In spite of being fairly densely planted, I still get gaps appearing in the garden for a variety of reasons. Maybe something has died or I’ve taken something out; something that came up early has died down or been cut down by mid summer or something failed to make the growth it was expected to.
I’ve been making more of an effort to fill in these spaces this year. Call it layering. Attribute it to The Propagator’s mantra “there’s no such thing as too many plants”. See it as a plant addict desperate to find somewhere to put the latest acquisition or inventing a pretext to buy or grow some more.
The bare ground of winter and spring I have tried to address with bulbs. We don’t have a good record with Narcissus, which have tended to be short lived but I planted clumps of a few different sorts last year which flowered this spring. N. poeticus ‘St Petroc’and N. ‘Rapture’ did very well, the acid test is whether they will come back bigger and better next spring. It’s hard to hold back on buying more, perhaps I’ll try a couple of different varieties. I’ve had some crocus tomasinianus long enough to know they are keepers, so I planted 200 more last autumn and plan to plant more this year.
I have tried to identify places where the bulbs will be in space when they come up but which I will not be tempted to plant into when they die down. Between Fuchsias is ideal, I can cut the Fuchsias down in late winter to show off the bulbs and by the time the bulb foliage has died off it is hidden by the new growth of the Fuchsias. Many herbaceous plants or grasses provide similar opportunities and since I mainly leave Dahlias in the ground over winter, they are included as well.
Wood anemones seem to vary in the density of the carpet they make. In nature they seize the moment in early spring before deciduous trees come into leaf to grow, flower, set seed and die down. Depending on the situation, they may be followed by primarily bare ground below a light excluding tree canopy or by other plants tolerant of low light levels. I planted Roscoea ‘Red Gurkha’ alongside Anemone nemorosa some years back and it has been enveloped by the spreading anemone. It doesn’t seem unduly bothered and emerges in June or July, long after the anemone has died down, to grab its own slot in the revolving seasons. I have now planted a group of Roscoea seedlings through the rest of the anemone clump, pushing through it with a trowel and trying to make holes below the surface rhizomes of the anemone into which I pushed the Roscoeas. Instead of bare ground from May until the anemones emerge in winter, I shall have Roscoeas, interesting in foliage and attractive in flower.
Some fillers are more opportunistic. I grew Tagetes ‘Cinnabar’, Ricinus communis ‘Carmencita’ and Hibiscus trionum from seed this year and simply popped them in where there appeared to be gaps for one reason or another. In one area space was available where I’d taken out a large patch of Zingiber mioga, in another a couple of Dahlias failed to come up in spring.
I suppose I could say that this is a facet of my gardening which is informed by nature. Late winter sees many Cornish lanes carpeted with Primroses, bluebells and wood anemones. These give way to pink campion, then the white of Queen annes lace and cow parsley. Ferns and grasses provide a backdrop. Foxgloves and Montbretia find a slot. Now the colour is provide by betony and in many places Himalayan balsam is rising meteorically. It’s probably what underpins Piet Oudolf’s style and it’s certainly what’s informing Nigel Dunnett’s urban designs. I should read more, so often in life we are reinventing the wheel.
The age of a hedgerow can be roughly estimated by counting the number of species it contains, on the basis that it takes a very long time for a complex community of plants to develop and stabilise such that while they are all competing with each other, they all have a niche within which they can survive long term. No doubt the same is true of meadow plant communities and it must also be true in a garden.
What I want to create is a community of plants that is akin to a natural situation but I don’t actually want a natural situation. I can enjoy a developing or a mature natural plant community on a highway verge or in the middle of Bodmin Moor, but in my garden I suppose I want a souped-up version of it. I want bigger, brighter blooms, more of them and for as long as possible. I want more variety and I don’t want the scruffiness.
It also means that spaces are opportunities, I have a reserve of plants that are intended to go in the gaps; if the gaps don’t materialise they are kept in pots, given away or end up in a car boot sale. I have good reason to avoid planting every square inch with Camellias, Aucuba and ivy just so that no bare ground is ever seen again. More changes as the year goes round, there are more different plants. These are the things that make a garden interesting and a constant source of pleasure.
It says much for the toughness of foxgloves that a plant with a short life cycle, dependant on producing seed and having some of it germinate and survive to flower and seed again, manages to grow on the densely vegetated verges and on the moors around here. It cleverly produces a smothering rosette of leaves and appropriates a patch of ground for itself, then it flowers and dies, leaving a bare patch into which its seed can fall and grow. I allow foxgloves to seed in the garden but have to be very wary about their ability to smother other plants. They can grow huge in late summer and autumn then in spring I realise that they have prevented a dormant Fuchsia from getting going.
This year I have a large batch of seedling Digitalis ‘Elsey Kelsey’ (syn ‘Pam’s Choice’) to plant wherever I can find spaces for them. I intend to give a good few away or I’d have room for nothing else. Honesty and sweet Williams are also part of my biennial repertoire.
This is the first year I have grown morning glory, which I saw as having potential as a climbing filler. I haven’t found it easy but now have three plants in a large pot climbing up my recently erected and therefore empty trellis panels. In the last couple of years I have grown Mina lobata to scramble over early flowering shrubs and provide some late colour but this year they have succumbed to the improbable combination of slugs and drought.
Lastly, and I do see this as saving the best till last, are the tender perennials that we have long grown as pot plants but have discovered do much better planted out. Salvias almost fit here, but want to try and be permanent. We find they are a slug magnet in spring and struggle to get going. The two stars though are Begonia luxurians and Impatiens auricoma x bicaudata. If they haven’t already, will someone please give the latter a clonal name. Both are very easy to propagate from cuttings and both are reasonably easy to overwinter without too much heat. In spring young plants can be potted up and grown on to rapidly make sizeable plants which can then be slotted into spaces that appear in the garden. If the begonia flowers, it’s a bonus; it’s the exotic foliage that it’s there for. No such caveats with the Impatiens though, it will likely be in flower by June and it won’t stop until frost brings it crashing down in October or November.
I have a couple of large plants where the hedge between us and our neighbours was removed, a stop gap pending permanent planting and a couple more where I cut down a massive flopped Clematis recta. That is itself greening up but will die down completely in winter. The flowers are orange but I find that fits in well to my late summer colour palette, what is not to love about it?
My next trick is to mix in some vegetables. Lettuce ‘Oakleaf Navarra’ is always so ornamental on my allotment I’ve decided it’s high time it came into the garden. And I’ve sown masses of cyclamen seed so I can fill in under shrubs, just lift the canopy a little, the possibilities are endless.