INTO THE BLUE

The mag­i­cal borders at Parham in West Sus­sex are a les­son in great plant­ing, so we asked the gar­den­ers to tell us how they were de­signed

Country Living (UK) - - Contents - Words by stephanie don­ald­son pho­to­graphs by ja­son in­gram

Parham’s mag­i­cal borders are

a les­son in great plant­ing – we ask the gar­den­ers how they were de­signed

Turn down the cen­tral path through the blue borders at Parham House in West Sus­sex and you will be met by an un­du­lat­ing ta­pes­try of colour that stretches ei­ther side of you for some 55 me­tres. Dense mounds of amethyst-hued phlox and deep blue clary sage jos­tle with tow­er­ing spires of pale veron­i­cas­trum, in­ter­wo­ven with the float­ing heads of palest blue didis­cus and pure white Ammi ma­jus. It is breath­tak­ingly beau­ti­ful and all the more so, con­sid­er­ing that it was bare earth a mere two months ear­lier.

When Tom Brown took over as head gar­dener in 2010, these borders were con­sid­ered to be the jewel in the crown of this glo­ri­ous gar­den, set­ting the bench­mark of qual­ity to which the other areas as­pired. How­ever, as Tom set­tled in, he be­gan to no­tice that many of the blue hues had dis­ap­peared, some of the more thug­gish peren­ni­als were be­gin­ning to dom­i­nate and there was a ma­jor prob­lem with bindweed.

For a few years, Tom and Henry Macaulay – Tom’s right-hand man in this part of the gar­den – tried to im­prove the dis­play by split­ting plants and putting in ex­tra an­nu­als, but it wasn’t enough. Henry says, “The peren­ni­als had be­come so crowded that it was like drop­ping some­thing into the deep end of a swim­ming pool – it would just dis­ap­pear.” There came a point when they asked them­selves, “What are we pre­serv­ing?” Ev­ery­thing from the bindweed to the size of the plants and the scale of the borders meant it was bet­ter to start again. How­ever, re­mov­ing a much-loved fea­ture of the gar­den re­quired sen­si­tive han­dling and re­as­sur­ing the fam­ily at Parham – Lady Emma Barnard and her hus­band James – and the vis­i­tors be­came an im­por­tant part of the process.

Two years ago, Tom de­cided they were ready. “By then we were con­fi­dent that it would work and I had grown to un­der­stand what Lady Emma and her fam­ily like,” he says. “I as­sem­bled a bucket full of blue, li­lac and white cut flow­ers, took it to them and ex­plained that this was the kind of thing we had in mind.” As the blue borders con­sist of four quad­rants, Tom rec­om­mended that the restora­tion be done two at a time. “This al­lowed the fam­ily to see the po­ten­tial. Once the first two quad­rants were planted and flow­er­ing within the first year, they were keen for the rest to be done.”

Work be­gan with the re­moval of the ex­ist­ing plants, all of which were burnt on a huge bon­fire to avoid rein­tro­duc­ing bindweed, weed seeds or any lurk­ing dis­eases. A dig­ger ex­ca­vated deep down to re­move the bindweed, the soil was then checked metic­u­lously and com­post was added. It proved im­pos­si­ble to re­move the bindweed from the es­paliered ap­ple trees at the back of the borders and from be­neath the few shrubs that were re­tained to give struc­ture, so these were ring-fenced with weed-proof bar­ri­ers and given a deep mulch of bark. Any bindweed that does ap­pear now is eas­ily dealt with.

“We had to be cer­tain that we weren’t losing pre­cious plants through­out the great cull,”

“Putting the peren­ni­als in to­gether meant that we were giv­ing them all the same chance”

Tom says. “With old cul­ti­vars we needed to check that fresh stock was avail­able from else­where. If we re­ally couldn’t find a re­place­ment plant to buy in, our one would be metic­u­lously picked apart, all the soil would be washed off the roots and it would be pot­ted up.” Tom and Henry made a list of a hun­dred peren­ni­als that they wanted to use and, af­ter much lively dis­cus­sion, whit­tled them down to about 30. “We then put them into sub-lists of tall, medium, low and ac­cent plant­ing to make it eas­ier to find the right plant for the right place,” Henry says.

On their plan, they coloured in all the blue plants to make sure they had a good spread and suf­fi­cient colour through the year. Blue is the main colour, but silvers and pur­ples com­plete the tri­an­gle and set one an­other off. Whites are also wo­ven in to pro­vide high­lights. “Rep­e­ti­tion and big­ger drifts have much more im­pact than just try­ing to fill space with all our favourite plants,” is Tom’s wise ad­vice. “We look for clus­ters where we have an as­so­ci­a­tion of three or five plants and re­peat those down the borders so that they re­ally sparkle. Salvia ‘Caradonna’, Echi­nacea ‘White Swan’, Pen­ste­mon ‘Alice Hind­ley’ and Se­dum ‘Autumn Joy’ work won­der­fully well to­gether.”

Plant­ing the peren­ni­als was de­layed un­til mid-may so that any newly ger­mi­nated an­nual weeds could be dealt with be­fore­hand. The two-litre plants were then laid out along the borders at 45cm spac­ings and the 9cm pots at 30cm apart to al­low for fi­nal ad­just­ments be­fore plant­ing. “Putting them in to­gether meant that we were ef­fec­tively giv­ing them all the same chance,” Henry says. “It was one, two, three, grow!” The an­nu­als fol­lowed at the end of the month. “We had a cast of five or six for each bor­der, pro­duced 40 of each in 9cm pots and flooded the gaps with these,” Tom ex­plains.

Now that all four quad­rants have been re­planted, Tom and Henry have made some in­ter­est­ing ob­ser­va­tions. “We mulched the first two beds with com­post, but not the last two. There was a dis­tinct dif­fer­ence in flow­er­ing per­for­mance between these borders – with the plants in the lat­ter be­ing stur­dier, need­ing less staking and pro­duc­ing more flow­ers,” Tom says. “The down­side with­out mulch is that we have had to tackle an­nual weeds, so we may try a less nu­tri­ent-rich mulch in fu­ture.”

“We wanted bil­low­ing ro­man­tic op­u­lence,” Henry says. “And more at­ten­tion seek­ers,” Tom adds. “Pre­vi­ously, all the plants were sup­port acts but now we have real stars to catch the eye.” There is no doubt that their team­work has re­stored the blue borders to their for­mer glory in record time – the jewel in Parham’s crown is in sparkling form once more.

Parham Gar­den Week­end takes place on 7 and 8 July 2018, 10.30am-5pm (01903 742021; parhamin­sus­sex.co.uk).

PRE­VI­OUS PAGE The blue borders just two months af­ter plant­ing THIS PAGE, FROM ABOVE Nigella ‘Miss Jekyll Blue’ is a favourite cot­tage gar­den an­nual; Echi­nacea ‘White Swan’ makes the blues of salvia and nepeta sing; Scabi­ous ‘Black Knight’ con­trasts...

Didis­cus ‘Blue Lace’, known as the lace flower, has del­i­cate laven­der-blue flow­ers that dance on long stems above other plants. Here, it is mixed with Salvia ‘Say So Blue’ and the fo­liage of San­guisorba men­ziesii. Drum­stick al­li­ums (A. sphae­ro­cephalon)...

Gera­nium ‘Rozanne’

Pen­ste­mon ‘Alice Hind­ley’

Salvia ver­ti­cil­lata ‘Pur­ple Rain’

Con­sol­ida re­galis ‘Cloudy Skies’

Cam­pan­ula Prichard’s Va­ri­ety’

Aga­pan­thus ‘Cobalt Blue’

Nepeta sub­ses­silis

Didis­cus ‘Blue Lace’

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