When we moved into this house, there was a double row of lavender up the path to the front door. In late June it was a cloud of colour and scent, nose-high, positively abuzz with bees. This created some distress for very small visitors and those with a stinging insect phobia, but was rather lovely.
For the rest of the year these straggly specimens were a sad affair. Their bark was peeling and the stems were brittle, and the growth had become a bit uneven. There was a dusty fustiness that did not inspire me with good cheer when I left for work each day.
I had a little accident with one of them. You know, when you just give something a tentative nudge, and then the whole thing comes away in your hand? So then I had to tidy up a bit, and before I knew it, there were a dozen gnarled lavender bushes in the wheelbarrow.
And a new planting opportunity!
It is not an easy planting opportunity. I now know that there is a soil depth of about 10cm, which combined with a width of 30cm is not much. Underneath is concrete. The soil is baked clay for most of the year. If I mulch, then most of this ends up on the path, redistributed by dog paws. Water runs straight off the ‘beds’ and down the drive. It is North-East facing, with shade from the house at the top and a tree to one side. It gets some morning sun, and part of it gets low evening sun.
I now know that annuals will not work. Whilst Cerinthe, Calendula, Californian poppies and Cosmos do look dreamy in my mind’s eye, their growth is stunted and their flowering is sparse in such cramped conditions. No amount of watering is going to change this, particularly if the water just dribbles off down the drive.
In the second year, I remembered practicalities. The spring bulbs stayed, Scilla siberica and Narcissus ‘Jetfire’ doing just fine. I brought in Aubrieta and Helianthemum, both ground-cover plants which can be sheared back after flowering to make room for summer-flowerers. Forget-me-nots were encouraged to colonise.
Alchemilla mollis was prevailed upon to green things up. It self-seeds marvellously, and I leave a few chancers in the brick paving of the path and the gravel of the driveway.
I also brought in my favourite electric blue-indigo Geranium himalayense ‘Gravetye’. How I love this geranium. It is beautiful from every angle, and particularly ravishing in low sunlight. Look at the overlapping petals and magenta veins!
And I decided if I couldn’t have cosmos, I could get the same vibrant pink from Lychnis coronaria. This will grow in pavement cracks, so is not phased at all by my mock-concrete bed.
But for now, in May, it is Helianthemum, also known as rock-rose and sun-rose, that is stealing the show. The crushed silk petals are as lovely as a poppy’s, and it gives a wonderful warm glow in the sun. The grey-green foliage provides the perfect foil for the flowers.
Occasionally I get pangs for those lavenders, and I certainly understand now why they were put here in the first place. I have learnt a lot from replanting these beds. Repetition is key in a narrow space. You have to plant in zig-zags. Sometimes one side of a double bed grows faster than the other. Helianthemum is my friend.
Now I leave for work with a spring in my step and return to a warm glow.
What have you learnt from a difficult area of your garden? What are your go-to reliable plants?