Tag Archives: summer gardens

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. 

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Mid summer gardens. Despatches from the Heroic Gardens Festival 1

Cannas - not my favourite plant but they can be used well

Cannas – not my favourite plant but they can be used well

I think I can claim to be a vastly experienced garden opener after more than two decades on the front line. But I am a novice when it comes to being on the other side during a garden festival. There were 26 gardens open for the weekend. I managed ten of them in two and a half days, plus two that were not part of the annual festival. Five a day is plenty.
Eupatorium, salvias and gaura planted in generous swathes

Eupatorium, salvias and gaura planted in generous swathes


I won't be planting Rosa Tropical Delight

I won’t be planting Rosa Tropical Delight

I started at the Auckland Botanical Gardens. I wanted to look at their rose gardens where they are growing them without spraying. I hoped that I might get some ideas on healthier varieties to try here but I realised that their dedicated rose beds are in such an open position with full sun and free air movement that the lessons were not really transferable to my sheltered, confined rose garden area. And, to be honest, traditional rose beds leave me cold and roses are not my favourite flower in their shoulder and off-peak seasons which often last about 49 weeks of the year.
B I G swathes - here of asters, Joe Pye weed and cannas

B I G swathes – here of asters, Joe Pye weed and cannas

Old style amenity strip planting

Old style amenity strip planting

But the perennial beds were a delight. Yes you need space for these. Planting in big swathes is what gives the impact. I am not talking the garish stripes of old-style amenity bedding, although unfortunately that is still in evidence so I guess some people must like it. It was the big beds with voluptuous, billowing plants, carefully selected for flower colour and foliage combinations that are at their peak now. Even the canna lilies, which don’t rank in my personal top ten – or even top one hundred favourite plants, looked splendid as the tall back row of the chorus.

The joyous sight of golden rudbeckia

The joyous sight of golden rudbeckia

Compact, dwarf zinnias do not make my heart sing. Spot the interlopers.

Compact, dwarf zinnias do not make my heart sing. Spot the interlopers.

Mark often despairs that the modern breeding of many annuals and perennials is to get smaller, more compact, tidier plants allegedly better suited to suburban gardens and, I would add, floral clocks and traffic islands. These dwarf plants will never have the impact of a big, bold, swathe of golden rudbeckia. They made my heart sing.
Underplanting on the orchard hillside - rudbeckia again

Underplanting on the orchard hillside – rudbeckia again

???????????????????????????????It was the hillside of rudbeckia in Lynda Hallinan’s garden that I liked the most. She has underplanted her orchard trees with a sea of gold and very lovely it was too. Her planting of a white umbellifer (maybe Ammi majus?) with a semi double golden cosmos was equally gorgeous on a day in high summer. At least, I think it was a cosmos. Annuals are not my area of expertise. Lynda’s scale was of course smaller than the Bot Gardens, showing that it can be done in a mid-sized domestic garden.
White cosmos in a front garden

White cosmos in a front garden

Aside from a rather lovely patch of white cosmos in another garden, that was about as good as it got in the summer garden stakes. Of course it is different in tiny urban gardens on very expensive real estate. When your lot in life in life is limited to square metres, most will opt for year round appeal. In Auckland, this tends to mean palms and bromeliads to the exclusion of seasonal highlights and change. I will return to Auckland tropicana in the future.
The pondside wild garden at Auckland Botanic Gardens

The pondside wild garden at Auckland Botanic Gardens

It was entirely a reflection of my current thinking that I found the wild pondside garden at Auckland Botanic Gardens so deeply appealing. I am sure some will see this sort of gardening as weedy eyesore but they probably like the garish amenity planting in stripes and will whip out the sprayer at the drop of a hat. I applaud Auckland Botanic’s willingness to explore contemporary directions in sustainable gardening and healthy eco-systems which we have yet to see appearing in many private gardens in this country.
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The January Garden

Auratums and pink lobelia

Auratums and pink lobelia

I don’t cut many flowers to bring indoors. It feels a bit like murdering them to sever them in their prime and bring them indoors to die. We were lucky that Mark’s parents had the foresight to plan the garden so there is a different view from every house window and we have plenty of flowers in sight all year round. The lilies are different. In summer I love to bring in huge stems to scent the house. They are big. They are bold. They are beautiful. Lilies define our summers.

You need quite a lot of lilies to justify cutting the entire stem off and, after many decades, we have a few. Mark’s father Felix started breeding auratums maybe four or five decades ago and Mark has continued. This was never for commercial reasons. It was to build up plants for the garden, to extend the colour range and the season and particularly to get outward facing blooms rather than the upward facing ones which are preferred in floristry. Constantly replenishing with newly raised plants is also a safeguard against the potential ravages of lily virus. Not that we have had a problem with lily virus and disease, but if we ever do, we are prepared.

The lily we scorned at Wisley

The lily we scorned at Wisley

We noticed a floriferous new lily at the Royal Horticultural Society Wisley Gardens last June. People were admiring it and but Mark took one look and said: “Gross. No good as a garden plant. Look at those upward facing blooms waiting to mark.” Not only are the upward facing blooms more vulnerable to weather damage, but the pollen falls internally and spoils it sooner. So I photographed it, but not for the same reason as the admirers. It was showy but we wouldn’t give it garden space.

Although you can to leave auratum lilies in the ground year after year, lifting and replanting deeper on a regular basis saves having to stake every stem. They work their way upwards over time. In our free draining soil, if I put them anything up to 20cm down, they are much better at holding themselves upright. The other technique to save forever staking (and then de-staking at the end of the season) is to grow them through shrubs which can act as supports. Apple trees and azaleas work well for us. When I do have to stake, I prefer to harvest my own bamboo lengths and leave the leaf axils in place to grip the flower stem. It saves tying to a smooth stake.

Just another unnamed seedling (or JAUS, as we call them here)

Just another unnamed seedling (or JAUS, as we call them here)


Auratum bulbs do not respond well to drying out, even in their dormant season. This is why they are usually sold in bags of sphagnum moss or sawdust. Always try and buy them as soon as they come into garden centres in early winter and get them into the ground as soon as possible.
Orange tiger lilies growing through the espaliered apple trees

Orange tiger lilies growing through the espaliered apple trees

Our lily season starts with what we call the Christmas lily, or Lilium regale from China. It even Others sometimes refer to L. longiflorum as the Christmas lily. It is typically pure white and hails from Japan whereas L. regale has deep pink petal backs fading out to white. The orange tiger lilies with their reflexed petals follow soon after. They lack scent but they are a showy addition to the summer garden and very easy to grow. Next we get the aurelians – scented trumpet lilies in pretty gold and apricot shades. Most of ours have been raised from seed. They have a lovely elegance to them both in the garden and as a cut flower. You will notice their trumpets face outwards and downwards.
Aforementioned JAUS

Aforementioned JAUS

These are all but an overture to the main event – the glory of the auratums which take us through January and well into February. There is nothing subtle or understated about the flower power. Their common name is the “golden rayed lily of Japan”. How lovely is that?

???????????????????????????????First published in the New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.

Reviewing summer garden choices, as the drought worsens

Plant options for dry conditions- at Beth Chatto's Garden.

Plant options for dry conditions- at Beth Chatto’s Garden.

Have we reached a point where the emerald green sward of lawn in the midst of drought is a badge of shame, rather than a symbol of pride and good management?

The current extended dry spell has focussed my train of thought on inappropriate gardening styles. As I walked around Christchurch a few weeks ago, I marvelled at just how many sprinklers were running and how many property owners were out holding hoses and watering their ornamental gardens of an evening. At the time, I wondered why this city of keen gardeners were so determined to ignore their Mediterranean-style summers and slavishly pursue an English style of gardening which, in their conditions, relies entirely on irrigation.

Eryngiums - another plant option for dry conditions

Eryngiums – another plant option for dry conditions

The deepening drought conditions here in the north should be raising red flags for gardeners who rely on summer watering. Where I live, drought is pretty much unheard of – until this summer at least. But much of the Waikato was in severe drought a few years ago and there are warnings coming from meteorologists that these are likely to become more common. Maybe it is time for thinking gardeners to lighten their heavy hoof prints on the planet and actively explore other ways of creating beautiful and pleasing gardens without following what are, at times, downright bad environmental practices. A clarion call, no less.

Lawns are a major offender. Frankly, I regard watering your lawn as an indefensible waste of a scarce commodity. Perfect green lawns are a value we have adopted, almost without question, from American suburbia. We have elevated the lawn to a pedestal way beyond its actual position in life which is to offer a useful area upon which to play and entertain and to provide a negative space (an empty space) to act as a foil which highlights ornamental plantings. A lawn should be a functional tool, not an end in itself.

Watering hedges is similarly dubious in my books. If you have to water your hedge to survive, you have chosen the wrong plant in the first place.

I also put permanent irrigation systems throughout gardens in the same category. If you are having to water your garden all summer to achieve the effect you want, then I think you should be going back to the drawing board and looking at different gardening styles.

We watched a BBC Gardeners’ World programme recently on the Royal Horticultural Society gardens which includes Hyde Hall in Essex. The head gardener there commented that their annual rainfall was less than Jerusalem. We have been to Hyde Hall and while they certainly irrigate many of the ornamental gardens (and probably the lawns, too), the dry garden was a revelation to us.

Not far from Hyde Hall are the famed Beth Chatto Gardens and it was Mrs Chatto’s dry garden which astounded us with its magic when we visited. She is gardening in similarly dry conditions and her dry garden is on an old river bed so with even less moisture retention.

We wanted to come home and try a dry garden but alas, in a climate where we regard three weeks without rain as a drought and where we have an annual rainfall level about eight times higher than those areas of Essex, it is never going to work here. We failed on the photography stakes in those two gardens. I took plenty of photos of wonderful colour combinations in perennial plantings at Hyde Hall (gifted colour combos, even, though my photos are average) but it is the special magic of the dry gardens at both locations which has stayed in our memories.

Missouri meadow garden at Wisley - simple but magic in 2009

Missouri meadow garden at Wisley – simple magic in 2009

Wisley Gardens in Surrey to the south are also very dry and they were showcasing a different style of dry gardening in their Missouri Meadow.

Helichrysum Silver Cushion - happy in dry conditions, attractive, tidy and it's even a native

Helichrysum Silver Cushion – happy in dry conditions, attractive, tidy and it’s even a native

If you pause to think, much of the world is dry and of course there is not only dry gardening with Mediterranean style plants – shrubs, trees and perennials which will take poor, dry conditions. These are often dominated by grey foliage, not necessarily small leaves but frequently so, often furry or prickly – all ways for the plant to conserve water. Some of our native plants fit into this type of garden. Pachystegias, our native helichrysum, some of the olearias, Astelia chathamica – all will take dry conditions.

The American prairies are a rich source of inspiration for seasonal gardens and home to a host of wild flowers that we now incorporate in our gardens such as echinaceas and black-eyed Susans. The work over recent decades by prominent Dutch gardener and designer, Piet Oudolf, appears to draw more from the American prairies as it does from the Med. The Oudolf School has been one of the most influential garden styles in Europe for the past decade but has pretty much bypassed us in this country so far. Yet it is one which lends itself to dry gardens.

Look across the Tasman. Our nearest neighbours have a wealth of plant material which has evolved to thrive in dry conditions. Some of it is very beautiful.

As the drought deepens here, maybe it is time to seriously question why so many of us are hanging on for grim death to an arguably outdated genre of lush, green gardening, mixing formality with informality, inspired by the English gardens of early last century.

If you are having to water anything other than your vegetable garden every summer, have a rethink. There are other ways to garden.

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

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.

The green breathing space

A restful green on a summer's day - a garden border in dry shade

It is a reflection of our benign climate that I can write a mid-summer column about the soothing role of green in the garden. Overseas visitors are often amazed when they are told that we never irrigate our garden here. Three weeks without rain is nearing a drought in our area of North Taranaki but I hasten to add that we also enjoy high sunshine hours. Much of the world is brown in summer and areas with winter drought or very low temperatures can be brown (or white) in winter, too. We are green fifty two weeks of the year.

As I brought in the washing yesterday, I contemplated the view from the line which includes the modest back border of the house. I say modest because it is the typical New Zealand house border which runs between the path and the house and so it measures about 50cm wide and several meters long. It is not always easy to know what to grow in a narrow border which is cool dry shade in summer and downright cold dry shade in winter but I did think it was looking rather lush, green and attractive yesterday. There are no flowers out at the moment so it was toned green on green and all about leaf texture and shape. The lapagerias clamber up to to reach the guttering and give height. These are commonly known as Chilean bell flowers and we have a towering pale pink one, a teetering huge white one and a red one all in a row with a daphne bush marking one end. There is good textural variation in the fine foliage of a maiden hair fern, the strappy leaves of a cymbidium orchid, a rather understated green hosta and the large, lush leaves of scadoxus, all underplanted with the mouse plant (arisarum). This last plant can be somewhat invasive but it has nowhere to invade in such a confined border and children are enchanted by the curious flowers. At other times of the year, the lapagerias flower and we have seasonal bulbs that come through but for the heat of summer, it made rather a nice restful picture of green.

Restful, simple green gives a breathing space in a busy garden. Most of us achieve this with lawns where the expanse of green is a little like letting out a sigh of relief. Paved patios and decking just do not give this sense of spacious rest even if they don’t need mowing. Mind you, I was raised by a keen gardener who decided that lawns had no merit. She would rather weed and maintain additional garden than mow a lawn. Widowed early, she never got to grips with mowing. I can remember when I was about nine we moved in to a house where the lawns were rather too extensive to manage with the old push mower. She bought a motor mower. After three days and a couple of site visits from the salesman, the shop took the mower back and refunded her money. They were probably deeply relieved to be shot of her. My mother’s aura did not mix with a motor mower. It would not start for her and she decided it was jinxed. She never tried to make the acquaintance of a mower again. She simply dispensed with grass. Now I think she was wrong and it did not suit her to see the role played in garden design by the restful green space.

The green circle carried off with style and panache at Sissinghurst

The green circle carried off with style and panache at Sissinghurst

No doubt many readers have been to Sissinghurst in England. Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson employed a radical device in that garden to create a space – a simple circle of grass surrounded by a high clipped green hedge (probably yew). In the wrong hands, this could look overly contrived, or even naff in a suburban New Zealand quarter acre garden. But in all the busy-ness that characterises the arts and crafts garden rooms of Sissinghurst, filled with colour and texture, this simple green circle gave a place to pause. There was nothing to assault the senses. The circular lawn, viewed from above, as one can because of the splendid tower (not to be confused with a viewing platform – the tower is a relic of the former castle) is neatly and obediently striped. They may not wish to unleash a creative or careless lawn mowing person on that lawn – a spiral, bulls-eye or even an untidy mishmash would not look as perfect as the wide and precise stripes.

At Hidcote Manor, Major Lawrence Johnston from a similar era and also with a busy arts and crafts garden full of small garden rooms, achieved a similar purpose with his Long Walk and his circular area – simply referred to as The Circle. The Long Walk is appropriately long, running on an axis spanning over half the garden and it is simply a generously wide mown strip of grass (no manicured lawn here – this was indubitably grass) bounded on both sides by tall hornbeam hedges. The Circle was tidy lawn bounded by clipped hedges and some rather large and splendid topiary birds.

Think of it all as the gardening equivalent of the sorbet to cleanse the palate between courses at an elaborate dinner party. A sorbet would be OTT at an informal barbecue but it is entirely appropriate at a banquet.

A good garden designer (the operative word is good) will understand the juxtaposition of uncluttered space and detail – that is one of their techniques. The reality is that most home gardeners in this country either can’t afford a good garden designer or they prefer not to. The DIY green space is the lawn. While technically green is a colour, in gardening practice it is perceived as colour neutral like the off white walls of the interiors of many houses. Defining the boundaries of that green space, maybe with clipped hedging, gives it more oomph as long as it is immaculately maintained. However, the imposed formality of the perfect circle needs to be managed carefully – you really need your proportions and context right. There is a fine line between circles with panache and being contrived, or worse – pretentious. The sweep of lawn is safer.

It was a revelation to us to see how effective the deliberate green breathing space was in both Sissinghurst and Hidcote. But most gardens will benefit from the framing that a green lawn provides and in the heat of summer, it makes even more sense.