An inevitable shift happens when the Tump, our plumpest field and the backdrop to the garden, is cut for hay. In the days that follow, the path that was mown into the meadow marks a bright green line in the stubble and stands as a memory of the daily walk we made through waist-high grasses. It takes a week or maybe two depending on the year for the land to re-green and with it the path slowly vanishes. The garden, meanwhile, tips from its high summer glory, the vibrancy of July infused with the feeling of the next season. In a countermovement, the grasses in the garden rise up amongst the perennials as if to compensate for the loss of the meadow beyond and with them the thistles that mark the month of August appear. The neon of the artichokes we left to flower in the kitchen garden and the echinops or globe thistles, of which we have three.
The first to become present is Echinops ritro ‘Veitch’s Blue’, which steps through the lavenders in an area we call the Herb Garden. It is the best behaved of those we grow here, standing at around a metre and never seeding like the majority of its cousins. The long-lived rosettes of thistly foliage, green on the upper side and silvery beneath, become completely dormant in winter and are relatively late to stir in spring. The leaves have a ‘look-but-don’t-touch’ quality about them, but they are perfectly easy to work amongst. Being sun lovers, the one thing they do not like is competition before they get head and shoulders above their neighbours. And this is why they do well here, the rosettes having the room to muster before the tightly clipped domes of the lavender start stirring.
The interest starts early as soon as the flowering growth shows itself in June. The depth of colour comes from the deepest indigo calyces, which are repeated countless times to form a mathematically perfect sphere. Being composites, each sphere is composed of many individual flowers, which open from the top down as they come into flower. A flowering stem will suspend each of the orbs in a galaxy that is particular to each plant. I have clustered several plants together in a mother colony with breakaway satellites amongst the lavender so that the intensity of one against the next varies as the flowers work against each other. The dark buds finally give way to denim blue as the globes are enlivened by flower.
One of the remarkable features of all echinops is their attractiveness to pollinators and they are alive with bees and nectar seeking insects, never more so than now when the meadows are down and our native wildflowers are on the wane. With this in mind, we have two more globe thistles in the main garden. I used to grow Echinops sphaerocephalus ‘Arctic Glow’ (main image) when I was a teenager where it threw rangy stems to shoulder height in the clearing we gardened amongst the trees of our woodland garden. I pined for sun then and the light we have here on our sunny slopes have yielded another plant all together, hunkered and stocky with no need for staking and rarely more than waist height.
‘Arctic Glow’ does have a mind of its own, though not horribly so, and its foliage is thistly. The rosettes take about a year to muster the strength to throw up a flowering stem once they have seeded, and seed they do. Prolifically and with the precision of a dart player. If you miss a seedling in the spring, do not underestimate the speed with which it sends down a taproot and takes hold in a neighbouring plant’s basal rosette. Once the taproot is in place the foliage is strong enough to muscle its way in and outcompete its host. However, this is to focus on the wrong qualities of the plant, as the decision to invite ‘Arctic Glow’ into the garden has also been a good one. The silvery buds give way to a grey-white sphere of flower, which contrasts here very beautifully with the smokiness of Nepeta nuda ‘Romany Dusk’. Seeding can be diminished by taking the whole plant to the ground after flowering, so you need to plan for the potential gap. The asters and the late arrival of Dahlia australis cover for it here, but I do leave a couple standing as they have proven themselves to be as short-lived here as they are pioneering.
This habit needs to be managed and the same can be said of the Russian globe thistle, Echinops exaltatus. This plant needs space and commitment and though I love it for its presence, I would not trust it to seed throughout the garden so it is also felled before it seeds. Lush green foliage, which fortunately is more or less devoid of spines, amasses volume early in the season and balloons exponentially as it races to flower. This is very exciting. The books say it stands at about 1.5m but on our rich ground here, it grows to two metres or more so it is gently staked with a hoop to prevent it from leaning. You do need to plan for it throwing shade on its neighbours that might not be up to rubbing alongside such a vigorous companion. I do this with earlier flowering Cenolophium and cover for the gap post-flowering with Japanese wind anemone and actaea.
Echinops exaltatus is is the last to flower here. The pale green spheres are luminous, tipped with silver and, just before the flowers open, the perfection of their symmetry repays close study. Slowly, this first week in the month, the orbs break into flower. First one and then another, the bees, hoverflies and beetles flocking to feast as more come on stream. I have them here with the fine spires of white Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Album’ and the August darkness of trees as their backdrop.
One day, I dream of having the space to let them go, to let them stand into the winter and lead a planting of pioneers that works on a grand and autonomous scale with white willow herb, romping cardoons, Alcea cannabina and and wild carrot as companions. For now, though, I am happy to put the time in to curtail their natural tendencies to roam and am happy that they are here to set the tone for beginning of the last fling of summer.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 1 August 2020