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How could you not be excited by April and May in the garden...
when the earth beneath your feet is erupting into a growing frenzy? The garden is springing into glorious life! But as the spring-flowering bulbs give us their best burst of colour, there's something even better following behind. What are these masters of disguise, and which might you want to select for your own garden?
Perennials are the most amazing plants in the garden, because they display such a vivid change between winter and summer. Just a few short weeks ago there was little to be seen from perennials that had died back to the ground over winter, as they do. But now they are sprouting fresh growth which is transforming gardens across the country. And nothing quite matches the explosion of interest in this group of plants that has taken place over the past 20 years or so.
The majority of householders used annual plants during the summer to fill up their gardens with vivid colour. It’s easy to see that bedding plants are reliable. You know what you’ll be getting – all you need to do is to choose the variety and colour, then dedicate some time and effort to planting. The perfect summer garden, back in the day, contained hundreds of gaudy annuals, all flowering their socks off. Bedding schemes are still in evidence in some municipal parks and open spaces, and particularly by the seaside. It was all or nothing. Bare beds all winter and early spring, until danger of frost had passed. then – tadaa – an eruption of colour.
There’s no doubt the displays are eye-catching, but they also sit in a time-warp. Most of today’s serious gardeners want longer-lasting plants that will grow and develop as the years progress. They are continually adding interest and generally favour a full-bed, with very little bare soil to be seen. There’s always room for just one more plant!
Top ten perennials
Well, how could this genus not appear when there are so many varieties (more than 900, to be precise)? The majority are really good at providing colour a little later in the season when some of the other perennials are beginning to flag. Great Comp garden, an RHS partner garden near Sevenoaks, (greatcompgarden.co.uk), plays host to one of the most diverse collection of Salvias in Europe. Salvia ‘Amistad’ is one of the most popular, with its woody habit and deep purple flowers. But Salvias come in reds, pinks, whites and many shades of blue. There are also annual varieties of Salvia too, but they are no match for the real thing!
This is another border beauty that comes in many different shapes, sizes and colours. The flowers come in delightful spires, from whites and pinks through to blues and purples. Give them sunshine and keep dead-heading throughout the summer and Veronica will reward you with blooms for several months.
Geraniums are mounding perennial flowers that deserve a mention because they are so diverse in habit, colour and appearance. Some hardy Geraniums are thugs and take over without you realising, whilst others, such as G. ‘Rozanne’ are charmers. Flower colour comes in blue, white, pink, mauve and more and these plants can provide blooms from June right through to October.
The sunflower family of Helianthus are best for providing good cheer! Their sunny faces come in yellows, golds, oranges, terracotta, mauve, purple and even red. They form delightful, spreading clumps which should expand gradually as the years progress. Some, however, are annual varieties, but all are worth a space in a sunny garden.
Also providing a splash of sunshine is Rudbeckia, particularly R. fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’. This has deep yellowy-orange petals with a chocolate central cone, held aloft on stiff, 80cm stems. It looks wonderful in a thick clump, repeated in drifts around the garden. One of the reasons it’s so highly valued is because of its long flowering season, from July through to October. Beautiful!
Strappy leafed plants are invaluable for adding structure to the perennials garden, and there are many forms from which to choose. Irises are now available in a huge variety and perhaps one of the best-loved is the variegated leafed bearded Iris pallida ‘Argentea Variegata’. Its foliage is striped, thus providing interest all spring and summer, and the soft lavender-blue flowers appear for many months. Not only this, but it’s a trouble-free plant which is easy to grow in a sunny spot.
WHICH BRINGS US AROUND TO CROCOSMIA
Crocosmia is a distant cousin within the Iris family. This is a delightful South African perennial that has great style. Its strappy leaves look effective cascading along a bank or next to a garden path. Then those wonderful orange, yellow or red flowers emerge on stalks from July through to September. Plant it in a sunny spot and make sure it gets some water as it does love good soil and a downpour. One of the best one metre tall varieties is C. ‘Lucifer’, with its scarlet flowers, but there are more diminutive types too, including C. ‘Twilight Fairy Gold’ and C. ‘Emily McKenzie’. They might need a little tlc during the winter but are generally hardy if sited in a sheltered spot.
No list would be complete without grasses. Deciduous grasses act in a perennial way, but we generally keep the old stems intact over the winter because they look so amazing. One of the most popular is the vertical Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ which keeps its shape even through strong winds down on the coast. Invaluable for structure in the garden, and beautiful too.