Perennial favourites

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Aquilegia hybrid

Recently re-reading Sissinghurst: the making of a garden by Anne Scott-James, which I first read in 1984, made me nostalgic for my early gardening years, when I naively believed I could make a sort of mini-Sissinghurst in suburban Sydney. English-style cottage gardening was in vogue and I read tons of English gardening books at that time, drooling over the lush, billowing borders in the photographs. I tried every herbaceous perennial and cold-climate shrub which I could lay my hands on, in an expensive journey through the mail order catalogues and nurseries which had burgeoned at that time. I recall endless lectures which I gave to my parents about the beautiful, romantic English garden I was going to create, of towering delphiniums, proper geraniums, peonies, bleeding hearts, oriental poppies, clematis twining through old-fashioned roses accompanied by lavenders and bellflowers.

Sadly it all ended fairly badly for me, as few of the delicate English-style perennials and shrubs really liked the Sydney climate where I was living, and many of them either rotted in the heat and humidity of summer, or refused to flower due to the mildness of winter. None of them ever multiplied into huge, luxuriant clumps or reached the full stature of those depicted in my gardening books to produce that abundant look for which I had longed. At the time I couldn't really understand why this was so, but I decided that my next goal would be to move to a colder area of Sydney so that these plants might do better.

Polygonatum x multiflorum

When I finally moved to Beecroft in 1993, I was able to have a measure of success with some of the cooler climate plants, but I still had many heartbreaking failures with my beloved perennials. Summer humidity and torrential downpours of rain often still spelt death to my much-cosseted treasures, which were totally unused to such assaults in their native habitats. The winters - though a little cooler than in Ryde - weren't really cold enough to give convincing blooms on many of the plants which required a certain number of hours of low temperatures in order to set their buds. I sadly realised that I was never going to be able to achieve the English garden look with these plants in my garden. I felt frustrated and deprived, and began planning my next house move, this time possibly to Bowral.

Just at this time, the tide of gardening fashion once again turned, and even in England, people started ripping out their traditional plants and putting in tropical-style plants - from South America, Mexico, South-east Asia, Southern China, New Zealand, even from Australian rainforests! I discovered these plants grew very easily for me, and my attitude towards gardening completely changed from the challenge of the endless quest for rarities and a constant struggle to keep alive sickly plants from the foothills of the Himalayas, to a focus on creating the lush, full look of an English garden using warm-climate plants that thrive easily.

Pink form of Linaria purpurea

But I still do have some vestiges from my cottage gardening years, perennials which have stayed with me that I love to see blooming at this time of year, which was when my erstwhile cottage garden looked its best. They seem happy enough in Sydney - some of them persist because they self-seed, others just appear to cope well with our climate. I would never be without them as they are part of my gardening past and are just so pretty. Dainty Linaria purpurea, Aquilegia species and hybrids and cerise or white Lychnis coronaria are some which self-seed happily, though the plants themselves often last for several years.

Silene dioica

The arching fronds of Solomon's seal (Polygonatum x hybridum) clump up well in shady corners; a variegated-leaf one is particularly pretty. Silene dioica, one of the classic wildflowers to be seen growing along English lanes, with its pretty pink notched-edged blooms, has also proved reliable.

The white form of Campanula poscharskyana in the garden of Beverley Jenkins in Sydney

I always loved Campanula, and the two species which have proved long lasting in my garden have been the groundcover Campanula poscharskyana in its blue and white forms, and a species with tall spires of bells, which years ago I grew from seed labelled Campanula rapunculus. It is similar to C. rapunculoides, which we were always warned against as a terribly invasive species, but with which I never had any success at all. My version is tough and self-seeds a little bit, but is not a nuisance.

Geranium Rozanne

Another favourite of my cottage garden days was species Geranium. I have tried many in my time, but the best doers were G. macrorrhizum in all its forms and the wonderful hybrid Geranium 'Rozanne', with its stunning blue flowers.

I hope I never lose any of these reminders of why I was seduced by the English dream in the first place all those years ago.