Dutch Perennial Gardens in the Dry and Hot Summer of 2018

RodgersiaBeauty is to be found in the chaos of nature and this year, in the struggle for life amidst the perennials and shrubs in my gardens. A drier than average spring followed by a totally dry summer in which a hundred days passed without any significant rainfall in a country famous for its canals; I was forced to turn on the sprinklers.

Shrubs held onto their leaves for as long as they could, but eventually many just dropped them and I am sure will recover next year. Some perennials like ligularias, Darmera and certain ferns simply disappeared and again I am sure they will all reappear this autumn or next spring.

Park in AmsterdamWhat was interesting was how some plants simply dried up and remained effective after a short flowering period. In late autumn we would be talking about their winter silhouettes, but in July you needed to adjust your expectations to fully appreciate what was happening. In the case of this public planting in the commercial district of Amsterdam I found the result still effective and attractive.

Vlinderhof park in UtrechtMore gardeners are starting to install irrigation systems, but if the trend in climate change is going to continue we would be better changing the pallet of plants we grow. I visited a high profile public park planting here this August which was of course fitted with an expensive watering system, but the lush green that dominated this oasis seemed strangely at odds with the wider landscape which was buff-brown; more typical of the Mediterranean region than temperate Holland.

August befor the rain arrivedWe were allowed to water our gardens this summer as the one thing the Dutch are good at is water management, but in truth it felt wrong. Nevertheless it meant that I was able to keep the garden ticking over with some parts relished the extra heat, sunshine and, for them adequate, water.

September after rainRain has finally fallen and  within a week our parched, buff-brown land is green again. Asters, grasses and Rudbeckias are all thriving in the garden and surprisingly many shrubs are bearing heavy crops of berries.

What this all means for the future is anyone’s guess, but with rain finally falling the garden is awakening and maybe autumn will turn out to be better than it ever has been.

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Shrubs in late spring

Shrub feature bordersIt is in late spring, just after the tulips have ended, that I become delighted by the many flowering shrubs and distinctive foliage colours that seem to dominate the garden.

Shrub feature bordersOf course there are various perennials flowering including Euphorbia, Geum, Geranium and bulbous plants such as Camassia and ornamental onions, but foliage colours and the flowering mounds of Viburnum and Deutzia shrubs attract all the attention.

Shrub feature bordersMy philosophy over shrubs concludes that shrubs are best used in gardens to create highlights and structure amidst a wider field of flowering perennials and ornamental grasses.

Shrub feature bordersEven in my own garden where I trial many different plants, including lots of shrubs, the idea is evident, but ideally the relationship between shrubs and perennials should be far more pronounced. Many Deutzias grow too large for smaller gardens but I have found Deutzia rosea ‘Campanulata’ with D. x elegantisima ‘Rosealind’ (behind) remain sufficiently compact for my needs. The upright shrub on the right is Frangula alnus ‘High Line’. Its distinctive upright form suggest it would work in a variety of schemes, but I find it rather boring and not very elegant, for such an upright design feature I can think of many slim growing conifers that would look so much better, and would be evergreen.

Shrub feature bordersPurple leaved foliage has featured in my gardens far a long time as it offers a strong, season-long contrast with the green foliage and flowers that generally dominate. Prickly Berberis, evergreen Pittosporum and Cercis with its flush of pink flowers on bare stems at the very start of the season have all proven indispensable.

Shrub feature bordersIn my vision of the shrub feature  border, only the most distinctive shrubs, those that have good form, foliage and flowers over a long season, are used. A single specimen in a small border may suffice, but often two or more examples will be scattered across the border with the intervening spaces being filled with my characteristic perennial meadow plantings.

Shrub feature borders

Here is a modern design by Sanne Horn for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam using widely spaced Prunus underplanted with Liriope, Carex and ferns.

My eBook, Shrub Features, goes into the ideas behind this original approach to using shrubs in modern style gardens. I explain how to bring shrubs and perennials together in successful border plantings as well as offering an extensive list of the very best shrubs to use in this way. Creating this eBook gave me a lot of pleasure as well as teaching me a lot about a group of plants I had not been making full use of in the past.

Design & Plant provides garden design education at irresistible prices.

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Spring into action

My last post showed the garden three weeks ago just after I had knocked down all the perennials with the question “would you want your garden looking like that?”.

Well, as promised, the perennials have reappeared rapidly to cover the ground level debris and the shrubs are bursting into flower.

Perennial mulchThis is how it was just three weeks ago.

Perennial mulchThe dead remains of last year’s perennial growth will rot down in the course of the year, gradually nourishing the plants in a natural process.

Shrubs and tulips take a leading role at this time of the year.

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Would you want this in your garden?

Perennial mulchNot everyone would want their garden looking like mine does at this moment. However, what I see is a clean slate; the garden’s perennials have all been broken into small pieces and dropped on the ground where they will rot down over the coming year.

Perennial mulchAfter the winter the dead perennial’s stems are brittle and easily broken into small pieces by hand; only a few really tough ones need me to use secateurs. The long grasses I chop into short pieces apart from the really tough ones which I line out lengthwise under hedges where they take a few years to fully rot down.

What looks like a mess at this time will quickly disappear under the foliage of the newly emerging perennials and it will rot down in the course of the growing season to feed the plants.

Perennial mulchThe time I save in not carrying everything I remove to a compost heap, that I later must bring back to spread onto the ground is enormous. It might not look very tidy for a few weeks in early spring, but for me it represents the beginning of the new year’s gardening season.

Interestingly my attitude to this technique is in part influenced by the fact that these trial gardens are not where I live and as such they are not something I look at every day of winter. If this was my back yard I would probably attack the chaos earlier in late winter and introduce more structural planting to offer winter interest to the planting; here it is not necessary.

Cycling across town to these gardens I pass a public space in which a good example of mixed perennial meadow planting has been created. In season it is dramatic and highly effective and in winter the plant’s silhouettes are attractive. However, the city council has yet to find time to tidy it up and what currently is to see there is very ugly. Although perennial meadows can be effective in public spaces and offer significant savings in maintenance cost, their maintenance needs to be timely and rigorous.

As it currently appears this bold planting is a poor advertisement for what is a very good model for public green space planting. In a few weeks time it will again be something the passing public will appreciate, but it should have been tidied using my snap and drop technique many weeks ago.

Perennial mulchSpring is late in Amsterdam this year. Only three weeks ago we were skating on the canals in the centre of the city. Once the bulbs come into bloom and the shrubs blossom the scruffy ground cover will soon be forgotten.

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Light Up The Winter Garden

HakonechloaWinter has really arrived here in Amsterdam. It is cool and wet and I am glad that I have finished my replanting projects. Last week I weeded here and there, tidied away broken or flopped stems, and topped up the wood chip paths.

Perennial gardenThe garden is quite tidy now if you can appreciate the look of dying perennials and their silhouettes, but in truth, without light they look drab and dreary.

Autumn tints

The coloured leaves of deciduous shrubs are falling, but a few that remain hang like jewels when caught by low-angled sunlight.

Autumn tints

When the sun shines there is a great deal to enjoy especially in the knowledge that there is nothing more to be done this year apart from sweeping up fallen leaves.

Miscanthus

Garden books give you a list of tasks to work on in the winter, but I will do nothing more than enjoy the sunlight, when its there, until February when I spring into action and tidy away the dead and brittle perennial debris and start to anticipate the arrival of spring.

Grasses in pots

Enjoy!

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Grasses in early Autumn

Ornamental Grasses

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Vorläufer’

Ornamental grasses bring excitement and interest to the garden throughout the year when we take advantage of their exceptional qualities, but it is in early autumn that they can steal my heart.

Perennial Meadow Amsterdam

Molinia caerulea Subsp. caerulea and Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Overdam’

In soft light their fine details are set against the courser foliage-patterns of well chosen companion plants.

Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Overdam’ with Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Alba’

However, it is when the sun does its best to shine from its diminished angle in this season that the show really begins.

Ornamental Grasses

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Graziella’ and Miscanthus sinensis ‘Grosse Fontäne’

When in flower, what had been a group of plants that together we referred to as grasses, suddenly their different flowering patterns become apparent. Yes, they are still all recognisable as grasses, but now everyone stops to admire their different flower heads dancing in the sunlight.

Ornamental Grasses

Hakenochloa macra ‘All Gold’

Perennial Meadow

Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Cordoba’

Ornamental Grasses

Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Poul Petersen’

 

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Broken Tulips – The Beautiful Curse

Broken Tulip

The Amsterdam Tulip Museum is a welcome resource for anyone interested in tulips and who happens to be visiting the capital of the Netherlands. Now they have started to share their knowledge and information online at https://amsterdamtulipmuseumonline.com

My earlier post gave some impression of the quality of the museum and its shop and to support their new initiative I have invited one of their team to write a short piece on just one aspect of what can be found within this new online source of accurate information.

Broken Tulips – The Beautiful Curse

By Chris Schipper (@Tulip_Facts)

Flared and striking, so called “Broken Tulips” (or ‘Rembrandts’) are like nothing else in the Tulip world, really like nothing else in the entire flower world. Their bright colors and distinctive streaks immediately grab the eye and don’t let go.

In the 17th century, at the height of the Dutch Tulip Mania, it was these flowers that had everyone running wild. With exalted names like ‘Viceroy’ and the legendary ‘Semper Augustus’, a single bulb could sell for more than a house. Breeders were so desperate to produce them that they turned to things like adding paint to the soil, or buying ‘miracle potions’ from street vendors (unsurprisingly, these did not work).

Now, almost four hundred years later, these once revered flowers have fallen from their pedestal, only grown by hobbyists and rare specialty breeders (although you can see a few in the Hortus Bulborum’s collection garden in Limmen, Holland). In fact, broken Tulips are illegal in the Netherlands today without special provisions.

So what caused this dramatic shift?

Unfortunately, the source of their beauty is also a curse. While Tulip fanatics had long noticed that broken Tulips came smaller and weaker than others, it was not until 1928 that scientist Dorothy Cayley discovered the cause to be a virus.

This ‘Tulip breaking virus’ infects the bulb and causes the flower to ‘break’ its single lock. However, it also weakens the bulb and inhibits the proper development of ‘offsets’, new bulbs genetically identical to their mother. These new bulbs also carry the virus, and the degradation continues until, in most cases, the genetic line is wiped out.  It is for this reason that legendary breeds like the Semper Augustus are now extinct, lost in time to the very thing that made it so famous.

Worst of all, this virus is easily spread by aphids and other sucking insects, and can infect other Tulips or Lilies, and so for a typical garden it is NOT something you want to see (and if you do, it is recommended that you dig out the flowers and remove the bulbs).

Fortunately, for those of us that find the flared look too beautiful to resist, options do exist!  For centuries, breeders have been hard at work to replicate the brilliant colors, but in a healthy and virus-free manner, and the results are striking. If you are excited about the look of these so-called ‘Modern Rembrandts’, some breeds you could consider are:

Marilyn – White with red streaks that recall the famed Semper Augustus

Flaming Parrot – Deep red flames on a lovely primrose yellow

Prinses Irene – Orange flowers licked with purplish flames

But how would you use them in your garden? As always, that’s up to you, but some looks that seem to work well are placing them in pots where they stand tall and independently, or planting them in little clumps against a neutral background (where their striking colors will stand out even stronger!). Some may require more creative thinking than others, but in return they can offer a truly unique display worth a try one season!

To learn more about Broken Tulips and the rest of the Tulip’s incredible history, visit us at https://amsterdamtulipmuseumonline.com, or follow @Tulip_Facts on Twitter and Instagram.

Modern rembrandt images courtesy of Colorblends Wholesale Flowerbulbs (https://www.colorblends.com/), Semper Augustus image courtesy of the Amsterdam Tulip Museum (https://amsterdamtulipmuseumonline.com), close-up photo of a Broken Tulip courtesy of a small breeder society that requested to remain anonymous, Broken Tulips in gardens images courtesy of artist Takao Inoue (https://www.takaoinoue.com).
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Ornamental Grasses

Ornamental Grasses

The warm season grasses are finally in full flower her in the Netherlands. This year they are later than normal as a result of the cool late summer weather. But when they do flower all is forgiven as by then the garden has reached its dramatic peak.

Ornamental Grasses

Cool season grasses such as Calamagrostis (above) are effective in early summer and continue to make a contribution over a longer period, however, it is the warm season grasses that are the real drama queens.

Ornamental Grasses

This is a mature clump of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Herman Mussel’ screening a quiet sitting area at the rear of my own garden.

Ornamental Grasses

The longer I garden the less I feel I know. Pennisetum grasses need a long hot summer to flower is what I tell everyone, but this year the summer was cool, yet this plant has never flowered so well. Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Gelb Steil’ with its yellow glow within the flower heads and their stems.

Ornamental Grasses

Calamagrostis brachytricha always redeems itself when it comes into flower. In early summer it is just a green grass filling space in the border, but then suddenly it flowers and remains effective well into winter. Its common name, Diamond Grass, refers to the sparkling droplets of water that hang in its flower heads after a shower.

Ornamental Grasses

Not all ornamental grasses have to grow in full sunshine to thrive. Sedges, wood rushes and woodland edge grasses abound, but when something with extra height is needed there is nothing better than Chasmanthium latifola.

Ornamental Grasses

Repetition is the secret for introducing the naturalistic look into our garden plantings. Upright grasses, even when they are different species, share many characteristics which allows them to develop a clear visual theme throughout a garden space. Here three forms of Calamagrostis x acutiflora and Miscanthus sinensis ‘Kleine Silberspinne’ connect the various borders in my own garden into one picture.

Ornamental Grasses

Stepping back, yet more clumps of ornamental grasses add to the picture making the garden as a whole look much larger than it really is. But take note, the ornamental grasses are only part of this picture.

These are just some of the concepts we deal with on my “Gardening with Grasses” course at Learning with Experts – MyGardenSchool. If you really want to get the most out of this important group of perennials why don’t you join us? Now is the time to study the grasses which are at their peak; in spring is the best time to plant them after a winter of making plans.

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Bright Yellow and Orange Perennials contrast with Purples and Browns in the late summer garden

Heleniums mingle with grasses and seedheads in the Perennial Meadows gardenRudbeckia and Helenium set the tone in the late summer garden. Their gaiety is modulated by the darker brown tones of tinted foliage and chunky seedheads.

Rudbeckia in the Perennial Meadows gardenOur summer was dull in the end and the warm season grasses have struggled to come into flower. Panicums have performed well, but many Miscanthus have yet to show the reason we grow them.

For now here is a short video of a part of the Amsterdam garden that is nearing its flowering peak. Look out for my post next week when finally all the grasses will be in flower.

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A Green Summer Perennial Border

Green Perennial BorderThe border on the other side of this arch was designed to be green and restful in summer when the rest of the garden is doing its best to call for our attention.

Last summer there were heleniums and rudbeckias here but in flower they were too distracting. This year greens in many tints dictate the mood.

Perennial border

By autumn this border offers movement and colour with autumn tints developing in the ornamental grasses it contains.

Autumnal tints in grasses

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