Fergus Garrett, the head gardener at Great Dixter gave an interesting talk to Suffolk Plant Heritage recently, on what he called succession planting. We all try to do this to a certain extent, but at Great Dixter where the garden has to look wonderful all the time, they have to make an extra effort to make sure that there are no flat periods. This means that the garden is multi-layered, with several plants sharing a space.
Today, I would like to share with you some of his advice. First of all, most of us have thought of the idea of putting small early bulbs such as snowdrops, scillas and chionodoxas in spaces that will later be filled with large leaved plants. Fergus has examined plant leaves so that he can come up with perfect combinations. For instance the lovely scented Narcissus Tazetta has large leaves which would kill many plants trying to emerge close by. Fergus suggested planting it with the large leaved Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ which flowers later in the summer, but will quite happily grow through the Narcissus leaves. His attention to detail is meticulous. For instance he suggested growing the pretty, yellow spring-flowering Anemone ranunculoides with the emerging shoots of a Hosta. But not just any Hosta; the perfect match would be the urn- shaped Hosta ‘Krossa Regal’.
Fergus has looked carefully at the leaves of the bulbs he plants. Tulips which are so great for spring colour have leaves which would kill some perennials such as phlox and rudbeckias. He plants them in groups where their foliage can’t damage existing plants.
One of the ways he suggested for keeping the garden looking its best all the time, is to look out for the best form of everything. Many tulips are poor value because they don’t survive for more than a year or two. It is a good idea to look out for ones that will last, such as most Darwin hybrids and species tulips. At Great Dixter, ‘Negrita’, China Pink’, ‘Red Matador’ and the fragrant ‘Ballerina’ are permanent. It is worth experimenting to see which ones are stayers in your own garden.
To take the garden into May, alliums are wonderful to fill in gaps, but again we were warned to make sure the large leaves were not too close to plants that would get smothered. The showy ‘Globemaster’ has huge leaves which could be a problem. On the other hand the dainty little Allium neapolitanum has slender leaves and pretty white flowers. It is edible too. He suggested growing it with the perennial Begonia evansiana which has lovely heart shaped leaves.
As most of us realise, the garden looks good all year round if it has a good structure of shrubs and foliage. Flowers come and go but foliage stays all season. Fergus has an amazing eye for good combinations of shape, colour and texture. Again, it is important to look for good forms and then, with luck you will get not only lovely flowers but long lasting foliage too. Rodgersias have beautiful leaves, but unless you live somewhere with a heavy rainfall, they look awful later in the season. If you can find Rodgersia pinnana ‘Maurice Mason’, it will look good all season. It starts with chocolate brown leaves and later it gets long lasting red flowers. Thalictrums have such dainty flowers, but their lacy foliage is delightful too. Particularly good is Thalictrum ‘Elin’ which is the tallest Thalictrum. It has beautiful, purple foliage. We were shown a photo of Thalictrum ‘Illuminator’ with the lovely purple foliage of Clematis recta ‘Purpurea’ and the fresh foliage of an Oriental poppy -no flowers, just a lovely combination of leaves.
I visited Great Dixter last summer. Looking at my photos now, I realise that the garden is not just a profusion of plants growing randomly. It is all carefully orchestrated. In the next photo see how the shape of the teasel echoes the drumstick Allium sphaerocephalon and the little blue Eryngium heads. And how good they look with the orange helenium and the blue salvia.
The following photo shows Thalictrum ‘Elin’ with a lovely pink Hydrangea and the purple leaves of a rodgersia in the bottom left hand corner. To the right is the honey scented Euphorbia mellifera.
The exotic garden really shows off a wonderful array of foliage,with varying shape and texture creating a wonderful picture. Because most of the plants are tender, it changes every year.
Of course the pots at Great Dixter are famous, specially round the front door. Pots are a great way of ringing the changes round the year.
Pots are also used at the front of a border in the next shot to accent the foliage and give a tropical look.
Here are some other lovely combinations Fergus suggested. Sambucus ‘Black Lace’ with the white flowered Persicaria polymorpha. This photo shows the lovely black leaves of the Sambucus, which is of course an Elder. You can just see the white fluffy heads of the Persicaria on the left. The grass in the foreground is a Pleioblastus.
Two more suggestions are spiky, silver Astelia leaves with golden Acanthus mollis ‘Hollard’s Gold’ and the all year- round, tall, upright grass, Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ with my favourite fern; Polystichum setiferum ‘Pulcherrimum ‘Bevis’.
There are lots of grasses at Great Dixter which provide structure for all the profusion of summer flowers and look good all year round. If you want more ideas on grasses, have a look at the blog, Barn House Garden. Kate has a wonderful blog and great ideas for grasses and how to grow them.
I am not sure what the next grass is, but it looks like a Stipa.
I loved the idea of a dwarf form of the lovely, silvery cardoon, Cynara cardunculus ‘Chelsea Physic Garden’ with the magenta flowers of Geranium riversleaianum ‘Russell Prichard’. This Geranium blooms for weeks on end. Another long lasting geranium is ‘Anne Thompson’. I have bought this one, because Fergus says it is similar to the magenta Geranium psilostemon, but for it blooms for 4 months instead of 1 month.
The other mainstay of Great Dixter is the use of annuals. Of course, they can afford to produce their annuals on a grand scale and each year they experiment with different combinations, and what fun it must be. We can’t hope to produce them on such a scale, but Fergus suggested we grow annuals and have pockets of them here and there to take the garden into autumn.
Great Dixter relies heavily on self sown annuals to give labour -saving colour. In spring there are forgetmenots with yellow Smyrnium perfoliatum looking great with tulips. Later, there are lots of Christopher Lloyd’s trade -mark stately Verbascum ‘Yellow Lightning’.
Some of the self-sown plants which they allow are really weeds. For instance last year, they had cow parsley growing in the beds. This is a deliberate attempt to make the garden more natural looking. They have teasels, evening primrose and I even saw some ragwort last summer. Fergus said to prevent prolific seeders like Red orach, Atriplex hortensis taking over you can hoe off the first germination. More will germinate but not quite so abundantly. I love the wild Reseda; Mignonette against the frothy heads of Orlaya and the delicate Thalictrum.
The little daisies of Erigeron karvinskianus seed all round the Lutyens steps and how pretty they look.
Lastly, Fergus showed us clematis clambering through the shrubs to extend the season of interest. The small flowered Clematis viticella and Clematis texensis with pretty urn-shaped flowers are best for this. He also recommended Clematis fargesioides ‘Paul Farges’ for a vigorous plant, with long lasting, starry white flowers, with primrose stamens. This is also known as ‘Summer Snow’ and is well worth seeking out. Stronger growing Clematis montana or honeysuckles are grown at Dixter but pruned to stop them killing their host shrubs.
Fergus came up with so many tips, that now I shall have no excuse to say to visitors: ‘you should have seen the garden last week!’
I have got a bit behind with blogging recently, as I am spending all my time on two new projects in the garden. They are absorbing all my time and energy. I shall show you what I have been doing when they are finished. Meanwhile I believe rain is forecast, so I shall have a chance to catch up with everybody. Have a lovely Easter!