Holding the Fort

by Matt

Sedum spectabile

Filed loosely under the title, ‘Herbaceous Perennials’, lined along the rowed troughs of your average plants nursery are an enormous array of tough, prolonged-flowering key border stock. From the early-starting pulmonarias, through mid-Summer leucanthemums all the way to the last of Autumn’s purple aconitum displays, these are the key players that a gardener can rely on, and this year even more so than ever.

Working in a garden that requires a great deal of annuals grown from seed each year in order to fill the cutting beds and border gaps with (among a hundred others) larkspur, zinnias and cleome, a bad year can result in more than just a few less flowers. If sunlight is consistently low, as it has been this Summer, the annuals struggle to get going. Most of my cosmos, for example, are only just now reaching full flower and the sunflowers are a mere 1.5 to 2m tall – miniatures compared with last year.

In fact it’s the later and usually more prominent annuals that have suffered most this year. Those growing from an early (undercover or cloche) sowing were lucky with enough Spring sunshine to give them a good start in life, also making the most of the slug-dormant period. However as the season progressed, the light levels waned, and the later annuals were sowed into gloom.

This is where the trusty perennial falls neatly back into favour. New shoots returning each year from a well-developed underground powerhouse of roots are reliant so much less on what is happening above ground. Even in the worst of Summers, sturdy structures of colour will rise up from those muddy, senesced clumps that have been sleeping dead in the ground all through the Winter. For me these are the dependable backbone of the flower garden.

Aconitum napellus

Salvia uliginosa

Verbena bonariensis with Gaura lindheimeri

Perovskia (although technically somewhere between a shrub and a perennial)