Chasing rainbows

Field scabious (Knautia arvensis), Scabiosa atropurpurea 'Black Cat', Allium sphaerocephalon, Galtonia viridiflora, Verbascum chaixii album
Field scabious (Knautia arvensis), Scabiosa atropurpurea ‘Black Cat’, Allium sphaerocephalon, Galtonia viridiflora, Verbascum chaixii album

August may seem rather early in the gardening year to be thinking about the planting plan for next summer, but this far north I can see autumn over the garden wall. The glory of our island cottage garden is short: it is slow to start, building up to an explosion of colour and then a rapid, gentle decline and annihilation as the autumn gales arrive. Our season is too short for the late flowering perennials and in some years it can even be a struggle for the tough and dependable Sedum telephium ‘Autumn Joy’.

Campanula rotundifolia
Harebells, gowk flowers or Scottish bluebells (Campanula rotundifolia).

When I started planning the cottage garden, I knew that the geography, soil and climate would determine not only what I could grow but also my choice of features. A garden without trees, shrubs and climbing plants to provide the skeleton with a limited choice of herbaceous plants required some lateral thinking. The obvious answer seemed to be a version of the Dutch style of perennial ecological planting, but could it be successfully scaled down to cottage garden size? I also knew I could never compete with nature’s own ecological planting plan when the machair bloomed on the other side of the garden wall.

Three years later and I feel that I am making progress and trying not be too frustrated by my failures. I am slowly learning what will grow and how to put plant combinations together. Most of the successes are serendipity rather than good planning and whilst I have to admit that I would not deliberately put pink and orange together or even juxtapose blue or red with orange, the effect can be stunning. The softer shades of blue, mauve and pink tend to prevail, but with our very strong coastal light there have to be splashes of vibrant colour.

The borders are currently too narrow and need to be widened to enable my design to flourish. As space is limited, I plan to weave swathes of plant combinations through the borders to make ribbons of colour, an approach which might be more effective than planting large blocks of single species. This requires large numbers of plants, therefore I need to propagate my “successful” plants to make progress. This will take time, but I am now more confident that I can make my concept work. However, I am still chasing rainbows trying to devise new plant combinations. I have yet to learn the value of simplicity and want to try just one or two more species!

Sedum border
Sedum border

I have also discovered that there are parts of the garden where it is impossible to get herbaceous plants to grow. I tried various combinations of ground hugging plants, but as these were slowly wiped out by the winter gales I was left with a mixture of sedums.

In the summer they flower profusely and are joined by self-seeded harebells (Campanula rotundifolia), thrift and alchemilla erythropoda. In this very exposed border these will not endure the winter gales, but the sedums survive by retreating into the protected pockets between the stones. This mulch of beach cobbles also prevents the soil from being eroded by the wind and helps mask the empty border syndrome in the winter and early spring.

Although not part of my original plan, the more exposed parts of the garden are slowly being covered by my sedum litho-mulch. It is rather more attractive than the patches of scrubby grass posing as “lawn” and easier to maintain.

We have had a glorious summer and the garden has flowered with remarkable vigour and exuberance, surviving hoards of hungry slugs and battalions of weeds. The borders are now past their best and gently starting to fade. Perhaps a little blowsy, but still producing interesting colours and textures as the flowers are replaced by seed heads. This seems to suit the more gentle, golden light of the late summer as the shadows lengthen in the early evening.

With the threat of being lashed by the tail of Hurricane Bertha, I really could not decide whether to be bold and take a scythe to the herbaceous borders and the herb garden or take my chance and keep my fingers crossed. In the end I decided that even this far north it was far too early to take such a drastic step. Although some plants are past their best, there are others which are still flowering and providing pollen and nectar for the bees. So the bees won and I will keep my fingers crossed and clear up the devastation if necessary.

Scabious patch

19 thoughts on “Chasing rainbows

  1. Bertha has not buffeted us too much here (but brought us nearly and inch of welcome rain) so hopefully it will have died down even more by the time it reaches you. You have some lovely swathes of colour in your cottage garden – showing how effective blocks of colour are, whether ribbons or not. Blowsy colour will definitely be better than no colour, so hold fire on that scythe!

    • I probably made the right decision, the fag-end of Bertha is blowing about Force 7/8 (40mph) so a stiff Hebridean breeze with some heavy rain. A bit rough for early August so there might be a bit of pruning required tomorrow. Sounds like you survived the wind and enjoyed the drenching.

      • I have to apologise for being a bit complacent about Bertha as I visualised her moving steadily north whereas in fact the weather system circled round, as they do, meaning we missed the worst of it whilst the south and north didn’t…. Elder Daughter in Surrey has had endless thunderstorms whilst we have had none – great to have had the rain though. You have had much worse in the past though, from weather you have described before, but hope it has pruned selectively 🙂

        • Poor old Bertha was pretty tired when she reached here after trashing northern Scotland. We were also tucked into the center of the depression, so the winds were not too strong and the rain persistent rather than torrential. It’s still cold, grey, miserable and windy but we’ve been fortunate again. However, if this is the start of the hurricane season, it’s going to be a long stormy autumn.

          • There’s always going to be an upside to the times when it’s cold, grey, miserable and windy 😉

          • You are a little ray of sunshine!

  2. Your colour combinations are lovely, says she who has unwittingly created a pink and orange combo this year and actually rather like it. Good to see the Californian poppies doing so well, if they can make it with you I really should try some down here too.

    • The California poppies self-seed (hence the pink combo) and are a great favourite and I always buy a packet of seed “just-in-case” they don’t appear. The other source of orange are the horned poppies (Glaucium flavum) which also self-seed and have a fabulous blue/grey foliage. A UK native seaside plant which grow in poor soil. I like the serendipity of self-seeded plants you get some wonderful combinations.

  3. There are some lovely planting combinations in your borders – the first photo especially is one I’d like to copy. Hope the worst of the storm passes you by and leaves plenty of flowers for both you and the bees to enjoy.

    • Thank you. Some combinations are planned, but there are always surprises e.g. the galtonias in the background with the verbascum beyond. I find my camera really useful for capturing the garden, so often when I look all I see is weeds and the parts that haven’t worked! It’s not too windy, by local standards, but it was been raining for the last 3 days! The vegetable garden looks fine, the sweet peas are a bit sulky, and I’ve not looked at the cottage garden yet, but I’m sure that it will only need a little tlc and some sunshine.

  4. When conditions are challenging I think the rewards are much greater, as I have experienced (to a lesser extent than you of course) in my own garden. I really love sedums now, although I used to disdain them. I admire their resilience as well as their flowers and they do fit in so well with the stones and cobbles in your borders. I think you have created a very lovely cottage garden – well done and good luck with the propagating. Now, any ideas for a very dry stony slope facing south-west exposed to heat and drought in summer and freezing winds and permafrost in winter…? 😉
    Hope Bertha doesn’t do too much damage!

    • Thank you Cathy, it is tough at times, but as gardeners I think we all adapt and learn as we go along. For really difficult conditions I look at the plants which grow in similar environments in other parts of the world. So for your exposed stony slope I would look at plants from areas such as Iran and Turkey (think bulbs, dwarf iris); Patagonia, and even the prairies of North America. Think low growing spiny shrubs or those with small though leaves, dwarf narcissus and tulips, oxalis, acquilegias, eryngiums – once you start thinking it gets exciting and the plant list starts to grow. A chance to be adventurous and try some unusual plants, after all a packet of seed is not a bit investment and it can be so rewarding. I do hope that you will write about this new venture.

      • Thanks Christine. I think if I view it as a “venture” it will be more motivating, and I have all winter to think about it!

        • Sometimes the planning can be as interesting as the planting, particularly if it’s a difficult problem.

  5. Stunning garden! I would never have guessed it was a garden in the Hebrides had I not know. You’ve worked miracles. It looks beautiful

    • Thank you, my little cottage garden is a surprise to most people when discovered. With a litter perseverance you can create a garden almost anywhere and many gardeners cope with worse conditions than here on the Hebridean riviera – although it’s not very riviera like today!

  6. Oh, how dreamy! Kudos for sharing wonderful images. A true inspiration to us all. Diane

  7. Your garden is beautiful; I can see in your images how bright and pure the light is. although the light is very strong here in Italy it doesn’t have that sharp purity. You have chosen your plants well. The idea of threading colour through the borders is perfect, blocks are already being superseded by more natural planting with plants weaving together to make a matrix. I hope your good weather lasts a little longer. Christina

    • Thank you. We could do with a little Italian sunshine to brighten things up, its still cold and rainy. I like to be optimistic and so I’ll hope that it will be better next week.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.