I was down at Barr Village Hall yesterday with Billy Carruthers from Binny Plants. Barr is a village that’s easy to call to your mind’s eye even if you’ve never visited before because it’s the sort of place that we hold in our imagination as a bucolic ideal; with stone bridges and gentle streams, and having no mobile signal, it’s unhurried by ringtones and rushed conversations.
We were there for a talk by Fergus Garrett on how to use plants to get interest in the garden over a long season. Fergus is the head gardener of Great Dixter and he used many examples from his experience there, developed from working alongside the late Christopher Lloyd.
Me and Fergus Garrett (mid-blink I believe). Photograph: Billy Carruthers
The talk was organised by Andrea Jones – a leading plant and garden photographer, who also bakes a mean loaf! (and I have it on excellent authority that her photography workshops are also very good, but I can’t guarantee bread is included in the workshop…)
There were a lot of useful things to take from the talk and I can’t hope to do it justice here, but I’ve listed below some of the key ideas and inspirations I picked up from Fergus’s talk.
- Grow good plants! It sounds obvious, but sometimes it’s easy to think that a pulmonaria or peony would be good for a particular situation and then automatically go for the old favourites. For example, the go-to pink peony has been ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ for a long time. This makes a spectacular show in my mum’s garden every year, but it flops if you don’t stake it. A good alternative would be ‘Dinner Plate’ which has thick stems with a bit more strength to them. I’ll definitely be giving more thought to the plant varieties I choose.
- Grow plants with a long season of interest. At Great Dixter, they can afford to grow certain kniphofias for their 3 weeks of flower and disguise their leaves with other plants in the border but in smaller gardens, Kniphofia caulescens ‘Coral Breakers’ or ‘John May’ would be a better choice because it also has attractive, glaucous blue leaves throughout the year. Rodgersia ‘Maurice Mason’ is another of Fergus’s examples of a plant with many seasons of interest. The emerging leaves are bronzed, and green-up with maturity. The flowers still look good after they’ve gone over (going from pink plumes to a deep red colour), and my memory fails me here, but I think the leaves take on a red tinge in autumn.
The leaves of Kniphofia caulescens ‘John May’. Photograph: Sericea/Creative Commons
- Choose companions carefully. If you want to grow a clematis over a shrub, think about which clematis. ‘Bill Mackenzie’ is a beautiful clematis, but it’s a vigorous plant and it also follows its yellow flowers with wispy seedheads, so by the time you can bring yourself to cut back the display of seedheads the shrub underneath has been overwhelmed.
- Give the neighbours a bit of space. Gardeners are quite often told to plant in drifts, and to scatter bulbs and plant them where they fall so that they look more natural. However, this doesn’t take into account the plants that are already there. The leaves of Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ could crowd out the light quite early in the year when a phlox is still trying to get going. It makes sense to distribute the allium around the border so that any other emerging plants still get good light. Another point that Fergus made was to underplant with bulbs that have finer foliage, so that it casts less shade – say, choosing Tulipa sprengeri over a hybrid with broader leaves.
Of course, you would need to hear the talk from Fergus himself to get the full extent and depth of the thinking behind succession planting. The few points I’ve shared have been filtered through my head, so it has necessarily been simplified. What I’ve really taken from the talk is to garden more thoughtfully. It’s also given me lots of ideas about how I can cram even more plants into the garden!
And to top it all off, look what was waiting for us after the talk!
Home made cakes from Barr Village Tearoom. Photograph: David Wong