A Great Garden’s Lessons Keep the Author Up at Night
By Colleen O'Neill Nice
I woke up abruptly with another idea. It was 3 AM, just about gardening time at Great Dixter! I stumbled through the dark house to my office and impatiently searched my desk for the bulb catalogs. Where is my favorite catalog?
No time to waste –– get on the internet.
By 4 AM, the order is placed. Although it is late September, I can still get many spring and summer flowering bulbs ordered and planted. Adding Allium schubertii to my front beds on the north side of the house, will add a spark of purple to existing plantings of Lilium 'Moonstruck'. The golden-yellow Allium flavum planted near the street will release a bit of fragrance in the air as the runners hurry by. Cornflower-blue spheres of A. azureum interplanted with Hemerocallis 'Stella de Oro' will add contrast to the circular bed near the front walk. If I plant the alliums in groups of five or seven, the punch of color will definitely be captivating.
The shade-loving, white flowers of Allium triquetrum might work well popping through the Vinca minor in the foundation plantings. It is worth a try and will add additional color and texture to the groundcover. With Allium christophii sold out for the season, A. hollandicum 'Purple Sensation' will be a great substitute to enhance the entrance to the woodland path.
The sunny slope covered in ivy could use some color in the spring. A mixture of lavender crocus including 'King of the Striped', and 'Queen of the Blues' will pair up nicely with Crocus vernus 'Yellow Mammoth'. On the shady hill, Hyacinthoides non-scripta will naturalize and create a sea of blue with a fragrance that will be intoxicating on the patio!
Ideas, ideas and more ideas, just keep flowing...
Am I dreaming?
Let me start from the beginning. After completing the Ornamental Horticulture program at Niagara County Community College, I ached for direction in my own gardens. I searched for distinctness and creativity, possibly an international influence and a bit of history. My garden needed energy that reflected my own personal style. I felt that I was missing something – but I just could not pin-point what!
So I decided to spend a week in England, studying at "Great Dixter', the gardens of Christopher Lloyd. And just when most gardens are winding down in September, Fergus Garrett (Head Gardener at Great Dixter) was producing the final show of the season.
And what a show it was! After jotting down pages of notes and shooting rolls and rolls of film, it was evident to me that every square foot of space in the garden is actually an overlay or sequence of plantings. Combining plants in this fashion requires quite a bit of knowledge about particular plants including their bloom times, heights, colors, dormancy needs, aggressiveness, staking demands and cultural requirements. This is not gardening for those who let Mother Nature run the show. It is gardening for those who like to make things happen... especially when Mother Nature takes a break!
For instance, Papaver orientale can be interplanted with spring flowering bulbs or annuals. When the oriental poppies complete their show, they go dormant so Cannas, Cosmos or Bidens can be added for fall color. In this case, remember to remove the tender perennials or annuals when the poppies come back up in the fall, since they need sunlight in order to build strong roots for next years plants. In my own garden, the interplanting of the poppies creates opportunities for additional sun-loving plants, thus adding more color.
A second example of sequence planting starts out in the spring with self-seeding Myosotis sprinkled at the feet of Tulipa which are interplanted among perennials like Aquilegia. To continue the show, pop in Dahlias for summer and fall color. Take care when removing the dahlia tubers for winter storage so the tulip bulbs are not damaged.
Sequence planting uses every bit of space by interweaving bulbs, annuals, perennials and vines to create harmony and excitement in the garden. Not only does Great Dixter use spring flowering bulbs to bring pockets of color to existing perennial beds, but they also use many summer and fall flowering bulbs. The diverse group of plants in the Allium genus are used extensively at Great Dixter. Consider A. triquetrum for a shady spot in your garden where self-seeders are welcome. The plant grows to about 18" tall and produces white bell-shaped flowers that bloom in May. Fragrance and golden-yellow florets make A. flavum a great addition to a sunny spot in the garden. It grows to about 12" tall and blooms in June and July. For true cornflower-blue dense spheres, try A. azureum which blooms in June on 24" stems. For a unique, spidery appearance try A. schubertii, which produces rose-purple florets in May and June on 16" stems.
Alliums are a great asset to any garden since they have a small footprint and can be easily tucked into existing plantings. The genus is very diverse in color, size and light requirements with most of the species hardy in zone 5. The flowers are quite distinct in shape and size and dry beautifully right on their stems. Lastly, the allium is rodent-resistant and rarely affected by disease. My favorite reference and catalog for alliums is John Scheepers, Inc. at www.johnscheepers.com.
For a blast of color in late summer and fall, Christopher Lloyd infuses small flowering Dahlias, which are a herbaceous, tender perennial here in zone 5 and need to be lifted after the first frost. A few of my favorites include the dramatic D. 'Bishop of Llandaff' which has fiery red flowers and dark purple foliage. The deep rose 3" flowers of D. 'Fascination' stand out against it's purple-green foliage and look great paired with Sedum 'Matrona'. Add D. 'David Howard' to a sunny spot for an explosion of orangy-bronze excitement interplanted with the contrasting violet flowers of Verbena bonariensis. For a stunning combination, pair up the yellow and red blooms of D. 'Moonfire' with a dark-leaved canna like C. 'Indica purpurea'.
Dahlias can be propagated from seed or purchased as tubers (fibrous roots that have thickened). They are available in various sizes, colors, and flower types. They can be started indoors in pots or planted directly in the ground well after any danger of frost. Two great books on the genus Dahlia are "The Gardener's Guide to Growing Dahlias" by Gareth Rowlands and "Dahlias, A Colour Guide" by Ted Collins. A full color dahlia catalog from Swan Island Dahlias is a great investment at $4 and is refunded with your first purchase. Check out their website at www.swanislanddahlias.com.
Another interesting feature of Christopher Lloyd's garden is the use of many self-sowers. They add drama and excitement to any garden because they are unpredictable. Self-seeders create interesting combinations while hinting about where their favorite places are to grow. Plants like Myosotis, Allium neopalitanum, Campanula lactiflora, Lychnis coronaria, Anemone x hybrida 'Honorine Jobert', Salvia transylvanica, Verbascum olympicum, Aquilegia, Lunaria annua variegata and Digitalis create drifts of color after a few seasons of seeding. Annuals like Nigella, Eschscholzia, Larkspur, Limnanthes and Cleome are great additions to the garden once they get established. And lastly, a captivating self-seeder and see-through plant, Verbena bonariensis, adds a dazzling shade of purple to the garden in late summer and fall. It can easily be potted up after it sprouts and then replanted in bare spots in the garden.
And finally, consider vines to enhance your color combinations, create vertical interest or add contrast to evergreen shrubs. At Great Dixter, Mina lobata romps freely through the Tropical Garden. The Spanish flag loves sun and produces reddish-orange flowers that fade to yellow, then to white.
The Codonopsis, with its blue, bell-shaped flowers, grows 3-4' and prefers sun to partial shade. Try pairing it with cannas or dahlias for an interesting combination. Asarina, also know as the twining snapdragon, reaches 4-6' tall in full sun. It has small fine-textured leaves and reddish-purple flowers that resemble snapdragons. Add it to a trellis with a clematis or climbing rose. Rhodochiton, the purple bell vine, displays dangling rose-colored bells starting in midsummer. It can be grown as an annual, and reaches 10' in a single season. Impomea alba is a great night bloomer with fragrant white flowers that grows to about 10'. The moonflower is easy to start from seed, but will pout, if exposed to cool spring temperatures. By experimenting with annual vines, you can stimulate your creativity and design an everchanging garden from year to year.
As you walk through your garden, take a critical look at the use of space. Capture the seasons of your garden in photographs. Using a copier, enlarge the photos of areas that need improvement and pencil in your ideas. Consider planting summer flowering bulbs or experiment with a few annual vines. Search for self-sowers that could be added to create unpredictability from year to year. Discover ways to make your garden rich with interest throughout the seasons while reflecting your own personal style and creativity.
Printed in the Upstate Gardeners’ Journal, May-June 2004