Good taste in gardening

Some nights, our garden resembles the opening scene of Apocalypse Now, with helicopters hovering overhead. When the aeronautics began last summer, I suspected it was the local water authority on the lookout for furtive hosers; now I discover it is the police searching for nocturnal miscreants, using a thermal-imaging device.

Jolly good, you might think, but it seems that gardening is getting in their way. Apparently, many of the bursts of heat that their sensors detect turn out to be nothing more menacing than fermenting compost heaps. The more the council exhorts us all to compost, the greater the chances of the airborne boys in blue picking up false positives.I am not quite sure why these helicopters should hover so close to our patch in particular. Our town garden lacks a compost heap. It is also noticeably short of hot spots a deficit that has begun to bother me. We have many subtle greens and piano pastels, but nothing that really grabs one by the throat. If a crime is being committed in our garden, it may well be what John Betjeman called ‘ghastly good taste’. So, this spring, as an antidote to the visual serenity, we have introduced a few offenders, by which I mean pots stuffed with high and late summer flowering bulbs, fiery and flamboyant, saucy and shocking, and still available from garden centres.

We began by considering the lily namely deep damask rose Lilium Pink Perfection, rich mango and gold African Queen, and also a lily known as Red Hot, although it is not so much red, being closer to salmon and saffron. These are statuesque varieties with large and languorously scented trumpets borne in midsummer. This week, five bulbs of each went into three broad terracotta urns, planted 6in deep in John Innes No. 3 potting compost. To screen the lilies’ slender stems, I placed a young specimen of one of the smaller Phormium cultivars slightly off centre in each pot. Finally, to create a cushion of foliage that would spill over the rims of the urns, I added a few plants of the countless Heuchera cultivars that are now available.

So, we have three container gardens for summer that bring an entirely different mood into the calm greenery all around them. As the season draws on, ebony leaved Phormium Platt’s Black and silver traced Heuchera Velvet Night will serenade Lilium Pink Perfection; Phormium Bronze Baby and Heuchera Amber Waves will sail with the African Queen lilies; candy and khaki-striped Phormium Flamingo and dark chocolate leaved Heuchera Obsidian will stoke up Red Hot.

For late summer and autumn, we have echoed this procedure with a clutch of similar pots, only using dahlias instead of lilies and ornamental grasses rather than phormiums. So Dark Desire, a diminutive dahlia with gilt eyed flowers the colour of a good Cabernet Sauvignon, will tussle with peroxide swathes of Stipa tenuissima and tawny Heuchera Amber Waves. Like wise, Gatsby, an outstanding French dahlia with sunburst flowers in shades of flame and gold, will beam among the streaming bronze strands of Carex flagellifera and the frilly edged, bronze foliage of Heuchera Chocolate Ruffles.

It is a huge pleasure to while away mid-spring days concocting these repositories of wilful good/bad taste. When the warm weather arrives and they begin to show their form, we will shift the pots from under the eaves, placing some on the terrace and others in the borders, to furnish our customarily cool garden with a few much-needed hot spots. When the season ends, we will find permanent homes elsewhere for the phormiums, heucheras and grasses. We may even hang onto the bulbs. After all, there is no compost heap here on which to throw them this summer any thermal image detected on high will be merely the radiance of a dahlia, or someone taking a midnight draught of a lily’s siren scent.