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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 10 June 2014 by Tim Ingram

Daisies, Sea Holly & the Art of Planting

Daisies, Sea Holly & the Art of Planting

Gardening is as much an artistic endeavour as a practical and intellectual one. Amongst our gardening friends are a number who use plants very artistically. One, who has helped us in the past when we opened the garden for the NGS, has a garden which in summer has no lawn but a sea of daisies. For some daisies are weeds, but there can be few weeds that are so delightful.

Our garden has been made on the site of an old cherry orchard, the lawn a mix of grasses and clover, which originally would have been grazed by sheep, and with regular mowing now also has a good crop of daisies. Following her example we often let parts of the lawn grow uncut for periods to allow the daisies to flower and proliferate. The result is very appealing to the untidy eye, and with the daisies also grow a few creeping buttercups to add that splash of gold. These pictures show examples below a beautiful specimen of Cornus controversa 'Variegata'.

Daisies, Sea Holly & the Art of Planting

The longer grass is so far a less than successful attempt to make a small meadow, but bulbs like the snakeshead fritillary, small daffodils, erythroniums, and also the cowslip, prosper earlier in the year before the stronger grasses take over.

The way that daisies grow in the lawn leads to thoughts of whether we might establish other 'weeds' in the same way. What about 'self-heal' Prunella vulgaris, or the two shown below: 'ground ivy', Glechoma hederacea or speedwell? The prunella certainly can grow well and flower in lawns and the latter two in grazed sward.

And what could we grow in the longer grass behind which would flower into the summer after the bulbs have done their thing? Some of this may sound fanciful but it does lie in the same tradition as the alpine lawns and meadows described by alpine gardeners such as Clarence Elliott (see AGS Bulletin Vol. 4, p. 373, 1936).

As soon as you think along these lines you realise the great subtlety of natural plant communities; how certain mixes of plants persist under particular conditions of soil types, grazing and climate, and parts of the garden potentially can come closer to the famous saying that 'Every art is an imitation of nature'. So the real reason for imitating nature is that it saves on having to mow the lawn!

This is frivolous in some ways, and the extraordinary range of plants that we do grow in the garden rather belies any attempt to get closer to a 'natural' planting. Never the less this very contrast is a feature of so many great gardens from Great Dixter to Beth Chatto's, and to modern styles of naturalistic planting such as the amazing Sussex Prairie garden made by Paul and Pauline McBride.

Gardening specifically with woodland and alpine plants, or Mediterranean species, is not so very different in essence, if very different in artistic 'school'. The principle behind any of these is being led by the natural world just in the way that William Robinson and Reginald Farrer expounded a century ago in reaction to more formal and artificial order. Looking for guidance on our grassy meadow I have turned to an old and classic book of my mother's, 'Weeds & Aliens' by Sir Edward Salisbury, one time Director of Kew, and who studied the underlying detail of plant communities in great depth.

Many gardeners have written along similar, if less analytical, lines - from Miriam Rothschild to Christopher Lloyd to Mirabel Osler, Noël Kingsbury to Keith Wiley to Peter Korn; and at its most extreme the 'marginal' gardening of Geoffrey Dutton in 'Some Branch Against the Sky'.

Underlying all of these is that strong sense of ecology and adaptation that you see so well when you walk in different environments from the sea shore, to woodland to high mountain meadows and rocky screes.

Once you view a garden in this way it becomes very obvious when plants are used with no sense of their natural adaptations and relationships; the gardening eye becomes more critical and exacting and by definition 'Art [sets] itself a goal which is unceasingly retiring'. When a garden is also a resource, or for study of particular groups of plants, then the imperative to garden along these lines becomes even greater, but as Miriam Rothschild remarks 'a careless order'd garden' is no easier than cultivating conventional, well tried horticultural varieties. The idea of a labour saving garden is effectively no garden at all, and as my wife comments often ends up as just a paved over area for the inevitable car.

Amongst the plants listed by E.J.Salisbury in his chapter on 'Grassland Weeds' are the 'cranesbills' - Geranium pratense and sylvaticum, 'greater burnet' - Sanguisorba officinalis, and 'meadow saffron' - Colchicum autumnale. Possibly others like 'meadowsweet' - Filipendula ulmeria, and 'bistort' - Polygonum (Persicaria) bistorta might also do. Chrisopher Lloyd also recommends Leucojum aestivum and the later flowering bulbs Camassia esculenta and Gladiolus byzantinus. This is only a small area in our garden so we will play with these little by little and see how it might develop. The trick will be to have plants flowering from early spring to mid summer, at which time the 'meadow' will be cut back and the hay removed, prior to the autumn colchicums producing their flowers. This would be a nice area to extend the range of woodland fritillaries, and apart from F. meleagris, both F. pallidiflora and F. pontica do well at present. Fritillaria verticillata and F. pyrenaica may establish equally well.

Early stimulation for our garden came, as it must have for very many, from visiting Beth Chatto's garden in the 1980's and seeing her exhibits at the Chelsea Show. Our rainfall is a little higher than much of Essex and soil not sandy or gravelly, but summer drought is common and sets limits on the plants we can grow successfully. Along the Saxon Shore Way just to the east of Faversham grow a number of species in a mix of sand, pebbles and crushed sea shells. Most are too weedy ever to consider as garden plants, but a few, the 'sea holly', Eryngium maritimum, and 'sea poppy', Glaucium flavum, are really striking. 

 

 

In pure sand, like so many of the more dry adapted alpines, these should do very well. Other species of these two genera also make fine garden plants, as for example G. corniculatum, which is flowering now on a plant I bought from Beeches Nursery near to Saffron Waldon last spring (or is this actually the better perennial, G. grandiflorum?).

With the coastal species also grows the 'biting stonecrop' - Sedum acre (with a wonderful common name which refers to its acrid taste rather than any triffid-like tendencies!), 'sea wormwood' - Artemisia maritima, and the stunning 'sea kale' - Crambe maritima, which would almost be worth building a special raised bed for in the vegetable garden!

'Sea sandwort' - Honckenya peploides, has also been collected as a vegetable at times, like a number of coastal plants, and is a member of the 'pink' family but with less colourful greenish flowers and seed capsules.

The style of garden that these plants suggest, so famously made by Derek Jarman at Dungeness, is not so far away from growing many alpines and perennials from open and arid steppes, as well as the smaller scale 'sand' gardening with alpines found particularly in N. America and by growers like Michał Hoppel in Poland. Interestingly one of the most memorable gardens mentioned by Brent Elliott in his review of the Chelsea Flower Show over the past 100 years is a display of Californian desert plants made by Mrs Sherman Hoyt in 1929.

This was pure theatre and went on to be housed in a purpose built greenhouse at Kew. Similar gardens - the 'desert wash' at East Ruston in Norfolk is probably the best example - take thematic gardening of this sort to an extreme. Another example is the dry garden at Hyde Hall where these plants of Iris bucharica are growing successfully.

And for the real plants-person, this garden in Kent, which the Mid Kent Group of the AGS were kindly invited to last week...

The great benefit of developing a garden in these ways is that the success with certain plants well suited to any particular garden can lead on to a greater sensitivity to many others. And although there is always the tendency, for the plants-person, to want to grow plants in greater variety, it can be remarkable how discovering microclimates and simple ways of growing particular plants (eg: sand beds) extends the garden and makes it so much more exciting.

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