The milking barn yard used to be a very different place. The access track to the barn descended at a perilous angle down the slope, with everything on the angle to save digging into the hill and making up the ground with retaining walls. The yard itself was poured in a patchwork of concrete slabs by the farmer before us in characteristic ad hoc fashion. It was an ugly place, but we liked it in spite of that and although I always knew the yard itself would have to go, the space it carved out for the little barn was important.
When I brought in the granite trough to provide the centre of gravity and frame the yard, the concrete buckled like a pie crust under the weight of the forklift and, in the hiatus whilst we were doing up the buildings, seeding weeds grew back into the cracks. The interlopers were not noteworthy in themselves, but the airiness of these pioneers refined the roughness of the broken concrete and the feeling that this place was being reclaimed had resonance. I watched and thought and took away from living with the yard in this halfway state the importance of it being a place that felt gently occupied.
When the buildings were restored, we crushed the concrete, pushed it about to make up the levels and added a topdressing of fines to create a new level. Two boulders were placed in the centre of the yard as a perch and a more natural counterpoint to the presence of the trough. Once the spaces were set, I began the process of planting with a palette that would retain the airiness.
The air in the planting has been important, but the new planting needed to be content in the free-draining rubble and happy to bask in full sunshine. Late season Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), with its almost imperceptible presence, is dependent upon a number of plants to create the distinctive mist of flower. The Eyebrow Grass (Bouteloua gracilis) was worked amongst them so that the grasses unified the space. I then worked in the detail that was needed before the grasses were at their high summer best. Athamantha turbith with its low, creamy umbels and hair-fine foliage, shocking pink Dianthus carthusianorum and acid yellow Bupleurum falcatum to punch delicate pinpricks of colour. The Keeled or Witches’ Garlic comes as the grasses hit their high summer stride.
I first saw Allium carinatum subsp. pulchellum with its distinctive tapering scape before it was in flower. Carinatus from the Latin meaning the keel of a ship or shell-like refers to the sheath, which is every bit as interesting as the flowers in its reach and slenderness. Pulchellum, meaning beautiful, describes it in every incarnation from the moment you see the grassy growth reaching skyward to the first hint of colour as the papery sheaths split and the firework of flower cascades downward. The dusky lilac flowers are tiny as individuals but, like the prairie dropseed, register strongly in number. They are a magnet for bees, which animate the yard and inject energy as you look down into the pool of colour that has slowly but surely made this place its own. The flowering takes the last two weeks of July and the first fortnight of August.
As the scapes split, the individual flowers drop one at a time, before reaching back skyward as they are pollinated. Slowly, during August, you notice that you have more seedhead than flower, but they retain their soft rosy colouring well into the autumn. I was wary in the first couple of years about their potential to seed and removed the seedheads before they fully ripened, but now I relent, enjoy the seedheads and let them colonise. A taking over which is probably harmless, given the gentle tapering foliage and appropriate to the feel of the yard.
Seedlings take just a couple of years to flower and will not compete with growth that would smother them early in the season, so where you want them to seed, they are best planted amongst low groundcovers or allowed to seed into cracks in paving to soften a path or a terrace.
I have the white form, Allium carinatum subsp. pulchellum f. album, growing amongst the Mexican daisies on the drive where its foliage pushes just into the light above flowery understory. It is not as vigorous here, despite growing in soil and not rubble, but this is probably due to the closed canopy of the erigeron, which though short challenges the allium’s preference for open ground. Sometimes the white form of a plant is more beautiful, but ‘album’ is not more than its rosy cousin, just welcome and best kept separate to enjoy its purity. Delicate in its pale burst of flower and easily overlooked if you are moving by and not looking, yet if you know it is there, it is a very good reason to slow down and enjoy this subtle beauty.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 29 July 2023