Tag Archives: plant combinations

Novice gardening

In a city far, far away. Well. four hours’ drive away, to be precise

“The horror! The horror!”

Kurtz’s final words in Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad.

I use these words flippantly and facetiously. I studied the works of Joseph Conrad back – way, way back – when I did Honours in English Literature and the topic of my dissertation was three of his works, including Heart of Darkness. But I found myself muttering ‘the horror! The horror!’ when I beheld this exercise in section maintenance this week.

I only share it with readers because I took these photos in a city four hours drive from here and do not think the people responsible will ever read my gardening pages on line. I would not want to hurt their feelings because they have at least tried. Occasionally, a sight such as this reminds me of just how much I have learned about gardens and design in my life.

Starting with the public frontage (or maybe sideage), we have the sight of weed mat. I am sure I have railed against weed mat in domestic situations before. It is a commercial product for a commercial application – plant nurseries – and it has zero aesthetic appeal. All that can be said for it is that it is marginally better than the earlier habit of laying heavy duty black plastic which soured the soil over time. Weed mat is permeable so it allows moisture through. The soil beneath will compact over time, but it won’t become dead soil, bereft of all microbial and insect activity. It possibly has some application to use as a weed barrier that is then covered (entirely, please, entirely so that none is in view) with some pebble or lime chip but that means it can only be used on a flat surface. What could they have done? It was a rough slope so unsuitable for grass. I would be wanting to stain the fence dark and maybe plant the area solidly in something like mondo grass, perhaps with some marguerite daisies to bring pleasure to passers-by.

It was the borders inside that made me smile. They were recently planted and into heavy soil. One of this and one of that, randomly distributed. A lavender, a gerbera, a bromeliad, a patio rose, a cineraria, a kale, a paper daisy, a polyanthus and much, much more. In singles, bar the five clivias. I immediately conjured up the mental vision of this couple heading to the garden centre, determined to plant up the beds. They must have wheeled at least two trolleys around, loading up with one of everything which had flowers on it on the day. There were a lot of plants and I don’t imagine it was cheap at all. A garden centre owner’s delight. This is, by the way, a rental property and let me at least give credit that the enthusiastic landlords were attempting to make the outdoors attractive.

If I still had a paid gig writing for the print media, I would be heading out with my camera to find some of the best examples of low maintenance, outdoor planting and design for non-gardeners that I could find. But I don’t, so that idea was short-lived.

At least the bees and butterflies will enjoy these garden beds for the short time that they will bloom, before they become a mess. And it would be worse if the beds were all covered in visible weed mat.

Modern perennial plantings – more in the style of Braque than Mondrian

A simple but very pleasing combination of Helleborus niger for winter flowers, Calanthe arisarnensis for  spring, some random dwarf narcissi - and interesting foliage all summer

A simple but very pleasing combination of Helleborus niger for winter flowers, Calanthe arisarnensis for spring, some random dwarf narcissi – and interesting foliage all summer

Last week, I wrote about the major makeover in the rose garden and mentioned the fun I was having with the perennials. While the rains have interrupted progress (it is difficult to dig and divide in waterlogged conditions), we have spent a great deal of time discussing perennials and their use here. Indeed, we even dedicated a gardening trip to the UK to look at techniques.

Traditionally, English perennial gardening has been dominated by the herbaceous border organised on what I had been calling the mix and match approach but which I have just seen described as tapestry gardening. And that seems appropriate – it is like building up an entire picture but from a multitude of different plants instead of coloured threads. At its best, it is magnificent but it is also very labour intensive and takes a lot of skill to put together well. Too often both the ongoing labour and the skill levels are lacking and it just looks a mess.

In the nineties when we saw the gardening scene hijacked by the landscape fraternity in this country, that sort of detailed gardening was thrown out. “The Look” became the dominant feature. Gone was tapestry gardening and any value placed on plantsmanship or plant detail. Now perennial gardening became “underplanting” and just as patterned carpets have been shunned in favour of the same plain carpet throughout the entire house, so too was underplanting to be a utility carpet, usually comprising only one plant variety. So rose gardens were carpeted with nepeta (catmint), or maybe stachys (lamb’s ear). Liriope was fine as long as it was en masse, or any other utility perennial that could form a reliable carpet. It is an approach to gardening that we have shunned as deathly dull.

Piet Oudolf’s rivers of perennials at Wisley were a revelation to us. Here was a contemporary take on perennial planting on a large scale. Each river or stripe is composed of three or four different plants, often repeated in other combinations elsewhere in the border. Tom Stuart-Smith’s plantings in the same RHS garden were a reinterpretation of the type of block planting first espoused by Gertrude Jekyll, especially with her later work when her eyesight was failing and she needed more defined form. When I use the word “blocky”, we are talking more freeform shapes than geometric, more Braque than Mondrian.

The upshot of this thinking was that when Neil Ross suggested I look to reorganising the perennial plantings in our rose garden to more contemporary blocky plantings with simple combinations, I had a mental framework to fit it into. While the area is hard landscaped into a formal design, I didn’t want formal geometric plantings. We strive for a spring and summer froth of pretties – roses and perennials – with touches of plant interest to extend the seasons into autumn and winter. So my blocks are random but nothing less than a square metre and nothing more than three square metres. And each block has three, sometimes four different plants in it. The fun has been in deciding the combinations block by block. It is a bit like creating a multitude of mini gardens and linking them together.

I have bought no new plants. All I have done is to lift, divide and recompose what I had in the garden. So they are just arranged differently. In each block, I have tried to combine plants which I think will be compatible in close company with each other – in other words nothing that is going to overwhelm its companions above ground by smothering them or underground by over-competing. I have considered the time of the season that each plant peaks to try and cover a good span of the year and also to get interesting combinations of foliage and flowers within each block.

A carpet of blue asters in late summer and autumn

A carpet of blue asters in late summer and autumn

Nothing is more boring than endless plant lists so I will just give a couple of examples. One block is the common liriope (grassy foliage and blue flowers in summer) with a taller, pure white Siberian iris (for spring flowers) and one of the strong growing, mat-forming Kippenberg asters with lovely blue daisy flowers in autumn. Elsewhere, I have another block which repeats the white iris but this time combining it with a compact bright blue campanula and a little pure white scuttelaria which flowers most of the time.

If one block doesn’t work, then it will be easy to address the problems in that section. Some will need lifting and dividing more often than others. The whole area has been dug over thoroughly so the plants are in friable and fluffy soil which most perennials appreciate and I have laid a mulch of compost on top. These are optimal conditions and, while the area is very new right now, I have planted divisions and plants close together so I expect rapid results as soil temperatures rise in spring. If it doesn’t close up and fill the beds with a riotous froth in time for our peak garden visitor season, I may have to be in there with emergency plugging of gaps but I hope that is not going to be required. I am also expecting that the self seeded annuals will also come away quickly and fill gaps. The pretty nigella (love in a mist), linaria pink and lilac, blue poelmonium (Jacob’s Ladder) and common old blue pansies are all welcome to stage a return wherever they wish, to soften the divisions between the blocks.

Now it is just a question of waiting to see the results.

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

Planted - patience is now required as I wait for soil temperatures to rise

Planted – patience is now required as I wait for soil temperatures to rise

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.

Bring back plants! Please.

Even after 60 years, Pinus sylvestris Beauvronensis keeps getting better and maturing well, even though it remains under 2 metres tall

Even after 60 years, Pinus sylvestris Beauvronensis keeps getting better and maturing well, even though it remains under 2 metres tall

Until recent times, maybe only a decade or so, New Zealand gardens used to be all about plants. Sophisticated design concepts were rarely seen and terms like spatial relationships referred to Cape Canaveral. These days garden design is cock of the roost and plants are very much a secondary consideration for many people.

Good design is ageless and not to be derided in any way, but I mourn the devaluing of the role of plants in a garden. Frankly, you can only get so far with clipped hedging (usually buxus, sometimes lonicera or teucrium), renga renga lilies, mondo grass (be it black or green), catmint groundcover (nepeta) and white standard roses (be they Iceberg or Margaret Merrill). Maybe kumquat or mandarin trees in planter boxes or large containers. You can achieve a perfectly nice, tidy garden using those run of the mill plants which are in everybody else’s garden as well, but it is never going to be anything special, no matter how good the design framework.

To lift a garden above the ordinary, good design needs to be complemented by interesting plants combined in interesting ways. Mind you, I would say that. I have always believed that mass plantings of a single variety are best in public parks and on traffic islands. I find it exceedingly dull in home gardens. It takes more gardening skill to marry together a whole range of different plants but that is the fun part of gardening.

Start with trees. You can not magic up instant trees. You can buy advanced grade specimens but they are still going to be juvenile and take years to reach maturity. There is simply no shortcut with trees so the sooner you get them planted in the right positions, the sooner you will see some results. And make at least some of those trees good long term specimens. Some trees just get better with age, others look better in youth and get scruffy and past it too soon. Learn to tell the difference so when you cut out the short term filler trees, you are left with some good specimens. Pretty trees such as many flowering cherries, Albizia julibrissin, the blue flowered paulownias and some of the pillar conifers are great for quick impact but rarely age gracefully. Really good trees will take future generations into the next century so they need to be chosen carefully for the right position and given time to grow. They don’t have to be forest giants but you may need to do some research to make good choices. Not a day goes by here when we don’t mentally thank Mark’s great grandfather who left us a legacy of fine trees planted in 1880, and his father who added to it with many rare specimens in the 1950s. Trees give stature and backbone to a garden, be it large or small.

Search out treasures. If you have ever been on a garden safari where you visit many gardens in quick succession, you may have noticed how they can start to look very similar and meld in the memory because they use the same palette of plants. With an ever diminishing range of plants being offered for sale in this country, this scenario is going to get worse, not better. It clearly doesn’t matter if you don’t mind having a garden that looks the same as everybody else’s, but as a nation we tend to favour an element of uniqueness. We don’t want to live in a street where every house is identical, even to the floor plan, but we are leaning in that direction when it comes to our gardens. Good gardeners regard the sourcing of rare or unusual plants as being like a treasure hunt.

It is plant combinations, mixing and matching, that gives interesting detail to a garden

It is plant combinations, mixing and matching, that gives interesting detail to a garden

Experiment with plant combinations. While it is easy and quick to plant a swathe of the same plant, putting together a mix of different foliages and flowers that please the eye is more satisfying. Done well, there is an overall harmony which is pleasing at first glance while the detail invites you to linger and look more closely. Done badly, of course, it looks a hodge podge but you can always learn from that. If you are mass planting using only one or two different varieties, there is no reason to linger and look – you are just after the first glance impression.

In brief, the two rules of thumb in creating good combinations are to think of layering so that not everything is the same height and to get contrasts in foliage. Grasses are never going to look dramatic planted alongside other grasses but combined with a big leafed plant like a canna lily, a Chatham Island forget-me-not or pachystegia, they will have a great deal more zing. Plant combinations are about more than trendy colour toning.

There are a fair number of good designers around whom you can pay to give you a well planned garden in terms of the use of space but good designers who are passionate and knowledgeable about plants are as scarce as hens’ teeth. Good gardens are usually owned by good gardeners who know a great deal about plants themselves. And it is the plants which give the dynamic aspect to a garden and so bring life to the space.