The advantages of self-promotion
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