Thursday, 5 March 2015

`Ruby’ Flowers and Repetition

“Repetition in a garden provides structure, flow and impact”  writes Nick Turrell in The Garden (January 2015), comparing creating a beautiful garden to crafting a good speech. He writes that "successful repetition in a garden context can be just as memorable... [because] a memorable planting composition carefully placed around a few times, pulls the whole scheme together. But don't overdo it. No more than three times. Once is an event, twice is a pattern; it's the third time that it sinks in." 
It’s great advice.
In my jardin d'jour, the silver and raspberry (and cherry and plum - we are talking colours here, by the way) garden bed where I've been playing with colours and textures and form (including some upright foliage of iris and Dierama) but...forgetting structure. It's a bed reminiscent of Christopher Lloyd's long border (a bold claim, I know) at Great Dixter, but without, yet, a firm path in front. In any case J would prefer an informal, slightly winding path so - when we have these mud and mulch paths made gravel instead - they will not confer much gravity.

Coreopsis rosea `Sweet Dreams’ (above) is bright yet deep pink at its centre, bleeding into near white at petals edge - cheery but not overwhelming. It's not quite the colour I'd planned for my raspberry and silver bed...but I think it adds zest in a close hue. As the bed was planted late, it was one of the first perennials to bloom here, in early summer; now cut back, I thought its flowering season was over...but things aren't always that simple.
Like many other perennials lately I must have, on planting, taken off a couple of pieces with roots and shoots and potted them up. Then they were flowering merrily with glowing cherry-pink daisy heads up above all surrounding foliage amongst the pots by the back door - in February’s heat - no mean feat. So when I needed a medium height perennial (about half a metre high) and one with raspberry-coloured flowers at that, I had one at hand with almost exactly the right shade and into the bed it was thrust.
Raspberry Salvia, deep pink paeonies, silver artemisias are all repeated, and at the rear, pink-mauve Phlomis too, which tolerates the severe dry. Agastache `Aztec Rose’ (above) is a near-raspberry perennial on 1.2m stalks I’ve repeated too, 3 clumps, weaving around the silver Tanacetum
Sedum `Ruby Glow’ (first picture) has begun flowering over glaucous leaves and this is the best chosen perennial for the bed yet. Its repeating element is other sedums (like S. `Red Setter’, its reddish leaves an interesting addition rather than beautiful – so far) as I want to see which looks best along here – although I am probably happy to keep each, slowly dividing over many years for several clumps.
My garden beds usually have bearded iris (if in full sun) or another plant (often another iris) to give upright foliage for contrast and texture. I really don’t have enough in my silver bed and so a couple of black bearded iris is a tempting solution as there are no true pink bearded iris (adding an apricot one here would give me apoplexy. Seriously) and the blacks are glorious; the grey leaves would fit nicely here too. (Dieramas are too messy - near the front - when the clump is a little aged, and just too tall.)
Meanwhile Alexandre Thomas of Les Jardins Agapanthe in Normandy (The Garden, May 2011) says "I am a plantsman and a garden designer and an architect and a decorator. You need all this to make gardens." 
Good gardens, yes.
Great gardens? I think you need an artist at the helm along with the design, along with - ideally (but not necessarily) plantmanship, and constant evaluation.
I don't know if I am an artist although I certainly have aspirations in that direction. If colour was the only critirion of import (if only it was that simple!) - then I might qualify.
But I've just had a reality check. All those perennials and subshrubs; not enough structure.

It crashed down on me yesterday that here was a long border of (mainly) soft perennials with nothing – nothing! – to hold it together in winter bar some well chosen and carefully placed hellebores (either red-flowering or silver of leaf). (I am being pretty harsh – those mounds of Tanacetum will give form all through winter too.)
I could add statuary but I have enough in the garden. (“Once is an event”... it’s too easy to overdo features and my front garden, in particular, is nearly over-tizzed. “Don't overdo it” writes Nick Turrell and I will try to take his advice here too.)
An alternate and more satisfying structural device will be a regular placement of green spheres.
I've always loved circles and spheres and the two - however much each is an artifice (just as is the garden) they are somewhat less so, after all, than squares and cubes.
I'll place them on one side of the path, amongst the raspberry perennials; the other side of the path is filled with Hydrangea paniculata (and pots of this and that, cuttings and seedlings near the back door hose, and the big pots of cut and come again lettuce).
 This decision is satisfying because it will link the double row of green balls of Tiny Trev lilly pilly flanking the front path (giving the sun and sky bed more structure), with the ones flanking paths around the rondel (or circular lawn) on the other side of the house. But I don't think I'll use Syzigium `Tiny Trev’ again for a few reasons, particularly its propensity to outgrow its advertised height. Looking for a shrub for my large Cretan terracotta urn I came across Escallonia Pink Pixie, a little toughie that grows to 80cm. It has small leaves (important if clipped); the small pink flowers are acceptable here; and it will, I hope, stay very neat.

More of this hardy diminutive shrub punctuating the silver bed – say every 2.5m and a metre back from the edge – might save this border from becoming an amorphous mess (which is a little easy to do when you are a plant enthusiast painting a picture with – mainly - perennials). These will lead to the box-ball-like Syzigium pairs at every path end around the circular lawn on the other side of the house. The repeating element will give the garden some unity but I won’t do it throughout the garden. (Now I am licking my lips in anticipation for winter and early spring when the balls stand out and the perennials are cut back...and just a few bulbs are gleefully adding some colour.)
Changing that repeating element declares a change of tempo; that a new garden area has been entered, even as they are linked.
Nick Turrell says of repetition: “don't overdo it” (“No more than three times” rings in the ears) and while he is referring to a planting composition – and he must be referring to large gardens!  – I am taking it to heart with my spheres of green too. Three areas containing this gentle formality, and symmetry of sorts amongst the ephemerals, soft or exploding (such as Eremurus fireworks near the back of the border), will be enough for our country garden, and more than enough for the lover of informality, J. The rest of the garden becomes wilder as you move away from the house, seemingly unplanned, soft, naturalistic.
My silver bed merges gently with greys and greens; and purples, pinks and blues, into its surrounds.
On one side is the front garden’s sun and sky bed – all blues and yellow – which leads gently to blues and purples with some grey foliage: a dwarf blue English lavender teamed with purple-leaf sage, a silver bush with white flowers (Convolvulus), deep blue-purple of rare perennial Strobilanthes atropurpureus, Russian sage (Perovskia), lots of purple iris, Salvia `African Sky’ and best of all, Sydney-sky blue Salvia patens, this one a large flower form from Sunnymeade garden, gorgeous. (I must take cuttings!) I want to add some blue-violet cranesbills here. Then the blues and purples merge with pink-lilac – penstemons and hefty Madeira Germander (Teucrium betonicum) before the silver garden roars into life with its raspberry flowers and yes, its pinks and plums too.

Beyond: a Pitcher Sage (Lepechinia hastata, left), 2m high, slightly more green than grey, and – as recently planted – just beginning its display of bright but highly saturated, or dark, pink-lilac salvia-like flowers; some bearded iris, grey sword leaves thrusting skywards; pink oriental poppies for spring; and, near the front, sweet pink Californian poppies, their grey ferny foliage perfect for this spot. (Called `Purple Gleam’ they are a lovely pink, see above).While this area seems to be pink rather than purple, it’s near the herb patch by the kitchen door. I’ve a spare purple-leaf culinary sage and I think this will link these areas a little, especially when the culinary sages all show off their pretty blue flowers in late spring.
Over in the (new) herb garden near the kitchen I feel like my perennials are being pushed further and further away. This is mostly a problem because the heights of the plants look all wrong. I know J doesn’t like iris but one could say, surely! – that the iris from which orris root is produced, similar to this bearded iris I photographed along Italy’s coastline in the Cinque Terre (above) – this belongs amongst other Mediterranean coastal herbaceous plants (like sage, thyme and so on); habitat, not use linking the plants (for me: I haven’t used orris root to fix the perfume in home-made pot pourri for a long time) – but I think it fits. My plant is Iris pallida `Amethystina’ (below) from (again!) Lambley’s and is a particularly lovely soft lilac. A compromise is clearly required so I’ll move some, but maybe not all, of the iris.)

A similar size shrub, heliotrope, would look nice along a bit and add structure amid the perennials; its purple flowers are scented sweetly of vanilla and bloom through the warm months - even longer when the shrub is in full sun. It’s tempting to add more perfumed plants: fragrant herbs opposite the culinary herbs, especially ones that could be picked for say, an old fashioned pomander, seem very apt. White Bouvardia, chocolate cosmos (not quite the right colour), Nicotiana sylvestris and some of the unusual daphnes immediately flood the imagination too. Perhaps a perfumed-leaf geranium (as us Australians call Pelargoniums); there’s one in a pot of course, a rooted cutting of one which, when you crush a leaf, has a scent somewhere between mint and gum tree leaves. Some green-leaf cranesbills (true Geranium) in the shadehouse would be a great addition here, as well; too much grey is dismal, for me, anyhow.
There’s a pink-lilac penstemon along here and through the warm months, at least, it links these pink-purples to the nearby pink and burgundy roses around my circular lawn.

It will be interesting to see this garden area evolve. And a whole lot of fun.

Jill Weatherhead is horticulturist, writer, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and works throughout Victoria (

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