The garden in... May and June
Kari-Astri Davies is enjoying the first flush of flowers in the garden while planting for more colour.
Every May Day, I mark the advance of summer by how many candles of flowers are lit on the horse chestnut trees. Some years all the candles are lit, others maybe only flecks of white show on the lowest tiers. We tend to take this pretty, often monumental, smooth grey-bark tree for granted. I learned recently that it comes from a small area in the Balkans and is found on rocky outcrops, unlike the parkland settings we are used to seeing them in.
As well as enjoying early summer’s explosion of foliage and flowers, I am currently planting for later summer colour. In the shadier, south-facing raised beds, the theme is sort of exotic. Last year saw an eclectic mix of bedding begonias, a ricinus, a Tetrapanax papyrifer, a red-leaved banana, amaranthus, gingers, nasturtiums and dahlias. I had anticipated that some of the dahlias left in the ground the previous year would not survive the winter, so I bought more, end-of-season sale bargains. All of the tubers left in the ground came up again, including ‘Sarah’, a dark-leaved mini with single red flowers fading to rust, and taller-growing ‘Karma Choc’. The new dahlias went in at the end of May; dark red, almost black, semi-cactus ‘Rip City’ and, similar in colour, water lily type ‘Sam Hopkins’. By autumn, lovely as all these dahlias were, there was too much of a lush dark dahlia thing going on. This year, I have bought airy single-flowered ‘Magenta Star’ from the National Dahlia Collection to lighten the planting. The more stolid ‘Rip City’ may have to go. A small selection of tender and hardier fuchsias was also added. They were provided as lovely healthy cuttings by Other Fellow Fuchsias and then grown on by me, not so expertly. Once planted out, ‘Lord Roberts’ and ‘Jester’, both ‘typical’ fuchsias with dark pink top petals and single and frou-frou purple skirts respectively, made a good start. However, they and most of the others succumbed to fuchsia rust in last summer’s dull conditions, with leaves and flowers dropped. Although the more tender cultivars seemed less affected, they were shy to flower. I am not going
“For thee, sweet month; the groves green liveries wear. If not the first, the fairest of the year; For thee the Graces lead the dancing hours, And Nature’s ready pencil paints the flowers.” John Dryden, ‘Palamon and Arcite’
overboard on fuchsias this year. As a child, I admired the silver and purple patterned leaves of a Begonia rex my gran grew in her dining room. Until recently, I had never grown these flashier types of begonia. Two years ago, I bagged a Begonia luxurians from Norwell Nursery. This begonia is currently more than 3ft (1m) in height, with large, heavily fingered fans of green leaves. It stops most people in their tracks when they see it. B. luxurians is tender, and is overwintered in the conservatory at a minimum of 5°C. This year, more ‘cane’ begonias are being added, including ‘Little Brother Montgomery’, recommended by Dibleys Nurseries. This has heavily cut silver, dark green and red patterned leaves. I will also be firing things up with B. boliviensis, of which there are a few cultivars around, including ‘Firecracker’ and ‘Santa Cruz’. I am thinking of hanging them in big pots in the apple trees.
Using annuals and tender perennials to mix up colours and shapes in a small way every year, in the south-facing raised beds and in pots, keeps things fresh. The beds look a little sparse for a while compared with other parts of the garden, but most of the new temporary incumbents will soon get going.
Thomas Hood, ‘O Lady, Leave Thy Silken Thread’ “There’s crimson buds, and white and blue The very rainbow showers Have turn’d to blossoms where they fell, And sown the earth with flowers.”
Plug plants in small quantities were ordered in January. Then, in mid-May, I will visit some local garden centres for inspiration and buy a selection of more mature plants. This year’s plug plants include a petunia species new to me, Petunia axillaris, with scented white flowers. Generally, petunias seem to do better in pots than in the ground in my heavyish soil. I took lots of pelargonium cuttings last year, most of which rooted. My pots will include deep red ‘Lord Roberts’, sparking off more orangey red ‘Gustav Emich’, with a dash of shocking pink, trailing ivy-leaved pelargonium ‘Surcouf’. Added to these
John Keats, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’
will be scented deep purple heliotrope ‘Midnight Sky’, bought as plugs. Sadly, my own heirloom heliotrope cuttings did not take this autumn. One of last summer’s garden centre discoveries, planted in the sunnier, south-facing raised beds, was Isotoma axillaris, or laurentia, a lobelia relative. This Australian native formed 18in (45cm) high hummocks of thin-petalled, starry, light-blue flowers. It proved impressively long-lasting, only giving up in mid October, leaving behind a fine skeleton of interlaced stems. I will definitely be using this plant again. Also in these sunnier raised beds, Nemesia sunsatia ‘Papaya’ provided a rich orange splash of colour alongside eschscholzia ‘Jelly Beans’. The nemesia did not quite have the staying power to make it into the autumn. It may have lasted longer in pots. A couple of years ago, I wrote disparagingly about the performance of ‘Jelly Beans’. I had misremembered what I had sown. The disappointment was ‘Mission Bells’. ‘Jelly Beans’ produces sumptuously ruffled, semi-double flowers in orange, cream and lilac shades. Pale lilac-flowered verbena ‘La France’, from the Beth Chatto Nursery, proved a stalwart in my soil. Sizzling pink trailing verbena ‘Sissinghurst’ failed to get going, with coarser and taller-growing ‘La France’ engulfing it all around, flowering on and on. Deadheading keeps the flowers coming. Definitely a good ‘do-er’. I am planting this verbena again, but not so much of it this time.
“Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves; And mid-May’s eldest child, The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine, The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.”
The white, yellow and blue themed border, sploshed with the pink and deep violet of peony and aster respectively as an experiment, continues to vex me. It is still not gelling after nearly four years, although I did have some compliments last June. At that time the creamy lupins ‘Noble Maiden’ were gently giving way to the delphiniums, and the off-white oriental poppies were doing their brief blasé thing. Once the lupins had gone over, big gaps were left, with nothing to pick up the middle section of the border. It was the same with the delphiniums at the back. Once they had flowered and been cut back, the weather was very dry and, despite watering, the foliage did not re-grow much. However, by late summer, cosmos ‘Purity’, planted as plug plants from Sarah Raven, had grown to giant proportions. These single, white annual cosmos, with soft feathery leaves, flowered for ages, swamping much around them. The border looked quite impressive from a distance though. I will try the smaller ‘Sonata White’ this year. Last winter, a number of plants were hoicked out and re-located, including Sanguisorba canadensis. Having lusted after this plant, with upright, off-white
fuzzy heads, the later summer flowers looked dirty against whiter whites. One of two large clumps of cirsium ‘Mount Etna’ also came out, replaced by a much taller growing, ‘looks like a cirsium’, white form of Serratula lycopifolia. Single dahlia ‘White Honka’ already adds a fairly solid presence from July onwards, now joined by dahlia ‘Star Child’. This has finer white petals than ‘Honka’s’ gold-bossed, white propellers. The border ideally needs soft linking plants in the mix. Umbellifers should hit the spot. I have previously experimented with annuals dill and ridolfia, which have not worked out. From seed, I only managed to produce a few weedy plants, rather than abundant patches, and in hot weather they faded early. Annual umbellifer Ammi majus did not thrive either. A lovely group of perennial umbellifer, Selinum wallichianum, was supposed to bring coolness and sophistication to the border, but died out after a couple of years. So, this year, to achieve a wafty, wavy effect, plain, ordinary green fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, is going in instead. Patrinia scabiosifolia, a Siberian native with loose yellow flower panicles, is another plant which is new to me. It is said to be short-lived, but easy to raise from seed if I want to grow more in subsequent years. Persicaria ‘White Eastfield’ and Veronicastrum alba have also been added as mid-border fillers. For the moment, sweetly scented Hesperis matronalis ‘Alba’, dame’s violet, has claimed the space vacated by the selinum. Hesperis is an enthusiastic seeder, but a lovely addition to the May/June border nonetheless.
Left to right: Watering becomes more important as it gets warmer; pastel pink apple blossom; Begonia Rex ‘Little Brother Montgomery’ with its bold silver-marked leaves.
Horse chestnuts have an abundant show of upright white flowers. Left to right: planting out dahlias in a border; a blue tit gathers grubs on a fir tree; shadetolerant hostas.
Left to right: lupin ‘Noble Maiden; Paeonia lactiflora ‘Bowl of Beauty’ lives up to its name; garden fragrance comes from sweet rocket, Hesperis matronalis ‘Alba’; waves of fennel.
Left to right: scarlet pest, the lily beetle; pale lilac flowers of verbena ‘La France’. Kari-Astri Davies started gardening in her twenties with pots of roses, geraniums and sweet peas on a parapet five storeys up in central London. She’s now on her fifth garden, this time in the Wiltshire countryside. Inspiration includes her plant-mad parents, as well as Dan Pearson, Beth Chatto, Keith Wiley and the Rix & Phillips plant books. Kari describes her approach as impulsive, meaning not everything is done by the book.