I take a stroll to the bluebell woods at Sissinghurst in May and what do I see? Planting knitted together with the repetition of just a few key species. In spring the first plant to emerge is the wind flower, Anemone nemerosa whose delicate white flowers stud the woodland floor like stars in a night sky, before subtly being replaced first by an ocean of leaves and then by an explosion of the electrifying blue flowers of the bluebell. Emerging from this brief but glorious moment of flowering are outposts of Dryopteris affinis, a tall elegant fern that carries the visual interest through into autumn.
It is this constant ebb and flow of plants emerging, flowering and fading, to be replaced by another that is a key ingredient in a harmonious and successful scheme within the garden setting.
Like the bluebell wood, the magnificent crescendo of flowering bulbs in the Lime Walk at Sissinghurst is predominantly a one season display, followed by a quiet phase, when another area of the garden takes over the starring role. In this way you achieve a succession of climaxes throughout the garden, however the best planting designs are generally achieved when you orchestrate sophisticated multi-layered association of plants whose individual evolving qualities are understood and used to emphasise and reflect seasonal change. At Sissinghurst each of the other nine ‘garden rooms’ adopt this approach of a principle flowering period, which in turn are followed by secondary peaks.
The complex planting in these garden rooms require constant critical observation and analysis followed by considered intervention in order to maintain a positive dynamic and interplay between the varying plants.
Colour creates the mood (and at Sissinghurst the use of colour within the borders is taken to high art), but it is vital to see beyond this: one could put every white flower possible into the White Garden for instance, but it wouldn’t look good. The embedded success of a planting scheme relies primarily on form and shape.
Here at Sissinghurst, I have spent the whole summer looking at the planting, making notes and observations – using these notes in the next few weeks we shall start making the necessary annual improvements that every bed or border in any garden needs to continue giving of its best. The ideal is small scale renewals; however complete overhauls are sometimes necessary.
If this is the case then the protagonists or keynote plants (those that give a scheme its structure and character) are placed first, these act as anchor points around which the other elements pivot. These keynote plants are the lynchpins or the backbone of your design. They do not have to dominate a scheme, but their personality and presence must be sufficient to hold it together.
The next step is to consider the accent plants, these give unity to a scheme and work in two ways; when woven through they inject a potency and pace, or if planted at intervals then the effect is of punctuation and pause. Accent plants are generally those with a prevailing vertical energy, such as Digitalis, Eremurus, Delphinium, Verbascum etc.
Finally the foundation plants should be considered. As much care should be given to the choice of filler plants as to the structural ones. Putting together plants of similar habit, such as the accent spires of Eremurus and the spikes of the filler plant Epilobium will create a visual harmony, whereas combining those plants with different shapes, such as the ‘buttons’ of Knautia with the ‘plates’ of Achillea will create a visual tension. It is this interplay of plants exhibiting all of these differing forms that will result in a successful multi-layered scheme.
Troy (Head Gardener)