A Critical Eye, Part 2: Some Not-so-Positives

My critical eye has of late been observing the main herbaceous beds, the rose garden, the blue & white borders and the bold borders (see map under The Garden tab above) , although in truth I sometimes feel like averting my gaze altogether when walking past them as there are so many things to be dissatisfied with. It would be easy to dismiss this as a seasonal certitude, the result of a July/August lull in performance, and there will of course be an element of this, but living with the borders, knowing them as I do and especially knowing what has gone into them over the years, there is more to it than that.

I am sure I am not the only plantlover who aspires to borders stuffed to the gills throughout the spring and summer seasons, and admittedly when our open garden visitors were here in June the borders were indeed stuffed with foliage and awash to a middling-degree with blooms, but once the aquilegia and oriental poppies are over first the colour  and then the foliage decreases when they are cut back and gaps appear, gaps not filled by later flowering phlox and the like. But please note the word ‘stuffed’, which could explain where some of the dissatisfaction arises, as my efforts to stuff may have backfired.

In June, the airy appearance of aquilegia, alliums and astrantia and the like may well have given rise to a blowsy cottage garden feel in the main borders, but just as an array of tasty cakes, each appealing in their own right, does not make us yearn (not me, anyway) for a diet of cakes and nothing else, then so these borders need something more filling and substantial to keep them going, and rather less itty-bittyness too.  One of these borders has taken the plunge and jumped ship, going off on a tangent, the herbaceous element of the gallery border having been swopped for Rosa ‘The Pilgrim’ and R ‘England’s Rose’, mid and dark pink respectively, taking advantage of an increase in light after the removal of two trees last year:

This has worked and should only get better in time, perhaps assisted by appropriate underplanting, but much as I enjoy roses I don’t intend to oust the contents of all the borders and replace them with roses just to ensure continuity of flowering (like a permanent diet of one’s favourite meal).

Where do I go from here? I really don’t know, although contributing in a positive way has been the addition of annuals, potted on and grown to a reasonable size before being planted out once more able to hold their own. The bunny tails grass, Lagurus ovatus, has been a huge success over a very long period and the shorter cosmos, C Sonata, has done quite well too, whilst Antirrhinum ‘Liberty Classic Rose Pink’ is contributing now but takes such a long time to reach flowering size. Pots of lilies, stored out of the way in the fruit cage until in bud, have helped fill gaps as well, although finding a stable spot within stuffed borders is not always an easy task.

All the borders suffer to a degree with the variation in height of the existing contents, exacerbated to a degree by the narrowness of many of them, like the first of the blue & white beds shown below, which also suffers from a largely north facing aspect. Tall plants at the back and low ones at the front just doesn’t work when the borders are narrow.

This was particularly brought home to me this year by the success of Knautia macedonia ‘Red Alert’ in one of the three bold borders, with Salvia ‘Neon’ and Lychnis coronaria creating a soft wall of blooms next to the path at the right hand end, flowering from early June and still in full bloom now…

…whilst the other end is a rollercoaster in terms both of height and colour, particularly since the oriental poppies were cut back.

This and the adajacent bold border, also against the brick wall that separates the main garden from the fruit cage, greenhouse and cutting beds, are no more than a metre from front to back so there is no opportunity for a gradation in height and the imposing Stachys byzantina ‘Big Ears’ for example just doesn’t look right here although at least makes an impact, unlike less solid front-of-border plants.

The hanging baskets on the wall above these borders don’t work either, getting lost behind other plants and hard to reach or remember for watering; from next year, clematis will climb trellis against the wall instead.

The third bold border is squarer in shape but little more a 1.5 metre square, and sadly is dominated by over-exuberant herbaceous Clematis heraclifolia ‘New Love’ with its appealing ultra-marine blue flowers, supposedly with a height of 60-75cm but easily reaching a metre and requiring more staking than it actually gets to discourage the woody but still flexible stems from visiting the rest of the bed. Again, the edge-of-border plants just can’t compete with this new free love  business (see the intimate relationship with Clematis ‘Gipsy Queen’?) and, as with the other bold borders, where are those new plants I added last year?

Finally, for this part of the critical round-up of the garden, comes the rose garden, further revamped by brick edging to the ground level beds and terracing and the addition of new roses either side of the ‘bus shelter’. This has certainly boosted the original ground level beds which retain moisture and compost much better now, but the roses were bare rooted little over two years ago and still establishing themselves but were certainly much happier this year. The dedicated rose garden isn’t in the sunniest spot of the garden, but light levels were improved when the two trees were removed and the sun reaches it it for more of the day now, which will make for happier roses, and this was the justification for adding roses to the terracing. Planted as bare root specimens in the early months of this year I can forgive them their half-heartedness this season (photo shows just one half of the area, which is mirrored to the right) :

I have been reluctant to write this second part of my critique, recognising that despite throwing time and money at these borders I still haven’t got it right, perhaps trying to avoid acknowledging to myself just how many plants I have bought that haven’t thrived, and without being any closer to a solution. Perhaps I never will be ‘satisfied’, perhaps the garden will always ebb and flow with the seasons, with my changing taste in plants, with with my urges for new projects. Today’s post has proved useful in one respect though; as I wrote tongue-in-cheek about not filling ALL the borders with roses, it did occur to me that adding roses amongst the perennials in some of the borders could indeed add structure and fill some of the seasonal gaps…. Any such scheme would inevitably require judicious planning and most definitely the removal of some sitting tenants, but hurrah! it’s a positive amongst the not-sos!

To complete the round up there will also be a Part 3, the oddments and parts of the garden that don’t get seen as often but which, like Part 1, are likely to be mainly positive and therefore rarely see any changes, perhaps more of an enhancing rather than an improving. The broom will then have swept the whole garden, and even if only just a little bit cleaner then that’s got to be a good thing, surely?!

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7 Responses to A Critical Eye, Part 2: Some Not-so-Positives

  1. cathytea says:

    It’s still sweetly beautiful in its imperfection!

  2. Heyjude says:

    I am beginning to realise that I cram too many plants into one small space, not allowing them room to expand in their second year which may explain why seeds I sow do not germinate and why some plants don’t thrive. I just hate seeing bare soil! There has to be changes! And I guess always some casualties along the way.

    • Cathy says:

      It was the success of the shrub and shady borders which both quickly filled out that confirmed where I was ‘going wrong’ elsewhere , Jude (meant to make that comparison in the post) – we clearly need more patience, or bigger gardens! With seed sowing though, I have learned that I have more control if I start things off inside, and I don’t direct sow at all these days and pot on seedlings till they are big enough to hold their own. We need to learn to love bare soil perhaps 🙂

      • Heyjude says:

        Ah, yes, a bigger garden. Sadly I am too old to consider that now, maybe 20 years ago!

        • Cathy says:

          And even though I say ‘larger garden’, I am not sure it would be wise for me either – well, perhaps, a tiny bit bigger; but no, I am not going anywhere, so I shall make do with what I have and try and gain more space in creative ways…

  3. Brian Skeys says:

    I think it is in our nature Cathy to never be satisfied with our garden. We always want it to be good, whether that is good for us, I am not so sure. I also think I (and probably you) really need a large garden to accommodate all of our ideas ( and the staff to help with it)!
    I do think annuals are useful to keep some interest this time of year, I have started to grow climbers such as morning glory and Spanish Flag to grow up through perennials such as peonies.

    • Cathy says:

      Thanks for this Brian, it was a really considered and useful comment. Even this weekend when I rambled I found myself thinking that I had perhaps been a bit hard on the borders and myself and that just a bit of seasonal tweaking would make a difference – must still reduce the clumps of aquilegia though! This is the first year that adding annuals has made some impact, but I must ensure they have some space to grow and are not planted out too early. I have added some sprawling clematis too, but this is their first year, but other climbers is an idea – perhaps on an obelisk, even? Thanks Brian, I really appreciated your comment

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