Growing in harmony In a Belguim garden, nurseryman Jan Spruyt has used grasses and vibrant perennials that complement rather than compete with each other
Renowned nurseryman Jan Spruyt specialises in perennial plants for form and texture, but in his latest project for a private garden he’s created a kaleidoscope of colour
Agarden full of flowers, bees and butterflies from March to November is what we all dream of. And if we were told that that same garden could be achieved with no watering, no dividing, and almost no pest control, we’d know for sure that the dream was too good to be true. Or would we?
Annemie and Guy Brusselmans’ garden in Sint-Amands, a rural community between Antwerp and Brussels, proves that the dream is eminently achievable – and more beautiful than we had dared imagine. Designed by renowned nurseryman and prairie-planting advocate Jan Spruyt, it is, for nine months of the year, an ever-changing kaleidoscope of colour; dark tulips, maroon Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata ‘Black Barlow’ and wine-red Geranium phaeum giving way to pink achilleas and orange, ra-ra-skirted heleniums in summer and, later, the buffs, reds and gold of autumn foliage and grasses, punctuated by huge drifts of asters. In late November the picture changes again to something less colourful but still full of interest as seedheads assume mantles of frost or snow.“There are only about two weeks of the year when there’s nothing going on,” says Annemie. “And that’s in late February just after we’ve cut everything down – but even then, you can see the bulbs nosing through the soil, and we start to imagine the delights to come.”
The garden’s success is down to two things. The first is Jan’s clever design, which has only one or two shrubs used as
“There are only two weeks of the year when there’s nothing going on, but even then, you can see the bulbs nosing through the soil”
trees, a good number of bulbs and around 2,000 herbaceous perennials. “People always assume perennials are a lot of work,” says Jan, whose highly regarded nursery Vaste-plantenkwekerij Jan Spruyt-Van der Jeugd, is just outside Sint-Amands. “But they don’t have to be. Prairie-style planting, using perennials that grow in harmony with one another rather than competing for nutrients and light, requires none of the lifting, dividing and replanting of the traditional herbaceous border.”
That’s not to say there is no work at all. Annemie and Guy still remember planting the garden back in the autumn of 2012. “It took the two of us 28 days to plant everything and then another 28 days to pour the lava mulch – all 55 tonnes of it – between the plants,” says Guy.
Since then the biggest task has been the annual cutting down of the seedheads in late February. Watering has rarely been needed. “Watering disturbs the plants,” says Jan. “They will make more leaves, causing more evaporation and they’ll suffer more from weakness and disease.” Pest control barely features either, since non-native plants are not hosts for indigenous insects, although they still provide pollen and nectar for bees and butterflies, as several
bee hotels attest. The same goes for diseases: asters are known for suffering from powdery mildew, but here it is not a problem. “My explanation is that because we don’t use fertilisers, the cell walls are stronger and harder and the spores cannot penetrate,” says Jan. “Rainfall contributes around 40kg of nitrogen to the garden annually and the soil doesn’t need any more than that. Prairie plants actually improve the soil.”
The only task of any real significance is weeding, and it’s Annemie’s expertise in this regard that is the other chief reason the garden looks so good – she whips out any unwanted seedlings before they have a chance to gain a foothold. “When I sense my clients aren’t really interested in gardens, I’ll tend to use drifts of just one plant,” says Jan, “so that any weed seedlings are easier to spot. But I could feel Annemie had the hands for it so I combined different plants. She is without a doubt my best guardian.”
This sense of confidence also allowed Jan to include some indigenous plants (which by nature tend to self-seed) alongside rarer and more unusual forms that he’s bred at his nursery. Among his proudest achievements is Coreopsis tripteris ‘Mostenveld’, which at 2mplus towers above most plants of the genus and, along with statuesque grasses, provides structure to the garden, particularly in late summer and autumn. “In spring we can see right across the garden,” says Annemie, “but as the seasons progress, it begs to be discovered.”
Annemie takes all the weeding in her stride. “Before I only had a lawn and roses and I always wanted to do something like this. Now, tending to the garden is my hobby. I walk through it every day and if I see a weed, I just pull it out.” USEFUL INFORMATION Jan Spruyt’s nursery is open to the public on Fridays, 8am-3pm, and on selected Saturdays. See vasteplant.be for details.
“Using perennials that grow in harmony with one another requires none of the lifting, dividing and replanting of the traditional herbaceous border”
In brief What Private, rural garden that makes clever use of perennial planting. Designed by nurseryman Jan Spruyt as a low-maintenance, prairie-style garden. Where Sint-Amands, Belgium. Size 500 square metres. Soil Sandy, acidic loam improved by chalk. Climate Winters can be -14ºC; summers can reach 36ºC. Hardiness rating USDA 8.
The garden requires little more than a spot of daily weeding from owner Annemie.
Tall grasses and plants, such as Eupatorium fistulosum f. albidum ‘Massive White’ and Euonymus europaeus ‘Red Cascade’, shield the front of the house from the street.