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Plenty of love for cooler months

I know that spring is the traditional time that many people undertake a major clean-up, but for gardeners, autumn is more appropriate. The spring-summer season is coming to an end, and the garden is slowly shutting itself down. We are giving hedges their late season trim, raking up the fall of deciduous leaves, harvesting the last of the summer crops [tomatoes, zucchinis, pumpkins] and maybe having a think about the shape of our gardens.

I have been looking at one of the large beds in our back section, thinking it was time I gave it a refresh, and tidying up parts of it, making room for some new plants.

The bed was established out of lawn about 20 years ago and is about 1.5 metres wide and about ten metres long. The rear section of the bed has evolved into an autumn garden, with a couple of Salvia guaranitica cultivars. ‘Black and Blue’ and ‘Amistad’. These start flowering in summer, and continue until the first frosts, with, respectively, blue flowers from black calyces, and royal purple flowers. ‘Amistrad’ grows taller – up to two metres – and ‘Black and Blue’, although smaller, tends to spread a little more. We now have a large clump of ‘Amistrad’, which is encircled by ‘Black and Blue’.

To the north of these is a scattering of different coloured hellebores, both single and double. They provide lots of interest in the colder months, but as the spring approaches, they are supplanted by a white cactus dahlia [name long lost] which flops over them, hiding the foliage. When autumn arrives, they are all overshadowed by a large [and getting larger] clump of double-pink Japanese anemones. They provide great colour for the end of the season, and I have happily allowed them to expand in all directions.

At the other end of the bed, things got out of hand a little. I planted a couple of different epimedium species, one golden, the other a rusty orange. These are relatively unknown perennials, mostly native to China but also found in other parts of Asia, with a few in the Mediterranean. They are mostly perennials, with a network of underground rhizomes, surmounted by compound leaves [usually with three leaflets] which are coloured bronze in the spring and may take on rich colours in the autumn. The flowers are carried in spring and are generally yellow or red shades. They are pretty without being in any way flamboyant.

These are very valuable plants for providing groundcover in dry spots where few plants will succeed.

As I have found out, they will also spread very well in good soil, eventually threatening to smother other plants, so this year I got stuck into the large clumps growing in the back bed and removed them both. In doing so, I discovered the stump of a red manuka that died several years ago, so I was able to gently lever that out of the garden as well.

As I was doing so, I realised that another autumn flowering perennial had disappeared from the bed, and I had not noticed – the Japanese toad lily, Tricyrtis hirta. This unusual plant has a fleshy roots and very succulent stems.

The flowers, which appear in late summer and into autumn, are very unusual. They are small and somewhat lily-like, with six petals, white but heavily spotted with purple. This is one of the easiest of the toad lilies, it is sometimes called the hairy toad lily [as the Latin name suggests] because the vegetative parts of the plant have small hairs.

There was an altogether less welcome plant lurking among the fringes of the epimedium – a white violet species that I have never been able to identify. It is an aggressively spreading plant, with small, unscented white violet flowers. It is not a terrible weed, but it is a nuisance if it gets in a garden bed.

In the course of reading about Wairarapa history, I discovered that a white violet – presumably the same one – was reportedly causing problems to pasture in Mauriceville in 1907.

I now had about one-quarter of the garden cleared. I added some new compost and chicken manure, and then thought about new plantings.

The first to be planted were some peony plants I had temporarily heeled into the vegetable beds several years ago. They have stayed there ever since, flowering regularly each spring. It was certainly well past time that they found a more permanent home, and this bed seemed ideal.

They are a mix of different varieties, mainly herbaceous, but also including one of the Itoh cultivars, hybrids between the more usual herbaceous types and the rarer [and more expensive] tree peonies.

We grow a number of Itoh cultivars in different beds, mainly in the yellow shades. The one I moved, ‘Keiko’, has lavender-pink flowers that fade to soft pink.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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