November 23, 2006

Having been to northern Portugal twice this year and seen its far-flung eucalyptus groves (reared for the paper pulp industry), I am somewhat nervous about introducing these exotics into my own corner of Herefordshire. I know several gardeners who sneer at the whole genus, even though the same people travel great distances and part with large sums of money for other, equally alien-looking plants.

I once encountered the tender, lemonscented Eucalyptus citriodora in a Gloucestershire garden, where it was growing in a pot and taken in under glass for winter protection. Many eucalypts are thoroughly hardy, however. At The Dingle near Welshpool in Powys, there’s a fine multi-stemmed specimen of what I take to be E. pauciflora subsp. niphophila, the snow gum, indigenous throughout eastern Australia from Queensland to Tasmania (although not to be confused with peppermint-scented E. coccifera, the true Tasmanian snow gum). In its lakeside setting in Wales, it looks magical, with several smooth, white-mottled trunks curving upwards above a sea of stipa and miscanthus. From across the water, it looks even better, its reflection doubling the pleasure.

The time has come to plant up our own pond, and I have decided to use five snow gums as a backbone to a mixture of other silver-leafed small trees and shrubs and a selection of greener plants guaranteeing autumn colour. The gums are going in 25ft to 30ft apart in a staggered arc about 6ft back from the water’s edge. Around and among them, I have chosen the silver willow, Salix alba var. sericea, which I am propagating from a 12ft-high five-year-old good form on the stream running through the arboretum.

This willow’s narrow leaves stir in the slightest breeze, revealing almost white undersides that further lighten the picture. Two other favourite willows of smaller stature, S. elaeagnos (the hoary willow) and S. exigua (the coyote willow) are also silver-hued and blend in well. I once saw a marvellous photograph (by Andrew Lawson, I think) which showed a mixed border made up of silver and purple foliage plants and a few white and purple flowers.

The image has remained with me for years, and I’ve made several attempts in other parts of the garden to replicate it. The pondside planting offers an opportunity to do the same on a larger scale, avoiding those purple foliage trees that are too dark or appear somehow life-less. Not avoiding Cotinus Grace, however, with its summer garb hovering between pinkish green and metallic purple, turning pillar-box red in autumn.

Cotinus Flame does much the same, although in summer its leaves are plain green. (Grace is a changeable thing, by the way. I have half a dozen or so throughout the garden and each looks different from the others.) Behind this mixed ‘hedge’ of willows and smoke bushes, I’m planting several Fraxinus angustifolia Raywood, a superb medium-sized tree of upright habit with delicate-looking, almost feathery green foliage that turns a moody plum-purple in October.

The pond is about half an acre in size, roughly circular with an oval-shaped island some 30ft long, just off-centre. Only half the pond’s perimeter is being planted (with tall grasses, and perennials such as Siberian irises and rodgersias, as well as the trees and shrubs mentioned), leaving mown turf on its north (south-facing) and west sides.

The island calls for different treatment. A haven for ducks and other water-fowl that brave our neighbour’s weekly winter shoot, it has yet to be named (we have named all the parts of our garden), and there are two suggestions. ‘Fire Island’ sees me cramming it with autumn dazzlers (more cotinus, Viburnum opulus, euonymus, vaccinium, Japanese maple and liquidambar). Or the ‘Isle of Dogs’ requires such cornus species (dogwoods, get it?) as Eddie’s White Wonder, Cornus kousa, Ormonde, and a thicket of red-stemmed C. alba Weston-birt mingled with C. sanguinea Midwinter Fire and its more robust cousin, Winter Flame.

A scheme on this scale is a costly undertaking, but I’m propagating many of the plants myself. It takes more time, of course, but there’s greater satisfaction this way, and if I’m lucky, enough leftover plants to swap with other gardeners or to give away as presents.

This article first appeared in COUNTRY LIFE magazine on November 23, 2006