The ad­van­tages of self-pro­mo­tion

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden - Mark Grif­fiths

WHAT a clever idea,’ said a visi­tor some weeks ago. ‘I’d never have thought of that.’ She was gaz­ing at the tufts of Vi­ola riv­ini­ana Pur­purea Group that colonise the mossy, crum­bling red brick of our pond’s low wall. In fol­low­ing days, other guests said the same. For them, this minia­ture mu­ral of choco­late leaves and Cad­bury-pur­ple flow­ers sur­passed all around it; plants of ex­tra­or­di­nary rar­ity, value, beauty and stature in­cluded.

Only, the idea wasn’t ours and nei­ther was its ex­e­cu­tion. A cou­ple of years back, I used this vi­o­let to gar­nish pots of white tulips. My guess is that ants, which of­ten gather Vi­ola seeds, bore away booty from those pots, marched the (for them) vast dis­tance to the pond, scaled its wall and then met with dis­as­ter. From the van­guard, a tiny cry of formic frus­tra­tion went up: ‘It’s no good, chaps —there’s a dirty great ocean on the other side.’ Where­upon, the ants jet­ti­soned their cargo and it ger­mi­nated in the wall’s crevices.

These vi­o­lets aren’t alone in the gar­den in be­ing a de­sign mas­ter­stroke that had no de­signer. We’ve a bed of old rose va­ri­eties (Mme Hardy, Great Maiden’s Blush, Fantin La­tour and so on) whose blooms float above the frothy white flow­ers and pur­ple-black fronds of An­thriscus sylvestris Ravenswing. It’s pure floristry, but en­tirely ac­ci­den­tal. Orig­i­nally, I planted this bronze ver­sion of Queen Anne’s lace in the long grass un­der an ap­ple tree. It soon died out, but not be­fore set­ting seed, some of which some­how made it into the rose bed.

There, it re­news it­self year af­ter year, aris­ing just in time to be the per­fect foil to the main act and ly­ing low among the spring bulbs and Michael­mas daisies that are the roses’ pre­lude and se­quel. All I have to do is to weed out any of its seedlings that lack dark fo­liage and al­low a few plants each year to set and scat­ter their seed.

These two spon­ta­neous tri­umphs il­lus­trate one of the most plea­sur­able dis­cov­er­ies that can be made in a gar­den as it ma­tures: some plants, most of them bi­en­ni­als and short-lived peren­ni­als, know our busi­ness rather bet­ter than we do. Left to sow them­selves around, they’ve an un­canny knack of find­ing just the right spot.

I planted the lu­mi­nous Smyrnium per­fo­lia­tum on a gloomy bank. It sulked, flow­ered stingily and died (as it will af­ter set­ting seed), only to turn up two years later, in quan­tity and rude health, in an ad­ja­cent, sunny patch. Here, its sul­phur bracts and um­bels min­gle with cerulean Gera­nium Brook­side and dusky crim­son Gla­di­o­lus com­mu­nis subsp. byzanti­nus in a pic­ture I doubt we could have planned.

As a high­light for shade, Mil­ium ef­fusum Aureum, the yel­low-leaved form of our na­tive wood mil­let, is more de­pend­able and en­dur­ing than Smyrnium, but my plant­ing of this grass can sel­dom com­pete with its tal­ent for po­si­tion­ing it­self, for gild­ing shad­owy path edges, the feet of box and yew and dark earth that’s quick­en­ing with Cro­cus and Cy­cla­men coum.

In a border, snow-white dame’s rocket, Hes­peris ma­tronalis var. alb­i­flora, used to fall prey to cab­bage pests of a sor­did­ness that ill-be­came this fra­grant mid­sum­mer-night bloom, but it hasn’t looked back since I de­spair­ingly let it run to seed and it es­caped into our wild­flower meadow.

The gems of our gravel gar­den also take mat­ters into their own hands. I ar­range them at first, but they soon dis­sem­i­nate them­selves, their off­spring nat­u­ral­is­ing with a ran­dom­ness that is in­fin­itely bet­ter than my schemes at set­ting off their colours’ sin­gu­lar­ity—the ti­ta­nium tones of Gre­cian hon­ey­wort ( Cerinthe ma­jor Pur­puras­cens), carmine Dianthus carthu­siano­rum, scar­let-horned poppy ( Glau­cium cor­nic­u­la­tum) and the spec­tral sil­ver of Miss Will­mott’s Ghost ( Eryn­gium gi­gan­teum). The same goes for bronze fen­nel, glit­ter­ing grasses and the un­fad­ingly fash­ion­able Ver­bena bonar­ien­sis.

As well as ant-de­liv­ered vi­o­lets, our walls host Erigeron karvin­skianus. If I had to keep just one of all these self-sow­ers, this would be it. Massed but air­ily del­i­cate, its white-and-blush daisies are sheer joy, but, pro­vided one is ju­di­cious in sum­mer and dead­heads and weeds like an ed­i­tor rather than a cen­sor, there’s no need to lose any of them.

Mark Grif­fiths is ed­i­tor of The New Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety Dic­tionary of Gardening Next week: A taste for the ex­otic

It’s pure floristry, but en­tirely ac­ci­den­tal

Clock­wise from above: Vi­ola riv­ini­ana Pur­purea Group, Erigeron karvin­skianus, Eryn­gium gi­gan­teum and Mil­ium ef­fusum Aureum

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