Tag Archives: New Perennials Movement

To dead head or not to dead head, that is the question

Phlomis and Stipa tenuissima in the morning light of autumn

I have never done so much dead heading in my life before. Not that I mind it, you understand, more that I am surprised to find it becoming part of my routine. The need was not anticipated. But neither have we ever had extensive areas of summer perennials before. This week, I achieved what was a milestone for me – the completion of the revamped Iolanthe Garden as a perennial meadow (I use the word ‘meadow’ loosely, here.) That gives us close to an acre (0.4 hectare) of new summer gardens finished.

It has been heavily influenced by the New Perennials movement, led by its uncrowned monarch, Dutch designer, plantsman and gardener, Piet Oudolf. Anything and everything you read about this modern approach to perennial gardening will refer to its lower maintenance requirements and leaving the plants and all the seed heads to stand well into winter, that there is beauty in that black and brown decay of autumn and winter until everything is cut down to the ground – usually in February, so very late northern winter. Besides, all those seed heads feed the birds and save them from starving when food supplies are desperately short. Oudolf has coined the term ‘fifth season’ to describe that period in late autumn when low light levels, frost, dew and sometimes snow light the blackened tips of plants to make them sparkle. There are many beautiful photographs on line capturing this phenomenon.

You can have too much of a good thing – Verbena bonariensis and fennel

It is different in New Zealand. Boy is it different. Only the coldest parts of the country have that winter hiatus. Most of us have flowers and seasonal interest all year round. A large proportion of the plants we use are evergreen so never die down to ground level. There is food for the birds all year round and they are not in danger of starving. Besides, most of those seed and grain eating birds are the introduced ones (sparrows!). Our native birds tend to favour fruit or partaking of nectar. Our light levels don’t drop in winter. A midwinter’s day can be as clear and bright as midsummer.

And we have a problem with garden escapes becoming weeds. That is the big issue that has me out there dead heading. Much and all as I love Verbena bonariensis, I don’t want mountains of it everywhere. The same goes for crocosmia be it yellow, orange or red, kniphofia (red hot pokers), some of the asters, tigridia (jockey caps), eryngium, dietes, fennel, nicotiana, verbascums and quite a few other plants we are growing. Even Gloriosa superba sets so much seed it is threatening to become a weed. There is nothing for it but to get out there with my snips and bucket to reduce the seed heads.

Amaranthus caudatus – not unwelcome in this situation but a surprise arrival in the compost

There is a slight problem with disposing of the seed heads. Even though we make hot compost, too many seeds come out the other end of the process and live to germinate and grow another day in another place around the garden. This unexpected display of amaranthus arrived in the compost I spread in this area. I have learned my lesson. Now I stow the seed heads in deep shade on the wilder margins of the property where few will germinate because they don’t see the sun.

A sampling of seeds that need removing. I contemplating setting it up as one of those quizzes for bored readers to identify but I would rather be out gardening. Top left tigridia and fennel, bottom left nicotiana, eryngium and dietes, centre crocosmia, top left aster, bottom right Lilium formasanu,. kniphofia and Verbena bonariensis.

The skills come in knowing which plants need total removal of seed heads (kniphofia and tigridias, for example), which plants need the removal of most seed heads to restrict their self-seeding (such as eryngiums, fennel, crocosmia, verbascums and Verbena bonariensis) and which plants don’t need to be dead headed because they are either welcome to seed down (I am not sure than I will ever have too many echinaceas) or because they don’t seem to cause a seeding problem (phlomis and the grasses). Then there are a few plants that I will dead head because that encourages them to flower again (roses, though I don’t grow many of those these days, and some of the daisies).

There is no substitution for observation and experience. We can not just take gardening practices from other climates and assume it will be the same here. If I have another 20 years, I may be able to come up with plant lists that are specifically designed for our conditions. For anyone thinking that maybe it would be better to concentrate on using our native plants, consider the fact that most of our sunny perennials are alpine. In our lowland conditions, native perennials are shade loving foliage plants with a heavy emphasis on ferns.

I want some eryngiums to self seed but not all of them

Two footnotes: the acclaimed film about Piet Oudolf, called ‘Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf’ is available free to stream this weekend only. We plan on watching it this evening, as long as I can work out again how to get Chromecast working. Where is a teenager or young person when you need one? It is being streamed from https://www.hauserwirth.com/?fbclid=IwAR2YXqr5-VDT2TwThnzWxVF2lzS4HXMVCV-l9166HQsVlTqqktF-QYsMTm4

And we are opening the garden and unveiling the new summer gardens for ten days this spring during the annual Taranaki Garden Festival, October 30 to November 8. As part of that, I am considering offering workshops on new directions with sunny perennials and managing meadows in our climate. Numbers will be strictly limited so look for details when the programme comes out.

May your lockdowns go well, or at least harmoniously. The end is in sight for us in NZ, with the strong possibility that we can eliminate the virus and return to some sort of Covid-free normality – as long as our border stays closed. Just don’t try injecting, drinking or otherwise consuming disinfectant – you may then be Covid-free but actual scientists tell us you will also be dead.

Reinterpreting inspiration. The new garden progresses.

The resident cat at Bury Court in 2014. We plan to visit this garden again next month.

I have been planting what I loosely refer to as “my grass garden”. I wrote about this back in February and progress is being made. I have been asked whether this garden has been planned on paper and for a while I felt somewhat shamefaced to admit that it has not. Now I just think experience and instinct will serve me better than a paper plan. Trained garden designers learn to plan on paper and good ones know how to relate open space and proportions to paper measurements. Amateurs do graph paper gardens and then, when religiously followed outside even though proportions don’t translate well, these remain forever looking like graph paper gardens. I have seen this mistake made in other people’s gardens.

This is part of a much larger area that we are gently bringing in to an entirely new garden and Mark did draw up the entire space to get the proportions right for the separate sections. He also staked out the area with bamboo sticks to define the spaces visually before any earth-moving and planting started. The first plants to go in were the structural ones which will give a formal backbone – Fairy Magnolia White in two rows to be pleached in due course, underplanted with Camellia Fairy Blush to be clipped tightly as a hedge. String lines were used to make sure that this formal green structure was straight.

Work starts. A man with a rotary hoe can be a wonderful thing.

My patch is like passage-way to the side of all this, albeit a passage-way in full sun that is about 10 metres wide by 30 metres long; at around 300sqm it is larger than some urban dwellers get in life.  The idea of a “grass garden” has somewhat morphed into “grasses and other plants with long, narrow foliage and spear-shaped foliage”. The plant palette is broadening substantially as I go but still restrained overall, by our standards. “You are not copying the Bury Court garden, are you?” asked friend and colleague, designer Tony Murrell. Well, no.

The grass garden at Bury Court

The hallmark of Bury Court was the sharp edged, geometric design filled with billowing grasses – a signature style of English designer Christopher Bradley-Hole. No hard-edged design in mine. We want even the path to meander informally without sharp definition.

From memory, Bury Court’s garden is fully deciduous in that English and Northern European style. We just don’t do fully deciduous gardens in New Zealand. Our climate is milder but also our native flora is almost 100% evergreen so we think in terms of foliage and flowers all year round. My ratio is probably closer to 60% evergreen and 40% deciduous.

Not exactly Bury Court but planting has started

Bury Court’s garden was, I am guessing, big budget. What we lack in budget, we have, I hope, made up for in sustained thought and discussion over a fairly long period of time, along with the trialling and analysis of most of the plant material. At the back of my mind, I keep repeating some of the points made by Tim Richardson in the book I reviewed recently. “Immersive, not pictorial”, I say to myself. These are not twin herbaceous borders. They are an antipodean interpretation of the New Perennials movement and I chant like a mantra the words ‘rhythm’, ‘drifts’, ‘billowing’, ‘repeats and echoes’. It is a whole new approach to composing with plants for me.

Because we are not buying in the plants but relocating them from other areas in the garden and from small accumulations in the nursery, it is more work digging and dividing than simply knocking out of pots. But I am also starting with larger plants and with the luxury of plenty of plant material. I repeat again, a lot of thought has gone into the plants to be used – a few years of thought and observation.

We have never seen gardening as instant gratification and there is much work to be done in this new area before we are ready to share it in a few – or maybe several – years’ time.

Radio Live has now set up a separate site with Tony Murrell’s Home and Garden Show audio and photos so it is a whole lot easier to find than before. Last Sunday, Tony and I were talking about hybrids and species. Coming up this Sunday, we are discussing cottage gardening. I tell you, I leap down the stairs as my alarm rings 6.23am, make myself a cup of tea and am sitting wide awake and firing on all cylinders for when the phone rings at about 6.32. These are relatively extended discussions we have and it takes quite a bit of combined concentration, especially at that hour of the morning. For me it is a new skill to be focusing my mental energy on a radio discussion rather than on writing – often the ideas are similar but the process and skills in communicating them are very different. It is probably why I have not been writing as much recently.

Finally and entirely unrelated, I give you flowers for no reason except to share the pleasure. It is tree dahlia season again.

February in the garden

Giant allimns at Mount St John in Yorkshire

Giant allimns at Mount St John in Yorkshire

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.

Geraniums, linaria and one of the white umbelliferous plants of the Queen Anne's Lace type at RHS Wisley Garden

Geraniums, linaria and one of the white umbelliferous plants of the Queen Anne’s Lace type at RHS Wisley Garden

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.

Baptisia and buddleia in the plantings designed by Penelope Hobhouse at Tintinhull, Somerset

Baptisia and buddleia in the plantings designed by Penelope Hobhouse at Tintinhull, Somerset

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.

068 - CopyFirst published in the February issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission. 

Wildside – the new naturalism in gardening

???????????????????????????????1) I want to try and capture the magic of a particular garden in a few words and photos. This is Wildside in North Devon and was quite simply one of the most exciting modern gardens we have seen. It is not that we will try and re-create it at home, but we found it interesting, stimulating and inspirational in many ways. It has been about 10 years in the making to this point.

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????2) The creator, Keith Wiley (and let us acknowledge the active assistance from his partner, Ros) has taken a 4 acre (1.6ha) flat field and created a landscape. When he started, it looked identical to this neighbouring field. All the top soil was removed and substrata redistributed to create ponds, canyons, shallow valleys and hills. At this stage, it is still possible to see this process in the upper garden which has yet to be planted. Once shaped, Keith returned the top soil in varying depths, depending on what plants he planned to grow in each area.

???????????????????????????????3) The interaction between the created landforms and the plants are the key components of this garden. When we visited, the upper garden was dominated by oranges, golds, yellows and whites. We would love to have been able to return a few weeks later because we could see that the dominant colour was going to change to blue and it would have looked very different. It takes exceptional plant skill to be able to get that transition and successional planting across seasons, let alone within the same season.

???????????????????????????????4) These are dierama, commonly called Angel’s fishing rods, one of the few corms and bulbs that were in flower in midsummer but this was a garden which was rich in drifts of bulbs – another layer of plant interest and a means of ensuring colour and detail when most perennials are either dormant or resting. In keeping with the modern perennials movement, there were grasses used but in moderation. Plants were in good sized clumps and often in drifts, but always in combinations, not chunky blocks standing in their own right as seen in many modern gardens.

???????????????????????????????5) There is very little hard landscaping and very little ornamentation. There may have been one small lawn, from memory, but this is a garden of plants and flowers. Some may consider the lack of formality and structure to be a shortcoming, certainly in a country with a long history of landscaped gardens full of permanent features. We saw a garden that pushed the boundaries of the prairie style and New Perennials movement, combined with the creation of sustainable ecosystems, underpinned by exceptional plantsmanship.

???????????????????????????????6) We travelled a long way to visit Wildside which is on the edge of Dartmoor, near Yelverton, and we would gladly travel a long way to see it again. However, it is currently closed to the public and it is uncertain when it will reopen. The owner told us that he needed to get the house built. After a decade of living in temporary quarters while giving priority to the garden, they had reached the point where the house had become a priority.

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

Prologue
???????????????????????????????Yes, a prologue. We first became aware of Keith Wiley’s style when we visited The Garden House in 2009 – the garden of the late Lionel Fortescue which Keith managed for many years. True, he had no hand in the first sight to gladden our eyes. As we went to enter the garden, lo and behold there was Mark’s very own Magnolia Felix Jury in prime position. To say we felt proud would be an understatement.
DSC00911 (Small)
But our enduring memory of The Garden House is the delightful Quarry Garden – which I wrote about at the time. We were also very taken by some of the wildflower areas and the naturalistic style. It was only after we had moved on from the area that we found out that this was Keith Wiley’s work and that he had branched out on his own garden a mere kilometer or two down the road. Had we known at the time, we would have taken our chances on seeing if we could have a look at his new project. It took us five years to get back and it exceeded all our expectations.

Grasses, anyone?

 These are New Zealand grasses, seen at their best in a North Devon garden, Wildside


These are New Zealand grasses, seen at their best in a North Devon garden, Wildside

Grasses. There is nothing new about using grasses in the ornamental garden. So why are they being hailed as one of the hallmarks of the New Perennials Movement? It is how they are used, not what is used and that derives from the whole prairie and meadow inspirations which underpin the new styles of freer planting.

It is not without its pitfalls, NABS even. That is the Not Another Bloody Stipa.

Stipa gigantea looks ethereal seen here with phlomis but it looks equally ethereal in everybody else's garden

Stipa gigantea looks ethereal seen here with phlomis but it looks equally ethereal in everybody else’s garden

Stipas are beautiful, feathery grasses. It is just that they seem to be in every single UK garden, particularly Stipa gigantea, also known as giant feather grass (it is large with ethereal golden spires of seed heads) and Stipa tenuissima which is soft with shimmering ripples in the lightest of breezes. The latter is often called Mexican feather grass and has now been reclassified as a nassella, not a stipa. It is a bit of a shame that it is already on the Weedbusters website in this country as a pest.

The shimmering Stipa tenuissima, seen here with alliums, but not a good choice for New Zealand where it has already been determined an invasive variety

The shimmering Stipa tenuissima, seen here with alliums, but not a good choice for New Zealand where it has already been determined an invasive variety

The good news is that grasses are easily substituted and there are many excellent options which are not dangerously invasive. Some are even native to this country. We saw one garden making extensive use of a New Zealand chionocloa. The English have a love affair with Argentine pampas grass. Both Cortaderia selloana and jubata are on our banned list but we have a ready substitute in our native toe toe.

We are guilty of being a bit sniffy about grasses generally in the past. We put this down to the over-use of our native varieties in particularly stodgy and unimaginative amenity plantings from the 1980s onwards. What we learned is that it is how they are used that makes all the difference. Let them get some size and they add the dimension of movement to a garden in all but dead calm conditions. They also provide a superb foil to other plants, particularly larger flowering bulbs, annuals or perennials.

Rivers of a grass at Scampston - a little too conceptual for our gardening taste

Rivers of a grass at Scampston – a little too conceptual for our gardening taste

Alas we did not think to start counting until quite late in our trip but I can tell you that the ratio of flowering perennials to grasses in the Oudolf river borders at Wisley was 3 to 1. However the Oudolf rivers of grass at Scampston were 0 to 1. That is to say there was only the one grass used and no perennials at all. We didn’t like it. It was contrived – part way between temporary show garden and motorway siding. A conceptual garden, perhaps? In contrast, the elegant grass garden at Bury Court was closer to a 1 to 8 ratio. The complexity of multiple different grasses and a scattering of flowering perennials gave much more visual interest and variation with movement.

Mostly we saw bold grasses of some size, integrated with other perennials in sunny conditions. Problems come when similar grasses are used in all herbaceous plantings. It can make them look very similar, as we realised after looking at a number of gardens. There is a school of thought that this is good because it unifies a garden but we have never subscribed to that belief. We will be choosing to keep the use of mixed grasses and perennials to one garden only, not repeated throughout. I also think the 3 to 1 ratio is quite low. We are more likely to go for maybe 5 flowering plants to each clump of a decorative grass. But then we prefer more detailed plantings.

Nowhere, dear reader, did we see tidy little grasses being used as tidy little edgings. I will be happy to see New Zealanders move on from the thinking that a row of tidy mondo grass, blue festuca or liriope will define a border nicely. I am afraid it will just make your garden look suburban and straitjacketed.

Mark, standing in the elegant grass garden at Bury Court

Mark, standing in the elegant grass garden at Bury Court

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