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September 2003

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Sputniks, self-sown salvia, ‘Irish Blue' and diminutive digitalis

It's bulb buying time again. Every year this brings on an irrational craze to over-indulge and fill the whole plot with colour in spring. Last autumn I went for alliums in a big way. There seemed to be a larger supply than usual on offer. I have to admit that some of the highly popular ones failed to be totally successful here but Allium schubertii was at least different and amusing, somewhat resembling a sputnik with radiating flower stalks sending messages into space. This year I'm planting narcissi in quantity to brighten up the early spring garden. In the past I mostly bought cheap mixtures available in the supermarket and very good value they were too, but now I intend to go upmarket and keep the different varieties separate. These are best planted as soon as they become available, usually in late August or early September. Other bulbs can be sown later and I've often planted tulips up to the end of November.

The dark-blue flowered perennial Salvia forskaolii in one of the mixed borders here has self seeded and this year has made a bold centre-piece, dramatically contrasting with a sprinkling of self sown verbascums.

It's also time to be planning change for next year's garden. Beautiful but dull could well describe several gardens I've visited that remain the same year in year out. Some long standing major plant groups define the basic pattern in most gardens but change is also necessary to stave off boredom. Even a few new quick growers or unplanned ‘blow-ins' can transform an area. The dark-blue flowered perennial Salvia forskaolii in one of the mixed borders here has self seeded and this year has made a bold centre-piece, dramatically contrasting with a sprinkling of self sown verbascums. Geranium himalayense ‘Irish Blue' which I planted last year at the front of one of the borders billows out over the path and has a lightness about it that has made a big difference to an otherwise stolid group of plants. It also has the happy knack of flowering over a long period.

Long-flowering plants are less common in the rock garden, but Onosma tauricum droops its golden yellow bells from a very dry corner for most of the summer. On one of the raised beds where I grow most of the alpines the diminutive Digitalis obscura has also given me a long period in flower, unusual in this genus. I've had to carry out some ruthless thinning in the raised beds this summer. Even good-mannered alpines can develop into ‘thugs' if not watched and while you are concentrating on other parts of the garden totally overgrow the more demure species.

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