Country & garden: The colour of two continents

When you tend gardens in both England and Australia, your senses come alive to the way light and atmosphere are everything
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Thank goodness we have seasons in this country. Without the catching- up months of late autumn and winter, I'd be sunk. Now there is time to think about new plantings.

Now, finally, there is a chance to plan new projects. Gardens change themselves when things grow and die. But we change too, both in terms of our taste and in our relationships with our gardens - what we need from them at different times of our lives.

I like being able to mooch through the garden at this time of the year without seeing must-do jobs on every side. Not that the place has gone to sleep. Jasmine is at its best, cascading down the east wall of the house. So is mahonia, with its terminal sprouts of yellow flowers. And primroses are already flowering all over the bank.

Marylyn Abbott, the Australian author of Gardening with Light and Colour (Kyle Cathie, pounds 19.99) takes the opposite view. She has a fine garden at Kennerton Green, outside Sydney, rampageous with ranunculus and snapdragons, dripping with roses and wisteria in the explosion of growth that happens in Australia in its spring and early summer. It will be at its peak now.

But rather than relaxing during Kennerton Green's rest period, she comes to England and catches spring and summer all over again at West Green House, in Hampshire, which she has taken on a long lease from the National Trust. Here, she has more roses, with peonies, delphiniums and masses of iris and bluebells, for which she has an endearingly romantic passion. In our garden, they are weeds.

She writes with great verve and immediacy and her book made me think about familiar plants with new interest. Her own enthusiasm makes you see things in a different way. She has been used to gardening in a much more ruthless environment than England, and in a much harsher light. Plants that come out all together in a two-month riot in Australia, may flower months apart in an English garden, which has a much longer, slower growing season.

The book covers her experiences in both gardens, and she describes very well the particular difficulty of re-tuning her ideas to accommodate the misty, indeterminate aura of the West Green garden.

Although at opposite sides of the world, both gardens sit in regions that geographers would describe as cool and temperate. But Kennerton Green is never locked up, as our gardens are, by long, damp winters. Nor does the English garden, West Green, ever suffer from the prolonged heat and drought of an Australian summer. We twitch and worry and think the end of the world is nigh when a mere three weeks have passed without rain.

But these are problems that a gardener can get over. Marylyn Abbott has learnt to swap drought-tolerant plants for damp-tolerant plants. More difficult, she found, was to understand what happens to colour in our climate. There tends to be a lot of green in our gardens; the damp light sops up colour. The sun is rarely intense enough to make any planting unbearably hectic, though she has found that some schemes that work for her in Australia seem impossibly brash in England.

In England, for the first time in her life, she started using burgundy, maroon, cerise and magenta in the garden. "I had never used them before," she writes.

"In fact I had never liked them at all as they are hot, heavy colours that capture heat and are totally deadening under the strong white light of summer days in hotter climates. They had always pictured for me the glow in a threatening sky before a ferocious dust-storm, the stuffiness of unused parlours, the harsh pink sunsets in dry years that assure us there is no rain on its way."

At West Green, the sight of an old rugosa rose, `Roseraie de l'Ha', propped against a mellow brick wall in the abandoned kitchen garden suddenly showed her that here, deep reds, pinks and purples can glow like jewels in the subdued light of a treasure box.

Here, the colours she had avoided looked "rich and glamorous". She had also stumbled straight into a big shift in British taste. For too long we, too, were afraid of intense, rich shades in the garden. Now saturated colours have ousted many consumptive schemes of pastel blue and grey. What a relief.

Now we mix purple alliums with the rich magenta of old roses such as `Cardinal de Richelieu'. We seize dahlias such as the sumptuous dark `Arabian Night' and pair them with dark-leaved castor oil plants or spiky cordylines. We look for wine-dark forms of astrantia, such as `Ruby Wedding', to put with dark amethyst salvias, adding tulips such as `Negrita' and `Queen of Night' for late spring drama.

If there is room, you might consider a background planting of purple- leaved cotinus, pruned regularly to keep it compact and ensure a non-stop supply of new growth that produces the biggest, most lustrous foliage. Then you might gild the lily by draping a velvety clematis such as `Warszawska Nike' over the cotinus. You can cut it down to within 18in of the ground each February. Where a clematis is piggy-backing on another plant like this, maintenance of the underlying host is much easier if you have an opportunity each year to get rid of the web of clematis stems entwined in it.

Marylyn Abbott loves annual flowers, but thinks that English gardeners are snobby about them. I think she's been meeting the wrong sort of gardener. These aren't plants that you can jettison wholesale. Annuals provide the quickest, cheapest and most effective way of varying a planting scheme. And, as they come into their own in the second half of summer, they have an important role to play in taking over from earlier performers that then have nothing left.

Ms Abbott uses the elegant, veined flowers of salpiglossis `Chocolate Box' to take over the bare spots left when big, hairy mounds of the oriental poppy `Patty's Plum' have finished flowering in late June. At that stage, the poppy is cut right down to the ground, releasing space for the salpigloss plants. This is later than they would normally be set out, but if you grow plants on in separate pots, rather than in a seed tray, they will not suffer.

She finds that mats of the almost black sweet william Dianthus barbatus `Nigrescens' often need cutting back by midsummer, especially where the plant has been left to perform as a short-lived perennial.

So it is useful to have to hand a few trays of a lustrous snapdragon, such as `Black Prince', to tuck into the gap. The snapdragon will carry on singing the same colour tune as the sweet william, if that is what you want. If you don't, you take the chance to shift the planting scheme into a different gear by planting something cream, or blue instead.

Another recent English craze - for ornamental grasses - leaves Marylyn Abbott cold.

"They may currently be the epitome of garden chic," she writes, "but I do not like to grow them. Every Australian country child is warned not to walk through long brown grass in summer, not to poke around clumps of bamboo or pampas grass, as they are the habitat of snakes." Some habits die hard.