THERE is nothing like taking photographs to assess the design
strengths of a garden. It is four years since I started shaping our
Staffordshire plot, and I rose at dawn recently to take advantage
of the soft morning light and do just that.
A key element of garden designis achieving a mix of
vertical,horizontal, and rounded elements. Where the garden "works"
is precisely where this occurs. So the spires of verbascums, flat
plate-like flower heads of achilleas, and the mounds of lavender
make a lovely composition. Other snaps suggest "Must try harder",
but there is one feature of the garden that pleases me in reality
that does not come across in the photographs.
I am referring to a group of plants that could be called simply
"see-through". They are tall, with fine foliage or a basal clump of
leaves that sends up diaphanous flower spikes. They move in the
lightest breeze, and create depth by partially concealing the
plants in the background, like a scrim in the theatre. Catching
glimpses of flowers through a gauzy screen is wonderfully hypnotic,
and suits the mood of the school-holiday season. The thrusting,
burgeoning growth of spring has given way to a more relaxed phase,
as plant growth slows in the hot, dry soil.
Here are five perennials that stand out in the ethereal stakes:
Stipa gigantea: a grass, which forms a neat hummock from
which emerge long, arching wands that branch and end in brassy,
dangling oat-like flowers. The main stems sway and the long-awned
"oats" twitch and flicker when the air moves.
a species from Mediterranean lands which has naturalised further
north, round the British Isles and elsewhere. It has upright stems
encircled with narrow, olive-green leaves, topped in summer with
spikes of tiny flowers, purple-mauve in the species andpale pink
and white, respectively, in the cultivars "Canon Went" and
Fœniculum vulgare: "Purpureum" - the purplish-bronze
form of culinary fennel with fleshy, glaucous main stems. The leaf
stems sub-divide into feathery fronds that demand to be stroked to
release the sweet aniseed aroma. In July, chrome-yellow umbels are
a magnet to hoverflies and ladybirds.
in the scabious family, with big lobed leaves at the base which
are towered over by wiry flower-stems bearing sprays of pale-yellow
pincushion flowers loved by bumblebees.
its leaves resemble the common sage, but have a sort of
fleur-de-lis shape, and a sweeter, less pungent smell. The
mid-purple flowers, too, are sage-like, but larger and more
sparsely arranged in graceful sprays, high above the bush. I came
across it at Lambeth Palace, and I highly recommend it for any dry
Each of these is particularly lovely backlit: positioning is
key. Though tall, they do not need to be at the back of the border.
Aim for them to shield a sun low in the sky in the early morning or
the evening, depending on when you are free to admire them.