Garden fillers between the last spring flowers and first roses

Image of Robin Lane Fox

Gardens are supposed to be in their “June gap” this weekend. It is meant to be the gap between the first of the roses and the last of the wisteria and irises. In recent years I have spent much time and effort trying to anticipate it and fill it up. May and June then warmed from 2005 onwards and the garden has been well into its midsummer peak when the “gap” supposedly arrived. This year gardens have been in the freezer and the opposite has happened. The “gap” is being filled with all that should have stopped in late May.

The gap cliché has had its uses. It has made me include earlier flowering roses, climbers like the prolific lilac-pink May Queen and shrubs like the lovely single-flowered Frühlingsgold, a once-flowerer with thorns but still at the top of any critical list. I have also fastened on the scarlet-flowered Heuchera sanguinea Firefly as far the best front-row plant for borders in their gap phase. It has good fresh green leaves and none of the fancy yellow, brown or purple markings which have made the Heuchera family so decidedly weird in recent breeders’ hands. Heucheras are such good buys because a single plant soon builds up a good clump of roots and allows you to divide it into six more plants in the following March. Firefly’s red flowers are individually small but they have such impact. The name catches it well.

Papaver orientale ‘Beauty of Livermere’

My main gap-fillers are poppies and peonies. Never think that English flower gardening is stuck in a rut. Down at its micro level, changes are always going on, as transformative as a new colour in an artist’s box of paints. Poppies have had a change of fashion. Peonies have had a change of range, one which is far from being played out.

The poppies in question are the perennial Oriental varieties with big flowers. They have leaves which turn yellow soon after flowering and then disappear by late July, just after the flower stems have been smothered in black flies. Twenty years ago they had all these failings and more. The flowers were amazingly bright and at odds with the ghostly palette of pale colours for “civilised” gardens in the English style.

Poppies then sprang back into fashion. Photographers did them a favour by taking them in enviable close-ups. Colour magazines had to fill in their early June issues and found that poppies looked stunning. A purple-brown flowered poppy emerged from the West Country and was christened Patty’s Plum. It became the classy poppy of choice for those who believed that full-blooded scarlet and crimson were too much for their colour-planning. Briefly, I believed them but when Patty flowered I was not alone in wondering how such a dirty, dreary colour could have become all the rage. The pinks, reds and scarlets of the family deserved a fresh look.

Tricyrtis ‘Taipei Silk’

Supposed vices now seemed to be virtues. In smaller gardens and mixed plantings there is much to be said for a plant which flowers in the June gap-time and then disappears. It can be hidden with annuals to brighten the rest of the season. It can be concealed with late-growing plants which cover its empty space in a rush. I have learnt to dot individual poppies round flowerbeds to give strong spots of colour which draw the eye past the gappy greens of early June. The most spectacular is the tall blood-red Beauty of Livermere, an ideal plant to repeat in ones around or down a big bed. The pale pink Karine is my other favourite as it is usefully lower-growing, flowering at about a foot and a half. The two colours do not go well together, so they should be segregated in different parts of the garden. They have two supreme qualities. They are almost impossible to kill off, in any garden soil. When they are bigger they can be dug up in late autumn and multiplied by root cuttings. Cut bits of root, two inches long, off the main tap root and plant them in trays of good seed compost, upper side uppermost. They will all show new growth by late spring and can then be potted on to make flowering plants for 2016. The job is so easy and satisfying.

If you have just bought a new garden and want colour without bother, dot it with poppies. If you want class without much trouble, peony it. Admittedly, peonies are best when supported, but all you have to do is to slip a wide metal plant support over the crown in early April when the young shoots can all be caught. After that it always helps to give some liquid fertiliser, but if you do nothing, your well-chosen peonies ought to flower and survive complete neglect. In a newly-bought garden you will often find that the one good plant among a border of neglect is a herbaceous peony. Revealingly, the previous owner never managed to kill it off.

Thalictrum ‘Elin’, Meadow Rue

In bigger gardens a classic combination is a line of mixed border peonies with lilies interplanted in the gaps between. For height and contrast I would add an airy thalictrum or two, the dusky Thalictrum Elin being wondrously tall and beautiful. All these plants will flower in light shade. The front of the bed could take a few Tricyrtis, the lovely Toad Lilies of late autumn, protected from slugs. The peonies fill the early June gap and the Toad Lilies fill the autumn peony gap before dying down and being at risk to casual forking early in the spring.

At the Chelsea Flower Show I admired the herbaceous peonies from Scotland’s expert Binny Plants, especially as they were shown as cut flowers slap in the middle of the June gap. A pale flowered peony indoors in a vase is as beautiful a sight as anything all year. Try the white and pink-flushed Kelway’s Glorious, a wondrous variety to me still after 50 years and the best that the great Kelway breeders ever produced. Who wants “sustainable native” sedge grass when indestructible non-native peonies are so lovely and so easy to grow?

They have recently acquired a new dimension for us gardeners in the west. Superb Chinese tree peonies have come into the British nursery trade since the mid-1990s and are admirably difficult to kill off. The biggest range is now offered by Phedar Nursery, near Stockport in Cheshire, whose dedicated owner Will McLewin has the most experience of these gorgeous plants in English conditions. The names are unpronounceable but the realities are hardy, tolerant of lime soil and willing to flower, especially if given regular doses of liquid fertiliser. I have a double pink one called Seidai which already has three fat flower buds in its second year outdoors under nearby sycamore trees. Naturally, these special plants are not cheap or always in stock, but if you want a 21st-century garden, two of these new arrivals are the clever route to take. The finely cut leaves are so beautiful all year.

Locally I am still looking for signs of “global warming”. Meanwhile, China has stepped in and helped to fill the English garden’s legendary gap.

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