This week Team AG discusses what plants they can't be without and which they wouldn't touch with a (very long) rake handle
Garry Coward-Williams, editor
Every plant variety in my garden fulfils a different role and thereby a unique place in my horticultural affections; the highlights of this year so far are the 100 or so daffodils I planted in the lawn which came up beautifully bringing joy to early spring, and there is the sea thrift I’ve planted in the new rockery.
But what couldn’t I do without? Well, it’s between two plants, but they are so very different in every way. The choice is between my ‘Red Duke of York’ potatoes and my ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ rose (my favourite of four David Austin varieties in my garden).
I only grow first early potatoes so the lifespan of my potato obsession is around 14 weeks and let’s be frank — potato plants are hardly the beauty queens of the garden border. However, prior to harvest they are of constant concern, fuss and speculation — will it be a good crop? Are they getting enough water? Should I feed them a little more?
I don’t have the space to put them in the ground, so I have them growing in 27 containers — some purpose-made ones and many re-purposed compost bags. All is pregnant expectancy until each bag is upended in the wheelbarrow.
And nothing beats that wonderful feeling when it’s a better than average crop with some big’uns!. Finally of course there’s the best part of all, the eating!
I am always keeping an eye on the roses, which I’ve had for a couple of years now and they are starting to come into their own. They’re had most of the usual problems like black spot, but so far this year they are all sporting healthy green leaves and full of buds ready to burst. I think this year will be their best so far and I am most excited to see them spring into bloom.
[Roll on the drums..!] it’s a tough decision but I’m going to choose ‘Red Duke of York’ potatoes!
In terms of what I wouldn’t grow, I’m going name Rhododendrons. Why? Simply because I have the wrong soil – it’s not acidic enough — not that this stopped the previous owners of the garden from planting two of them! I give them ericaceous feed, but they really don’t belong here and I certainly would not plant any more.
Lesley Upton, features editor
The flower I couldn’t do without in my garden is lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis). I remember it growing underneath the front window at home when I was a child and the smell was gorgeous.
It took me three attempts to get lily of the valley to grow in my garden – but I eventually succeeded. Now, when I get a waft of that smell, I’m immediately taken back to my childhood.
I think our clay soil was too heavy when I planted the first rhizomes, so I added some well-rotted compost and they started to grow – and spread. I now have them turning up in the lawn and between cracks in the paving.
I don’t do very much to them, apart from watering in dry weather. I suppose I should take more care of them, but they seem to manage pretty well on their own.
My lily of the valley are flowering now. I only grow the white form, as I don’t think the scent of the pink varieties is as strong. I pick bunches early in the morning, and while they last only a few days they fill the house with a fantastic fragrance.
In France 1 May is a holiday (La Fête du Muguet) when it’s traditional to offer someone a sprig of lily of the valley (muguet) to wish them good luck in celebration of the arrival of spring.
One thing I will not have in my garden is green flowers. To me, they are unnatural. And surely the whole point of planting flowers is to add colour to your garden – not more green!
Green chrysanthemums, green dianthus, green zinnias – I can’t stand them. And you can forget those lime-green euphorbias, even those with spots of other colours.
Green hellebores and green tulips are two others to add to the list, while green echinacea is just strange. I think that’s also why I don’t like hostas – even though they do produce insignificant flowers. Give me flowers with lots of vibrant colours any day!
However, if you happen to love green flowers, check out our feature that shows you how to go green in borders and in a vase.
Ruth Hayes, gardening editor
When we decided to write about our must-have and can’t-have plants I was assailed by blind panic. What on earth would I choose? How could I possibly choose just one plant out of the wonderful varieties that grow – or could grow – in our garden?
I ummed and aaghed over it for ages and walked around outside looking at everything growing away in the beds and containers. Cosmos? Globe thistle? Tulips? Anemones? Autumnal dahlias?
And then there it was, plain as anything, right in front of me – Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’. I love these plants with a fierce devotion, they are – I think – everything a plant should be.
Robust, interesting, great for wildlife and an absolute magnet for bees. In fact, that final attribute alone should be enough to encourage everyone to grow them.
Cerinthe – also known as Honeywort because folklore has it they are where the bees make their honey – are hardy annuals that are dead easy to sow each year because they scatter their large, 3D triangular seeds about with happy abandon.
Their olive, grey-green leaves are thick and leathery and wrap themselves around the stems in a manner typical of the ‘wort’ family. Their flowers are most unusual, tubular bells hidden away inside clusters of deep purple bracts.
Boy are they beautiful – you can see why the bees come calling. It isn’t unusual to find your Cerinthes buzzing away, with a bee or two tucked up inside their drooping flowers. It is one of the finest sights and sounds of an English garden.
Now then, before I talk about the plant I wouldn’t ever have growing in a garden let me make one thing clear. I DO like this plant and I do grow it, but in pots, never in the garden because I have learned the hard way that it is a questing thug that will escape its confines and take over a border in a manner that makes a Panzer division look sluggardly.
I’m talking about mint; delicious, cooling, tasty, garden mint. Yes, it is pretty, smells divine when crushed between finger and thumb and makes a wonderful refreshing brew after a large meal, but pop one on a border and you’ve got Day of the Triffids right in front of you.
I knew they were invasive so when I decided – oh rue the day – that one might be nice in a border I planted it in a pot thinking – let’s do a bit more ruing here – that the container would contain the roots.
And it did, at first, but then a few months later I noticed little minty leaflets popping up around the bed. ‘Not to worry,’ I thought ‘I’ll pull them out and that’ll be that.’
The mint, however, had other ideas and as spring became summer more and more of it started raising its head above the soil.
In the end I had no choice but to dig the whole plant out, by which time its scented tendrils were sneaking around throughout the border. What started out as a small plant turned into something out of Little Shop of Horrors, so mint now stays firmly in its place, in a pot by the kitchen door.
Wendy Humphries Letters page editor
My personal favourite is Rosa ‘Gertrude Jekyll’. I love their sweet scent, their scrunched up flower form and bold pink colour.
My own rose was planted 20 years ago and was a vigorous upright shrub that turned into a climber. It’s positioned against a fence in a confined area and I am especially grateful for this as the strong Old Rose fragrance lingers.
It’s one of the earliest of the English roses to flower, and in fact my first flower has just opened.
This week, I was lucky enough to see our pair of blue tits stripping the buds of aphids. I knew these birds did this but I’ve never seen it.
My rose needs little attention and has few problems, just a touch of black spot in late summer.
The rose was bred by David Austin Roses and introduced in 1986, and named after the great garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932).
I know I might sound fussy but I’m a bit snooty about yellow flowers. I love daffodils as they lift the spirits in spring and I allow dandelions in my lawn for the bees to access nectar, but in the borders I am definitely anti yellow blooms.
I just feel they are jarring next to other flowers, especially when the shade of yellow is ‘golden’.
Doronicum is a perennial that I would never grow, the daisy-like flowers look too much like a weed.
When it comes to yellow flowers, I do make an exception with primroses. The soft primrose yellow flowers make a nice contrast to the emerging red stems of my peonies in April.
Kathryn Wilson, features coordinator
My first grown-up garden was in a rented flat in London – a real luxury in the capital, it was large and sparked an interest I had never realized I had. With grass, borders and a generous expanse of bare earth at the back, it was filled with possibilities.
One of the flowers already in situ was a peony and I loved it on sight. Huge, beautiful, bounteous blooms, set against a backdrop of interesting leaves – not to mention the fragrance – I soon fell under its spell.
But then the flowers faded and, in time, the foliage also disappeared – completely. Like any first love, it took a while to get over, but I did.
I moved on, or so I thought. Until, that is, the following spring, when new shoots erupted in the same spot and I discovered that this was no flash in the pan. That peony came back every June, to entrance me all over again.
I now have two of them here in Bournemouth, grown from cuttings taken from my mum’s garden more than a decade ago. Each year they get a little bigger, stronger and more floriferous, and I wouldn’t be without them.
One plant I would be without, however, is the French marigold – those classic bedding tagetes. Brash orange colouring that turns to brown sludge in the rain, ugly flower shape – they’re not even French. Yuk!
Janey Goulding, assistant editor
This is the truth: I clearly remember when my inspirational gardening mum first taught me how to spell ‘nasturtium’. The fascination I already had in words at the age of six was piqued by this bizarre yet beautiful combination of letters and vowel sounds, like chewing down on a musical dream cake.
I recall wrinkling my head in concentration while staring at the crazy print of Sir Gerald Kelly’s Saw Ohm Nuuk that hung in the den, savouring this spellbinding word as it broadened my lexicon and my imagination, and contemplating its bouncy, cheerful pleasures. My adoration has only deepened with age.
Thing is, there’s just something so innately nice, life-affirming and kind about the nasturtium: it’s like the NHS of the plant world. So helpful and generous, in fact, that as well as filling your pots and borders with veritable mountains of vivid colour and foliage, it’s a reliable weed barrier, a living ground cover, a self-contained mineral farm, a companion plant, a chicken pharmacy and a charming edible garnish, as well as a hostelry for beneficial pollinators, while helping deter pests from any veggies you might be growing nearby.
The ‘nose-twister’ or ‘nose-tweaker’, as it was once known, works hard in many garden types and sizes, tumbling from teensy pots and rockeries, and thrives in poor soil. Better still, these plants deposit calcium, nitrogen and potassium into the ground as they go in order to support other plant life.
And as well as being good for their floral and chicken chums, they’re good for us, too, providing a peppery source of vitamin C and iron, as well as carotene, B vitamins and iodine, giving a boost to the body’s central nervous system, removing carcinogens and strengthening blood vessels, and even slowing the ageing process. And once you’ve finishing growing and guzzling this cornucopia of kindness, you can save the seeds and start all over again the following year.
Just knowing these jolly, supportive scatterings of loveliness are working their magic nearby makes me feel comforted, and maybe a part of that is all tied up with the wonder of my youth and the nurturing of family bonds that first brought them to me. Yet while I can ramble on for hours about the sublime hues cast by a mass of frolicking nasturtium petals, for me the real bounty and beauty is in those leaves – those wondrous, bobbing, dinner-dish leaves, like nature’s own helping hands, reaching out to play with the breeze, tickle your senses, and give you a happy high five.
Four fab nasturtiums to try
- ‘Tip Top Velvet’: velvety petals with a fluffy sheen and pronounced emerald leaves.
- ‘Jewel Cherry Rose’: a delightful flurry of scrumptious hot pink petals.
- ‘Empress of India’: a striking blanket of wine red flowers and near-blue leaves.
- ‘Alaska’: Delightfully dappled and creamy variegated leaves.
Believe me, I struggled with this one. There aren’t many plants I wouldn’t attempt to grow once – heck, I’d even try a paddle-shaped banana beast or an explosive prickly eryngium (yes, Miss Willmott’s Ghost, I’m talking about you). But under duress, I have to admit to a tragic antipathy for the slipper orchid – specifically the Paphiopedilum Pinocchio – and I’m pretty sure the feeling is mutual.
Reasons? I’ve got a few. With its substantial labellum lip and open beaky blooms, it basically looks like it’s laughing at me – as well it might, for I know it would have the better of me in roughly fourteen seconds. And that’s on a good day.
Thanks to its bright green bulbous pollinia nose, twisted spotty arm-like petals and heavy hooked purple chin, it gives off vibes of being put together by a large (sadistic) committee with no sense of cohesion, while also evoking a feeling of foreboding and malevolence that I get from very few other plants in this world.
Alongside its hilariously confused and sinister design is the feeling that it is showing off, yet paradoxically not trying hard enough to win my affections. For this, friends, is how my jib is cut: I want a bit of love, OK?
There are just so many other plants out there that probably won’t laugh at me, and which promise a vaguely easier ride – which is not to say that I want this plant lark to be too easy, you understand. I just want a sense of collaboration and trust – and this contender is all snap, challenge and menace, with precious little satisfaction guaranteed. Also, I’ll admit, given the story of Pinocchio, there’s a part of me reluctant to see this fella come to life.
Sorry if this is your favourite plant. It’s just I have this gut feeling that a life spent slavishly tending to ‘Satan’s Slippers’ (TM) would not be for me. So if anyone ever gets me one as a gift, please know that I will say ‘thank you’ – but on the inside, I will be mildly terrorised and silently weeping as I resign myself to a predictable future orchid death. And I’d rather spare us both the psychodrama of finding out how this plays out.
Let’s agree to disagree, perhaps violently and profoundly, as I consign this deranged specimen to my own personal Room 101. Sayonara, slipper fiend – and long may you laugh demonically in a galaxy far, far away. For this is where I draw the line: trust me, in the long run, we’re all better off.
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