From ‘Cumbria Life’ magazine: October 2013
The Long Goodbye
by Janet Queen.
October 2013 Late season colour from perennials
“Always garden as if there is going to be a magnificent Indian summer.” These words come from Ian Huckson (Dip.Hort) garden designer and landscaper based in Ravenstonedale south-east Cumbria. Having gardened in Cumbria for over 30 years, he knows well the vagaries of our climate, but such unpredictability only toughens his stance. “Keep tending; keep dead-heading and watering if necessary. When the Indian summer arrives, the results will be sensational; in the years when it doesn’t, you will still be surprised how valuable late colour can be. A combination of forward planning and low, soft, autumn light can provide a joyous, winter-defying scene in the garden.”
Ian’s garden design and landscaping business, English Country Gardens, is responsible for the planning, construction and planting of many gardens throughout Cumbria and North Lancashire. One garden in particular, Church View in the Bongate area of Appleby, has become a showcase for his planting schemes in the ‘new European style’ – a modern approach where the garden becomes easily maintained and largely self-sustaining.
Church View is owned by Helen Holmes, and Ian had already created a three-acre garden for Helen before she decided to move to her present, smaller house in Appleby. Church View garden was planted by Ian and his team in 2008, and he points out that existing mature trees in and around the garden, and views towards St. Michael’s church, were the key starting points and influences in the early days of preparing plans. Most of the garden lies to the rear of Helen’s 18th century house; the land is sloping, terraced in places, and gravel paths meander between densely planted beds. There is no neatly cut grass here; every space is filled with carefully chosen plants – a dense array of colour and texture throughout the year.
“Late flower colour certainly rivals early spring blossom in its ability to gladden my heart,” says Ian. “Generally, garden interest can be maintained into winter with variegated foliage and evergreens, all built around good planting structure. But there are techniques I use with perennials, ensuring colour and flowers continue into winter to help to shorten this darkest season. These techniques are simple, although they do require some forward thinking.”
Ian continues, “The first step is to choose perennials that naturally flower late in the year such as Aster, Helenium, Sedum, Echinacea, Rudbeckia and Japanese anemones. Many of those perennials can be manipulated into flowering even later by cutting them back to around half their height in early June before they flower. You can reduce the height of whole clumps, or you can select around half of the stems to cut back. The latter method ensures blossom is spread over a longer period.
There are also many perennials with an early-summer flowering period that can be encouraged to produce a second flush of blossom in late summer by cutting the whole plant, including foliage, right back to ground level after the first flush of blossom. Geranium, Nepeta and Campanula are good candidates for this course of action.
When concentrating on late colour, hardy or half-hardy annuals can be sown later than usual and then transplanted into gaps (perhaps spaces left by faded tulips or alliums) in July. For this method, I suggest using Antirrhinum, Cosmos, Nicotiana, and annual Rudbeckia. Half-hardy perennials, including Dahlia,Heliotrope and Salvia also work well for filling spaces to provide late colour.”
When visiting Church View in late summer, it is difficult for the eye not to be drawn to bold clumps of Stipa gigantea. The arching, harvest-golden stems of these dramatic grasses move gently in the wind, towering over the tallest person, creating a veil through which you can view other areas of Church View garden. The use of Stipa gigantea in a small garden, deployed so effectively, is indeed inspiring.
This plant is also used to great effect in Brockhole garden at the Lake District Visitor Centre which overlooks Windermere. Herbaceous borders here are long and extensive, set in a garden landscape that was originally designed around 1899 by Thomas Mawson, responsible for the design of so many other notable gardens, not only in Cumbria but also in Europe and Canada.
Brockhole head gardener, Sue Preston-Jones, explains how Stipa gigantea came to play such an important and large-scale part in a border which many of the 200,000 annual visitors to the Visitor Centre admire as part of their exploration of the property. “Stipa is perfect for large borders like ours, and it has been a record season for the effectiveness and growth of this hardy grass. The plants were selected, brought here and planted two years ago by Tom Attwood who, along with his wife, runs Abi and Tom’s Garden Plants at Halecat, near Grange-over-Sands. The effect, in such a short space of time, is amazing, but I am now a little concerned that Stipa may take over this border because they are growing so vigorously!” But to the outside eye, it is this vigour and density that works so well in late summer. Tall stems and oat-style seed heads combine to form a loose, hazy informality, even though the border is formal in layout.
Other perennials at Brockhole that help to extend the flowering season include Aconitum carmichaelii, Chelone oblique, Kniphofia caulescens and Sisyrinchium striatum. “This species of Sisyrinchiummay lose its pale yellow blossom by the end of August,” says Sue, “but the flowers are followed by little, dark, shiny seeds which are clearly visible on the evergreen upright stems for a couple of months, making it an ideal choice for planting at the front of borders. I am often asked for the name of this plant – it seems to attract a lot of attention from visitors.”
One of Sue’s favourite perennials for late blossom is Verbena bonariensis. “This is one plant that is granted a free rein at Brockhole, mainly because it is so attractive to butterflies. I let self-sown seedlings grow wherever they choose to appear. Tall, wispy stems with small purple flowers are self-supporting and don’t require staking. From one year to the next, I never quite know where it will next arise.”
Large herbaceous borders, such as those at Brockhole, require upkeep that soaks up man-hours. Sue has the help of a few volunteers and freelance gardeners, and depending on available time during the winter months, borders will be spread with a thick mulch of compost that is made on site. Four heaps, worked in rotation, ensure there is a supply of organic mulching material available for use every other year. Soil fertility in the borders is also enhanced in spring with an application of pelleted chicken manure.
As autumn turns to winter, there is often a temptation amongst gardeners to cut down herbaceous borders, but Sue tries to avoid this where possible. She says,“Stipa gigantea, for example, will remain untouched at Brockhole until spring when the old growth will then be trimmed back, just before new growth appears.”
Back at Church View garden in Appleby, Ian Huckson is in agreement with this. He concludes, “You will be surprised how many of our early autumn days are mild and benign, and it is then that late colour is so valuable. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to cut and clear. In fact, leave it until February. Enjoy the intricacies of the drying, dying plant material. The Ladybirds will.”
Text: Janet Queen