When Margaret Nettlefold planned the garden at Winterbourne, daughter Valerie revealed that her mother ‘lived with gardening books for a year or so’. Here, the influence of Gertrude Jekyll is inescapable. Winterbourne is filled with Jekyllian detail inspired by her 1899 classic Wood and Garden. Each month, we follow in Margaret’s footsteps to see how the garden compares now and then…
“After the wealth of bloom of June, there appear to be but few flowers in the garden; there seems to be a time of comparative emptiness between the earlier flowers and those of the autumn.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden, 1899
With an ever-expanding palette of plants at our disposal, there’s no excuse for the modern-day gardener failing to fill any month with a ‘wealth of bloom’. With much milder winters than Jekyll was used to, South African bulbs now prove an invaluable source of colour in July. Agapanthus are perhaps the best known and most widely grown.
Traditional advice was to starve pots crammed full with congested Agapanthus bulbs to get the best flowering display, but we’ve experimented with potting-on and feeding regularly through the summer when plants are initiating flower buds for the following year. So far, the results have been good, giving us a spectacular display of the white-flowered Agapanthus ‘Queen Mum’ arranged in pots around the sun-dial on the Terrace.
In the ground they flower in bold drifts, on both the north and south sides of the Gilbert Orchid House, in the South African Bulb Bed, growing in a gritty, free-draining soil with the benefit of some residual heat radiating from the glasshouse walls. Deciduous species are generally the hardiest and avoiding excessive winter wet will always give the best chance of survival.
With them we grow a number of other colourful South African companions. Pink Watsonia, orange Crocosmia, and white Crinum make particularly striking combinations with deep blue Agapanthus. Picking the right partner is important; the darkest Agapanthus flowers could easily be lost against another, similarly gloomy foil.
“Sea-holly (Eryngium) is another family of July-flowering plants that does well on poor, sandy soils that have been deeply stirred… The black-coated roots go down straight and deep, and enable it to withstand almost any drought.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden, 1899
This year in particular (with the driest start to a summer since records began) has crystalized the need to plant summer borders filled with perennials adapted to survive without water for long periods of time. In the Walled Garden, old-English favourites like Campanula and Geranium have long since flowered and gone, wilting in the heat.
Yet, nearby Eryngiums with their long water seeking tap roots have sailed through the summer so far. Common border varieties (such as E. variifolium and E. planum) produce rosettes of broad, often marbled basal leaves, changing to much smaller, silver-grey leaves as they appear up the stem (so typical of drought tolerant plants reducing transpiration and reflecting heat), as well as spiky blue flowers loved by bees.
Similarly drought tolerant Echinops do just as good a job and to much the same effect. They are often taller (such as E. ritro) and better sited further back in the border. In addition, they have larger, softer leaves and perfectly spherical flowers with the same steely, metallic blue hue.
Both leave behind dried architectural seed heads after flowering. However, in this respect, Eryngium are superior lingering for a long time irrespective of the weather. Echinops will suffer in a damp autumn, their seed heads going mouldy and requiring cutting much sooner than is desirable, leaving a hole in the border behind.
“The blooming of the Lilium giganteum is one of the great flower events of the year… The upper part of the stem bears the gracefully drooping great white Lily flowers, each bloom some ten inches long, greenish when in bud, but changing to white when fully developed.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden, 1899
The great white lily is no longer called Lilium giganteum. Instead, it has been re-classified as Cardiocrinum giganteum. A true luxury plant (and not for the impatient), Cardiocrinum can take up to 5-7 years before flowering first and then dying, leaving plenty of seeds and offsets behind. Larger than anything else in the lily family, the flower spikes can contain as many as 20 individual flowers on stems 3 metres tall.
Near the Arid House, we grow a different kind of ‘giant lily’ of our own; not Cardiocrinum but Lilium ‘Big Brother’ with huge flowers up to 35cm across, boasting 6 lemon-yellow petals fading to creamy white at the margins. Best of all, unlike its giant cousin, a L. ‘Big Brother’ bulb planted in the spring will flower the following summer.
Alongside L. ‘Big Brother’ we grow other popular varieties such as L. ‘Stargazer’, an oriental lily much smaller in stature but highly fragranced (as all oriental lilies are) with white and rose-pink flowers (spotted maroon) that face upwards to the sky as its name suggests.
Of course, as with any lilies, lily beetle can be a problem. Fortunately, the adults are a bright scarlet colour and very easy to spot. Pick these off from late-March onwards, feed plants with a high potash plant food, and stake before winds topple top-heavy plants, and you’ll never be without flowers in July again.