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Ethereal effects

25 July 2014


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.

Linaria purpurea:

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 "Springside White".

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.

Cephalaria gigantea:

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.

Salvia candelabrum:

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 garden.

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.

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