Dynamism in the garden

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Clipped hedges in the parterre in the garden of Villa Farnese, Caprarola, Italy

I have always been in awe of very formal gardens comprised solely of clipped, geometric evergreen hedges and topiary, eschewing all or most flowers. They look wonderful all through the year - they never have a down time when things are scruffy, untidy or bare. Yet I have never tried to make such a garden. Partly this is because I am by nature not a neat person and this sort of garden would not be 'me' at all. But I have realised that another reason is that I find these gardens too static - there is no ongoing drama!

New foliage of Ageratina altissima Chocolate in early spring

This thought struck me during the week when I saw, peeping through the ground, the tiny, lacy, leaves of a perennial herbaceous Delphinium I had been given as a gift from a friend last year. It was such a thrill! It inspired me to go looking for other emerging snouts and fronds of other herbaceous perennials in my garden. I don't grow a lot of these nowadays (compared to my heady 'cottage garden years' of the 1980s and 1990s) but there are some: tough customers that can put up with Sydney's hot, humid summers and relatively mild winters - conditions disliked by the majority of this group of plants. I was rewarded by finding the plump, pointed shoots of Solomon's seal (Polygonatum x hybridum), the tiny rosettes of perennial Aster (such as Aster cordifolius 'Silver Spray' and Aster novae-angliae 'Violetta') and perennial Phlox, and the sumptuous jagged, burgundy-tinged leaves of Ageratina altissima 'Chocolate' (syn. Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate'), one of my favourite dark-leaved foliage plants. Hosta and Echinacea are others that will emerge soon. The fact that these plants disappear underground in winter makes them so welcome when they return, and their fresh, new foliage looks so perfect and spring-like! Then they will flower, further transforming themselves ...

New growth on Clematis viticella

For the same reason, I love to see the baby leaves on deciduous trees and shrubs (and even perennial vines, such as Clematis viticella, pictured at left) at this time of year. Yes, their bareness in winter can seem stark and grim at times, but when their pristine leaves unfurl it gives a sense of excitement that a clipped hedge cannot provide for me. Many of these will also have lovely flowers ...

Sparaxis and Chinese forget-me-not (Cynoglossum amabile)

Spring bulbs are blooming everywhere now, and they represent some of the most changeable of all plants - sending up their foliage, flowering, then dying down and becoming dormant for much of the year. Yet such dynamism is (to me) what gives gardeners the sense of anticipation and hope that enlivens our days. When I spied my yellow Sparaxis bulbs in flower entwined with blooms of a Chinese forget-me-not (pictured above), I felt enraptured, even though these flowers will be gone in a few weeks.

Self-sown nasturtium seedling

Elsewhere in the garden, vigorous self-sown annual seedlings of Cleome, nasturtium, forget-me-nots, Nigella, heartsease and Orlaya have sprung up in bare spots - always surprising me with where they have decided to grow each year - and they will quickly grow into useful filler plants, blooming whilst the rest of the garden burgeons during spring.

Pruned-back plants make for a bare look in my garden in spring

Most of my semitropical plants (such as Salvia, Canna, Dahlia, many Acanthaceae plants etc) are now cut back quite hard - the rest (including Begonia, Pentas and Fuchsia) will be done next week. Though my garden looks extremely bare right now, I love watching the daily changes as these plants grow, flourish and fill in as the warm weather settles in. They will flower all through summer and autumn. All my ornamental grasses are currently just sad tufts, but will soon grow lovely new leaves, which will provide another dimension of vitality in the garden, as they sway and rustle with every passing breeze.

The exhilarating changes throughout the year in the garden as plants wax and wane are the essence of gardening for me. There is always something delightful to look forward to, and I feel tuned into the seasons. This seems to be the reason why I don't want a garden solely of hedges. However, those who know me know that I do have a couple of hedges and topiary spheres in my garden - their value is in providing a stable background to the kaleidoscopic changes that happen throughout the year, much of which is an insubstantial, transient froth - but to me, a source of endless joy!