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.
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.
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).
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 stellata, Baptisia 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.
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’.
This is handy for the greenhouse, so gets watered easily once a day.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.