Helianthus annuus

The power of plants never ceases to amaze me. I have sunflowers growing in the cutting beds which are already over 2m/6′ tall, and the solstice is barely behind us. As the annuus indicates, sunflowers are an annual, and each one has grown from the familiar seed, encased in its smart black or black and white jacket. Mine are, as yet, just infants, although they are flowering well. Sunflowers will more typically reach 3m/10′ and Guinness World Record is held by a specimen which reached an improbable 9.17m/31.1′ tall. I have cut a selection as pictured below. It is not my first attempt to recreate a famous series of pictures, but I find the flowers difficult to position in the vase to create the right effect. Perhaps this is the advantage of painting, that real-world flowers can be positioned on canvas in an ideal distribution. Van Gogh considered yellow to be the colour of happiness, allegedly. I enjoy the classic yellow sunflowers – they are joyful indeed, but I find the fiery oranges and reds thrilling, especially so early in the year. They are proving useful as a cut flower too as once the flower at the apex is removed as many as six secondary flowers are developing lower down. These are smaller and less dramatic than the primary flower, but more amenable to being placed in a vase.

Sunflowers were an early domestication around 5000 years ago in what we now call the southern United States or Mexico, where all but three of the species are native. The early European settlers recognised its value immediately and seed was in Europe by the sixteenth century. Its value was always aesthetic as well as comestible. Although Van Gogh is most famously associated with the sunflower, Van Dyck painted a self-portrait with sunflowers larger than his own head in 1633AD. Louis XIV pressed it into service, somewhat inevitably. At Versailles, down each side of the Tapis Vert, there are urns of extraordinary size set on pedestals. Some are carved with tournesols. The work is exquisite. The cut of the line is so clean that they could be fresh from the stonemason’s yard. They are one of the highlights of a walk around the garden there. Was Louis happy with the superficial association of the flower and the sun, or was he trading on the reputed heliotropism, that the flower follows the sun during the course of the day? I suspect both.

In truth, only the immature flower bud tracks the sun, something it does even on a cloudy day. The mature inflorescence is almost always fixed facing east. This means that the flower head warms quickly and early in the day, when pollinating insects are still active in hot climates. It also ensures the best ripening conditions for the tightly packed, indeed, perfectly packed, seeds which follow pollination. The flowers of the central disc are arranged in interpenetrating left and right spirals which conform to the Fibonacci series of numbers. It is the most efficient arrangement in space possible.

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Cynara scolymus ‘Violetta Precoce’

Few plants sound so much like an incantation as Cynara scolymus ‘Violetta Precoce’. Portals to other worlds should open at the sound; portals to past worlds, possibly. Few garden plants have the long heritage of the globe artichoke. Pliny the Elder wrote about it in his Natural History (Book XIX), observing that, ‘it was in the highest state of cultivation, and Ravenna produces heads that weigh as much as three pounds even’. Carciofi alla Romana remains a typical dish of Roman springtime cuisine. Smaller heads than Pliny’s monsters are used, braised whole bar the choke, with a section of tasty stem still attached. Other cities have their own variants. In Venice, in March, a course of whole violet artichokes arrived at our table. The heads were somewhere between a hen’s and a duck’s egg in size, and they had been braised very simply in white wine, parsley and lemon juice. Our host described them as ‘the first cutting’ and the best of the year. He lamented the artichokes found in England, artichokes ‘the size of trees’. As we had walked through the restaurant to our table, however, I had spied a different dish of artichokes which I was keen to taste. It was made from the basal plates of large ‘tree-like’ artichokes, the basal plate from which the flower develops. It is firmer, denser, and more intensely artichoke flavoured than the bud-scales. The Italians also use artichokes to make a bitter digestivo Cynar, of which I am fond. It is allegedly good for the liver.

I have planted artichokes in the flower border as often as in the kitchen garden. They, like their close relative Cynara cardunculus, the cardoon, are among those plants which attract the lazy and often spurious epiphet ‘architectural’. They have strong form, certainly. Each leaf is carried on a rigid rib and has a jagged profile. The silver-green foliage pairs well with anything pale and interesting, and contrasts nicely with the softer, blousier textures of Geranium, Knautia, or Origanum. The cultivar ‘Violetta Precoce’ has two additional virtues to the species. Its purple buds are handsome and the ‘Precoce’ indicates that it is an early season maturer, which is useful in our northern isle where summer can arrive late and leave early.

I have never found them the most predictable of plants. Of two close companions, one has died and the other thrived, and yet I can discern no difference in their situation. When they do thrive, they can be large plants, easily 1m/3′ across and 1.5m/5′ tall. I have never had the luxury of sufficient space to grow as many as I desire. I am always compromising therefore – a cardinal virtue in all successful gardening. I want to harvest buds for the table whilst they are still young and tender, and relatively choke-free, but I also want to leave some to develop into flowers. When left, the bud opens to reveal a saucer-sized cap of violet fingers. They seem to glow with their own light, and are mysterious presence in the border, like something from another world.

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Lavandula angustifolia

In a house where I used to live, the lavender spills out of its borders and over the path. My large dog would wait anxiously until I had opened the door, then rush through the corridor of blossom into the safety of the hall. The lavender was always alive with bees. There were honey bees, certainly, and I noted two different types, one darker and smaller than the other. And, many, many bumblebees. I sat down one day and watched them, counting six different species within seconds. There are few plants so generous with nectar, and for so long, as the English lavender.

It is generous in the garden in other ways too, being highly versatile. It works brilliantly planted in an arc, the blue stream drawing the eye along itself. The path I described is short, straight, and unremarkable really. It could be described as formal, but that implies a grandeur which it does not possess. The lavender was planted close enough together to form a low hedge. When it is trimmed, there are mounds of grey foliage which just touch each other. In flower, it is a seamless strip of blue. It suits the straight line, and it transforms it too. The rounded profile of the bushes soften the edge and make it comfortable. The flower spikes move; they stir in the breeze and are disturbed by the constant comings and goings of the insects.

Once upon a time, I cared for a garden which had a rather odd ‘feature’ wall, fully 3m/10′ high, with a planting bed on its top. I filled it with Lavandula angustifolia which I knew could tolerate the hot, dry conditions. I trimmed it less vigorously than is my usual habit, so that in flower the haze was fully 1m/3′ across, possibly even greater. From the house, the view to the garden was through the flowers, and from the garden, the house was a cliff rising from a sea of lavender blue waving in the wind.

Although movement is lovely, too much breeze steals the scent away. Lavender works well in a sunny courtyard or a sheltered sun-trap. Recently, I have been asked to rework a patio for a client. It faces west, so is in full sun from noon until dusk. It is a small area, 5m by 5m/15′ or thereabouts, and is bounded by a low wall. The sides will be planted with espaliered Malus transitoria to provide an open screen and beneath them there will be strips of lavender, cooling and restful to the eye. The wall of the house is swathed in Wisteria sinensis and, with a little luck, it and the lavender may coincide in some years. I am toying with the idea of some white lilies, something highly fragrant like Lilium candidum, which flowers in May and June. It pairs well with the lavender, both visually and fragrantly, but it may be an element too many. I prefer simple schemes in small or formal settings. They express the virtue of restraint and are a recognition of sufficiency.

My dream garden, which shape-shifts and grows in new directions as I age, will always have a space for Lavendula angustifolia. It pleases me almost as much as it pleases the bees.

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Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’

This is my season of loss, and of recovery. In the garden I can confront sad and painful memories without feeling their sting too keenly. The beauty surrounding me is an immediate balm, and the cycle of the seasons carries the healing deeper. I am comforted by the profound indifference of the flowering world to my pain. The work itself is also a cure. I tend to the needs of the plants, I secure the vision of the garden, and I forget myself. The days pass and I grow in strength. When the scent of sweet peas reminded me of a woman I had loved, I didn’t remember her in her final months, I remembered her beautiful star shooting through our sky.

When I  opened the gate and walked in the garden this week, the air was filled with the scent of Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’, heady and intoxicating. It is heavier and sweeter than my usual taste, but perhaps as I am most aware of it in the chill of the morning after a clear night, or the cool of the evening after the heat of the day when the scent is tempered, like a sweet dessert wine, chilled until its glass frosts, I enjoy it deeply. It settles within the walls as if it is denser than air. It was one of the favourites of a former lover and I had thought its flowering season, from now into July, would probe wounds which are barely healed. I find a garden not only enables me to confront painful memories, it also gifts me new, happy ones. Although I barely sleep, I am starting to dream again.

There are plants in the garden which give consistently. Nepeta, for example, starts to flower in March or April and will flower all summer until it is cut back to its crown in autumn. Other plants give in waves, having two or three seasons of interest, such as Crataegus pedicellata. Then there are the plants which burst into fire and blaze so brightly, and for a time their glory outshines the rest of the garden, but, within a month, they are gone, retreating into anonymity. ‘Belle Etoile’ is one of these. The flower is lovely in its simplicity. The flowers are borne along the arching stems, each with four white petals arranged equally, each petal marked with a purple throat. Don’t be fooled if you read that the shrub reaches 1.2m/4′ tall: I have seen plants twice that height. Some recommend it for an informal hedge, but I am ambivalent about this. It is deciduous and unlike beech or hornbeam does not hold its dead leaves through winter. It becomes a tangle of bare stems. I like my gardens to hold surprises, particularly ones which play with visual and olfactory expectations. I once placed a bench below a wall on the other side of which grew a honeysuckle. The honeysuckle was out of sight, but anybody sitting on the bench would enjoy its scent flowing over them in waves. Philadelphus can be complicit in this trickery too.

There is a strange French fairytale – surely strangeness is one of the necessities of such a tale – titled ‘La Princesse Belle-Etoile’. She had two brothers,  Petit-Soleil,  and Heureux, happiness. Beneath the gentle sun of early summer, Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’  makes me smile without shadows.

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Geranium ‘Blue Cloud’

Many years ago, I was asked to turn an odd little patch of ground into a formal garden. It was an unpromising site for such a transformation – although four-sided, it was asymmetric, and there were two flights of steps descending into it from walls which weren’t perpendicular. Being a sunken area bounded by walls, it was both very damp and a frost-pocket. The owner desired cruciform paths with a circular pool complete with fountain at the intersection. All of these challenges could be resolved with thought and labour, but, worse than any of them, the garden was to be a ‘white garden’. My heart sank: Vita Sackville-West’s influential garden at Sissinghurst still casts a long shadow. I don’t blame Vita. The garden as she originally imagined it and wrote about it in 1950 was not a white garden at all, but a grey, green, and white garden. This has been largely forgotten, including by the National Trust, but the difference is significant. When she wrote of her proposed new garden, she imagined enjoying it at dusk. This, of course, is one of the few times a white garden can be enjoyed. In bright sunlight, white flowers are not pleasant viewing; the sun strips them of all subtlety and they glare back at the viewer, defiantly guarding their secrets.

I began to translate our conversations into a garden, sketching out a workable plan of the right proportions. The riven York stone would be laid open-bonded so that the paths could be planted with Gypsophila nana and Thymus serpyllum. I chose plants for a green, silver, and pale garden: there were whites, certainly, but also the palest blues, pinks, and washed yellows I could find – colours which retain their beauty even in bright light.

Geranium ‘Blue Cloud’ was one of these choices. It is aptly named. A single crown can form a loose mound of mauve-blue flowers over 1m/3′ across. Its habit is described as ‘lax’, but I prefer the positive ‘relaxed’. It is a plant which enjoys the support of its friends and neighbours. It is most effective when it can rest through the grey-blue-green blades of Iris germanica, the shades complementing perfectly, and the forms contrasting pleasingly. It softens the bristly, rigid stems of Salvia nemerosa ‘Caradonna’, the mauve of the geranium and the purple of the sage being most harmonious.

Geranium ‘Blue Cloud’ is a study in the number five. The flower is small, perhaps 20mm/>1″ across, and its effectiveness stems from its profusion. Each flower has five petals and each petal is marked by five red veins. The petals are widely spaced by mid-green sepals, which adds to the sense of coolness. Ten anthers of dusky purple float above the corolla. It is a thing of beauty, plant it where you can. Pair it with Cynara cardunculus ‘Violetta Precoce’, Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’, Iris germanica ‘Frost Echo’, or Salvia turkestanica. Pour yourself a glass of gin and tonic – the drink shares the same ultraviolet hue as ‘Blue Cloud’ – sit, rest in the garden. The fountain moves so that you don’t have to, just sit and be. Watch the play of light in the falling water, the flowers of ‘Blue Cloud’ caressed by the breeze. Heaven will not be more beautiful.

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Lathyrus odoratus

I sow my sweet peas on the short days between Christmas and the end of the year. It is a quiet, gentle activity which helps me to reflect on the year which has been and to think happy thoughts about the year which lies ahead. I sow three seeds to each 7.5cm/3″ pot, water the compost well, and line the pots out in a cold glasshouse. In a week to ten days, the bright green shoots are through. When they reach 10cm/4″ tall, the tip of each one can be pinched out – another way to thwart the apical dominance – which encourages the development of side shoots. This is something I have done on time only occasionally. The end of January and the beginning of February is one of the quietest times in an English garden and I usually venture far enough south to find the sun. Sweet peas can be sown as early as November and as late as April, but I prefer to sow when I do as the plants are better timed in the garden calendar and the right height for planting out after the risk of frost has passed. They are native to southern Europe, Sicily through to the Aegean islands and Cyprus and enjoy full sun. I have not seen them in the wild, although I would love to do so. I imagine they enjoy river banks and wet places, as when growing in England they thrive best in humus-rich, very moist soil. Indeed, my greatest success has been to grow them in a spot where a land-drain had collapsed and the soil was almost boggy.

I worked in a garden for seven years and sweet peas were the lady-owner’s favourite flowers. During my first summer there, she would be out every day, cutting the flowers to take into the house, tie-ing the growing stems into the trellis which we used as support. She favoured the softest of pinks and blues, cultivars such as ‘Frolic’ and ‘Leamington’. In late spring the following year, she came and asked me how to plant them out. The trellis had 20cm/8″ squares, so one pot per square was the right planting distance. When next I passed that way, I quietly removed half of all she had planted. Her harvesting that year was erratic. In my third year she wanted bold colours like ‘Beaujolais’ and ‘Daily Mail’; her tastes had changed. We planted them out together, but she lost interest and I finished the task alone. In my fourth, I asked if she wished to help me, and with words which broke my heart, she asked “What are sweet peas?” Throughout that year and until I left, I would cut the flowers every day through their season and take them into the house for her. I would offer them to her and she would go through the motions of enjoying them, even though she had lost her sense of smell. I wonder if anyone grew sweet peas for her after I left. She had the brightest spirit of anyone I have ever met, piercing the world with her intense blue eyes. Her suffering has ended now. I have picked sweet peas today and they scent my house. I cannot help but think of her, and her light which dimmed too early.

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Rosa ‘Souvenir du Dr Jamain’

Choosing a red rose for a garden is a little like trying to choose a blue iris – there is a tyranny of variety. I always prefer certain characteristics. When presented with two same or similar coloured roses/irises, one of which is scented and the other not, I will, without fail, select the scented one, unless it is prone to some disfiguring disease like blackspot, in which case I might falter. But, why would one not choose the scented one? I have worked in a garden created by designers, more than one in truth, and they always fail and fail in the same ways. I’m yet to meet a designer who understands soil, or climate, or aspect, or plants, but they can sell cloth of the finest weave which only the most intelligent can see, I give them that. This garden failed in additional ways, being composed with no regard for scent whatsoever. It was filled with scentless honeysuckle and weakly scented roses. Being in it was like watching a film with the sound turned off: a whole dimension of sensory engagement was absent. It was a strangely dull and soulless experience.

Scent is not the only reason to choose Dr Jamain’s souvenir rose. Its scent is delicious though, sweet and clove-spiced, no soapiness at all, a characteristic which afflicts some more recent rose cultivars. It is quite jealous of its scent, holding it close within the flower. The blossoms are luxurious, flat, many-petalled doubles with a velvety texture. It invites you in, asks you to engage with it intimately. To stick your nose within the cool, moist folds. The breeders’ catalogues list it variably from claret to maroon. It isn’t maroon, but it is darker than claret. Barely visible within the many petals, the golden stamens nestle. It earns a place in my garden for its love of growing in shade and semi-shade, which makes it suitable for an east or north-facing wall. The one pictured is facing east. Like other deep red blossoms, such as Hemerocallis ‘Night Wings’, the red pigment bleaches in strong sunlight. This doesn’t trouble me when planting Hemerocallis, the day lily, as each bloom lasts only one day and the damage from the sun never really manifests. But, the flowers of ‘Souvenir du Dr Jamain’ can last for ten days, which is, without question, another reason to find a place for it in the garden. It is also quite restrained in its growing habit, reaching 1.8m/6′ tall and 1.5m/5′ wide. It lends itself to that small, awkward place between the door and the window, a place which needs something. 

It can be grown as a shrub, although its lax habit requires some supporting, which always seems a bit of an avoidable error when breeding a woody plant. It thrives as a climber. Train its stems along horizontal wires and they will bloom along their length. This thwarts the apical dominance, whereby all the resources are consumed by the top of the plant. I’m not a socialist, I’m an Epicurean, but apical dominance does seem to be an affliction of capitalist societies as well as of plants, and needs correction. There is a first flush of blossom and the whole plant is laden with red jewels – a flush which started here ten days ago – then lesser recurrent flowering throughout the growing season. Smell the flowers while you can.

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