Tight fit Posted on April 7, 2014

I think I’ve written before about our friend Dottie Ratcliff, whose practice in her serial tiny gardens is to leave nine inches between plants. Some of her fruit trees admittedly look a bit pinched, but they still bear good crops. The total effect is (shall we say?) bountiful.

I am modifying her plan. Nine inches is a bit tight for most shrubs, even in this little garden. On the other hand 4 1/2 inches seems about right for smaller herbaceous things. I’ve just put Iris sibirica ‘Flight of Butterflies’ nine inches from Verbena bonariensis with Geranium ‘Rozanne’ in between. When you see it in plan (as you do when you’re looking down on the bed you are planting) it looks much too crowded. But it’s the elevation rather than the plan that matters: the airspace the plants fill, rather than the space in the ground.

By interspersing your high-rise plants with lower ones you will see their profiles from top to bottom. Some, it is true, have little elegance near the ground, but irises, for example, and Japanese anemones, and the lanky V. bonariensis, and the trim-figured Campanula persicifolia, and foxgloves, and thalictrums and aquilegias and …and…. are at their best seen rising from other plants that creep or loll. Certainly the greedier roots will win, but plenty of food and water will keep them all happy for a season or two.

There is also the problem of shade, as one plant shades another – which is more acute in a garden like ours which is already deprived of light. I seek reassurance in the comfortable figure of Margery Fish, whose Gardening in the Shade is still beside my bed. The shade she talks about is largely from trees, of course, rather than London terraces and walls. (We have both varieties). Her plant lists, though, are up-lifting. Besides such obvious candidates as hellebores and pulmonarias she invites us to grow aquilegias, heucherellas, tellima grandiflora, practically any campanula, thalictrums, most geraniums, Japanese anemones, viola cornuta, daylilies, peonies, aconites, monardas, lobelias and phlox, which she says is ‘really happier in shade’. For grey leaves artemisias, she says, do well. Phlomis samia is well-known as a shade plant…. and on it goes. Her list, as you see, seems to include most perennials. The word to look for in her eloquent writing is ‘light’. Mrs Fish scatters it around to qualify ‘shade’ to a degree that might make a more timid soul than me nervous.

Notwithstanding, I shall try as many as I can fit in – and, of course, report on progress.

Hugh’s Gardening Books

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Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book

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Friends of Trad

John Grimshaw’s Garden Diary