August may seem rather early in the gardening year to be thinking about the planting plan for next summer, but this far north I can see autumn over the garden wall. The glory of our island cottage garden is short: it is slow to start, building up to an explosion of colour and then a rapid, gentle decline and annihilation as the autumn gales arrive. Our season is too short for the late flowering perennials and in some years it can even be a struggle for the tough and dependable Sedum telephium ‘Autumn Joy’.
When I started planning the cottage garden, I knew that the geography, soil and climate would determine not only what I could grow but also my choice of features. A garden without trees, shrubs and climbing plants to provide the skeleton with a limited choice of herbaceous plants required some lateral thinking. The obvious answer seemed to be a version of the Dutch style of perennial ecological planting, but could it be successfully scaled down to cottage garden size? I also knew I could never compete with nature’s own ecological planting plan when the machair bloomed on the other side of the garden wall.
Three years later and I feel that I am making progress and trying not be too frustrated by my failures. I am slowly learning what will grow and how to put plant combinations together. Most of the successes are serendipity rather than good planning and whilst I have to admit that I would not deliberately put pink and orange together or even juxtapose blue or red with orange, the effect can be stunning. The softer shades of blue, mauve and pink tend to prevail, but with our very strong coastal light there have to be splashes of vibrant colour.
The borders are currently too narrow and need to be widened to enable my design to flourish. As space is limited, I plan to weave swathes of plant combinations through the borders to make ribbons of colour, an approach which might be more effective than planting large blocks of single species. This requires large numbers of plants, therefore I need to propagate my “successful” plants to make progress. This will take time, but I am now more confident that I can make my concept work. However, I am still chasing rainbows trying to devise new plant combinations. I have yet to learn the value of simplicity and want to try just one or two more species!
I have also discovered that there are parts of the garden where it is impossible to get herbaceous plants to grow. I tried various combinations of ground hugging plants, but as these were slowly wiped out by the winter gales I was left with a mixture of sedums. In the summer they flower profusely and are joined by self-seeded harebells (Campanula rotundifolia), thrift and alchemilla erythropoda. In this very exposed border these will not endure the winter gales, but the sedums survive by retreating into the protected pockets between the stones. This mulch of beach cobbles also prevents the soil from being eroded by the wind and helps mask the empty border syndrome in the winter and early spring.
Although not part of my original plan, the more exposed parts of the garden are slowly being covered by my sedum litho-mulch. It is rather more attractive than the patches of scrubby grass posing as “lawn” and easier to maintain.
We have had a glorious summer and the garden has flowered with remarkable vigour and exuberance, surviving hoards of hungry slugs and battalions of weeds. The borders are now past their best and gently starting to fade. Perhaps a little blowsy, but still producing interesting colours and textures as the flowers are replaced by seed heads. This seems to suit the more gentle, golden light of the late summer as the shadows lengthen in the early evening.With the threat of being lashed by the tail of Hurricane Bertha, I really could not decide whether to be bold and take a scythe to the herbaceous borders and the herb garden or take my chance and keep my fingers crossed. In the end I decided that even this far north it was far too early to take such a drastic step. Although some plants are past their best, there are others which are still flowering and providing pollen and nectar for the bees. So the bees won and I will keep my fingers crossed and clear up the devastation if necessary.