On a warm Sunday morning last August, I found myself deadheading roses at Denmans, the garden in England that belongs to my friend, John Brookes.
A well-known international garden designer and author, John has gardened at Denmans since 1980. At 82 (he turns 83 on October 11th) he still works in his garden every day and that particular morning I found him outside, secateurs in hand, piles of branches and weeds mounded around the terrace, and that euphoric look in his eyes that gardeners get when they are in full gardening mode.
I know that feeling. Think runners’ high; a surge of endorphins. There is also something about gardening that is peculiarly relaxing -- your mind can wander freely when your hands are occupied. There’s no list writing or fact checking, and texting is just a bad idea with dirty hands. Gardening permits a steady flow of thoughts to bubble up and be gently pondered against the backdrop of steady physical labor. John’s euphoria inspired me to ditch my computer in favor of deadheading roses -- and pondering.
Deadheading, in horticulture at least, means to remove spent flowers. You do it to encourage a plant to produce new blooms, prevent plants from going to seed and generally to make the garden tidier.
Immersed in my task and not a little pleased with myself, I found myself thinking that deadheading also seemed an apt metaphor for the current political mood in the US and in the UK where voters seem to be intent on removing spent politicians – and that was as far as I got with that line of thinking. The day was far too lovely to dwell on politics.
Moreover, the rosebushes I was tackling (shrub roses called “Little White Pet”) required close attention as only some of their small white flowers needed clipping. “Little White Pet’s” blossoms are arrayed in large airy bouquets interspersed with tight dark pink and white buds so an inattentive snip and half-blown roses or buds are on the ground instead of dead ones. “Little White Pet” is a great rose because it is hardy, vigorous and blooms from early summer through fall with proper care. It has small, glossy dark green leaves and more than the occasional thorn -- another reason to be attentive.
While most roses benefit from deadheading there are others that bloom only once a year and then produce gorgeous rose hips. The dog rose (Rosa canina) is a good example. Its fragrant, five-petaled blossoms, light pink or white, also grow in loose clusters, and are exceptionally delicate. Their sprawling stems, on the other hand, are viciously thorny. The hips that that follow are bright orange and persist through early winter. Tremendously ornamental, they are also high in vitamin C and antioxidants, and are used to make tea, marmalade, and it is said, even wine.
There are perennials that can be deadheaded or not, depending on a gardener’s preference. One of my new favorites is great masterwort, or Astrantia major. Hardy in zones 4-7 and a great favorite with butterflies, this beautiful perennial flowers on 1-3 ‘ stems in part shade starting in mid-summer. Their leaves are dark green and resemble Italian parsley. Showy bracts – colored leaves that pass for petals -- range in color from white to dark pink and remain attractive for many weeks though removing them can promote more blossoms. Easy to grow, the one thing it doesn’t like is to dry out.
And then there are the plants you deadhead when they start looking sloppy. Bear breeches, or acanthus can look remarkably messy when finished blooming. Their long-lasting flowers are usually a lavender-purple or white, almost tubular in shape, and grow along a strong, tall stalk as much as 3 feet high. The seed pods that follow are brown capsules and the flowers dry to a darkish brown – a look that doesn’t work in every garden. I like to remove them before they become unattractive. Fortunately the remaining bold and spiky foliage is a dramatic contrast to just about any other plant you can think of. Its leaves are so architectural, in fact, that they have been sculpted and painted in one form or another for thousands of years – think Corinthian columns.
Putting up with seedpods is unavoidable if you want a plant to naturalize. I am especially partial to yellow foxgloves (Digitalis ambigua, or, as it is now known, D. grandiflora). Its 1-2 foot stalks bear light lemony yellow flowers in mid-spring and when happily established in a moist location – woodlands are perfect – they will self-sow. Unfortunately they look pretty ragged by the time their nut-colored seed capsules finally release their infinite minute seeds. Selectively removing the most obvious stalks or cutting them down by half, leaving the lower halves to be hidden by other plants, helps conceal them. The seedlings take a year or so to mature but unlike biennial foxgloves, they will last for years, forming attractive clumps. It’s wise to remember that like all foxgloves they are toxic (and deer tolerant).
Finally, there are plants that you will want to deadhead no matter how attractive the seed heads because they self-sow prolifically and become a nuisance. Porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) comes to mind. It is an Asian native vine that resembles a grape vine in its growth habit but its berries ripen to the most eye-catching variation of dark and light turquoise. Unfortunately it is terribly invasive, so it’s environmentally responsible to remove the berries (in this case deadheading the fruit instead of the flower) before birds can broadcast them.
I finished deadheading the roses -- and pondering -- all too quickly that summer morning. Though back at my desk and hard at work, I was relaxed, rejuvenated, and still self-satisfied.
Yes, I thought to myself, gardening definitely produces a gardener’s high.
Earthquakes, disputed convention rules, refugees, and ongoing turmoil in the Middle East: It’s enough to make you stick your head in the sand, or, on second thought, since that “head-in-sand posture” is unquestionably uncomfortable and indisputably undignified, to escape to a desert island.
So, what to take? The British radio program, “Desert Discs” suggests music: Which 8 music discs would you take if you were to be marooned on a desert island? Music schmusic: Which 8 plants would you take – that’s the question. I’ve already made my list.
Some assumptions must be made about the island. Its climate would be temperate. Who escapes to a desert island where temperatures sizzle or plummet below freezing? The bungalow would be perched above the beach on the lee side of the island, facing south with a seating area embraced by a garden planted with my 8 plants. There I would sit, glass in hand, delighted to be listening to the music of ocean waves and not to news about delegate counts and impending Fed rate hikes.
Finally, growing conditions would be perfect for each plant – a little leeway (pun intended) as this is, alas, a hypothetical exercise.
Structure first: I’d want a tree to provide shade on those long, lazy, sunny days. I’d choose the white form of redbud (Cercis canadensis “Alba”), a tough shade-tolerant tree. That the common name is redbud makes sense because the species, a native, has early spring fuschia or pinkish purple pea-like flowers that cling along its dark stems and trunk well before its leaves appear.
Very pretty, but ‘Alba’ is beyond gorgeous with its pure white flowers that make blue spring skies bluer and brighten gray days, too. Redbuds are rounded and spreading in shape, growing up to 30 feet tall with a 15-20 foot spread. In the fall, when its pendulous, heart-shaped leaves turn a gentle yellow, pea pod-shaped seed cases hang long and dark, persisting through early winter.
Redbuds are deciduous, so next on the list is reliable evergreen material: I’d take the Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). This is not my favorite evergreen tree, but its columnar shape would be the right contrast to the redbud’s spreading form. A “columnar” shape can be formal, but the soft, loose sage-green texture of the red cedar offsets its formality and so
would suit this beachy setting. It is easy to grow, and its berries attract birds at the end of winter when there is little else for them to eat. These junipers also self-sow, so I’m apt to have several of them in varying sizes if I stay on my island long enough…and given the current state of American politics and the world, it might well be a while.
Still thinking “evergreen” but now looking for a different texture, Japanese kerria (Kerria japonica) would be next. Its slender arching stems are a good grass-green all year, even after its small, serrated leaves yellow and drop in autumn. It spreads into a well-formed 4-6’ clump that can easily be divided, and it’s branches form more of a screen than a solid mass. In early spring it flowers prolifically, producing bright ruffly yellow flowers you can see from miles away – just the sort of cheery sight one wants at the end of winter.
So, these comprise the bones of my garden: The decidous redbud, an upright juniper, and the arching evergreen stems of my kerria.
Now for the flowery bits. I like white in summer, so my next pick would be mullien (Verbascum
chaixii ‘Album’) for the sunny parts of the garden. They’d bloom May-August, bearing tiny white flowers with pink centers all along its vertical 2 foot stems, above broad rosettes of fuzzy gray green leaves. Being biennials, they’d die after a year or two, but they’d also self-sow prolifically, soon naturalizing in places that would suit them best. I could always yank the ones that settle in places I’d prefer them not to.
In a damper spot, I’d have to have blue vervein (Verbena hastata). I have always wanted to grow this elegant native because I love its loose clusters of short purplish spikes that appear in mid-summer, borne on tall, slender stems. They sway gently with breezes and attract birds, butterflies, and other pollinators which will likely prove to be very good company on a deserted desert island. Blue vervein does well in full sun and partial shade, likes moist organic soil, and grows quickly. It also self sows, so would blend with the other plants along my secluded shore. Its form would contrast nicely with the upright mullein.
Speaking of contrast, I’d include the stupendously eye-catching Red Hot poker (Kniphofia rooperii), a South African native. I find the color orange hard to work with in spring and summer, but love it in the fall when the overall landscape yields the intense greens and bright colors of summer to the reds, oranges, yellows, and earthy browns of fall.
This kniphofia fits right in to the autumn scene, its 6-8 inch upright clusters of reddish orange flowers looking every bit like a flaming poker at the top of sturdy 3-5 ‘ stems. It is hardy, and forms 2-3 foot evergreen clumps of long, slender, dark green leaves that look terrific in a winter landscape and provided excellent texture in summer. It would look fabulous beside the furry long, broad leaves of the mullein and the wavy vervein. Not a self-sower, I’d have to divide the clumps from time to time as I waited for the world to calm down.
Having filled the sunnier spots, I’d want something shade tolerant, a soft groundcover, for the spaces beneath the trees and in the shadow of the bungalow. I love false lamium (Lamiastrum galeobdolon), a fairly tough little plant that spreads very quickly by sending out runners that take root and form new plantlets. Its pointed green and white variegated leaves grow on 8-12 inch stems that bear little clusters of lemon yellow flowers in late spring. It’s doesn’t die back in winter, and in fact looks as good in the winter landscape as it does the rest of the year, and because it is variegated, false lamium brights up shady places, looking as though it is reflecting sunlight, even on dreary days.
Finally, I’d pick something grassy, no more than 2 feet tall, at the edges of my garden to blend my imported plants gently into the surrounding landscape. One of the shorter fountain grasses (Pennisetum) would just do the trick. While they do best in full sun like many grasses, fountain grasses also tolerate a bit of shade and somewhat damp soil. The medium to dark green grassy leaves will yellow in fall, helping to amplify the red hot poker before fading to a beigey brown, the perfect foil for my evergreen material.
So that’s the plant list. All I need now is the island.
Eyebrows always shoot up when John Brookes, the renowned British landscape designer, declares that garden design is “not about the plants”. He says this to every client, audience, and student emphasizing that no matter how large or small a garden might be, its design must be properly scaled, related to the surrounding architecture and landscape, reflective of its owners’ style and needs, and, of course, well laid out.
After the eyebrows go up, though, and he is sure he has made his point, he concedes that once the design is “right”, then can you think about plants.
We were among the first to arrive early the next morning, but legions of workers were already on hand to direct cars, restock inventory, and answer questions. They were expecting a huge turnout and they were ready for it.
The atmosphere was festive and the place was packed with shrubs and small trees tucked creatively among miniature waterfalls, pots, tools, small statuary, and other typical nursery ware. Tables and shelves were lined with hundreds of potted bulbs, pansies, primroses, brightly colored ranunculus, and perennials I’d never seen before. Huge signs proclaimed that “Everything Must Go!”. It was fabulous.
A kid in a candy store doesn’t hold a candle to a gardener at a half-price sale. John’s inner gardener was unleashed and I was curious to see what he’d buy. Not permitted to bring anything back home to Washington, of course, I had to settle for the vicarious pleasure of watching a friend indulge.
Much to my delight, John’s first pick were adorable miniature hellebores (Helleborus lividus). Their small leaves are dark marine gray green with silvery veins and its flowers have five delicate perfectly arranged little white petals. Completely irresistible, they bloom mid-winter but must be taken inside (preferably into a cool light place) in frost-prone areas. John grows many different hellebores at Denmans and this blue-gray hellebore will be a great addition for winter visitors to admire.
As it happens, John has a good deal of winter interest in his garden. As he points out, you look out your windows and walk through your garden in winter, so you should have fine-looking plants to look at then just as you do in summer. A perfunctory walk through Denmans makes the point. In addition to hellebores, John relies on everything from trees with colored stems and berries to shrubs with variegated leaves for winter interest. It was no surprise, then, that his next choice was a variegated Red Top (Photinia x fraseri “Pink Marble”). The typical form of Red Top has dark glossy green leaves, with distinctive dark mahogany red new growth. The new leaves of “Pink Marble”, on the other hand, start out an eye-catching pink before settling down to a dark green with irregular pinkish-white edges. John will put it at the south edge of his garden where storm damage has left open too many views of the farm fields beyond. Photinia grows quickly, up to 12 feet or so and can be heavily pruned into shape so it will make a good border plant.
Once the photinia was packed into the cart, we were off again. I tried to tempt him with various shrubs that I like, but John was impossible to sway. His pug was in the car so carrying space was limited and there’s nothing that imposes discipline on a gardener like the limits of what you can pack in your car (the pug rode home on my lap) and knowing your garden’s aesthetics.
Fortunately, he nabbed a few pots of yellow primroses (Primula elatior 'Veristar Lemon'). Primroses are great companions for spring bulbs, and this one with its clusters of small light yellow flowers on 5-7 inches stems will look fantastic with everything from winter aconite to crocus and miniature iris. The pots John selected had several small plants in them that he will separate before he plants them.
He also chose an elegant spurge (Euphorbia wulfenii ‘Blue Glacier’), with white and grayish variegated leaves. The green-leafed euphorbia blooms for a long time, starting in February. This cultivar is worth growing just for its beautiful leaves, and the clusters of light bluish green flowers, which grow at the top of the 18” stalks, make them even more desirable. It is hardy to zone 5, but I wonder what it would like after being buried by snow?
Having touched and considered pretty much every single plant outside, we went back inside to pay but not before we added one more winter-bloomer to our “haul”. John had spied it on a shelf of small trees as we’d walked in and stopped to pick one up on the way out. Aside from two small pots of white amaryllis, I think this was the closest we had gotten to an impulse buy -- a small mimosa (Acacia dealbata 'Gaulois Astier'), an Australian native with tiny globe-round lemony flowers and soft bright green leaves reminiscent of a conifer’s soft new growth. This acacia is too tender for winters with deep frost, but John will grow it outside his kitchen window where it will be well protected and will reach 12 feet in height. Its early spring blossoms will complement the variegated ivy and choisyas that grow in this space, just as the daffodils finish blooming and the bluebells start. It will definitely enhance the already-lovely view he has from his kitchen.
Back at Denmans, we set John’s new acquisitions where we could admire them. As I stooped to place the last hellebores beside the mimosa, I caught a powerful whiff of flowery perfume. It took me a moment to track the origin of the fragrance down to sweet box (S. hookerianavar. humilis), a low growing glossy leafed shrub with the tiniest pure white flowers. They are so tiny, they are easily missed but you can’t miss their scent. Sweet box, hardy in Washington, is one of the first of early spring’s really fragrant shrubs to break bud and its fragrance is most powerful on a warmish day. A whiff is the ultimate harbinger of spring.
As we settled down to that most English of drinks, a good cup of tea, I kept thinking about John’s comment about design and plants. It’s true: Garden design isn’t about plants – or rather, not about individual plants. It is about creating a framework in which plants are combined based on their form, color, and texture to create a harmonious effect. Each of the plants we brought home fit into Denmans’ framework. Ah, I thought, another lesson learned.