September musings 2

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My first proper harvest of Cox’s Orange Pippin. Shame this isn’t a French heritage variety – but I love it so much and I did get the scions from the Croqueurs de Pommes to graft, so someone around here also appreciates it!

My goodness, doesn’t failure excelerate the rate at which we learn?

The top half of the Hornbeam Gardens, where the cut flowers are, is doing just fine because they are treated like vegetables and watered regularly.

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Asters, of course, don’t really mind dry conditions. But these are just behind my delphiniums and are watered regularly.

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Self-sown Ammi visagna beginning to set some lovely seed for 2019

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The arch next to the dahlias has been ‘sort of ‘clipped now, but needs refinement, because the hedging is still being established. It is also where ‘Rambling Rector’ is growing.

But the lower Hornbeam Gardens have not at all lived up to the picture I had for them in my mind’s eye. I imagined a natural spring shrub garden, that would feature grasses and perennials during the summer.

The arch in the picture below is the gateway to a kind of little hell on earth for plants.

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I’ve been losing a lot of shrubs down there, because of dry conditions – and I do water, but only when I feel it’s essential. So far this year I seem to have lost a Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ and my little Viburnum plicatum ‘Watanabe’. Also feared dead is Philadelphus ‘Virginal’, although this may be shooting from the base. I am vaguely hopeful that ‘Black Lace’ will come back again next spring.


I’ve watered down there on average once every 7 days during our dry spell (I’m of the Beth Chatto school, when it comes to watering). This dry period lasted roughly  from 8 June through until the present. We had rain for maybe 1-2 hours (once for a whole morning) every fortnight, but it was not really enough given the temperatures. In 2016 the temperatures were actually higher – regularly up to 37- 39 degrees celsius – but that lasted for only 2 months. This year it’s been 4 months of average 33-35 daytime temperatures, although it does seem to have broken now (fingers crossed!).


So, how to make this part of the garden more beautiful in summer? The things that do well: bulbs, Knautia macedonica (a menace here, self-seeding into any other ‘precious’ plant), Salvia nemorosa cultivars (‘Caradonna’ and ‘Rose Queen’), Sedum spectabile ‘Brilliant group’, Monarda ‘Beauty of Cobham’ and ‘Cambridge Scarlet’, Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’, Coreopsis verticillata, asters like A.  lateriflorus var. horizontalis, Geum ‘Lady Strathenden’ and ‘Mrs Bradshaw’, aquilegias, Campanula persicifolia, Amsonia tabernaemontana ‘Blue Ice’ and – especially – grasses like Deschampsia cespitosa and the species tulips. The hardy geraniums are also doing not badly and, surprisingly, Aconitum carmichaelii hangs on in there (but is never satisfying).

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I should have recognised the fact that the grass in this area (previously just field) was thin before I dug it up – for some stupid reason I didn’t listen to the alarm bells that were definitely ringing. After research and dredging up memories from the past, I’ve concluded that what I have here is a ‘dry prairie’ (the soil is much lighter on this slope). And, surprise, surprise, the species that are doing well down there are either the same that thrive in dry prairie, or relations. I’m currently compiling a list of plants that could suit.

I’m about to get a bit adventurous: ceanothus, if I can find hardy enough species, Panicum virgatum, Smilacina stellataBaptisia and prairie clovers (Dalea), Delphinium exaltatum, Asclepias (although perhaps not hardy enough, like Agastache, which dies in the winter here), Symphyotrichum sericeum, and so on. Currently I’m feeling inspired although nervous – any suggestions to add to the list I’m trying to compile (which I hope to eventually post on this blog) gratefully received.

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Just outside the lower Hornbeam Gardens, towards the river. I’m nearly finished clipping the hedges down here now. I’m quite pleased with the way they are establishing, but I think a midsummer clip next year would help them to really thicken and look tidier.

Another problem with my original planting is the sloping nature of the site. This means that relatively middle height sedums planted at the front of a border obscure anything behind them (coreopsis, for example). And the shrubs that are doing well (lilacs are terrific, as is Viburnum opulus) tend to want to run/slope downhill! It’s annoying, but again I’ve learnt something huge as a first-time ‘slope’ gardener.

Further up the garden I’ve learnt that things like lettuce, carrots, spinach, spring onions and radish (all benefiting from water and a little shade in the intense heat) should go in small (one person) quantities in what I call my ‘cold frame’.

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This is handy for the greenhouse, so gets watered easily once a day.

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The greenhouse is probably ready to have shading removed. This area is still being developed but I’m very pleased at how tidy it is starting to look in comparison with when it was finished in December last year.

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And also pleased that the yew hedge that was planted to the back of the Rose Walk (to disguise another slope and an ugly concrete retaining wall) is providing a much-needed bit of part-day shade for plants which are growing in the hottest part of the garden.

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And, in spite of the weather, I still have a grass path here! The hedge itself (went in in about 2014, I think) is beginning to thicken up and develop, although it still has a way to go. Although I’m an experienced gardener, and should know better, I still can’t help marvelling at how far a little protection from overhead sun can go to protect and allow even sun-loving plants to flourish without much water.

Clematis ‘Arabella’ is below. The clematis in the Rose Walk are clearly doing nicely, thanks very much, because as we all know ‘feet in the shade, head in the sun’ is the rule.

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Because the soil stays moist for longer in this area, I get quite a lot of self-sowers. Although this self-sown Nicotiana (probably sylvestris) can cope with a lot of drought – they do very, very well here and I strongly recommend them for dry gardens on clay soil.

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Long may my learning curve continue!

I’d love to hear about your failures – and particularly about the plants you think would suit a dry prairie planting.

22 thoughts on “September musings 2

    1. tonytomeo

      Yucca! Some specie are very tolerant of cold. Yucca glauca is endemic to the southern edge of Alberta! There are a few others that are endemic to surprisingly northern latitudes.

      1. Cathy Post author

        Good information Tony – thanks. As I just replied to Eliza, we get -15 to -20 celcius in winter, so I will definitely check out your Alaskan yucca. The lifespan of a ceanothus is not a problem. I have planted them in other gardens in the past (and I think I probably have only another 10-15 years here anyway). It’s the hardiness issue, really. I shall have to choose carefully. Thanks for your helpful comment!

      2. tonytomeo

        Alaskan?! It lives in Alberta! Yucca glauca has a huge range through the Midwest and into Alberta. It might live in Alaska, but is not endemic there.

    2. Cathy Post author

      Eliza we get -15 to -20 celcius in winter. I would so like to be able to grow succulents here, because they are what’s needed. I am still trying to work it out!

      1. Cathy Post author

        Good suggestions – and the thought of prickly pear in my garden! I might love it. Unfortunately I cannot get Agastache to come through the winter. I had one down here, but it died. However, thinking carefully, the one I had down here (a red one, A. mexicana ‘Sangria’) was, I think, more tender and the tougher ones I’ve tried up higher have not liked the heavy soil – ‘Blue Fortune’. I do love them, so find it hard to give up!. But maybe some ‘Blue Fortune’ down here might work? I’m trying to propagate my perovskia and pennisetum to spread down here as well. Weird about the Veronica – I bought one this summer and it came through nicely, although I always think of them as preferring damper conditions. Veronicastrum does well, however. Your suggestions are most welcome, Eliza! Thanks!

  1. tonytomeo

    You should be aware that ceanothus does not last very long. Some might get twenty years old. Others might last only ten years. There are a few that grow fast, but wear themselves out in five years! They are not as permanent as people believe them to be. For most of us, ten to twenty years is just fine, and the short lifespan in no deterrent to planting them. I just like those who grow them to be aware of the innate weakness of ceanothus so that they do not blame themselves when the ceaonuthus dies of natural causes.

  2. gardeninacity

    Ugh, how frustrating. You might want to consider Little Blustem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Those should be hardy for you and take dry conditions. Also Wine Cups (Callirhoe involucrata). Just a thought.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks so much! – these plants are all on a list I discovered with an American dry prairie nursery. The Callirhoe for some reason I thought might be more tender. But I will try all three, via seeds if I can get them.

  3. janesmudgeegarden

    It gets far colder there than I realised (I thought the -7.5 was excessive here last winter) so I haven’t any suggestions for such freezing temps. The things that do best in my garden over winter are the same as the ones Eliza suggested. My painter husband says he sees beautiful paintings in your garden photos.

    1. Cathy Post author

      How kind of your husband. I’ve found everyone’s suggestions incredibly helpful – and they follow through on a path I was already taking!

  4. fredgardener

    As Tony said, growing Yuccas is possible. I have 4 in Normandy where we have almost the same climate (-15° C) Mine are Y gloriosa. I also grew a ceanothus repens but it died. I planted a new one last summer ( C.cynthia postan) : we’ll see…
    As for the planting of dry prairie, I reserve a large corner behind a shed where I plant everything. I never water, full sun in the afternoon. There is sand and rocks in the soil and I put there plants that I don’t want, cuttings for the next years, old plants, new seeds in excess. A balance has been created and many wild flowers grow there… but there are also nigellas, dianthus, hollyhocks, lysimachias, lychnis, kniphofias, amaranths, aquilegias, cosmos …

    1. Cathy Post author

      Interesting what you and Tony say about the yuccas – and thanks for the ceanothus tip. I was going to plant C. repens. Still might try, but you have warned me. What a clever idea to have a trial ground – I think that this area of the garden is probably going to be that for me!

  5. Chloris

    This year has been a nightmare for trying to keep things alive too. It is drizzling a bit here today, the first rain in ages. I was amazed that in my Mediterranean garden I lost lavenders and even a cistus to drought. Delphiniums and hydrangeas have gone. It really is a learning curve finding out what will cope with heat and drought here. Dahlias don’t seem to be able to manage more than a few hours. Your dry prairie garden is a great idea. Good luck with it. Nice to see your greenhouse and surrounding area looking so good.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Yes – amazing to lose lavenders! Although I’ve noticed that in troughs on my balcony the lavenders do well on one side and struggle a bit on the other (differences in sun intensity during the day). We’ve now had two lots of wonderful rain in the last three days, and sun again this morning. Perfect!

  6. bittster

    What a transition to the down below! I’m only used to seeing dry and suffering gardens like that around here 🙂
    It may seem hit or miss right now but your structure really is growing in! I love the hedges.
    I can’t think of much that hasn’t already been mentioned. Chrysanthemums tolerate drought well here and bearded iris seem to prefer it. Don’t forget bulbs such as colchicum! Even in miserably dry autumn they put on a refreshing show.

  7. Cathy

    I am always looking for plants for dry conditions too! I must try Amsonia. I can recommend Scabiosa and Centranthus ruber (although it can take over!). Another gap-filler that spreads and thrives in hot dry slopes is Teucrium hircanicum. It looks a bit like purple veronica, but lasts all summer. I never water my rockery and these all did fine in this incredibly hot and dry spring and summer. 🙂


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