achieved with, maybe, the tractor seat ligularia (L. reniformis), Ligularia ‘Desdemona’ or a similarly reliable, evergreen perennial.

It will come as no surprise to regular readers that it is not a look I favour, personally. While I can see the logic to keeping clean, crisp lines and some degree of simplicity, I just think it would look so much more interesting with the introduction of another one or two types of plants. They don’t have to be expensive or choice plants but what they add is textural interest, variation in height and sometimes the bonus of seasonal flowers.

Most gardens have a shaded area – at least that narrow side that runs alongside the bathroom and laundry and is on the other side from the sunny living areas. If it is a little-used area which is primarily access and has no house windows that look out to it, then it hardly warrants great expenditure of either money or ongoing effort. But a small amount of effort can make it so much more attractive and the beauty of shade gardening is that it tends to be much lower maintenance.

left to right: Helleborus x sternii, Francoa ramosa, pulmonaria, arthropodium (renga renga), phlomis, random fern and mondo grass - all cheap, reliable options for low maintenance shade gardening

left to right: Helleborus x sternii, Francoa ramosa, pulmonaria, arthropodium (renga renga), phlomis, random fern and mondo grass – all cheap, reliable options for low maintenance shade gardening

I headed out to the garden to look for options to add interest to a shade garden. There are plenty to choose from – just don’t choose them all if you want a clean look. Keep it to a maximum of three. Ferns. Pretty much everything looks better with ferns in the shade. They add a lightness of texture and detail of leaf to solid plants like clivias or ligularias and it is that contrast that can add interest.

Renga renga lilies are happy in more shaded areas and have the bonus of spring flowers. We have a lot of success with phlomis (P. russeliana or Turkish sage) with its yellow tiered flowers in summer. Similarly, the bridal wreath flower – particularly Francoa ramosa – is easy and obliging with summer flowers. The unattractively named lungworts or pulmonaria family combine very well with bigger, chunkier foliaged plants and add detail with their gentle variegation. Even common old mondo grass, be it black or green, can add a different texture. Helleborus x sternii is a reliable shade option with lime green flowers in winter.

If you keep to evergreen perennials which don’t require much more than an annual clean-up and which can be kept for several years without having to dig and divide them, you can make a low maintenance shade garden. Take care to plant them well in soil you have dug over, add plenty of humus or compost, mulch after planting and generally they can look after themselves.

It does not have to be expensive or difficult. If you can get simple combinations that are compatible, look good together, are happy in the conditions and meet the requirements of the gardener, it is a great deal more interesting than looking at a single plant variety en masse.

But that is the voice of a gardener, not that of a landscaper.

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

Reviewing our mixed borders

The Ligularia reniformis were gratifyingly responsive to being dug and divided

The Ligularia reniformis were gratifyingly responsive to being dug and divided

Because I garden extensively, I have a lot of thinking time. Not for me the IPod and little headphones to fill the solitary quietness. I prefer to hear the birds and be aware of all my surroundings while I talk to myself and ponder.

My thinking this week has been coloured by a book I am reading. You will have to wait a little longer for the full discourse on “The Bad Tempered Gardener” by Anne Wareham. I am still digesting the contents but it has certainly focussed my attention on some of my least favourite areas of our garden. I had figured that in one area, the fact that I didn’t enjoy gardening it at all was an indication that all was not well there.

What got me thinking was the oft repeated message in the book that it was better to keep to a more limited plant selection and to shun the bits and bobs effect of one of this and one of that. This particular viewpoint is so much at odds with a great deal that I have written that it has taken some reconciling. I have often bemoaned the boring and limited planting schemes of so many New Zealand gardens and the simple fact is that neither Mark nor I have any interest at all in visiting a garden with a totally restrained use of a very limited number of different plants. Similarly, I have been critical of the ever diminishing range of plants on offer to the home gardener as nurseries continue to refine their production. To us, a garden that is all form and no plant interest is boring. To the author of this book, a garden that is all plant interest and no form is just as bad.

As always, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. And that was what led me to A Revelation. The messy borders and beds I dislike maintaining and sometimes find myself walking past with eyes averted, are frankly messy beds with too many bits and bobs at ground level. The underplanting, in other words. Too often there has been a gap so I have tucked something in to fill the space – and ain’t that the way many of us garden? And all these areas are mixed borders.

The combination of Siberian iris and Bergenia ciliata works very well

The combination of Siberian iris and Bergenia ciliata works very well

Mixed borders are by far the most common method of gardening – planting woody shrubs, maybe trees, and underplanting with herbaceous material and bulbs. I am not a huge fan of this style of gardening, though we have plenty of examples here. They are probably the least successful areas of our garden. But the remedy, I think, lies in revamping that bottom layer of mostly herbaceous material and getting more unity and harmony in managing the combinations.

Not carpet bedding. It is only a short step up the social scale from bedding plants on roundabouts to carpet bedding nepeta (catmint) beneath your roses, or swathes of uninterrupted mondo grass around your topiaried bay trees. It is just as utility and unimaginative, merely in better taste than marigolds.

That is where my thinking, coming from the other end of the spectrum to the author, met up with hers. The magic is in the plant combinations. If you are going to narrow your plant selection, it matters a great deal more which ones you choose and how you put them together.

I am revisiting my intense dislike of mass plantings. I realise now that my out of hand dismissal had much to do with all those Bright Young Landscapers who dominated the garden scene in this country in the decade through to the global financial downturn. Often with big budgets and other people’s gardens, they rejected plantsmanship in favour of form. Lacking any technical knowledge of plants themselves, or indeed any interest in plants beyond their role as soft furnishings, they claimed superior status as they used some of the dullest plants on earth to create gardens which ideally looked the same for twelve months of the year.

The hallmark of good gardens, in my opinion, is the ability to combine both form and detail, which involves thoughtful and original plant combinations. They don’t all have to be wildly unusual plants. One of my successful recent efforts was a cold corner where I used Bergenia ciliata (that is the one with big hairy leaves and pink and white flowers in spring) with deep blue siberian irises. It is unusually restrained for me, but the combination of the narrow upright leaves of the iris and the large but low foliage of the bergenia looks good even without flowers. I hasten to add, I only have about six square metres of this planting. Had I done the entire length of the border the same, it would have been over forty square metres and that I would have found extremely dull.

The same principle of contrast applies to an area where I dug and divided Ligularia reniformis (that is the enormously popular tractor seat ligularia). It was so grateful it romped away and stands large, lush and over a metre tall. With a backdrop of a common plectranthus which has pretty lilac flowers at this time and interplanted with the narrow, upright neomarica, it is simple but pleasing to the eye.

Now my mind is focussed on the messy borders that don’t work. I am pretty sure that if I refine the bottom layer of plantings, that will set off the upper layers. I can’t wait to start.

First up for a revamp

First up for a revamp

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

Tried and True: Ligularia reniformis

  • img_6451* Impressive in size and lush appearance.
    * Evergreen.
    * Looks tropical but can withstand light frost and cool winters.
    * Widely available for sale.

 In this country, as in Australia, we all know this plant as the tractor seat ligularia, which says quite a bit about our rural origins. I guess the leaves could be said to resemble a traditional tractor seat in shape and when growing strongly, getting pretty close in size. We have almost made this plant our own in New Zealand and have certainly pushed the boundaries of where it is grown – it is technically sub tropical and from East Asia. In warm areas, it gets considerably larger but even in cooler areas with a bit of frost, it makes an impressive clump a metre across and a metre high over time. It will need more protected conditions where frosts are more frequent but it is happy in high shade and on woodland margins. Typical of any perennial, it likes rich, well cultivated soil with plenty of humus and good moisture levels. While not immune to the munching ways of slugs and snails, it is nowhere near as tasty as hostas and we have never worried about pests or diseases on our plants. It is grown for its foliage and if you have the space for a large and impressive plant with large and impressive leaves (think giant water lily pads), it is a good addition and easy to contrast with a whole range of other plants. Reniformis is widely available in garden centres.