Gardening: The bloom and bust syndrome

When grouping plants together, writes Anna Pavord, it's easy to go for the grand slam, but take care: a sparkling spring could give way to a sere and sullen summer garden
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My mother-in-law is a hataholic. She has more hats than anyone I know. When you open her cupboards, rows of the things gaze serenely out at you: veiled hats for funerals; wide-brimmed hats for weddings; hats for shopping in her village, which are subtly different from hats for shopping in her local town. She has hats for going to church in and hats for coffee mornings (including a wicked navy blue number she bought especially to go to a fundraiser for the lifeboats). Egged on by our children, she can always find a reason for another outing, another hat.

Occasionally, hatted out, she comes with me to the garden centre, where she wanders through the plants with the same exploratory caution that I feel in her natural territory. I'd gone in there for gravel, to top- dress the tulips in their pots. But a fabulous pulmonaria `Blue Ensign' was signalling wildly from a bench, and I had to have it.

"You've got one of those," said my mother-in-law accusingly at the check- out desk. "More than one. I saw them this morning." I explained the difference between this particular pulmonaria and my other seven (though I didn't admit to that many), but knew that I'd never be able to use those same words to her again about her hat habit. We are conspirators.

The pulmonaria has particularly rich blue flowers, though the leaves are plain dark green, unspotted. Having brought it home, we had to find it the right companions. My mother-in-law liked that bit. Like her hats, plants are not bought just for their own sake, but because they will complement something we already have - or intend to get.

`Blue Ensign' went in next to a spread of magenta-coloured `Wanda' primroses and a bergenia, whose big, spoon-shaped leaves are a rich shade of claret. The patch will not have much to carry it through the summer, but there is space to put in some of my favourite tobacco plants, the tall, white- flowered `Fragrant Cloud' (Thompson & Morgan, pounds 1.19).

This is the decision you have to make when you are grouping plants together in the garden. Are you going for the grand slam, with everything coming out together? Or are you planting for continuity, so that whenever you look at a particular spot, something is happening? With a little forethought, you can have the best of both worlds, for there are some plants, notably hellebores and euphorbias, that contribute to the garden all the year round. If you include one or two of these "bankers" in your plant groups, you will be more than half-way to success.

The best bankers have good foliage, because in the end it is leaves, not flowers, that make your garden feel rich, abundant and well-furnished. So in any group, there ought to be one plant (like the bergenia) which will continue to have point when its flowers have finished.

The perennial wallflower `Bowles Mauve' is a generous plant, flowering over a long period. That is a useful trait, but as a plant it does not have character. At this time of the year, you can team it with sweet- smelling, pale cream narcissus. That will look fresh and spring-like, but will not be a sustaining diet. If you add Geranium palmatum to the group, it immediately has better prospects for the future.

The same thinking might apply to a group of the yellow narcissus `Quail', interplanted with deep blue hyacinths. They both look - and smell - magnificent. But bulbs put themselves neatly away when they have finished their growth cycle. Without some backdrop, such as the handsome dark evergreen Helleborus foetidus, there would soon be an empty gap where the narcissus and hyacinths are performing so magically at the moment.

I think spring should be grand slam time, and bulbs achieve those kinds of effects better than any other kind of plant. But while you are enjoying these in-your-face displays, you need always to be thinking "What happens afterwards?"

This spring, Tulipa batalinii `Bronze Charm' interplanted with deep blue de Caen anemones has been better than ever before. But though I feel that nothing will give me more pleasure on that patch than these two do, it nevertheless has to have something happening on it for the rest of the year, when both anemone and tulip have dived underground.

Pinks, I think, will be the answer. They like the same hot, well-drained conditions as the tulips and they will not get too rampant. I'll probably go for some sheets of the red Dianthus deltoides.

The same problem will occur where the very early dwarf magenta tulip, T pulchella, is growing with patches of blue Anemone blanda. That show will finish soon, but they have as company the snaky, ground-hugging twirls of grey-leaved Euphorbia myrsinites. This is flowering at the moment, with vivid, lime-green heads (good with magenta), so the patch is technically grand slam rather than successional in its planting. But the euphorbia is a good all-round plant, evergreen (or rather, evergrey), intriguing and sculptural. Even on its own, it would make the spot worth visiting. If I can remember to pop in a few summer-flowering Spanish daisies (Erigeron karvinskianus `Profusion'), it will be even better.

Lilies follow on well from early bulbs, having the same strengths and weaknesses (phenomenal flowers, useless foliage) and I've just taken delivery of some `Citronella' lilies to plant amongst blue and white hyacinths on the bank.

The hyacinths are there to complement the variegated, blue-flowered brunnera, a clean, simple combination of spring-flowering plants.

But later on, the brunnera grows coarse and unprepossessing. It is surrounded by the tall blue geranium `Mrs Kendall Clark' and the similar (though shorter) `Johnson's Blue'. Their flowers are good, but the leaves of the three plants are similarly matt in texture. The group needs to be kicked into orbit. I hope `Citronella', with its elegant, recurved flowers, will be the answer.

Ferns, like spurges, are reliable bankers, provided you can give them the cool conditions they like. For the past couple of months, snowflakes have been flowering on our bank, tall graceful clumps of green with dangling white snowdrop heads on the ends of the stems. They are interplanted with more brunnera, the plain, green-leaved kind, so in essence, this is a spring planting.

But with them is a `Bevis' fern, one of the most beautiful of the polystichums, with long, arching fronds, and it is this, together with the greyish hosta `Krossa Regal' that will give that part of the bank a new life later in the season. I don't want this time of year ever to finish, but in the very small part of my mind that is rational, I know it will. Making sure there is more still to come softens the blow.


Sarah Raven, queen of the cutting garden, is offering more courses this year on growing and arranging cut flowers. On Monday 3 August, she will tell you all you need to know about preparing, planting and maintaining a modest cutting garden no more than 10ft by 15ft (cost pounds 125). More ambitious two- and three-day courses are planned for 13-15 July and 20-21 July. For the first time, Ms Raven is also selling seeds for those who want to plant flowers for cutting: sunflowers, cornflowers, marigolds, dill (for its foliage), snapdragons, poppies and many others. All seeds cost pounds 1.50 a packet. For a copy of the list (and details of courses) send a stamped, addressed envelope (11cm x 22cm) to Sarah Raven's Cutting Garden, Perch Hill Farm, Brightling, Robertsbridge, East Sussex TN32 5HP.

`Gardens Illustrated' celebrates its fifth birthday with the April issue (pounds 3.50) just published. It's got a suitably Easterish cover - a clutch of blueish duck eggs - photographed in the garden of the writer Francine Raymond, near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. The magazine is celebrating its anniversary by increasing publication from six issues a year to 10. Read about Bob Brown's nursery, Cotswold Flowers, or follow Roy Lancaster's trail through the prolific family of ceanothus. To take out a subscription (pounds 35 for 10 issues), call 01454 202515 or fax: 01454 620 080.