Thursday, 21 July 2016

Penstemons. To Keep or Not To Keep.

Decisions, decisions.
Winter is such a good time to stand back and look at the garden.

I'm having a hard time deciding whether to keep my penstemons (above). Also known as beardtongue, my penstemons are in shades of purples and lilac and garnet. (The deep purple one called `Willy's Purple' (top) stands very upright (ahem) and is one of the best.) If they flowered just when the roses didn't (and vice versa) I'd be happy. (Can't they have a conference?). But the stiff resistance to flowering is galling. Their days may be numbered.
Perennials are a class of plants that look fresh, even vibrant, every spring and I absolutely love them.
Penstemons - somewhere between perennial and subshrub - are green and full looking too. Ten years ago, if you'd asked me what flowered from late spring to late autumn non-stop, I'd have said penstemons, no question. Covered in blooms, too. But now...either they're in a bit too much shade or sulking from inadequate summer moisture, and there's hardly a flower to be seen. They're not jumping through hoops in other people's gardens, either.
Don't get me wrong, I like green, but it's at its best when structured (see below), not, well, amorphous masses or blobs. In front of roses, even shrub roses (like here at Possum Creek), and the sin is compounded. The rose garden looks messy, even...badly planned (although I swear the penstemons flowered well when first planted!). Perhaps  - I tell myself optimistically - they just need feeding...if only!
But, but.
For some perennials, about which I'm ambivalent, it's still too soon after the autumn decline and worse (for me, anyway) the decay - those few perennials that I have that must have a haircut - the recent dismal memory trumps the distant springtime memory of (say) glorious flowers or stunning summer foliage. Those plants are on seriously shaky ground.
(So why have perennials? Because they're up there with bulbs for fresh growth and dazzling flowers after the winter chill with not a single complaint or reluctant look back at that sleepy bed - reliably - year in year out. They multiply nicely too; buy one great plant and after a couple of years and a division or two: voila!)
Siberian Iris (see below) are one of these plants I'm completely ambivalent about: delighted with in spring (stunning blue flowers! - in prolific numbers with nary a dynamic lifter pellet flung about in 5 years) and almost disgusted at in autumn: tough dead yellow leaves, flat on the ground, that aren't easily pulled off. No, they require this activity called Gardening. With secateurs. Implements, for heaven's sake!
Self-declared 'Bad-tempered Gardener' (a reference to the famous `Well-tempered Gardener'), garden writer and critic Anne Wareham likens this stuff to housework and wonders why the heck we are supposed to enjoy say, weeding. I'm with her there.
Now, for me, Gardening is dreaming up a beautiful picture and planting the right plants to achieve it.
It's fun, it's not really much work (bung them in (well, no, I admit it, I do dig in some compost first)), and often it involves pleasurable tinkering: adding a little here (pop in a few black tulips, say), pulling out a little there (multiplying the small-leaf form of Stachys, say, which adds to the unity wonderfully). No double digging at Possum Creek! (Perhaps we lack the necessary testosterone?) I'm reminded of the ancient Australian saying: 'No sweat'! (No chance!)
Back to those penstemons. As you can see, the colours I have are particularly lovely - when the wretched things deign to do something so common as put on a flower.
Decisions, decisions. 
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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