In my Garden: Sweet Shop Borders

October 26, 2006

In a garden that’s almost 100 years old, and one that I have worked in for almost 13, it’s not every day that I find myself in possession of virgin territory. But with the eradication of an Edwardian rockery and the building of a flight of steps leading down from the dovecote, I have a new patch to experiment with. The timing could not have been better, coinciding as it did with frequent visits this summer to Graham Gough and Lucy Goffin at Marchants Hardy Plants in East Sussex, where August and September borders blaze with dazzling colours amid a sea of swaying grasses.

The big idea is to replant the 100ft-long south-facing border in the kitchen garden, where old fruit trees, overhanging willows and corpulent ivies are slowly being removed to bring in more light. The borders of an area I call the ‘Sweet Shop’ are my trial ground, and it was the perfect summer for such a venture, with the long hot days of June and July willing me ever onwards.

As ever, serendipity also played its part. The arrival of Crocosmia and Chasmanthe, a monograph on these related genera by Peter Goldblatt, John Manning and Gary Dunlop, was a revelation. I grew crocosmias as a teenager on the south coast, but have neglected them in recent years, believing falsely as it turns out that they would falter in the colder and wetter climate of the Welsh border. Encouraged by the authors’ words on hardiness (and learning that many crocosmias are actually streamside dwellers), I quickly assembled some 20 different varieties.

Orange dominates the crocosmia palette, but there are as many shades of orange as there are of any other colour. Satu-rated yellows abound: Jenny Bloom, Rowallane Yellow, Walberton Yellow, Sulphurea, Solfatare and the magnificent Gerbe d’Or are but a few, and there are enough reds to choose from without going anywhere near the thuggish and ubiquitous Lucifer. And they range in height from the diminutive (12in) Jackanapes to such leggy lovelies as (3ft to 4ft) Queen Alexandra and Jesse van Dyke.

My new addiction to these invigorating and life-enhancing colours is easily fed by a host of other late-season perennials and it is by heleniums in particular (as well as rudbeckias and the more ‘polite’ kinds of kniphofia, and some of the less showy day lilies) that I have been similarly seduced. If the breeders have been busy with crocosmias (there are now some 200 cultivars available), they have been working overtime on heleniums.

My heart has been stolen by Helenium Sahin’s Early Flowerer: fabulously rich ‘daisies’ that might have been fashioned from Aztec gold, irregularly flecked with splinters of dark amber. I now envisage heleniums playing star roles in the kitchen-garden border when we start planting next spring, but if anyone feels daunted by their somewhat towering stature, remember the ‘Chelsea Chop’ technique: cut the plant to about half its height around the third week of May, and it will flower at 2ft to 3ft, rather than six. Go to for a glimpse of this intoxicating world.

At some point in July, dahlias crashed the Sweet Shop party as I introduced bright scarlet Tally Ho and Moonfire beside moodier dahlias, Arabian Night and Dark Desire. And all this gaiety is further heightened when offset against blue. Enter agapanthus, flowering at much the same time. These can’t help later in the year, but Michael-mas daisies (where would we be without the inexhaustible Aster x frikartii Mönch?) and several monkshoods (especially late flowering Aconitum carmichaelii Wilsonii Group) show no sign of flagging.

Low-growing blue geraniums have helped, too. New to me is Geranium Rozanne, giving a long succession of large blue-and-white saucers whose wiry stems weave comfortably in and among other plants. An old favourite, Convolvulus mauritanicus laden with sky-blue flowers in mid summer has refreshed itself after September’s rain and is strutting its stuff again, happily trailing in harness with yellow nasturtiums.

The Sweet Shop borders have not only allowed me to explore new and exciting colour combinations, but have provided me with 100 or so plants from which I can propagate for next year when we start the replanting in the kitchen garden.

This article first appeared in COUNTRY LIFE magazine on October 26, 2006