Cull of the wild: What to do when that stunning foxglove display doesn't turn out as planned


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The Independent Online

Something weird has happened to my foxgloves. I had this notion around about May last year that the next big thing would be foxgloves, tall stems of pale bells shimmering out of a summer's dusk. I thought it would be romantic. I bought three pots. I planted three pots. (Almost all garden design books will tell you that "three is the magic number" when it comes to planting. So I obeyed.) And then I waited.

Waited until right now, in fact. But about an hour or so ago I got around to actually staring at them and they look terrible. Instead of smart green rosettes of leaves which promise to break forth with spires of flowers, there are stunted-looking misshapen bundles of tiny leaves all growing from single points. I fear an eruption of genetic madness, to which the digitalis and all their relatives are especially prone.

It's when things just go a bit off track in a garden that it's hardest to know what to do. Death is simple. Pull the dead thing out and compost it. Or actually, perhaps more hygienically, burn it. Burning, or council waste disposal, are particularly good options for windowboxes and containers that have failed to make it through the winter, as pests may be to blame. The special bugbear of the windowbox is an ugly grub called vine weevil which, whether vine or not, will eat your plants' roots. Burning is the only way to make sure the weevils don't become epidemic.

Yep, death, easy-peasy.

The problems arise, though, when it comes to dealing with plants that have just gone a bit weird. I begin to debate the philosophical questions. Is it OK to chuck out a plant for having become a bit ugly? For being old? For having a genetic disease? Shouldn't my ideal plant society be conducted according to the principles I'd want to see life lived by – helping the sick and aged, instead of throwing them on a bonfire?

On the other hand, garden with kindness, and things quickly begin to look like the horticultural equivalent of a Victorian hospital ward. Misshapen misfits with a touch of the Elephant Man. And at heart, a garden is an aesthetic object. It's supposed to make your heart lift as you gaze on beauty. It epitomises what is inherently a slightly superficial, fashionista sort of ambition. Fashionista verging on fascist, actually, now I come to think of it.

And so back to the foxgloves. What the what is going on there? It looks as though some cell line has gone terminally bonkers in a way that doesn't make me confident of my May flowering. In the end, it's too pesky a question. I feel it's time to channel my inner eugenicist and be a bit more of a bitch. The old, tattered, genetically-overdoing-it foxgloves are going on the compost heap, and I'm just going to order new ones off the internet.

Yep, I'm tired of being kind to plants, and I'm OK with that. Just don't put me in charge of any government departments taking care of actual human beings and we'll all be fine.

Foxgloves to give a go

Digitalis parviflora 'Milk Chocolate'

A Spanish foxglove with a mass of tightly whorled deep chocolate trumpets. £8.50 a plant,, or try seeds from the Kew Collection, £2.29 for 100 seeds (

Digitalis purpurea 'Dalmatian Purple'

Old-fashioned foxglove hues with modern first-year flowering and tidy leaves. £4.99 per plug,

Digitalis albiflora

The best and tallest white foxglove, which can look you straight in the eye if necessary. £7.99 for a plant or £2.49 for 1,000 seeds,