Brief, be­guil­ing blooms

Fox­gloves are such ro­man­tic flow­ers and as this is the month of ro­mance, Alice Spenser-higgs ad­vises how to grow and use them

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IN MY mind a ro­man­tic garden is al­ways char­ac­terised by an abun­dance of flow­ers, es­pe­cially old fash­ioned va­ri­eties such as fox­gloves, del­phini­ums, columbines, for­get-me-not and roses.

It is even bet­ter to ex­pe­ri­ence such gar­dens in per­son and two that are the epit­ome of ro­man­tic are Stellenberg in Ke­nil­worth, Cape Town and Fresh Woods in El­gin.

Both are lush, in one case to the point of be­ing over­grown, and filled with flow­ers and green­ery, con­tain­ing hid­den cor­ners, se­cre­tive path­ways and crum­bling stat­ues.

A visit to both gar­dens last Novem­ber co­in­cided with the fox­gloves (Dig­i­talis pur­purea) be­ing in full flower and they stole the show.

The Stellenberg gar­dens are the life’s work of Sandy Oven­stone and in­clude a mag­nif­i­cent white garden, con­sist­ing mainly of a white bor­der filled with a breath­tak­ing mix of peren­ni­als, roses, herbs, lilies, daylilies and many more. Ev­ery­thing is clev­erly planned and planted for a con­tin­u­ous but chang­ing show.

Through­out the bor­der, fox­gloves sent up tow­er­ing spikes of white blooms and were quite daz­zling be­cause they had been planted along­side con­trast­ing fo­liage plants — sil­very artemisia and feath­ery bronze fen­nel.

At Fresh Woods, Peter and Bar­bara Knox-Shaw’s garden, beds of fox­gloves have seeded them­selves over the years, re­sult­ing in a mix of soft mauve, pink and cream shades. They thrive un­der flow­er­ing cherry trees and in front of fra­grant shrubs of Brun­fel­sia pau­ci­flora.

Fox­gloves are short-lived peren­ni­als that grow best in par­tial or semi-shade and like rich, fer­tile, slightly acid soil. They can be sown or planted out from now un­til April and will flower in spring. Their ap­peal is that they are fleet­ing. They are not in flower for long but when they are they trans­form the space.

When in flower their spikes reach 1m in height and the plant, which con­sists of a mounded leafy rosette, has a 50cm spread. Some older cul­ti­vars tend to fall over if not staked.

A new, com­pact va­ri­ety is Dig­i­talis “Dal­ma­tian”. It is a first-year flow­er­ing peren­nial, grow­ing 50cm high by 36cm wide, and takes 15 to 17 weeks from sow­ing to flow­er­ing. The white is strik­ing, but one could opt for stronger colours of pur­ple, rose, peach and crème. Clipping the spent flower heads en­cour­ages side shoots to de­velop and flower.

In­ter­est­ingly, fox­gloves are of­ten paired with roses, which like full sun. That means the roses have to cope with less sun and one should choose roses that can take par­tial shade such as the soft petalled, pas­tel va­ri­eties.

Roses and fox­gloves like fer­tile soil that drains well and good, deep wa­ter­ing at least twice a week in sum­mer. Nei­ther tol­er­ates dry soil con­di­tions well. It is not ad­vis­able to use a sprin­kler be­cause the large flower heads are eas­ily weighed down by the water and can bend or break. Rather use mist or drip ir­ri­ga­tion.

A 5cm to 10cm layer of mulch around the plants helps keep the soil moist and the roots cool.

Rose ex­pert Lud­wig Taschner says that fox­gloves tend to in­fect roses with red spi­der. Pre­vent in­fes­ta­tions by spray­ing with Lud­wig’s In­sect Spray ev­ery two weeks in sum­mer. In the event of an in­fes­ta­tion, spray both the up­per and un­der­sides of the rose leaves with Red Spi­der Mite spray for two weeks.

An old-fash­ioned favourite that fea­tured in the Cape gar­dens was del­phinium, one of the “truest blues” of garden flow­ers. Like fox­gloves, del­phini­ums need deep, rich, moist soil that drains well. There is a new va­ri­ety that is spur­less, with up­ward fac­ing flow­ers. It is “Di­a­monds Blue” and grows 41cm-61cm high.

A gor­geous, old-fash­ioned com­bi­na­tion is columbine (Aqui­le­gia vul­garis), Myoso­tis “For­getme-not Blue” and roses. Myoso­tis is avail­able in seed pack­ets, ger­mi­nates eas­ily and then hap­pily self seeds so there are al­ways new plants coming up.

Of the columbines, the Song­bird se­ries has a colour range that in­cludes golden yel­low (Goldfinch), laven­der (Nightin­gale), soft pink (Robin) and deep red (Car­di­nal). If planted in au­tumn it will flower in spring. The plant is frost hardy, likes par­tial to dap­pled sun and has medium water re­quire­ments.

Nigella is not of­ten seen, so it was good to en­counter it at Fresh Woods. It can also be grown from seed and a lo­cally avail­able va­ri­ety is Nigella Per­sian Jew­els Mix. It likes full sun and the flow­ers have a del­i­cate beauty that is quintessen­tially ro­man­tic.

This sil­very artemisia is a per­fect foil for the fox­gloves in the white bor­der at Stellenberg, above. The Dig­i­talis ‘Dal­ma­tian’ Rose, right top, is a com­pact va­ri­ety that is ideal for small gar­dens. Far right: A lovely wild mix of fox­gloves grow­ing in dap­pled sun­shine at Fresh Woods garden.

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