A Pinch of Floral Spice

One of the really big questions is how much garden space should be allocated to good, reliable plant matrix, and how much to seasonal, colourful, ephemeral blast.  It’s sort of the same as when you’re dishing up your take-away chinese.   How much rice per spoonful of sweet and sour pork?  How much background bland to foreground tasty?

Most of us make the decision instinctively.  Come to think of it, that might be the easiest way, and I may not be doing you any favours by forcing it into the realm of conscious consideration.

I’m pondering one extreme end of the spectrum just now, in which you use heaps of background planting, and spice it up entirely with pots of ‘colour’, or pots of sparkle.  A lot of Italian gardens use this very effectively – deep green hedges everywhere, with the occasional tub of red geraniums.  But the idea needn’t be as traditional nor predictable as that.

Above at the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens, the entire area is planted up with Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’ – which, incidentally, is naturally occurring in Australia).  The idea takes a great plant and repeats it, overusing it the point of monotony, but makes it all effervesce with a small number of pots that sparkle within a similar colour range.  Brilliant.

The use of pots like this, in a quiet background, is a good way of getting a garden through a seasonal down-time.  Jeremy Francis at Cloudehill uses pots of tulips for a colour blast in spring, along the edge of his perennial borders which are yet to start their annual performance.  As charming as tulips are when the climate is appropriate, they’re not the real point.  Anything, be it bulb, perennial, shrub or annual in full bloom at this time of year would do the same job.

Back at Niagara, they’ve followed the same principle again, but have been really disciplined about using only one type of plant in a single, flat colour.  In this case it’s a dwarf chrysanthemum, but it could have been anything.  In fact, they’ve probably been grown on elsewhere, and planted in at the point of flowering – chrysanthemums are generally too boring for too long to have permanently planted in a prominent spot like this.  Here, both background and added seasonal sparkle are deliberately limited and modest.  I’m incapable of this sort of discipline, but I’m glad someone isn’t.

In all these examples, the quiet background is reasonably even-textured and of low diversity, but it needn’t always be so.  This garden in Benalla has loads of diversity, but in a very restrained range of colours.  Amongst it all, holding centre stage, is this blast of red.

The point is that a few really good pots in flower can take the pressure off the whole garden performing, and can be disproportionately powerful in making otherwise quiet spaces really sing.

Same pot from another angle.  Design:   Ken Burke


  1. Really like your blog Michael. My newish blog has suddenly sprouted a couple of posts about gardening and I’m amazed (it wasn’t to be so). I’m a very late bloomer and have only discovered gardening in the past few years. And since seeing an episode of ‘Monty Don’s Italian Gardens (ep3 – Gardens of Ninfa), I’m well and truly hooked. I look forward to reading more from you.

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