The Steppe: Then and Now

Back on the 4th April, I gave a quick run down on my latest bit of trial planting of very low plants.  I almost gave up on it in early spring, when it looked like being overrun with weeds, and I started to move taller stuff in.  But a couple of friends stayed my hand, and insisted I stick to the plan.  I’m glad they did, and that I had the good sense to listen to them.

The original intention was to create a planting of low, fairly consistently domed planting, and to puncture it here and there with something taller that would hover overhead without dominating the moundiness of the low stuff.  As is nearly always the case in Australia, you can’t start with what you’d really like to use.  You’re forced to plant the very limited range of plants available.

Anyway, this is how it looked upon planting (Nov 15)

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And this is how it looks now (Dec 16), with bench and pergola-thing (soon to be draped in great veils of Virginia creeper) added later.

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A heap of things drowned in the winter, including most of the lavender, and several of the Euphorbia ‘Copton Ash’.  Even the best of the latter looked like they were incapable of any sort of a show, but they’ve recovered remarkably, and then flowered with ridiculously unexpected generosity.

dsc_0390I love the moundiness of it, and I’m really pleased with the Stipa gigantea floating overhead.  This is their first year flowering, so they’ll be better next year, and some in key spots didn’t flower at all, so I’m looking forward to achieving the balance I planned for.  In the future there’ll also be white Dierama dancing here and there above the undulating carpet. Can’t wait for that.

I’ve got to admit, however, that in some parts all that purple and lime makes me a little squeamish.  It’s just too contrasty, and borders on the indigestible.  Who’d have ever thought there’d be a complaint about too much colour?  So I’ve planted heaps more Festuca glauca amongst it all, as my favourite bits are where the haze of its straw-coloured flowerheads tones things down a bit.

dsc_0303I’ve also found that the little sparks of white from the Dianthus cut through the richness of the saturated colours, so I’ll spread a bit more of that around, and maybe add some more white with Triteleia laxa ‘Silver Queen’ and a touch of creamy lemon from Eschscholzia ‘Milkmaid’.

The biggest surprise was the brilliant success of the straight blue Triteleia laxa (used to be Brodiaea laxa ‘Queen Fabiola’). I’ve always found this reliable in flowering, but almost impossible to place effectively.  Its foliage is gone by the time it flowers, so it floats self-consciously above bare soil, as if someone’s pulled the chair out from underneath it and it’s caught – like Wile E Coyote having run over a cliff – in that moment before a fall.  It eventually dawned on me that it really needs to ‘borrow’ foliage from other plants, so I planted it where it would puncture through low grasses and other low perennials.  Its flowers are both physically and visually supported by its companions, and I enjoy it like I’ve never enjoyed it before.

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While this planting has a long way to go, with a few years yet of fine-tuning, I’ve really fallen for it.  A major thanks to those friends who stopped me ripping it all out in frustration in November, and to commenter Rupert, who, when I expressed some doubts in my blog back in April last year advised ‘Patience Gulliver.  Lilliput wasn’t built in a day’.

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23 thoughts on “The Steppe: Then and Now

  1. Michael,as usual dead jealous of the plants you can grow and your garden. Just read your blog about clematis. You probably know Vita Sackville West always had one one her desk in the tower. To cheer my self up I I just looked out the window at masses of Dichorosandra flowering madly with Limey green philodendron beside and the lime green version of Janet Craig dracaena,lovely but one and half metres tall plus,and growing,brisbane. Thank you,your garden is lovely.

  2. The colours looks jewel like and amazing! In our harsh Australian sun flowers can often become washed out, and I have learnt to plant more bold vibrant colours for summer. Two plants you might like to consider are: Rhodanthemum ‘African Eyes’ which forms lacy, silver grey mounds with masses of white daisy like flowers, and Stachys ‘Bello Grigio’ which has long silver white spears of velvet. Both of these plants survive frosts and burning sun. I can imagine how stunning your pergola-thing will look draped in curtains of red in autumn. I’m waiting for my Parthenocissus henryana ‘Silver Vein Creeper’ to turn it’s vibrant red.

    • Thanks for that Heidi, and for the suggestions. I’d like to try both of those. I spotted the Stachys at Bunnings about a year ago, and couldn’t believe my eyes. From a distance I thought I was looking at a Celmisia, which didn’t make sense at Bunnings. Then I read the label! Twice! Three times! but it was $16 for a 6″ pot. Should have just bought one and continually divided it. Could have had lots by now.

      • Yes, I bought mine from Bunnings and haven’t seen them since. They already are at the point of being able to be divided, and my friends are very hopeful that I may give them some. Might just try some in my front garden first. They looked like shards of upside down icicles, especially when covered in frost. Well worth getting if you spot them again.

  3. I love how these beds have turned out; a very sucessful experiment !
    Since your blog last April I have been inspired to change some of my garden beds to similar / smaller plantings.
    The scale is much better for my small garden and I have regained some background walls and hedges.

  4. Really, really gorgeous. Fabulous. I notice that your pea gravel merges with the garden beds. Do you battle with weeds at the junction?

    Also, I have a big garden in the country, and the last couple of years I have been overwhelmed by sheep sorrel. Do you have a cure?

    • Yes Christine. That interface (of gravel and bed) is a troubled one, but only when I neglect it for too long. The great thing is that at present I’m looking for excuses to hang out in there, and the weeding just goes on incidentally

  5. How about giving us a complete breakdown of all plants chosen and the count for each one. Looks fabulous. Just might steal your idea. Thanks.

    • You’re welcome to steal it Lita. I probably stole it myself, though if I did, it was subconscious. I’d be more than happy to admit if it was otherwise. Originality is over-rated in this game!
      As for plants, I’m hugely limited by my incredibly frosty winter (well, frosty from April to November, so far more than just winter) followed rapidly by a dry summer. Then the relative ‘count’ of each was compromised by flooding this last winter/spring. So it’s not what I expected, nor ideal. But it’s very clear that 70 – 80% of the ground has to be covered by about 20 – 30% of your plant range, meaning that there needs to be heaps of repetition. It needs to read as very simple and repetitive from any distance, and the detail must only become evident at close range. Now that I’ve achieved (or nearly achieved) the basic matrix, I’ll be starting to sneak a whole lot of other stuff in there – particularly bulbous stuff that I either don’t have, or can’t afford, large numbers of, such as species tulips. There’ll also be ‘guest appearances’ from other small perennials/shrubs that I might use in, say, 5′s or 7′s. So far most of the moundy stuff is in 20′s, 30′s or even 70′s

  6. white dierama …. brilliant as it will flower now . Maybe you need a really tall american daisy that has no ground volume in spring , early summer ,but by March will hover over all that is spent….. adding a new dimension . you would only need a few clumps …

    • Actually, Dierama elsewhere in the garden has finished here. It’s job is now being taken over by those slightly shaggy, deliberately low-grade white agapanthus that are in there – you know the one, with the purple pencilling on the outside of each flower. It has just started, and I’m not sure how well it’s going to work. It has grown taller than last year, and the flowers may feel a bit disconnected from the ground planting. It’ll all depend on how well they can carry off the hovering function – the function that dierama will do earlier, and that dierama does better than any other plant we know!

  7. Hi Michael, I am loving it. My suggestion though for your problem of “too much colour” would be to deepen the base with some deeper purple foliage. Just a thought ???? Cheers, Peter

    • Thanks Peter. Interesting Catherine made the same suggestion (see below), so I’m thinking you might be onto something. In answering hers (which I’m yet to do), I’ll answer yours.

  8. Hi, Michael, I reckon it’s a fantastic start, and I expect that the colours that you now cringe at a little bit, will look a lot more tame when Dierama clumps start flowering, and when Stipa gigantea bulks up. Looking forward to your further updates on the project, and I’m making a note for myself to remove my own “Queen Fabiola” from the spot where it currently looks so naked. Thanks for the hint! :-)

  9. Love the moundiness of it and those divine floating flower clouds and am relieved that it lived to see its first summer. But agree with your analysis re the colours. And goodness knows I “love a bit of colour”! I like your idea of the festuca but I wonder whether it needs some deeper notes? Maybe it’s a bit too treble and no bass?

    • I love the way you see these things, Catherine. Wish you were still designing!
      Anyway, while I totally agree on the need for bass-notes, every time I imagine adding some dark foliage, some purple leafed Euphorbias, for instance (like E. ‘Craigieburn’, which is a brilliant plant, and ticks every box of height and life-cycle), it takes the whole planting into something uncomfortably horticultural, or garden-y, that i’m trying to avoid. I might be just fooling myself, but I’m hoping for something that looks only a step or two away from self-sown.

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