Change in the garden

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Leaves of Liquidambar styraciflua in my garden

Our gardens are in a constant process of change - as one season slips into the next, as plants grow old and die, as self-seedlings spring up unbidden, as plants simply grow upwards and outwards - and as we make alterations ourselves. Removing or adding plants can lead to other changes, such as new patterns of light and shade. One area at the bottom of my garden was always a shady place, overshadowed by an enormous oak tree when we bought the place 23 years ago. At that time, I decided I wanted a border with hot-coloured flowers and leaves to illuminate the scene through the year, and also to echo the bright hues of the huge carpet of Liquidambar leaves on the ground in autumn (pictured above).

Abutilon hybrid, from the garden of my parents

I planted shade-loving specimens to meet this goal: big clumps of orange Clivia from my parents' garden; orange and red Abutilon shrubs, also from my parents; some red-flowered Camellia japonica specimens to form a background to the border; a shade-tolerant Salvia with brilliant red blooms (Salvia miniata); bromeliads with bright red flowers (such as Aechmea weilbachii and Billbergia pyramidalis) or with eye-catching scarlet centres (such as Neoregelia carolinae); the spectacular orange bristled-flowered Scadoxus puniceus); small, shrubby Justicia floribunda (syn. Justicia rizzinii) with its dainty harlequin blooms in hues of scarlet, orange and yellow; and perennial Kohleria eriantha with luminous orange-trumpet flowers. I added in a few ferns for contrast and some large-leaved foliage plants such as Colocasia and gold-freckled Aucuba japonica 'Variegata', as well as a Strelitzia, said to be shade-tolerant. Before all the 'busy Lizzy' plants (Impatiens walleriana) were destroyed by 'impatiens downy mildew', ribbons of self-sown red busy Lizzies united the border.

Fungi on the stump of the old oak tree in my garden

About two years ago, the poor old oak tree was pronounced dead by an arborist, and the sad (and expensive) task of removing it took place. We couldn't get a stump grinder into that part of the garden to remove the stump, so to hasten its decomposition, I have been covering it with piles of moist compost (a hint given to me by a keen gardener) and I have finally observed that the stump is now covered in weird and wonderful forms of fungi, breaking it down. It is quite a strange and rather discomforting sight (pictured above), but it seems to encapsulate the never-ending cycle of change in our gardens.

Meanwhile, my shaded, hot-coloured border has had to have a complete makeover! The leaves and flowers of the Clivia and bromeliads scorched horribly as hot sun beamed into this whole area. The ferns fried and frizzled, and many other foliage plants turned brown at the edges. Most had to be moved to more protected places in the garden, and I was left with a large bare area to replant, which has happened in a rather haphazard fashion over the past year. I wanted to keep to the hot-coloured theme, but now needed sun-lovers!

Strelitzia reginae

However, this autumn, I finally feel that this part of the garden has sort of come together. With a backdrop of a huge Liquidambar and its fallen leaves, in shades of reds, scarlets, gold and yellow, the plants are looking very lively. Interestingly, some of the plants that I left in situ are flowering better than they did when in shade (even though they did bloom quite well before). The Strelitzia definitely does better with more sun, and the Abutilon shrubs ditto: both are flowering at the moment. The Camellia japonica were too big to move, but fortunately, cultivars with red flowers can stand sun much better than the paler-bloomed ones, and these are just starting to unfurl now.

Tagetes lemmonii

I've added in several daisy-type plants, none of which would have suited the original site, but which love the sun. The so-called mountain marigold Tagetes lemmonii, is a smudge of brilliant gold at the moment, with clusters of small blooms, held above ferny foliage that is redolent of passionfruit. Nearby, I had planted a specimen of tarragon when this herb had outgrown its pot, and I am delighted to see that it has autumn flowers that are like miniature versions of the mountain marigold! This plant dies back to the ground over winter, re-emerging in spring. I thought it was French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), purportedly the best-tasting form; however, that species is said not to flower, so it seems my version is Mexican or winter tarragon (Tagetes lucida), hence the similarity to the mountain marigold blooms! Whatever its name, it is one of my favourite herbs to use in cooking, with its fresh aniseed flavour. Larger daisy flowers are still appearing on my old-fashioned, fine-petalled Gerbera, in shades of red, orange and yellow. These tough old plants are clump-forming perennials that give a long season of bloom, and love sun.

Kniphofia Zuluandii with Salvia confertiflora, right

Another old-fashioned plant in bloom is Kniphofia 'Zululandii' (syn. 'Winter Cheer'), with its thick 'pokers' of orange and yellow. The display is fairly short but never fails to thrill. I have them nearby the velvety, rusty-orange wands of Salvia confertiflora, which is in bloom for months, and the stunning red and black inflorescences of Salvia gesneriiflora 'Tequila'. Though I'd tried these two Salvia shrubs in shaded areas in previous years, flowering was not very profuse; they do so much better with lots of sun!

Yellow jonquils, airy sprays of multiple self-sown coral-red Ruellia brevifolia and the cheerful, simple, golden-yellow blooms of linum (Reinwardtia indica, which also has done better since the tree was removed though it still flowers quite well in part-shade) complete the scene. Every day, more leaves from the Liquidambar drift down and land amongst the flowers - and though it is all a bit wild and overgrown, I am enjoying this autumnal scene! I'd love to know what is blooming in your garden.