I spent a good four or maybe five days taking this unsuccessful garden bed apart. It was first planted about 14 years ago and the original idea was that it continue the theme of the driveway border – mixed shrubs with predominantly hellebores as underplanting. It has never thrived and over the years, its treatment has followed a pattern that many will recognise – random attempts to spark it up that have made it messier and more disjointed.
I lifted everything except the Queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana), an attractive Viburnum sargentii ‘Onondaga’ and Camellia minutiflora. The location is too sunny for the hellebores and they were not thriving, so I planted them elsewhere. And I found why the plants at one end had never thrived. I could only get the spade half way in before I hit what might as well be bedrock. It was the old driveway with very heavily compacted road metal. I recalled that Mark had got the nursery staff to plant that bed when it first went in. Now, our nursery staff were whizzybang at speed-potting plants and doing the hard graft of keeping a production nursery going but gardeners, they were not. I am guessing they chiselled holes just large enough to fit the plants in. No wonder so many failed to thrive. There was nowhere for them to get their roots down.
I took out any larger stones and rocks I could get out, dug the soil and incorporated compost at a rate of a small barrow-load per square metre. There is still not a great depth of soil but what is there should be better and I won’t try growing any more deeper-rooted plants at that end. When it came to choosing what to replant, I fell back on my mixed border philosophy. When there is a mixture of shrubs in the upper layer, it is better to choose some uniformity in the ground cover layer. The opposite is also true: where there is uniformity in the upper layer of shrubs and trees, it is more interesting to use a mixture of plants at the ground level. It may be a sweeping statement (well, it is) to say that only landscapers, non-gardeners and novices go for regimented simplicity of matching upper layer plants and a single choice ground cover – tidy, visually effective in the immediate stage but essentially dull.
Given the feature shrubs and palm are interesting in their own right and the presence of assorted seasonal bulbs, I chose to replant at ground level with the reliable, long flowering blue stokesia which thrives with us, a ground-hugging blue campanula and two forms of our native brown carex grass. The upright form is Carex buchananii , I think, but I am not sure what the fountaining version of it is called. They are to form the carpet. I like the combination of blue and the mid-brown carex. Then I mulched it all. Now all it has to do is to grow.
It is quite gratifying to see how much the grass garden has grown since I planted it at the end of May. I am hoping that it will have closed up quite a bit by the time autumn comes. There have only been a small number of deaths amongst the plants – all were Astelia chathamica and fortunately, I have more plants to hand that I can move to the gaps. The advice from colder climates is not to move perennials in winter because they are not growing and the risk is that the roots will rot out over winter. With our mild winters, this advice does not generally apply here but that may be the case with the astelia. The divisions all had roots when they went in but it may be that some did indeed just rot out before they came back into growth in spring.
My main task in this new garden is staying on top of the weeds. Considering it is new ground, there is not a big weed problem at all and I am determined to keep it that way as it gets established. Weeds getting a hold amongst the fibrous roots systems of perennials and grasses can be a maintenance nightmare. It is better by far to keep them out from the start, as far as humanly possible. Because it is all ground that has been freshly dug this year, it is easy to hand pull those pesky weeds that do try and make an appearance.
Even more rewarding is to see the caterpillar garden hitting its stride – nicely filled out, floriferous already, weed-free and colour-toned as I want it. It has taken about eighteen months to get it to this stage. Gardening with perennials is very different to gardening with trees and shrubs. As long as you have plenty of divisions and the ground is well-prepared, the plants can rocket away and fill spaces quickly.
However, no perennial can compete with the sheer magnificence and stature of the nuttallii rhododendrons that flower for us at this time of the year. These are not often commercially available – at least not the sino nuttallii species. You may sometimes find some of the hybrids around that are nuttallii crossed with lindleyi, sometimes with the addition of dalhousiae. If you find ‘White Waves’ on offer in New Zealand, it is proving to be one of the best of the hybrids we grow – reliable and a good survivor as well as very showy indeed. “Mi Amor’ is also available for sale. The hybrids have smaller leaves than the nuttallii species and are not all as strongly scented but you may just have to take what you can find if you want to try growing these choice rhododendrons.