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January 2008

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A winning combination, the hospital bed and chronic congestion

It all began when I was at Chelsea show in 1991 and saw a plant combination on Hilliers' stand that was so attractive that I returned four times during the day to admire it. The pairing was of the Japanese maple Acer palmatum ‘Karasugawa' which had shrimp-pink young leaves matched perfectly in colour by the flowers on the Japanese azalea ‘Blauuw's Pink'. Back then Hilliers were still supplying plants by mail so I ordered the acer and two ‘Blauuw's Pink' azaleas which arrived the week before Christmas that year.

I decided to plant them in a position sheltered from the prevailing west wind and one of the few spots left was alongside a defunct (since 1950) farm building. It was a gravelled area measuring eight metres by two metres wide but the gravel was scraped away and I made a new bed edged with stones from the local quarry. This was all done on Saturday January 3, in rather a hurry, because I was going into hospital the following Tuesday for an operation and knew I'd be out of commission for two or three months.

Since then this bed has been called the hospital bed. It was filled with outdated grow-bags bought in a sale, dusty peat swept from the floor of the building behind where fuel peat sods were stored, spent mushroom compost, bags of leaf mould and some barrow loads of soil shoveled from anywhere round the garden that could spare it. The acer was planted in a hole I made with a pick. Using old mushroom compost was a very bad mistake. I didn't realise then that lime was generally added to it so the poor azaleas quickly sickened and died.

For summer interest I planted two hydrangeas: the lacecap Hydrangea serrata ‘Bluebird' and the large furry-leaved Hydrangea villosa. Both of them have grown enormous in the intervening years. Climbers seemed to succeed on the wall behind and there was already a ‘Gloire de Dijon' rose that had been planted in a hole picked in the gravel. I had been given the rose ‘New Dawn' as a present so it went in too and, to separate the buff-apricot ‘Gloire de Dijon' and pink ‘New Dawn', I planted the rampant white-flowered rambler ‘Bobby James' which now engulfs the whole bed. Cars going in and out through the archway into the yard have their paintwork scratched by this rose so it is regularly cursed soundly before Davy takes the loppers to it and whacks it back. It revels in this treatment. The honeysuckle ‘Graham Thomas' is another plant that spreads its tentacles everywhere in spite of being cut to the ground every winter.


There are two clematis here. Clematis ‘Jackmanii' never gets any attention but flowers abundantly, festooning both the acer and the two hydrangeas with velvety purple flowers. Compared with Clematis flammula, it is a docile creature. Clematis flammula has delicate little creamy white scented flowers and is sometimes called ‘virgin's bower'. This gentle name belies the thuggish nature of the plant because it too spreads everywhere. Still I love its whiskery, old-man's-beard seed heads in winter floral decorations.


The occupants of the hospital bed are, I am afraid, suffering from chronic congestion so major surgery is necessary over the next two months to relieve it and to restore some kind of order. The accompanying photograph, taken last October, illustrates how not to garden and the awful consequences of using plants with thuggish propensities. At least the weeds don't stand a chance among such invasive plants.





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