A little more death and decay, please…



If you are designing a garden for all four seasons, and you consider your options for Winter, there are plenty of plants that will add that necessary spark of life, colour and scent – but allow for some plants to die, gently decaying and giving up their bones.

These hydrangea heads have been left uncut on the plant, here at the top of Battleston Hill at RHS Wisley – to catch the low sunshine, pick up frost and ice, rise above the morning mist – and protect the younger shoots deeper down in the crown.


Many shrubs and famously many perennials are chosen for the striking silhouette of their skeletons and seed heads (see Piet Oudolf, who has been fine-tuning this art for the past three decades). Annuals and shrubs play their part too.

If you are an exceedingly tidy gardener, hold the secateurs and enjoy an extra dimension to your garden, for a month or two more.


Piet Oudolf & Tom Stuart-Smith at Wisley


We’ve been here before, the double borders created by Piet Oudolf at Wisley, combining perennials with grasses, wave after wave – and the equally dramatic planting around the lake, concentric arcs of repeated blocks, catching the low autumn sun.

The Piet Oudolf Borders pre-date the Glasshouse and are relatively mature now, evolving along their considerable 147m length and 11m width (originally planted with over 16,000 perennials and grasses).

The Glasshouse was opened in June 2007 and a major part of the project was always settling the Glasshouse and the Clore Learning Centre into Wisley’s framework of gardens. Landscape designer Tom Stuart-Smith came up with a typically elegant, understated solution and his planting is now reaching maturity.

He has reflected the curving form of the structure into its surroundings with a gentle ripple of interwoven crescents, connecting them to each other and to the familiar surroundings of Wisley – from Fruit Mount to Alpine Meadow.

The main pattern or geometry begins at the Glasshouse entrance, from where a series of parallel paths gradually curve and intersect to create a pattern of planting beds and lawns that begin as simple rectangles and then develop into a series of interlocking sickle shapes.

Each compartment has a consistent planting character. Over this basic geometry is laid a circumferential pattern of clipped beech hedging, starting as a series of tall columns outside the entrance and then coalescing into low, sweeping curves.

Overlooking the lake from the bottom of the Piet Oudolf borders, and these borders in turn from the top of the Fruit Mount, with strong, slanting sun highlighting the golds and bronze, charcoal, plum, mustard and green that colour the landscape, I’m struck once more by the genius of these two designers.

Live and let die…


Piet Oudolf Borders at RHS Wisley

Much that one can say about prairie style planting and especially the combination of grasses with late season perennials, is that the show doesn’t stop when the blooms die and the rot sets in – add low, slanting sun, a stiff breeze for animation and later, frost and snow – dramatic silhouettes and architectural forms continue to make a statement even as winter takes a proper hold.

For tidy gardeners, this is more of a challenge, smacking of laziness but hold back and both you (and garden wildlife) will enjoy an extended season of interest. It isn’t wholly laissez-faire – not every garden plant dies well or contributes positively once all life and colour has been drained. Others do it beautifully!

These pictures are taken from the body of the two Piet Oudolf borders running between the Lake and the Fruit Mount at RHS Wisley, and these areas are all the more successful for the decisions to manage the decay rather than scythe it all to the ground prematurely!

Don’t take my word for it, Dan Pearson, writing in The Guardian earlier this month, has something to say on the subject too -


The beds at the front of the house are planted with bronze fennel. The south-facing position and a dry summer have suited them perfectly and they are standing taller than I am. From inside you look into their airy cages and on the warm days of autumn the ripening seed has wafted the smell of aniseed through the still-open windows. Though their foliage has turned cinnamon brown and ginger, they have plenty of life in them yet. When the birds think you are out, they descend upon the seed, and the stems are filled with a network of cobwebs. Standing firm and tall, they will weather the winter winds and, as they fade, one could easily argue they have yet to have their best moment.

It is tempting to wade into the beds where they appear to be falling apart. Weighted down by seed and autumn wetness, the topple might at first appear to be something that needs managing, but a little patience is timely. This is the moment to stand back and enjoy the autumn, and wait to apply energies in the beds. In a month or so you will see the keepers in the wreckage and a new order will assert itself. Hit by frost, the apparent bulk of nasturtium will wither and make you realise that they were not much more than water. The lush rosettes of Hemerocallis foliage will also succumb, but they will leave behind the upright bones of flower stem and seedcase. Let the worms drag the rotting foliage to the ground, where it will be converted to humus and leave it to stand a while, rather than fighting the season.

Bare is the most unnatural state for soil to be in. Exposed and raked clean, it is open to desiccation and to erosion, so a little untidiness now is a good thing for a garden, not a sign of slovenliness. Our local farmer has already been cutting the hedges, the lines in the landscape taking on a new order, but the blackberries, wild currant and scarlet droplets of bryony are gone, the larder of shiny rosehips and inky elder disappeared in an instant. In a counter movement, I am holding on until the last minute, letting nature take its course before wading in and in turn allowing myself to feel a little more part of nature than the agent of control that is the gardener.

Of course we do need to assert some control if it is not to be taken from us, but the moves are strategic ones. I would prefer to let the rot happen and the birds to have the windfalls I cannot cope with in the kitchen than spend my energies battling an enormous wave. Very quickly the autumn will be in retreat, so my eyes are up and I am enjoying the colour while I wait to pick over the bare bones once the leaves come down.

I took two weeks off at the end of last month and based myself at home as an antidote to a summer of business. After a couple of days of allowing myself to settle – and deliberately not adding to my mental checklist – I, too, adjusted to the new order and saw beyond the topple of sunflowers and the browning dahlias. A little tidying to reveal the paths allowed me a way in and the clarity of a free head to order my thoughts for a winter’s work ahead of me – and into planning where to plant my new brambles.

Crazy though it may sound, I am planting weeds again. Not weeds I plan to let go, you understand, but a couple of forms of blackberry I have been meaning to grow for an age. Rubus fruticosus “Himalayan Giant” is a cutting from a friend who is slowly being engulfed by the beast, but she can pick a large bowlful of succulent brambles in a matter of minutes, the fruit is that plentiful. It can easily be wall trained if you have a fighting spirit. The second? A far more sensible choice for being thornless and of moderate vigour: the parsley-leaved bramble. Next autumn when I am beginning to feel like things are out of control, I will have my distraction. A crumble or two of seasonal windfalls.

Grasses take centre stage…



A little more to look forward too, as border grasses take on their golden garb and become the main attraction. These pictures are from the RHS Gardens at Wisley, featuring the double Piet Oudolf Borders running between the orchards and the lake. A few more weeks and the show will be at its zenith – great colour and strong structure, before the worst of the winter weather muddles it all up a bit. Nevertheless, a little chaotic or not, add low slanting sunlight or a touch of frost, and the show is unbeatable.

Piet Oudolf Borders at RHS Wisley



Echinacea purpurea Rubinglow and Echinacea purpurea Green Edge

Here, at the top of the border near The Mount, it is a battle between the Echinacea Rubinglow and Green Edge, though the balance is far in the favour of plummy purple cultivar. Allium seed heads provide some contrast too. The ground here, as well as being on a slope, is very free draining and the site is in full sun, just as these plants like.


I’ve written about the Piet Oudolf borders at Wisley before and posted pictures of these borders bouncing with allium flower heads – christophii, schubertii, Purple Sensation – and they continue to provide interest all these months on.

The Eryngium giganteum ‘Silver Ghost’ is very effective in these big blocks – probably not something to be recreated in the average garden but striking it is, even with rain on the way ..


Eryngium giganteum Silver Ghost – a larger Miss Willmott’s Ghost


There is another Eryngium in the mix, the yucca leaved form, much taller but lost here. Little evidence of large blocks of  Heleniums, touched upon in Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury’s Book   - pockets of The Bishop and small stands of Rubinswerg - I would have thought they would be in flower as they are in the borders elsewhere. Maybe some work has been done to change the composition of these beds – they may simply have been cut back earlier in the season to give a later show?

Helenium The Bishop

IMG_0403Helenium Rubinswerg


Work on the borders





Though I couldn’t find a plant label for this magnificent stand of Heleniums in the Duke’s Garden at Kew, it is most likely Sahin’s Early Flowerer, with an Award of Garden Merit. Long ray florets are a mixture of yellow and brownish red in irregular streaks and surround a brown centre and it flowers from July to October. Only Wyndley flowers earlier, sometimes in June but has deep yellow rays streaked with brown-red, particularly on the reverse.

They are tough daisies that provide long-lasting colour and are particularly valued for their bronze-orange and copper-red tones. Flowering may continue into October. Tall-ish to tall plants – Sahin’s Early Flowerer coming up to a modest 75cm-100cm. Moorheim Beauty, commonly available, will reach 1.25m.

Ideal for the herbaceous and mixed borders or for more informal schemes, heleniums while tough, need full sun and rich, moisture retentive soil. Divide clumps every two or three years to maintain vigour.

Once again I’m prompted to see what Graham Stuart Thomas has to say in his ‘Perennial  Garden Plants‘.

Helenium, Compositae. Sneezeweed. These provide the backbone, among yellow, orange and brown shades, of the garden from July to September. Their daisy flowers are attractive, covering the branching  sprays, each flower with a velvety yellow or brown knob in the centre, and with broad, fringed, silky petals. The leaves are of no account. The stems are stout and erect but as a rule the weight of the many flowers make staking necessary. Easily grown in almost any soil short of a bog. They soon get congested and need dividing. These plants assort well with other yellow flowers and coppery-foliage plants, and need the big green leaves of bergenias to give solidity to the foreground and to act as a foil for the masses of strong colour. When mixed with warring colours of phloxes, monads, sidalceas and lythrums they appear blatant, vulgar and offensive, but if grouped with good greenery, creamy white flowers and the magnificent macleayas, with perhaps Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’, they will come into their own. Reputedly Helenium sprang from the ground watered by Helen of Troy’s tears; dare we suggest that Sneezeweed is connected with this legend? The race has become mixed with numerous hybrids and it is impossible to indicate which species is involved, but generally the tallest cultivars owe their height to H. autumnal; the remainder – mainly H. bigelovii, H. hoopesii, H. nudiflorum – are shorter.

I think that tastes have moved on a little and the warring colours he discusses are more in favour. Sarah Raven, writing in ‘The Bold and Brilliant Garden‘ she matches H. Moorheim Beauty variously with Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberfelder’, Knifofia ‘Green Jade’, purple Lobelia x gerardii ‘Vedrariensis’, orange Geum ‘Dolly North’ and crimson Dianthus ‘Kings of the Blacks’, orange semi-cactus dahlia ‘Biddenham Sunset’ (and many other dahlias), crimson-leaved Atriplex hortensis var rubra, acid-green Tanacetum vulgata ‘Isla Gold’, magenta perennial sweet pea, gold Helianthus ‘Capenoch Star’… not to mention annuals like Cleome, Zinnia, Tithonia, Antirrhinum, Nasturtium and rudbeckias. Who am I to argue.

Further back in this particular bed at Kew were big bold planting of the daylily Hemerocallis ‘Burning Daylight’ in searing yellow and another, possibly ‘Stafford’, in darker oranges, Romneya coulteri – blinding white, Delphiniums in deepest blues but also soft Ammi majus, Echinacea pallida, more yellow daisies and the spent brown seed heads of alliums.

Piet Oudolf & Noel Kingsbury

One last book reference and I’m done – the recent Planting – A New Perspective written by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury. Gardening on a larger scale, but one image from Hummelo, incorporates Helenium ‘Moorheim Beauty’ and the tall grass Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ as more or less permanent features within a grassy meadow setting, with touches of Leucanthemum vulgare and forms of Verbena hastata lifting the greens and later, golds.

Closer to home in the double border at RHS Wisley planted in 2001 (the Piet Oudolf border leading from The Mount down to the lake), uses the grey-white, spiky-leaved, globe-headed Eryngium yuccifolium contrasted with Helenium ‘Rubinswerg’ and Echinacea purpurea. A dramatic silver scheme with purple/orange high (low) lights. The spent seed heads of Allium hollandicum pepper the combination.

Commenting on this double border design at Wisley -

Thirty-three bands of intermingled perennials and grasses, each of equal size, line either side of a straight grass walkway. Looking very formal and rigid on paper, it is anything but in practice. A good example of a simple design concept which underlies and entire scheme, but largely succeeds in hiding itself so that comparatively few people have really understood it. Conclusion – strong signatures are sometimes almost invisible, operating on the level of the subconscious.

Commonly known as sneezeweed from the false belief that the flowers caused hayfever.

Scampston Walled Garden



The Plantsman’s Walk,

Or a little less than one quarter of it, leading into the Walled Gardens at Scampston in North Yorkshire. An avenue of limes with a border mainly of spring-flowering plants, including Paeonie rockii and Edgworthia chrystantha (two of my favourite plants, featured earlier in these entries), underplanted with many bulbs, and autumn flowering hydrangeas.

I like these gardens so much that I thought I ought to devote a little more space to showcasing why I think they are so special, or rather showing you, since I am adding rather a lot of pictures from my visit last week.

Drifts of Grass

The Plantsman’s Walk leads into the Drifts of Grass, more commonly known as the fish finger garden – the waves of grass Molinia caerulea ssp cerulea ‘Poul Peterson’ flower in the late summer and in the autumn colour up a bright biscuity orange. Swathes of this grass run through the close mown grass of the lawn. The shrub planting to the side is maturing so that the neighbouring gardens will eventually be hidden from view. Beautiful furniture, throughout the garden in fact, always low, to take advantage of the planting.

Spring and Summer Box Borders




Three metre squares of box sit within traditional herbaceous borders backed by beech hedges -the choice of plants ensures that they look their best at different times of year.

The Perennial Meadow


The Main Event, in the centre of the garden around the dipping pond, is the Perennial Meadow. Piet Oudolf has used the style of naturalised planting to give a long season of interest. The form of each plant, leaf, flower, stem, is equally as important as its colour and shape. The area is a magnet for butterflies and bees and as before, the low seats have been specifically chosen for this space.


The Plant Identification List and Perennial Meadow Plan provided by the gardens details 1399 plants and a detailed plan of the four quarter beds of the Meadow. The planting in this garden includes

  • Achillea Summerwine and Walter Funke
  • Allium christophii
  • Allium karavatiense Ivory Queen
  • Allium shubertii
  • Amsonia tabernaemontana var salicifolia
  • Asceplas incarnata
  • Astrantia Claret
  • Baptisia australis
  • Cirsium rivulare Atropurpureum
  • Coreopsis Moonbeam
  • Deschampsia cespitosa
  • Dianthus carthusianorum
  • Echinacea pallida and paradoxa
  • Eryngium tripartitum
  • Festuca mairei
  • Geraneum Brookside, Rose Claire and soboliferum
  • Helenium Kupferzwerg and Rubinzwerg
  • Kanuatia macedonica
  • Nectoscordum sicilum hybrids
  • Nepeta racemosa Walker’s Low
  • Origanum Rosenkuppel
  • Panicum Heavy Metal, Rehbraun, Shenandoah
  • Pennisetum Cassian
  • Penstemon digitalis
  • Perovskia Blue Spire
  • Phlomis russeliana
  • Rhayza orientalis
  • Rudbeckia maxima and occidentalis
  • Salvia Amethyst, Blauhugel and Mainacht
  • Sedum Matrona
  • Sesleria autumnalis
  • Stachys monnieri Hummelo
  • Succisa pratensis
  • Teucrium hircanicum
  • Thermopsis caroliana
  • Trifolium rubens
  • Veronica Spitzentram


The Katsura Grove

The backdrop to the perennial meadow is the Katsura Grove. The leaves of these trees have a strong scent of caramel in the autumn and are underplanted with ‘woodlander’s which give colour late into the year.

The Cut Flower Garden

A series of circular beds, edged in box, with rustic supports for climbing plants. A little unkempt with a hotch-potch of planting, but then, just what you might want for a cutting garden! Lovely views through into the Drifts of Grass, while the hedging plants mature.

The Mount and the view over the 4-acre walled garden


A flat-topped pyramid, with steps up on one side, surrounded by long grasses, mown paths and cherry trees, affording a view right across the garden. A simple and very effective garden – white martagon lilies particularly beautiful in this setting. The wildflower meadow is full of bulbs for a spring display.

There are other parts to the scheme, the Serpentine Garden containing six serpentine hedges of clipped yew contained by clover shaped elements. Shaping these sinuous serpentines is a work in progress and is a little shaggy just now (one picture, from The Mount, below). The Silent Garden uses columns of yew, which will grow to 3m before being flat-topped, amongst a green lawn and large square reflecting pool. This too, a little shaggy but I can see the point. The Vegetable Garden is just that, raised beds and all a bit dull just now. Sorry.

But then it wasn’t so long ago that the walled garden was being used to grow Christmas Trees…. The boundary hedging and structure was put in around 1999 and the herbaceous planting in 2003, so it is a young garden and developing. There is an ongoing programme of propagation, pruning and replanting in place. Much imitated, the gardens remain Piet Oudolf’s largest private commission in the UK. The remainder of the grounds are being rediscovered and there is more to explore. The House too, has limited times for guided tours.

But the Walled Garden is the thing, and worth visiting whatever season – I saw it a few years ago, late Autumn, when all was brown and gold, with black and red highlights and the Katsura caramelising the air. Exceptional then, as special now.

A link to my Facebook album for photographs from that visit is here -



Piet Oudolf, pom-poms and fish fingers

Allium hollandicum Purple Sensation, Piet Oudolf borders at Wisley

Allium hollandicum Purple Sensation, Piet Oudolf borders at Wisley

A double border, 147 m long and 11m wide, designed by Piet Oudolf using large swathes of herbaceous perennials, grasses and shrubs – plants repeated along the length of this extravagant piece of theatre, running down to the lake and Glasshouse. Today, the pompom heads of Allium Purple Sensation provided the fun and drama, bouncing a rhythm through the fresh knee-high planting.


I’m off to North Yorkshire later this month and may have time to visit his Walled Garden at Scampston. I’ve seen it in the autumn, all browns and gold, when the Katsura trees were toffee-scented and ribbons of Molinia grasses looked like giant fish-fingers. Trust me, they did. Check their website if you don’t believe me…


Spring might just have reached these northern parts by the end of June, providing an altogether greener show.