Alys Fowler

If you’ve got a space to fill, ver­bena fits the bill

The Guardian - Weekend - - Starters Contents - Alys Fowler @AlysFowler

It some­times seems that every car park, round­about, back gar­den or park is smat­tered with Ver­bena bonar­ien­sis.

It is not a “de­signer” plant any more – that ship sailed long ago – but it fits in ef­fort­lessly wher­ever it is added. So I guess I am ad­vo­cat­ing even more to please the but­ter­flies.

V. bonar­ien­sis has cap­tured our gar­den hearts be­cause it can also thread to­gether a scheme, add height with­out too much dis­trac­tion, please pol­li­na­tors and flower well into au­tumn. It will self-seed, par­tic­u­larly if you give it a free-drain­ing sub­strate; it loves cracks in paving and gravel gar­dens. Al­though it’s a short-lived peren­nial, if the con­di­tions are right, it will seed it­self just as the par­ent plant is giv­ing up the ghost.

How­ever, if the win­ter is mild, the plants of­ten go from sturdy lofty things to rather hap­haz­ard and shrubby as they re­sprout in spring. In a wilder space this might not be much of an is­sue, but in smaller spa­ces it needs to stand strong, oth­er­wise it looks a mess.

The sim­plest way round this is to take cut­tings. With the av­er­age con­tainer grow­ing plant be­ing about £4, it saves money, too. Cut­tings taken now will re­quire some­where frost-free over win­ter, but it’s easy enough to house a dozen or so if the win­ter is bru­tal. My cut­tings will spend their win­ter by my back door, the lee of the house be­ing pro­tec­tion enough. If frost threat­ens, I’ll put a prop­a­ga­tor lid and fleece over them. Tak­ing cut­tings is sim­ple. Choose a non­flow­er­ing shoot; of­ten the best are side shoots that are 5-10cm long. Snip them off with se­ca­teurs or sharp scis­sors just be­low a set of leaves. Re­move this lower set of leaves and in­sert the cut­ting into gritty com­post around the edge of a pot. If you can of­fer bot­tom heat from an elec­tric prop­a­ga­tor, this will guar­an­tee quick root­ing, but it’s not nec­es­sary at this time of year; in a month, though, it’ll be more so.

When you see roots com­ing out of the bot­tom of the pot, it’s time to pot them in­di­vid­u­ally. Keep them some­where bright and pro­tected, un­til you can plant them out next spring.

You can take cut­tings of any ver­bena right now and there’s more on of­fer than just V. bonar­ien­sis. If all that height is not what you are look­ing for, try V. rigida , which reaches 30cm tall and looks sim­i­lar to V. bonar­ien­sis but with more vi­brant flow­ers. It works well on rooftops, in con­tain­ers and on bal­conies, be­cause it’s a tough lit­tle plant and of­ten keeps flow­er­ing into Novem­ber. If you are look­ing for some­thing a lit­tle more re­strained, ‘Po­laris’ is a very pale pur­ple-grey.

Fi­nally, V. has­tata is still un­der­used. It grows to 20-30cm tall and has a more ta­pered, stiffly erect habit with pale pink flow­ers. V. has­tata ‘Alba’ has white flow­ers and a lovely au­tumn colour. Like the other ver­be­nas, by late win­ter the seed heads turn jet black and look most ar­rest­ing.

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