Peter Dowdall: Some Plants Are Natural Mixers – Irish Examiner | Directory Mayhem

Being equally at home in different situations is a skill. Not everyone can eat and dine with political leaders and senior CEOs and then converse with those of us who are less high-flying.

Some plants are the same: not all are good mixers, and many can only “work” or look right in a very well maintained and pristine garden.

Imagine, if you will, topiary Taxus, Ilex or Buxus pruned to perfection. You’re not really going to cut it in a wild, casual garden style.

Likewise, those with a more informal habit like lychnis, ranunculus, and other perennials are more suited to a wilder, more naturalistic planting scheme.

But what about those of us who want something in between? The “perfect” garden may not be what we’re looking for, but we don’t want an unkempt, overgrown space either.

There are many in the plant world that can hold their head high in the most beautiful garden and also settle down and get dirty with the wildflowers.

Andy Sturgeon’s ‘Mind’ garden at RHS Chelsea 2022 was a good example of eco-friendly planting but also had that show garden bling. The garden originated in a birch forest and opened up through a series of curved walls to a more open, sunnier space with plants suited to each space.

Campanula patula, the now endangered bluebell in the wild, was one of the stars of this garden for me. At around 80cm tall, this is a short-lived herb that produces light purple spikes as you would expect from a wild Campanula.

Each flower is more open than most Campanulas, the petals almost reflexed, and that’s what gives it its common name, spreading bluebell, and not that it has a penchant for spreading in the garden.

Peter Dowdall, gardening columnist for the Irish Examiner. Image: John Allen

It needs to grow close to other plants as it relies on its companions such as ornamental grasses to sustain itself, and it has been surrounded by plant friends in Andy’s garden to provide support such as Sesleria autumnalis, Stipa gigantea and Zizia aurea.

He also used Rosa glauca to great effect in this garden. This is a species of rose native to Europe and is therefore wild. However, it is definitely one of those plants that can be at home in a “designed” garden and feel equally at home in a wild garden.

Commonly known as the red-leaved rose, its reddish stems actually bear contrasting blue-grey leaves with hints of purple along the midrib.

Single, pale centered, deep pink flowers adorn the branches in summer and early fall, but her beauty doesn’t stop there. After flowering, she produces round red rosehips that look pretty stunning along with the supply to birds and wildlife.

Many wild and species roses grow very large and stubborn and are very thorny, which is why they are best left in the wild. However, Rosa glauca grows a lot well-behaved and does very well in both a wild and a cultivated garden.

Unlike many other roses, this species is fairly trouble free and requires little or no maintenance. Leave it alone and it will flower freely for years, providing food and shelter for garden animals. If you want to prune it, you can prune lightly or prune heavily in spring, but be aware that heavy pruning can sacrifice flowers for a few years.

Aquilegias, Thalictrums, Centaureas and Leucanthemums were all in the mix in the Mind garden and all add fabulous color and elegance and play an important role in the tapestry.

Another plant that was productive at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show was Nectaroscordum siculum. Also known as Sicilian honey garlic and Allium siculum, this bulbous perennial produces flowers that grow up to 4 feet (1.2 m) tall and, as its common name suggests, is adored by bees.

It’s quite a structural, elegant grower; its flowers bloom in pendulous umbels of green and white fading to pink/purple and red. It’s a see-through plant which means you can see through and past it as the stems are tall and narrow and work well in the wildest of spaces or at home in the most manicured topiary, its light and airy texture as a perfect counterpart to dense and heavy Taxus or Buxus.

Plant Sicilian honey garlic bulbs from October to January and you’ll enjoy their flowers, which will bloom early next summer.

I would say that not only this Nectaroscordum, formerly known as Allium siculum, but all Alliums are good hybrids who can hold their elegant heads high with the glitterati and the big unwashed ones and always make sure they belong.

Leave a Comment