One of the nicest things about my current garden is having a bit of space to experiment and try news things. It’s given me room to dabble with dahlias, germinate exotics and try out plants I’d admired on visits to famous gardens. I’ve moved things around as the garden develops, so this year my veg patch has become a delphinium bed, my strawberries have given way to kale, and the greenhouse has opened up whole new set of adventures. Gardens change, gardeners try new things and there are always new plants to discover and project to try.
But some things are more constant, and I thought I would share my ‘desert island’ plants. I’ve created three gardens in Sheffield and each has been chopped and changed, but these plants have remained constant. A garden never seems to be ‘my’ garden unless they have a corner somewhere. Looking down the list the common themes seem to be that they are good on clay, don’t need mollycoddling, and are resistant to slugs. All good qualities in my book, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not beautiful too. So in no particular order, I’ve chosen the ten plants that I wouldn’t be without, and here are the first five.
I find foxgloves an absolute fail-safe garden plant. They grow anywhere, are strikingly tall but never need staking, are slug proof and truly beautiful. The muffled buzzing of bumblebees clambering round inside foxglove flowers is an essential sound of summer. I love the white variety in particular and the way these shine out of the gloom of a summer evening. 2020 has been a great year for foxgloves in the Peak District, I don’t think I’ve ever seen them so abundant.
The seeds are like dust and when my kids were little and asked me, hopefully ‘is magic real?’ I used to show them foxglove seeds and explain that with only a bit of soil, some rain and some sunshine, this tiny grain of dust would turn into a beautiful plant as tall as myself. If that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.
2. Alchemilla Mollis – Lady’s mantle
When things are very common, people tend to dismiss them on principle. There is nothing rare or extraordinary about alchemilla so people tend to overlook it, but has many redeeming features that mean it always has a space in my garden.
For a start it thrives on my heavy clay soils, is slug proof and its acid green flower spikes look lovely in a vase. It dots itself around the garden and compliments its more colourful neighbours beautifully and has way of pulling a whole planting scheme together. Yes, it does self-seed itself everywhere, but it tends to do this where its most wanted, like the edges of paths. The soft furry green leaves look gorgeous in spring, then once they start getting a big raggy after flowering, the whole plant can be cut back to the ground and in weeks new, healthy green leaves will start to unfurl.
Best of all is when it rains and water pools inside the furry leaves in mercurial silver pools. Folklore says that the alchemists considered this the purest form or water and would gather the droplets to use in their work. Whether or not this is really how the plant got its name I don’t know, but I certainly wouldn’t be without it.
3. Hardy Geranium
‘When it doubt, plant a geranium’. For years I attributed this saying to Carol Klein, but it turns out that Carol was quoting Margery Fish, the matriarch of cottage gardeners everywhere. I agree with them both in that no garden is complete without a hardy geranium.
My favourites are the wild meadow cranesbill types, which remind me of the limestone meadows and verges of the Yorkshire Dales and White Peak. I have far too many of these in varying shades of purple and white and they have crossed and self seeded so many times I’m not sure which is the original.
It was only when I went out to photograph them for this post that I realised my geranium habit might have got out of hand, as I kept finding new varieties I had forgotten about, plus lots of self seeders sprouting out of the crazy paving. Other favourites are a little pale pink one with crumpled petals – geranium sanguinium ‘striatum’ and a lilac one with dark leaves. I treated myself to this specimen at Chatsworth flower show back in 2017 and I’m pleased to say that its repaid the investment by coming true from seed so I now have a whole family of them and they look gorgeous rubbing shoulders with a dark raspberry red penstemon.
Herb Robert (geranium robertanium) and Shining cranesbill (geranium lucidum) are both classed as weeds by some uncouth people, but they make a welcome addition to the family. Shining cranesbill creeps into dry stony places like walls and gravel, the whole plant turning a brilliant red as it ages. Herb Robert is a larger, airier version of the same. I love it spicy, pungent smell and was a bit put out that Richard Mabey describes it in Flora Britannica as an ‘acrid, mousy stench’. They are very shallow rooted, with a fine cobweb of roots for each plant, making them easily shaken out of the ground and enormously satisfying to pull up at the end of the year. A welcome visitor, but one that doesn’t outstay its welcome.
My next entry is a bit of cheat, as I’ve sneaked two plants in. My first is dog daisy, or ox eye daisy. Again a common plant that you are as likely to see along roadside verges and waste ground as you are in a garden. As with all my ‘tried and tested’ plants, it is slug proof, seeds itself about, requires little attention, looks good as a cut flower and is happy on clay. They can get floppy when too big, and need pulling out once they start to go over, but they sprinkle themselves round the garden beautifully and the white flowers seem to highlight any other colours around them. Don’t be tempted to try and get a second year from a plant as they go woody, just pull it out and another is sure to pop up nearby.
My other daisy is not really a daisy at all but in the aster family. Erigernon karvinskianus, or Mexican fleabane is a low growing creeping plant, which sows itself into nooks and crannies around the garden. The stonier and more barren the conditions, the happier it is. I planted some along the edge of a terraced bed, hoping they would make their way along the flowerbed, but they much prefer to seed themselves into the cracks of the driveway and the mortar of the wall. For much of the year the plant is covered in pink and white starry flowers and they have a lovely way of softening stone edges and making your garden look like its been there for a hundred years.
5. Briza maxima – Greater oat grass
I first came across this when I bought my first house in Sheffield and the walk to work used to take me past a clump growing out of a garden wall. I pocketed a few seeds and was pleased when they germinated easily in my own garden.
They have lovely fat seeds heads on wiry stems, which add lightness to any flower arrangement and catch the sunshine in the garden as they bob around in the wind. They self seed themselves very thoroughly, and once the seeds heads have dried they shed everywhere. However, they are very pretty, and being shallow rooted are very easy to pull out where you don’t want them.
The little clump I had sown soon escaped the confines of my small back garden, and month-by-month I could track its progress up the row of terrace houses. We moved house a year or so later but as far as I know it is still going and should have made its way into the next postcode by now.
You don’t need to cultivate Briza at at all. I let it come up in spring wherever it has sown itself, then pull out any that I don’t want once it becomes big enough to weed out. Its now so abundant that I almost cried laughing when I saw that Sarah Raven was selling five seedlings on her website for £6.25! Just buy or beg some seed, cast it to the wind and you will be blessed with it forever.