March 22, 2013 6:27 pm

Beds, boxes and honeysuckle balls

The unusual British weather has prompted updates in plans for the season
Helleborus x hybridus, Iris reticulata Harmony, Galanthus Flore Pleno©GAP Photos; Andrew Lawson

Helleborus x hybridus, Iris reticulata Harmony, Galanthus Flore Pleno

Never have winter flowers lasted so long. Snowdrops have had a six-week season. Hellebores have been magnificent for weeks, especially if you remembered to cut off their old leaves to show the flowers and the new green shoots to the best advantage. The forms of Viburnum bodnantense have gone on flowering since Christmas. My plant of the year is the little mid-blue Iris reticulata Harmony, which has been flowering at a height of 6in through sun, snow and icy winds since early February. It is squirrel-proof too. I doubt if anything will excel it in the next nine months.

The reason for this unusual display is the unusual British weather. Mild sunshine brought all these flowers out with a rush and then the persistent cold kept them as if in a freezer. It has been less kind to gardeners. Between freezing and drowning I have been updating the plans for this year, trying to address last year’s failings. If only I had kept accurate notes the task would be easier. I know things looked wrong in late May but I cannot now remember exactly what was out of balance.

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Robin Lane Fox

Never sit still and expect a garden to mature smoothly. Nothing lasts for ever and if you do not keep adding and improving, the fun and the total beauty are soon in decline. As a life-long gardener I do not recognise the fashionable ideal of “sustainability”. In Britain a sustainable garden would be one filled with ground elder, bindweed and nettles. Change and impermanence are part of a gardening year.

I am telling myself that I have just made my final change in my own garden’s basic design. I would have done it years ago, except for the non-gardeners who muttered “not more flowerbeds, surely”. In a bare section of lawn I have laid out four formal beds in a shape which is always pleasing. They are four-sided and diamond-shaped like the ace of diamonds in a pack of cards. Each bed is edged against the surrounding lawn with treated timber, sunk to grass level and fixed onto longer pegs, knocked into the underlying soil. This simple precaution makes maintenance so much easier as the lawn edging can be cut against the sunken timber edge and the grass cannot run into the flowerbed. If you sink the edge just below the level of the lawn, you can mow right up to it without damaging the blades on the machine. This time I have used 2in x 4in treated timber, setting it with its narrower edge uppermost.

In the next two weeks I will be edging these beds with low-growing box, Buxus sempervirens Suffruticosa. I am not going to plant big bushes of it as small ones, about 9cm high, soon interknit and are so much cheaper. The widespread box disease is one disease which, mercifully, I do not have but I have checked that I am only buying British-grown box, rooted from cuttings off healthy parents. I am planting them at least a foot apart as the designer fashion for very dense planting encourages box sickness. If the garden already had box disease in it, I would have chosen the low evergreen Teucrium chamaedrys, which can also be clipped tidily. The expert advice is to clip box no later than mid-July in order to minimise the risk of disease.

Lonicera Serotina, Viburnum x bodnantense Dawn, Geranium Rozanne©GAP Photos; Marianne Majerus

Lonicera Serotina, Viburnum x bodnantense Dawn, Geranium Rozanne

Within these box-edged diamonds I will have yearly plantings of tulips. Last November’s inaugural planting is already up and away, protected by chicken wire pegged into the soil. It is something of a triumph as every other tulip in the garden is dug up and thrown around by truculent, excavating badgers. Firmly-fixed chicken wire keeps them off while allowing the tulips’ shoots to find a way up past the wire mesh. At the moment the beds look rather odd but when they are planted with green edging they will blend into the surrounding turf.

After the tulips have flowered, I will take out the bulbs, only annuals on my soil, and the wire will come off till next November. Meanwhile I intend to have nothing but the wonderplant of the past decade at ground level. Geranium Rozanne flowers from June till late October. It survives any weather and any soil, although its blue and white flowers are best in a soil which is not too dry. It used to be rivalled by another geranium called Jolly Bee but experts have decided that they are one and the same. To my eye they are not, as Jolly Bee seemed to spread more widely and not to be quite so tall. Anyway Rozanne is now the one to go for, the longest-flowering of all hardy geraniums and marvellously easy to grow. I will start off with only a few plants and then divide them into three times as many after one season. My plan is to cut back their season’s growth in November to clear the soil for another planting of badger-bait, the ornamental tulips. There ought to be enough clear soil between each geranium’s root run for tulips to flourish again. The chicken wire, of course, will go back for the winter, eventually to be fixed just below the height of the developed box edging.

I know that for many designers, less is supposed to be more. I have always thought it to be less. In my mind’s eye I see some central height in my four diamonds, to be provided by honeysuckles shaped like standard trees on canes. I recommend this trick even if you do not want the diamonds and the badger-wire. Buy an ordinary multicoloured honeysuckle on a cane and replace the bamboo cane with a longer one, up to about 5ft, about one foot of which can be rammed firmly into the ground. Let the honeysuckle grow round the cane for a year or two, but cut off any disobedient shoots that try to spray off sideways. When the honeysuckle is near the top of the cane, fix a wide-meshed plant support onto the tip of the cane. One made of green plastic is inconspicuous. Let the honeysuckle shoot out sideways through this horizontal frame so as to make a head on top of its trunk. The result is a little honeysuckle “tree”, which you can clip and contain after flowering. I will use the later-flowering Lonicera periclymenum Serotina, often called “late Dutch honeysuckle”. It flowers from July to late autumn. The price of a pre-grown “standard” honeysuckle is far too high for the little effort involved. In the third year you will have a good one grown up your own cane.

What about some autumn crocuses wherever the geraniums do not interconnect? Maybe, but they are caviar to squirrels and I do not want the wire mesh back in place by late July. I will wait and see how the diamonds develop.

Meanwhile I hope for several things. First I hope that this plan of mine may prompt you to a plan of your own. If we change nothing, a new season in a garden is not nearly so exciting. Perhaps one or other idea may appeal to you. Certainly I can picture coverings of Rozanne looking happy and pretty in smaller urban gardens. Lastly I hope for some luck. The honeysuckles might catch blackfly. The box might develop die-back. The badgers may buy a manual and work out how to pull up wire netting set on metal pegs. As ever, many things can go wrong. Without that risk gardening would not be the fun and reward which it is ...

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