Gardening in Midsummer

July 6, 2006

Harmony and contrast are always an emotive issue. Here, in an area known as the Bishop’s Garden, the colours are scarlet and purple. Purple is the colour between red and blue, scarlet a brilliant red tinged with orange. This small garden is named in memory of my favourite uncle, Jock Henderson, Bishop of Bath and Wells. Nicknamed by his brother, my father, ‘Glamour Gaiters’, he was a great showman. On one occasion, when asked by the press what he did in his spare time, he replied: ‘When I have nothing on, I relax on the sofa with my favourite Trollope’. Scarlet and episcopal purple sit well together, the various dark tones blending effortlessly.

The stately darkest purple tulip, Queen of the Night the first to flower in May is followed by the peonies and poppies. The wind ruffles their sombre silken flowers in the breeze, and they appear like portly churchmen. Here today and gone tomorrow, the enormous flowerheads of Oriental poppies bear petals looking like scrunched-up tissue paper.

A bright-red variety is closely followed by dusky Patty’s Plum, its colour a lovely washed out purple with the texture of old silk hangings. The natural habitat of Papaver orientale is the Caucasus, Iran and Turkey, where they grow on rocky slopes and in dry meadows. But as the named cultivars are sterile, they are propagated by root cuttings in the autumn. Although their flowering is brief, I love these glorious poppies and mourn their passing.

Flowering at the same time are the herbaceous peonies. Hailing from Siberia, China, and Mongolia, they prefer a rich, heavy soil. The crown should be planted just below the surface, for if planted too deeply they will not flower freely. The one I have in the Bishop’s Garden is huge, and of deep crimson colouring. Back to the purple element, and spring to early summer in the Bishop’s Garden is invi-gorated by the deep plum globes of Allium hollandicum and the more open Allium cristophii, bearing huge flower-heads of burnished purple. They are easy to grow in hot, sunny spots and all have the added bonus of being followed up by beautiful seedheads.

In late June, when the young woodpeckers are at their noisiest, it is the turn of Verbena bonariensis. No garden should be without this outstanding plant. Despite its height, it matters not where you plant it, for its sparse habit is such that you can see through it. This verbena also likes hot, dry spots, and will seed about freely. It gives an ethereal, feathery feel to any planting scheme and its smaller cousin, Verbena rigida, looks good with it.

These are the backbone of plants that provide flowers in the purple and scarlet spectrum in the Bishop’s Garden. I fill in the borders with other dark jewels the red salvias: Salvia gregii, S. fulgens, and S. superba with its pineapple scented leaves; the thistle like Cirsium rivulare atropurpureum; burgundy coloured Knautia macedonica, Scabious Chile Black and the chocolate scented Cosmos atrosanguinea. Their colours remind me of ancient stained glass windows in churches, and in the evening light, there is a certain pathos in their dark beauty.Cothay Manor, Greenham, near Wellington, Somerset (01823 672283). The gardens are open on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Sundays, and bank holidays from 2pm to 6pm

This article first appeared in COUNTRY LIFE magazine on July 6, 2006