Tag Archives: summer gardens

The first autumn blooms and the journey to gardening nirvana

Amaryllis belladonna – more roadside flower than garden plant in our conditions

As the calendar moves into March, the autumn bulbs are the first reminder that summer will not be endless. First Cyclamen hederafolium and Colchicum autumnale remind is that the seasons wait for no man or woman. Now they have been joined by the belladonnas and the truly tiny Leucojum autumnale.

Colchicum, not autumn crocus. The foliage is unrelated, being a dianthus

Colchicums are often referred to as autumn crocus but there is no botanical connection, just a visual perception. The best known leucojum is L. vernum or the common snowflake which flowers in spring – a vigorous bulb that is widely found around old house sites that date back to the nineteenth century. The old brick chimney may be all that is left standing but it is highly likely to have clumps of the double daffodils and snowflakes, maybe some violets and a couple of really old camellia trees. For overseas readers, almost all the early European settlers’ homes were built in wood and house fires were common which is why the chimney is the only remaining evidence.

Blink and you may miss the delight of tiny Leucojum autumnale

Little Leucojum autumnale is a very different creature, a fleeting, dainty little flower that has to be measured in millimetres, not centimetres. It is very cute but easily swamped by larger plants if you are not careful. I see it is now classified as an acis, not a leucojum but it may take me a while to remember that. It comes from the western areas of the southern Mediterranean so places like Spain, Morocco, Tunisia and Sicily which are very hot and bone dry but the first autumn rain will trigger the bulbs into their very short flowering and growing season.

Some welcome rain fell this week – 62ml to be precise, which was very welcome after an exceptionally dry summer. Sadly it was followed by the first chill wind of autumn which rather reinforced the message of the autumn bulbs. Summer 2020 is over and we are now entering our long autumn season. I have removed my togs and towel from the swimming pool and put them in the laundry basket although the younger visitors here are still swimming.

What I call English manor house style of twin borders – seen here at Parham House

Cottage garden style as per Margery Fish at East Lambook Manor

Beth Chatto’s dry garden

As the summer borders reach their point of peak profusion, I ponder again how full I want these borders to look. The tradition of herbaceous borders is to have them packed so full that no soil is visible. Cottage gardening encourages the plants to meld and run together whereas herbaceous tradition says that each plant occupies its own space without much intermeshing with its neighbours. And then there is the Beth Chatto dry garden where, even in a mature garden, she kept each plant standing alone in its own space. Mark likes the Chatto approach because it displays the individual plants to their best. It is a style he has used extensively in the more detailed woodland areas. If you analyse the Chatto dry garden, they are predominantly smaller plant varieties growing in very hard condtions (dry river bed with very low rainfall) which could not be further from our summer garden conditions which foster lush and exuberant growth.

I am leaning to the traditional herbaceous position for these summer borders but it is a constant learning process about how each plant variety performs. I want to be able to walk amongst the plants to weed, stake and dead-head and that means knowing how much space to leave between each different clump that they may floof themselves over the space to fill it but still leave me passage between the plants at ground level without tramping on them.

The summer borders here

The bouffy aster needs staking to keep the path clear. I do it very simply and this is not visible when the plant is allowed to flop back

I love this big, bouffy aster coming into flower. We have the more compact version that makes a low carpet in bloom and another similar one that is just above waist height. I am guessing this larger version is a species – or close to it – with its daintier, paler blue blooms that are like a cloud of butterflies dancing on the bush. This year I have had to stake it to keep the path clear and it is obvious I have too much of it too close together for future seasons. Some at least will need to be moved to another area before next summer.

It is a constant learning process but that is what makes gardening interesting. Once a garden is all planted up, most of the gardening activity is simple and repetitive maintenance – outdoor housework, in effect. The interest levels in that are not high. It is the ongoing learning and constant tweaking in search of the impossible state of perfection that makes it interesting. That is how I see it for those of us who actively garden.

As a final comment: the new summer gardens have all been planted following the modern trends of lower labour input and management than the older, more traditional herbaceous plantings of the English manor house style of borders. But they still involve me in quite a lot of deadheading, dividing, staking and cutting back. I enjoy doing it but it is certainly more than I originally anticipated. My gardening nirvana may be when I have tweaked the plantings to the point where such a high level of intervention is no longer required.

Managing weeds in herbaceous plantings. Vigilance is the key.

Fresh plantings in the Iolanthe garden

I have been spending many hours in my new Iolanthe garden. I use the word ‘my’, not the plural ‘our’ because this is a solo effort. It is certainly the most difficult of the new summer gardens I have planted and that has to do both with working around existing plants that are remaining in place and the heavy weed infestation in the area. I was starting to get discouraged at the scale of what I still have to do but there are enough glimpses of how it will look to keep me going most days.

Informal, or maybe meadow-ish in time. Hopefully by next summer.

Mark says I shouldn’t call it a meadow garden because it is not a meadow. It is really a perennial garden but different to the other perennial gardens I have put in. An informal flower garden filled with a wide range of perennials planted informally (randomly, even) and also self-seeding annuals. With some grasses and various fixed shrubs and a fair swag of citrus trees (several still small) and three feijoas. Informal it may be but I still don’t want a heavy infestation of weeds. So I weed – but avoid putting the weeds into the compost heap, stowing them instead at the back of shaded shelter plantings around the property – level the soils in the area where I am working, plant and mulch, square metre by square metre. I paced it out and the whole area is around 600 square metres.  Such is the weed seed loading in the soil, I have to go over every finished area within a few days as the seeds start germinating in the recently disturbed soil. It is tedious. It is also a lot of work and I say that as a gardener who is not afraid of work. But I am on a mission to get it done, even though it now means carting water as we enter high summer (on account of there not being tap in that area). Meadowish, or meadow style, perhaps.

The lesson I have learned about this style of gardening is that there is a fine line between an informal garden – where seeding down of desired annuals and biennials is encouraged – and a weedy mess. If you want the former, then you have to start by controlling the latter.

The grass garden is filling in, seven months from planting. We still haven’t done the paths but will get around to them this winter.

The grass garden is filling out but still has quite a way to go before it has full cover. This summer is the one that matters most when it comes to weeding. I have learned this. Fortunately, it is easy to do and I have found that the push hoe is the best implement for getting beneath the mulch without disturbing it too much and severing the weeds. I go over it often – thoroughly at least once a week with random weeding each time I walk through on most days. Next summer should be much easier.

Both the perennial borders and the lily border are in their third summer and are pretty much weed-free. So too the caterpillar garden and that is only in its second summer. I don’t claim them to be totally free of weeds but what pops up is easily dealt to, minor and mostly annual, not perennial weeds. More importantly, given the new summer gardens are largely herbaceous perennials, there is not a problem with nasty weeds intertwined with the root systems of the permanent plantings.  The key to achieving this state is eternal vigilance but there are a few more tools in the arsenal against weeds.

The perennial borders going into their third summer – mostly free of weeds now.

Keeping soils well cultivated means weeds are easily pulled out, though this is easier with our friable soils. If you have heavy soils that make clods in winter and then set to concrete is summer, pulling weeds out is more likely to mean you leave the root systems behind and the perennial weeds will just keep on growing.

Trying to avoid any weeds ever going to seed reduces weeding into the future. One year’s seeding, seven years’ weeding goes the old saying. Based on my recent experience, I would say that you can cut that short to two or three years but take your eye off the ball – or weeds – and you are back to the beginning.

The caterpillar gardens in their second year – and the weeds are under good control.

Mulch, mulch and mulch but be sure it is a weed-free mulch. While we make hot compost, it is clear that it is often not hot enough to kill all the seeds and our compost is not as free of weeds as I would wish. While I prefer the look of compost as a mulch over other options, whenever I use it, I try and get back around several times over the next few weeks to pull out any germinating volunteers. If you are buying compost, it should be sterile – at least the stuff you buy in environmentally-unfriendly, heavy-duty plastic bags at the garden centre.

Being economical gardeners, we use what we have to hand for mulch. And what we have to hand is sawdust, wood shavings and wood chip. The first two are bright orange and stay that way for at least nine months which can be a pretty awful look in a garden so I only use those in areas where the colour will not worry me. The sawdust and shavings I laid in an established mixed border worried me so much over ensuing months that I eventually covered them up with leaf litter.

The lily border is just coming into its month of seasonal glory and is also largely free of weeds.

Garden mulch should be visually neutral so that you look at the plants and the design, not the mulch.

Mostly, I use wood chips which are not perfect but at least they are a muted shade of greyed beige when dry, brown when wet and they are 100% weed free. But this also comes with a qualification. Our domestic wood chipper produces a very fine grade product which ages quickly and therefore looks more natural. The arborist that we use has a commercial chipper which is like the fastest muncher in the west, dealing with prodigious amounts of wood and leaf at speed and the resulting mulch is a reasonably fine texture that ages well. But other commercial operators have mulchers that produce a much coarser product. Chunky rather than chipped. It takes way longer to mellow, even in full sun, and it will always look coarse. I hate the look and I would not want to be working amongst it either.

Large expanses of wood chip mulch in a public garden. It is hard to believe that all that space will ever be covered by the plants so the wood chip is a more or less permanent feature.

In addition to that, the areas where I am using wood chip are destined to be entirely covered by plants within twelve months or so. I find large areas of wood chip mulch, destined to remain that way for years to come, a barren and desolate look.

The lesson here is that if you are going to buy wood chip mulch, check the texture and remember that finer is preferable. You are probably going to be looking at it for at least a year.

If you lay wood mulch, be it chip, sawdust or shavings, and then want to work in the area, always, but always, scrape back the mulch before digging in the soil. Eventually the mulch will get incorporated in the soil and add desirable carbon content but you want it to have spent at least a year ageing and mellowing on the top surface so it starts to break down. Incorporating it in the soil earlier than that means that it robs the soil of nitrogen as it breaks down and that causes plants to show a yellow tinge and slows growth. Believe me, I have seen it happen where I have not been careful enough. You can counter it by adding nitrogen fertiliser but as you only notice it when the plants start to discolour and look stunted, they can take a time to recover.

This is my last new garden. When completed, we will have managed to reach the goal we set ourselves maybe fifteen years ago when we first decided we wanted summer gardens. The dollar budget for this last area is zero dollars because I am amalgamating and repurposing plant material we already have. The time and effort required, however, is substantial.

The narrow line between weedy mess and a host of summer blooms and seeding plants cheek by jowl 

Planting a perennial meadow

My current project is planting a perennial meadow. Not a wildflower meadow. Much and all as we find annuals like soldier poppies, blue cornflowers and cosmos hugely charming, they are not wildflowers to New Zealand and basically that is gardening with annuals, freshly sowing seed each season. That is not the way we garden.

After six years, the area ‘down below’, as Felix Jury used to call it, is now more meadow than park.

We have turned the park area into what I would call an enhanced meadow, allowing the paddock grasses and self-introductions to grow (the buttercups and daisies currently in flower are very pretty!) and enhancing it by adding other plants like Higo, Louisiana and Siberian irises, primulas, bluebells, narcissi, snowdrops and even trilliums grown amongst the grass.

The area to the right is called the Iolanthe garden, due to the presence of the original plant of Magnolia Iolanthe

I want a summer flowering meadow and for us, that means strong perennials. The Iolanthe garden offered around 600 square metres of chaotic and weedy space. It was the old vegetable garden until the original and splendid plant of Magnolia ‘Iolanthe’ grew so large that it cast too much summer shade. It then became a mishmash, deteriorating to a neglected wilderness beloved by butterflies and bees but not so much by humans. Mark has used it over the years as a trial ground for perennials where it really does sort out the survivors. In a garden the size of ours, buying a 10cm potted perennial and putting it straight into the garden is likely to mean that the poor wee thing will get ignored until it is either dead or romping away and out of control. We need to grow on these plants to trial them in our conditions, to assess their performance and to watch for weed potential as well as building them up to get sufficient numbers to make a statement when planted into the main gardens. But once planted out in the Iolanthe garden, they were never loved or nurtured.

At its best, Mark’s mishmash could look like this but never all of it at the same time and never for very long

The area contains a number of permanent plants and relics from past usage. There are so many citrus trees that it should eventually become a citrus grove but that will take a couple of decades. There is a grove of Daphne bholua at one end, a stand of sugar cane at the other, some mighty big inulas, far too many bluebells and annual forget-me-nots, though they look charming at the moment with the abundant parsley, the one surviving rhubarb plant, way too many self-sown hellebores, my green tea camellias, feijoas, self-sown yams and potatoes and a whole lot more, especially weeds. How to knit all this together into one semi-coherent vision? A casual meadow of perennials is my answer.

It is a big job. The soil, being ex-vegetable garden, is friable and easy to dig and there is a fair amount of perennial material there to lift and divide to get me started. But working amongst existing plants, especially permanent trees and shrubs, is much harder than starting with a blank slate. And the weed issue is major.

I often say that meadow management has a lot to do with your tolerance level for weeds. I know that we may not be able to keep this meadow as free of weeds as we expect to keep the more controlled herbaceous plantings, but I am trying to reduce their impact from the start. I hand weed to clear each area (easier on a sunny day now that we have sufficient heat in the sun to wilt the young weeds quickly so that they will not just grow again) and remove them. I am then planting perennials in random blocks but considered combinations. So, in one block I have put in a yellow variegated agapanthus with a deciduous yellow day lily (hemerocallis) and bluebells. I have just done a block with sedums (flower colour unknown at this stage) with blue perennial lobelia and seed of the white lychnis . Nerine bowdeni has been teamed with the dark pink Japanese anemone, deep burgundy eucomis with yellow crocosmia, Stipa gigantea with pink alstromeria and so on and so forth. All blending on the edges. Then I mulch heavily with the leaf mulch we bought in from the arborist.

A work in progress. It won’t look like a meadow until the plants knit together and the mulch is hidden

Fortunately our weed problems are all annual weeds. There are neither oxalis nor creeping weeds so if I stay vigilant this spring and take the ones that succeed in germinating and getting through the mulch, I am hoping the plants will spread sufficiently to knit together and form a barrier to shade out the weed seeds still in the soil.

That is the plan. I shall report on progress. My mental image is of a sea of flowers from spring to autumn, alive with butterflies and bees. Allowing some annuals and biennials to seed through and the use of assorted bulbs will blur the lines between the different blocks of plants, making it more meadow than perennial garden.  The budget for this newest area is zero dollars. I am simply working with material we already have here. When I think about it, this probably means there will be a lot of pink because that is the one colour I have not used in the other perennial gardens so the leftover plant options I am now using will be dominated by shades of pink.

The caterpillar garden – all blue, white and some purple, taller growing in the centre enclosures and low growing in the outer bays. Photo taken today in early spring. 

The perennial meadow will complete the sequence of summer gardens where we have put the focus on perennials and grasses. Starting from one side, we have the caterpillar garden which looks as if it will hit its stride this year.

The lily border – basically all OTT pink, red and white auratums but I am working on getting some white umbelliferous plants seeding down to extend the flowering. Photo taken last summer. 

The grass garden – mostly tall grassy plants with just the addition of pale apricot and white foxgloves, big salvias, yellow Verbascum creticum and a few other flowers. Photo taken today.

Next the lily border, then the big new grass garden (just coming into growth now after being planted six or eight weeks ago). Then the twin herbaceous borders and finally the perennial meadow – looser, multi coloured and much more casual.

The twin borders have every colour but little white and no pale or mid pink because we are after the brights. Photo taken last summer.

Each garden has been planned to have a different feel to it and, critically, there is little overlap of plants. My aim has been a different plant palette for each area. A few, like Verbena bonariensis and Orlaya grandiflora) are spreading themselves and the foxgloves will, too (no common pink ones allowed!). There are just a few other plants that I have used in two of the gardens but the vast majority of plants are used in one area only. I have never subscribed to that old rule of repeating plants ‘to achieve continuity’ because too often it just makes everything look the same. Also, this is not a place for treasures and special plants. These are bold, showy and vigorous plantings. The treasures belong in the more detailed rockery and woodland areas.

Roll on summer. Though, to be realistic, we should hit peak summer garden next year, not this summer. But at least we will get an indication this December through to April of how it will all come together.

 

 

 

Found! Our summer garden.

Gardening is usually a gentle activity in emotional terms. We may feel irritation, pleasure, satisfaction, disappointment or similar feelings. The feeling of sheer panic is probably largely limited to those gardening to deadlines with either an opening date for the public or a garden-based event. Occasionally, I feel real joy. I wrote about the feeling of joy in December 2016, down in our meadow. By joy, I mean the rare times when my heart sings.

It was back in 2009 when I wrote about our quest to get to grips with summer gardens. We do very good spring gardens throughout New Zealand but by summer, most people’s thoughts turn to beaches and barbeques. With a predominantly woodland garden here, our garden in summer was certainly lush, green and restful but not exactly vibrant.

A decade on and I looked at my herbaceous borders this week, and my heart sang. “Yessss!” I thought. “We do actually have a summer garden at last.” A colleague and friend visited this week and was suitably gobsmacked. “When you said you wanted to do herbaceous borders,” he said, “I thought …” I can’t remember what he said he thought but it was along the ‘yeah nah. Unlikely. They’ll learn. It’ll never happen,’ sort of thing. It was very affirming to impress a professional colleague of similar experience level to us. These borders are now at what I call the ‘tweaking stage’. Altering the bits that don’t quite work. Were I more high-falutin’, I would describe this as ‘editing’ (the current term) or maybe fine tuning. But every day, these borders bring me great personal pleasure.

Lily border to the left, caterpillar garden metamorphosing to the right

On the other side of this area (with the yet to be planted Court Garden in between) is what Mark calls the caterpillar garden. That is because he drew inspiration from a piece on BBC Gardeners’ World where leading UK designer, Tom Stuart Smith, was clipping established buxus plants into his trademark undulating forms redolent of a caterpillar. We don’t do buxus here, so Mark planted out the basic structure in the dwarf camellia species C. minutiflora. For the shape, he drew inspiration from the basket fungus which is based on five-sided shapes. So what we have are eight enclosed pentagons with bays to the side, making 23 different garden sections. Mark’s vision was of tall plants billowing out of the enclosed centres with lower plants filling all the side sections – all in shades of blues, whites and lilacs. It fell to me to fill in all the blank spaces. It is coming together. Most of the planting was done by last summer but because the camellias giving the basic form were poor, hungry specimens kept too long in the nursery (I have no idea how many – well over 100 of them?) they are taking time to recover and flourish. And the perennials with which I am painting are smaller growers than those I used in the new summer borders so it is taking longer for them to fill in the spaces. It is block planting – generally only one or two different plants per section – so a whole lot depends on the selections made at the start.

Today, I will strip out the deep pink phlox in one section – too pink. It was a mistake. Fortunately, Mark raised some perovskia seed – Russian sage with blue flowers and grey foliage. It is unproven in our conditions but will be ideal if it works and way more harmonious than the pink phlox.

A stokesia! We were both wrong.

An American visitor this week set us right on the plant that I was sure was a scabious but Mark kept referring to as a centaurea. It is in fact a stokesia and is a wildflower where he lives so we defer to his superior knowledge on this matter. He said he didn’t know which stokesia it is but as we know it dates back to Mark’s mother, it is almost certainly one that was sold in the 1960s. It has stood the test of time, I can tell you that.

Many of us covet those gorgeous big blue-lilac alliums that are seen widely in UK gardens. I was a bit shocked to find they usually treat them like tulips – disposable, one-season wonders. But then I looked at some bulb catalogues there and they are cheap as chips to buy. If we are paying anything up to $15 a bulb here, we are not going to be treating them as annuals. I decided this spring that the easy to grow blue brodiaeas – particularly Brodiaea ‘Queen Fabiola’ (also known as a tritelia) are not bad substitutes for we poor, colonial gardeners. I am drifting these bulbs along one side and very pretty they looked in spring with the white iberis. And they are perennial, not one-season wonders.

I am looking forward to autumn to start planting the central court area. I am mentally prepared for this large planting project. I have most of the plants needed at hand, not all, but most. It will be a quick turnaround, immersive grass garden – big grasses at shoulder height or taller, mostly. A prairie on steroids, perhaps?

I think it bears repeating: if you want a summer garden it needs to be close to all-day sun and start with the perennials, not trees and shrubs. Think of it like painting with flowers because it is those which give the seasonality. Form and foliage are important but they are not the foremost defining factor for a summer garden. 

 

Summer gardens – the starting point

I garden so I have a lot of thinking time. And it struck me this week that the reason why good summer gardens are a rare occurrence in this country is because most New Zealanders start a garden by planting out the trees and shrubs, then the hedgings and edgings.  Herbaceous underplanting is more of an afterthought, not unlike adding cushions to a sofa. A filling in of remaining spaces.

If you want a good summer garden, start with the herbaceous planting and build from there. That was my moment of clarity.

New Zealand does great spring gardens. Magnolias, flowering cherries and crab-apples, soft foliaged Japanese maples, azaleas, rhododendrons and a host of other pretty trees and shrubs grow with a lushness and froth of bloom. You would be hard pressed to find prettier spring gardens and that takes in the length of the country.

Le Jardin Plume in Normandy

Northern New Zealand also does year-round, sub-tropical gardens very well. All the lush greenery of palms, cycads, bamboos and some lesser known small tropical trees with many ferns, clivias and bromeliads – albeit often sustained by irrigation or misting units over the hotter summer months.

Good summer gardens are a scarce event in this country and I think it is because we start with the trees and shrubs. There aren’t that many woody plants that flower in summer. Hydrangeas and jacaranda do but even so-called repeat-flowering roses peak in spring and then rather stagger on from there without ever achieving that mass, new season glory again. There is a very limited selection if you want summer-flowering woody plants.

New Zealanders generally want gardens that ‘have interest’ all year round. Some gardens boast of being a garden for all seasons when in practice they are spring gardens with spots of bloom and colour at other times.

Summer at Auckland Botanic Gardens

Classic twin herbaceous borders at RHS Wisley Gardens

I have seen impressive summer herbaceous plantings at Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens but those are large-scale, public plantings which are different to home gardens. They are probably worth a visit right now if you are in the area. I have also seen a fair number of classic, twin herbaceous borders, but mostly overseas. They are more commonly classic twin mixed borders in New Zealand, where the shrubs will dominate over time. It is not the herbaceous borders that have made me do a double take of envy. It is the more contemporary herbaceous plantings with fewer rules, considerably less maintenance but more colour control that inspired both of us. We won’t know if we have succeeded here for another year or two and then the proof of sustainability is if it still looks good a decade later, but I am optimistic at the early results.

Bury Court – superb planting combinations by Piet Oudolf

More Bury Court

So far, I can say that a good summer garden needs full sun with open conditions. My plantings started with the herbaceous plants and bulbs. These are plants that like well cultivated soil so it is easy for them to spread their roots. There are some trees and shrubs, but mostly used to give definition and form to the area without intruding into the herbaceous plantings and without the potential to cast shade where shade is not wanted. It is a very different style of planting and management to the rest of the garden. Once the principles and techniques are mastered, the fun comes with plant combinations.  Our conditions are so different that we need to trial plant material and work out our own combinations rather than working from overseas plant lists and examples. But we have learned from looking at some highly skilled combinations and the difference between cobbling together plants based primarily on flower colour and the genuine flair of knowledgeable gardeners is noticeable once you get your eye in. It is the detail that is possible in private gardens that often makes a huge difference.

Wildside in Devon

That is what we have travelled overseas to look at and to reinterpret for our conditions at home.

Our blank canvas three years ago with just the foundation shrubs and trees to define what will remain open space