Short and sweet
Shrubs are such dutiful anchor plants, it’s all too easy to forget that they don’t live forever. For those with short but brilliant lives, Frank has an insurance plan
We think of shrubs as permanent garden fixtures, but for columnist Frank Ronan the best are those with short but brilliant lives
We like to think of the trees and shrubs in our gardens as permanent fixtures. We call them anchor plants and they are expected to remain, dutifully, holding the garden together. If we change our minds about one and, wondering what made us plant it in that spot to begin with, wish it dead, we tend to delay the execution, despairing of what to do with the awful gap it will leave. Fortunately, some things, by their tendency to a short and brilliant life, do the dirty work for us, and provide the lesson that it is good to move your anchors from time to time.
It is impossible to think that anyone has ever tired of their Ceanothus ‘Puget Blue’. There are overwhelming specimens (if not of actual ‘Puget Blue’, something similar) in London squares, of a height and breadth that we provincials with our wind and frost could never dream of. I give my ceanothuses ten years and if they make it to fifteen would expect a telegram from the Queen.
But then, this not being California, it was always astonishing and delightful that they would condescend to remain with me for any length of time at all. When I did get to live in California it was a great disappointment to see how shabby and unremarkable the wild ceanothuses were compared to the hybrids we know in our gardens. And more devastating to discover, on a trip to the Puget Sound in Washington, that ‘Puget Blue’ doesn’t like it there at all. We have the best of it, and you only have to remember to plant another ceanothus every few years to have one coming along, one in full fig and one on the way out. They will last longer with the drainage and heat of a wall, so long as you can give them elbow room – for a hard pruning is certain death – but look best, I think, freely standing and thoroughly staked in a border, where the electric mop of fireworks can have full effect.
The death of my first Elaeagnus ‘Quicksilver’ was a bitter blow. It was an early triumph in its border and I had been recommending it by default to anyone who asked for any kind of advice. Luckily, I have my own higher oracles to consult and they all assured me that that was what ‘Quicksilver’ did, and that it was as unpredictable as it was inevitable. More fortunate still I had been potting up some of the prodigiously produced suckers to give away.
Thought to be a hybrid of the old world Elaeagnus angustifolia and the new world E. commutata, but sometimes speculated otherwise, its chief joy comes from the flowers which you’ll smell before you see them. The scent can fill the garden on a good day, leaving the uninitiated bewildered by the near invisibility of the flowers. The second glory is in the grace of the silver foliage, superior, in my opinion, to the more often lauded silver pear. The suckers give you plenty of scope to play with new locations. I have even put a few in the boundary hedge. The dryness and competition there may just encourage them to live a little longer.
Daphnes are more notorious for death than opera heroines. Daphne bholua, which began flowering soon after Christmas and is only just now finishing, has become indispensable to me. It is not so easy to propagate and has only recently become passably available. Still, whenever I see it for sale I tend to buy three, if they are good. Two are planted, of which one will probably expire soonish while the other thrives for the moment. The third is sentenced to a pot as back-up. By this strategy I can have two or three decent-sized plants in the garden at the same time, which is the minimum for decency. Other daphnes, if you can grow them, should have the same insurance premium paid. It may seem like attrition, but the scent is worth the price.
I GIVE MY CEANOTHUSES TEN YEARS AND IF THEY MAKE IT TO FIFTEEN WOULD EXPECT A TELEGRAM FROM THE QUEEN
Frank Ronan is a novelist who lives and gardens in Worcestershire.