As the weather warms up, I spend a lot of time poring over seed and nursery catalogues. One thing that’s struck me is how much I disagree with published descriptions of plants. This got me thinking about plants that misbehave.
Looking around my own front garden, I saw loads of examples of plants that don’t do what they’re supposed to. Take the hellebores, which are in flower at the moment. The received wisdom is if you move hellebores they’ll sulk and may not flower the following year. I’ve moved a few hellebores in my time and I’ve never known one that didn’t flower the following year; helleborus niger, hybridus, argutifolius and foetidus off the top of my head all move ok. I find as long as you take as much soil out with the plant and keep the rootball fairly intact, you’re probably fine for flowers next year.
Then I was looking at my yews which I planted last year. I planted a hedge of them, prepped the soil, watered them religiously and they’re stressed – the foliage is red and this is a sign they’re not happy. I had about three yew plants left over which I heeled in a few feet away from the hedge until I decided what to do with them, which of course I still haven’t and they are flourishing. The couple I bunged in my front garden as an afterthought in fairly unpromising positions are also doing well. So go figure.
I have summer bedding salvias and nemesias that are still flowering and have been doing so since July last year. The nemesia has seeded itself into the adjacent flower bed and the gravel driveway. Bedding plants are another thing that aren’t strictly limited to the season for which they’re marketed. Winter temperatures are getting higher in the UK, but nemesia is a plant that’s been reliably perennial for me in containers in different gardens for about the last seven or eight years, despite experiencing snow and freezing temperatures the same with bacopa.
I was also thinking about roses for a client’s garden. Reading the scent ratings in the David Austin catalogue, I took issue with some of those. For me, Veilchenblau is one of the most fragrant roses I’ve come across, yet the David Austin website rates the fragrance as medium-strong. I think Darcey Bussell smells pretty good but David Austin has her as light-medium. And on the subject of smelly roses, Gertrude Jekyll has one of the strongest fragrances and is sold in shrub and climbing varieties but if you’ve grown the shrub version of Gertude, you’ll know she’s really always longing to climb upwards and out of the confines of your border. And you might fall in love with some of the old roses listed in the catalogues for the promise of their scent and their old-fashioned, full-petalled flowers. Personally, I was won over by the antique charms of Comte de Chambord. But what many catalogues won’t tell you is that some have terrible habits, such as balling. Balling is a condition where unless you have a period of weather that’s drier than Gandhi’s flip-flop, the rose petals fuse together, the flowers are unable to open and the bud goes brown and falls off.
And back to the scent thing, which clearly got right up my nose. Roses are badly behaved because they don’t always smell. You can stick your nose right into something like Ispahan, one of the most scented roses, and it will barely smell if it’s wet with rain. Sometimes you need to have a warm day with dry air in order to really get the scent from plants. The same is true of shrubs like sarcococca and mahonia which are flowering at the moment. You need a warm or sunny day in order to really appreciate the scent. So scent ratings are a guide, your experience of a scent is subjective.
And I say the sarcococca is flowering now, at least it is for me here in East Sussex. But I was in a walled garden in London last week where the sarcococca flowers were brown and were over and done with until next year. Which is another important thing to remember about plants misbehaving – your location and your microclimate will affect what time of year things flower. As will the weather, so even the same plant in the same place can’t be relied upon to flower at the same time each year.
Then there are Japanese anemones. They cropped up a lot in the plant catalogues, always listed as quickly spreading. In fact, they can be a downright pain in the arse once they take hold because they do spread quickly and can crowd other plants out. But that’s once they’ve taken hold. The truth is, I’ve always found them slow to get going and in fact, I’ve planted them more than once into beds where they just sulked and finally gave up the ghost entirely. They can be quite fussy to start with and might not establish at all, which is something they don’t tell you in the catalogues.
Another popular plant is Liatris spicata, which I see on the stock list of many nurseries. Please tell me if you manage to grow them in your garden because I can’t. I’ve added some to a border as well established plants in 2 or 3 litre pots and they’ve been fine in year one but come the following spring, the new shoots are munched off before they get a chance to grow bigger than about an inch high. And this is in a garden where there are hostas. Slugs and snails will walk over the hostas to get to the Liatris, that’s how tasty they are. I find the same with lots of other plants, Veratrum album is one that immediately springs to mind.
Talking of plants that begin with a ‘Ve’, let’s mention the Veronicastrum. It graces many catalogues, pastel spires all backlit and beautiful. It looks good in photos but is such a slow starter. I’ve planted it in borders where it languishes for years before I finally get fed up and replace it with something less shy.
Seed sowing has been very much on my mind lately. Like many gardeners I’m itching to get going with sowing but I have to try not to jump the gun. Probably the only seeds I sow in February are tomatoes and chillies indoors and by the middle of the month I’ll start a few broad beans off in cold frames. Other than that, I’ll wait until March when the weather has warmed up slightly and the light is increasing. I never sow sweet peas in February any more – I used to sow them indoors in February but then come the end of March I had these huge leggy, lanky plants and nowhere to put them because it was still too cold outside. So now I leave it much later, I don’t sow them until March or April and I sow them in a cold frame or even outdoors and the plants can be put in the ground when they’re smaller which means they get less of a shock and grow away quicker and it means I spend less time worrying about them and watering them when they’re in their pots.
I had sweet peas all summer long and was still picking them in October as a result of these late sowings. So again, don’t always do what the packet tells you or what everyone else is doing according to their social media accounts. And my sweet peas have only just been killed off by the frost, they were still growing until a couple of weeks ago because although we call them annuals in this country, they’re not and they’re also probably more cold tolerant than we think.
I guess what misbehaving plants prove is the more you get outside and engage with and observe your garden, the more of an expert you’ll be. So by all means absorb and use the knowledge passed on by catalogues, books and experts but don’t live by their word slavishly, sometimes it’s ok to push the envelope. The best way to garden is to use the traditional rules as a springboard for your own trial and error and observation.