For whom the bells toil: Foxgloves have had quite a time of late battling the elements. The trick is to site them carefully, says Anna Pavord, and you should be amply rewarded

Click to follow
The Independent Online

"What a lot of tall plants you grow," said a short friend accusingly as we bobbed and weaved our way through the verbascum, dead foxgloves, eremurus, onopordon and ligularia on the bank in our garden. She acted as though they were all part of a devilish plan to undermine her psyche. More likely that they were bolstering up mine. When I was growing up I always felt like a crane among linnets, I like to surround myself with plants that are built on my sort of lines.

The trick is to find tall plants that can stand up to wild weather. This summer, it has been almost impossible. Sometimes though, careful siting will overcome the problem. Foxgloves in the wild do not choose to put themselves on mountain tops. Shady, cool banks in the shelter of trees and hedges are more to their liking and there they will top six feet, making me feel altogether less of a Gulliver in Lilliput.

The difficulty with foxgloves is knowing when to pull them up. By July, the plants have no more than a topknot of bells balanced ludicrously on their tall stems. Should they be dispatched to the compost heap? With us, colour is the deciding factor. The ordinary purplish type gets yanked out, while the apricots and whites stay until their seed has ripened and been shed.

Some years back I sowed seed of a fine strain of foxgloves called 'Excelsior Hybrids' (Thompson & Morgan 1.69). The bells are held all round the stem, fatter than the normal foxglove bell and stippled inside like some fabulous orchid, deep purple blotches on a pale ground. There is still time to sow some in a row, thinning out the plantlets as they grow and moving them to their permanent quarters in early autumn. They will flower next year and, if you are lucky, continue to self-seed for several years before they gradually revert to type. Mine have all disappeared, so I've been sowing enough to restock the garden.

Perennial foxgloves are usually much dwarfer. My friend praised them extravagantly, perhaps on the grounds that none of them topped four feet. The yellow foxglove Digitalis grandiflora is a con artist, bolstering up its minimal flowers with a name that suggests just the reverse.

Digitalis mertonensis, another perennial, would earn its keep anywhere. The bells are larger and wider than those on an ordinary foxglove, with conspicuous hairs standing up just inside the lip. The pink is the colour of raspberries well mashed-up with Jersey cream. It too self-seeds, if you are lucky, making clumps of strong oval leaves, a darker, richer green than the wild foxgloves.

But in the wild, wet weather that we got nonstop through June and the first half of July, tall plants had a terrible time. It certainly showed up the shortcomings of lazy stakers like me. Foxgloves crashed into each other in a drunken way. Vast onopordons leant over the path. They, like foxgloves, are biennials, though it seems scarcely credible that any plant, in the space of a single season, can transform itself from a rosette of leaves flat on the ground to a vast, ghostly thistle, 10 feet high.

At first I wondered whether to abandon the onopordons, chop them up and put them on the bonfire. But most of the roots were still in the ground, so instead we pushed them back upright and lashed them to metal reinforcing rods, the only things strong enough to hold them. It's not a pleasant job. Everything you touch on onopordons has got a spike on it.

The onopordon is perhaps the greatest conjuring trick that can come out of a packet of seed. A seed the size of a full stop produces in two seasons a plant that even I get a crick in my neck looking up at. But Verbascum bombyciferum is almost as tall. One seeded inconsiderately in a paved path and is now nine-and-a-half feet high. Its central spike has bushed out into so many contributory spikelets that the entire path is blocked off with a screen of yellow and grey. This is also a biennial, so by next year, we may have our right of way back.

The foliage is excellent, making in the first year handsome rosettes that sit flatly on the ground producing endless quantities of fresh felted leaves to replace those that are moth-eaten or muddy underneath. The flower spike that begins to grow in the second season is now plastered with brilliant yellow flowers. There are many who find it altogether too strong a character. For them, perennial varieties of verbascum such as 'Cotswold Queen' or white 'Mont Blanc' would be a better substitute.

Fortunately, the tall eremurus had done their stuff before the weather really rotted up. They are unwieldy things to plant. To accommodate their odd roots, you need to dig holes as big as graves. If you are lucky and the things decide to settle rather than rot, there will be an eruption of narrow, fleshy grey leaves earlier than you think is wise in spring. The growth looks as though it is coming from a bulb, but eremurus are actually herbaceous perennials. Each sends up immensely strong stems, sometimes four at a time, shooting perhaps to seven feet.

The top half of each is covered in minute flowers clustered together to give the effect of a glowing torch, burnt umber, soft orange, pink, white or a searing lime yellow. They die badly. The bottom-most flowers sit glum and brown before the top ones have finished doing their thing. But the bit in between is so outrageously brilliant that you forgive its habit of producing dead collars round the base of each spike.

You also need to bear in mind when planting them that (as with alliums) eremurus foliage is well past its best by the time the flowers come out. Good camouflage is needed in front of them. I have a woody, un-named spurge beside them, chucked out last autumn from a friend's town garden where it had got too big. It has narrow leaves and airy heads of lime green flowers, the whole making a bush about three feet in each direction.

First out this season was Eremurus himalaicus with six-foot spikes of white flowers rearing up behind clumps of hairy anchusa. Usually the seed heads are worth hanging on to, as the bright green seeds, the size of marbles, develop all the way up the stem and are an intriguing sight. This year, few seeds were produced and as the eremurus stems came crashing down in the relentless wind and wet of early July, they were swiftly dispatched to the compost heap.

E. robustus is equally tall but slightly later, providing spikes of peachy pink flowers that last for an amazingly long time. Plant them in September or October in a well-drained position. The crown of the plant needs to be about six inches deep. Sun is better than shade. Those I put in semi-shade have gradually petered out over the years. Do not nag and worry the plants. They like a quiet life with no competition and lashings of mulch in the autumn. You can get them both from Avon Bulbs, Burnt House Farm, Mid Lambrook, South Petherton, Somerset TA13 5HE, 01460 242177, Send 4 x 2nd class stamps for a catalogue.