There’s one talent every good gardener should have, and that’s in the department of match-making. It always gives me a thrill when two plants tie the knot, with a little help from the gardener, and their marriage turns out to be a blissfully happy one.
Countless books have been written on the subject of plant combinations, and that’s where I envy the southern gardener, for few, if any, work well in the Shetland context. While one plant thrives in the conditions provided, its partner will barely hang on to life.
Moving the pair to a new location sometimes does the trick, but more often than not, their
fortunes reverse: the vigorous one dwindles away, while the weakling gains strength.
Some couples get on great, and grow away happily, but year in year out they miss their wedding day, with the bride just bursting into blossom when the groom has shed his final petal.
Colour, how to use and combine it, is a very personal choice, and tends to reflect the gardener’s personality. Some gardens are filled exclusively with soft pastels, while others use hot colours and sometimes strongly contrasting compositions. To my mind, the best gardens contain elements of both.
Here are a few successful ones from my own plot. Pulmonarias feature prominently in April, but over the years, probably due to neglecting the recommended splitting and replanting, named cultivars have given way to self-sown seedlings, as good or in some instances better than their parents and showing great vigour and staying power.
I love interplanting them with the paler lavender and lilac forms of Primula denticulata, probably causing Gertrude Jekyll, mother of the herbaceous border, to turn in her grave, as she couldn’t abide seeing “true blues” in close juxtaposition with “non-true blues” she may well have approved of planting blue Pulmonarias in front of Dicentra eximia ‘Alba’
Ribes sanguineum ‘White Icicle’ has lately taken up with a stunning “black” hellebore. The dark disks of the Lenten rose beneath the dangling cream panicles of the flowering currant being a definite case of mutual enhancement.
Patience has never been my strong point, and just now and again, there has to be a shotgun wedding in the garden. This, more often than not, is triggered by “blind” bulb planting in the autumn.
The deep cerise goblets of Tulipa ‘Little Beauty’ are pure delight when the sun opens them and reveals their dark anthers and inky black basal stains. A stones throw from it Primula ‘Kinlough Beauty’ has formed a dense green bolster, sprinkled with clear pink. The two of them are crying out to lie in each others arm. I arranged an engagement on the spot, and make sure they tie the knot as soon as we get our first good downpour.
That’s where Shetland’s cool, damp springs come up trumps. Bulbs in full flower can be lifted and shifted with impunity and are none the worse for their experience.
Last spring, one of the best combinations on the Peat Bed was a nameless, upright, small-leaved rhododendron with large, pale amethyst blue flowers and a supporting cast of dark-flowered dwarf dicentra (also nameless).
One year on, the dicentra is a green widow. The rhododendron is all-green; not a single one of those fluttering pale blooms in sight, – in all likelihood due to 2010’s cold, wet summer. I trust this is only a trial separation and the relationship will be full on again a year from now.
Not far from this pair, Salix helvetica and Primula sino-purpurea have been in a happy relationship for several seasons, but the willow also has a bit on the side. It greatly enhances a patch of dark magenta Erica carnea with its pale grey foliage.
Phyto-geographic plantings are a challenge in this climate, and my patch of South-Africa used to look bare well into June, as all its inhabitants, kniphofias, watsonias, crocosmias, agapanthus and nerines, are late risers, and even later performers. What good is geographical purity if it presents the gardener with a desert for months on end?
The well-drained raised bed now sports a host of spring bulbs, especially small tulips, Their contribution is fleeting, but purple heucheras are going to look stunning amongst carpets of Euphorbia cyparissias ‘Fen’s Ruby’, once the latter has made a bit more headway with its bottle-brushes of dark, red-tipped foliage and lime-green inflorescences.
Some plants are perfect solo performers, and Podophyllum hexandrum is one of them. Its cup-shaped warm pink flowers sit on top of dark mottled fleshy leaves. Last year I tried it with the pale lavender Jeffersonia dubia, but the combination proved too sugary for my liking.
Perhaps something airy, foamy and white might do the trick? And what could be more appropriate for a spring wedding?