Dreaming spires

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Campanula rapunculus

My earliest gardening efforts were inspired by the cottage gardening fashion in the 1980s, when many books were published looking back to this traditional form of horticulture in England. One of its aspects that appealed to me above all was the tall spires of flowers that seemed to abound in the photographs in these books: hollyhocks, foxgloves, Eremurus, delphiniums, lupins and campanulas, rising above a froth of flowers and foliage, and it was this vertical form that I craved in my first garden.

Alas, the Sydney climate is not terribly conducive to the majority of the quintessential English garden perennials, including many of the spired plants. I did try them all, and they would survive for maybe one season, only to perish during our humid, wet summers. Our lack of a truly cold winter also meant that they didn't achieve the same magnificence that they did in the gardening book photos! However, over the intervening years I have managed to experiment to discover what plant do perform well in our region to provide the same dramatic and uplifting effect, which still gives me the same thrill, even after 30 years! A couple of them are indeed classic English cottage perennials; others are warm-climate substitutes. Mid to late spring seems to be the time of the year here when many of them are in bloom.

Linaria purpurea in foreground with Nicotiana mutabilis in the background

One of the prettiest of the classics is Linaria purpurea (sometimes known as toadflax), which I grew from seed many years ago. Hundreds of them pop up in my garden each year, and individual plants will live for a couple of years. It has dainty tapers of tiny, clustered pink, white or purple flowers, and blooms from mid-spring until autumn. The plants don't take up too much space and squeeze themselves in amongst other plants. They seem to be very tough, not needing special soil or treatment. They will even grow in cracks in paving or on walls.

Another favourite is a Campanula - the only spired one I have ever had success with in Sydney. I know that many people in Sydney grow Campanula rapunculoides well here; mine was grown from seed marked Campanula rapunculus (pictured at the start of the blog) - it may be the same plant. In any case, it sends up spires of mauve-blue bells and blooms from mid-spring to the end of summer. It runs a little at the root but I have never found it to be a nuisance. It is one of the plants that really reminds me of my love of cottage gardens.

Gaura lindheimeri

I also like Gaura lindheimeri as a plant for vertical form, though I know it is a naughty self-seeder and was banned from sale in nurseries for a few years. Those of us who have it will never be without it in our gardens due to its self-seeding ways and I still like it very much for its wands of wiry stems, bearing white or pink butterfly-like blooms all through summer. Its origins are in Louisiana and Texas in Northern America, so it enjoys our summer heat. It dies back to a woody base in winter.

Hedge of Lavandula dentata in the garden of Kerrie Babian in Sydney

Lavender is also a favourite cottage garden plant with massed spikes of bloom. There are many species and cultivars but not all do well in our climate, and even those which flourish need to be replaced every few years. One of the best for Sydney is the so-called French lavender: Lavandula dentata. It should be clipped back regularly, but never into old wood.

Acanthus mollis Bendigo Spires

On a bolder note, various forms of Acanthus mollis are producing their chubby spires of flowers at the moment. My latest form, 'Bendigo Spires', has particularly tall stems and is a making an impact. The many cultivars of Kniphofia are also in flower around this time - breeding in recent years has seen the colour range expand beyond the original 'red-hot poker' look to encompass sophisticated pastels and lime greens.

Salvia Desley

However, the bulk of my spires come from my ever-expanding collection of Salvia. Over 20 years ago, I concluded that these plants offered me a substitute for the spired plants that were denied to me by the constraints of climate. Over those two decades, more and more Salvia species and cultivars have been introduced to gardeners and we are so fortunate that the vast majority of them adore the heat and warmth of Sydney summers, and can tolerate the lowest winter temperatures that most suburbs experience. My garden is filled with their spires from mid-spring until the end of autumn - not bad at all for what was a stand-in for the English classics!