I made it to the Plant Heritage lecture. If it had been a usual monthly talk and not Fergus Garrett I probably wouldn't have driven all the way to Stowupland, but I did want to hear him. Once there I didn't hug or kiss anybody by way of greeting, or even touch a doorknob, so I hope I kept my germs to myself.
Fergus Garrett is the head gardener at Great Dixter. More than that, he is Christopher Lloyd's anointed successor. Picked out from among a crowd of visiting students, Fergus worked closely with Lloyd for years until the latter's death, which I am shocked to realise was now a decade ago. There is a sense in which any plantsman's garden dies with them, so Sissinghurst today is no longer Vita Sackville West's garden, but the spirit of the garden can linger when the baton is passed on directly from the original creator to a like-minded successor. So I was keen to hear what Christopher Lloyd's horticultural heir had to say, and eager to hear Fergus Garrett on his own account. Having seen Great Dixter last autumn I knew it was still a brilliant garden, irrespective of whether this or that was what Christo would have done.
The topic was Succession Planting in the Mixed Border. Mixed borders have not been at the forefront of fashion in recent years, with the vogue for sweeping New Perennial plantings of grasses and billowing tall herbaceous plants. How garden fashions come and go: the famous mid twentieth designer Russell Page dismissed herbaceous plants as 'coloured hay'. All of our borders are mixed, however. I have always liked woody plants, and bulbs, and having read Christopher Lloyd's books at an impressionable stage of my gardening career took his advice to heart that a third of any planting scheme could usefully be evergreen.
It was a very good lecture, much more than just a list of desirable plants with their qualities and tips on cultivation, which can be useful and entertaining but in a different way. The aim of succession planting is to have the border being as interesting as possible for as long as possible. One strategy is to choose things that perform for longer rather than shorter periods. That's not to say don't grow any peonies if you love them, but if you are planting a hardy geranium why not use one that flowers for three months rather than one? Another is to broaden your definition of interest beyond flowers to include buds, seed heads, foliage, bark and overall form.
Fergus Garrett made the distinction between techniques that require no extra work, some extra work and so much work that he wasn't necessarily recommending that private gardeners not opening to the public and without a paid workforce even attempted them. Choosing varieties with longer seasons over shorter falls into the first category, obviously. Under planting with naturalised bulbs he also puts in the no extra work category, once you have planted the bulbs, though I might put it in the second because their emerging foliage in the spring does make weeding more complicated. Managing self seeders requires some work, and bedding out potentially means a lot of work. In which case, he suggested, think about how much you could do. One patch of Cosmos or a few pots could be enough to give an area of the garden a lift.
I did like his suggestion that you should lay down the bones of the planting scheme first, and then see what could be done with the remaining available space, be that with under planted bulbs or a late flowering climber to scramble over an earlier flowering host. At this point, he stressed, you must match the vigour of the plants providing extra flourishes with their neighbours. Certainly I have seen attractive, mature specimen shrubs disfigured by over-exuberant, smothering climbers to the point where the host had to be removed, but I hadn't thought of bulb foliage killing off its neighbours. It can happen that way round, if a lush leaved bulb that's early into growth or stays green for a long time is planted among late emerging herbaceous plants. At Great Dixter when appraising new varieties of tulip one of the things they look at is the size of the leaves, when deciding whether to drop bulbs into areas of mixed planting. Slides of allium and tulip foliage lined up next to each other brought home the point. You would need to test grow most varieties of bulbs a year in advance, since bulb catalogues almost never mention anything about the foliage.
His other advice was that from July and August onwards you needed to de-brown. Removing dead foliage, spent flower heads or excess stalks of things like teasel could make the borders look much fresher. The nice question is how much to take, if you want the winter look of frosted seed heads. He's right, though. One of the things I noticed on our last holiday as we walked around the vaguely disappointing garden of Kingston Maurwood was how much better some of the planting could have looked if only somebody, anybody, had had time to go around dead heading and doing some minor tidying.
Observation and personal knowledge of how particular plants do in your growing conditions is all. I already knew most of the ideas Fergus Garrett set out, in theory, but he is much better at putting them into concrete practice than I am.