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
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.