Our front garden has two very shallow, very narrow beds alongside the path between the gate and the front door.
When we moved here, these narrow beds were filled with some old and gnarled lavenders. They had been lovely, and a very good solution to the cramped conditions and poor soil. But I wanted a bit more variety, and interest through the seasons. I planted spring bulbs like narcissus and tulips, to be followed by low-growing spreading plants, like helianthemum, forget-me-nots and aubretia.
Myosotis (forget-me-nots) are a brilliant solution for shallow, dry soil. I treat them as annuals. They flower from late March to June. When they are starting to look raggedy, I tug them out and compost them. They will have left dozens of seedlings behind, which will soon fill in the gaps, providing fresh foliage for the rest of the year.
Coming up through the forget-me-nots is Alchemilla mollis (Lady’s Mantle). This is one of my favourite low-maintenance plants. It has beautiful scalloped foliage which collects dew and rain-drops. It sparkles. In June it will be feathered and airy with plumes of lime-green inflorescences, but for now it is the foliage I am enjoying.
Alchemilla is so called because the water droplets caught in its leaves were thought to be an important ingredient in alchemy. They do look like they might contain the elixir of eternal life.
Helianthemum (sun rose; rock rose) is my other key plant for alongside the path. It also tolerates a very shallow root-run. It spreads out in a wide, low mound, producing a profusion of flowers from May to July. The silver-grey foliage is the perfect foil for the sizzling flowers.
When the sun shines, the flowers all open their slightly creased petals to show a lovely shimmering range of tones. They are slightly iridescent, with a suggestion of coral-red through the warm orange. They have the texture of Indian silk.
I love them with the forget-me-nots. Together, they are like fire and ice.
Cerinthe major ‘Purpurescens’ is another favourite with the helianthemum. This provides a sultry, sobering purple. Whilst the helianthemum is low and spreading, cerinthe arches up and over with its curious, pendant bracts.
The bees adore all three: the forget-me-nots, the helianthemum and the cerinthe.
Because cerinthe self-seeds quite readily, it has taken itself up to the front of the house, where it also associates well with Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ and the last of the tulips, ‘Antraciet’. Forget-me-nots and cerinthe are the perfect partners for tulips. They provide the colours that tulips can never be: sky blue and really dark, blue-purple.
The tulips have hung around forever in the front garden this year. They have probably been out for five weeks. They appreciate the bone-dry soil and probably the shade from the house through the hottest part of the day.
Geums are another low-maintenance perennial. All they need is to be split every three to four years to make new plants, and to have their blooms cut back once they are past their best.
I love the simplicity and freshness of a geum. Don’t worry about the greenfly aphids on their stems: these will provide food for beetles like ladybirds.
Like all single flowers (where they have an open cup and visible stigma and stamens) geums are also bee-friendly.
Ziggy has been trying to get in on all these photos. I am going to indulge him for a moment.
I just have one more plant to show you. This is Geranium himalayens ‘Graveteye’. It is one of my favourite hardy geraniums. I especially love it with the sun shining through, looked at from behind. There will be many more flowers, but for now I love the grace of this very first flower, opening to the sun.
All of these plants are incredibly easy if you are new to gardening. They are tolerant of less-than-ideal conditions, and perfect for dry, shallow soil. These plants get only a few hours of sunlight a day, but very obligingly light themselves up when I am leaving the house and coming home in the evening. The only maintenance I do along this front path is to tug up the cerinthe and forget-me-nots in midsummer, and cut back the aubretia and helianthemum when they have stopped flowering. I dead-head the geums and geraniums and the alchemilla once, maybe twice: midsummer and autumn.
It is not hard to have a lovely garden path from the front gate to the front door. These plants take so little, yet give out so much.
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