The garden has just come through its third growing season. Three years in and we already have to push our way down the paths, which were made deliberately wide for exactly this moment. Two paces of width felt generous in the first year, but now I am pleased for the breathing space with the garden at its absolute fullest.
Three years will usually see the perennials enmeshed and what you had imagined of a composition. It takes around five for the trees and shrubs to start to register, to throw shadow and to rise above the seasonal plants that come and go. This is the first year we have enjoyed the arc of hips on the Rosa glauca and a taste of what the colouring Euonymus planipes will become once it is doubled in size again and casting a new and shadowy microclimate.
The fifth year after planting is usually a time of building in change to compensate for the newly cast shade of the woody plants or to revitalise the fastest growing perennials that might already need splitting. Not so here. Our hearty ground and sunny slopes have come with the challenge of plants performing faster and more furiously than usual and I am already thinking about my edits. Stepping into the beds from the open pathways and you are immediately dwarfed. Echinops which, to my surprise, were nine feet tall when I ventured in to cut them out to prevent them seeding. Actaea that I hadn’t seen all summer, happily sitting in the cool of towering sanguisorbas, yet all but invisible from the viewpoints of the paths.
The sanguisorbas are this year’s project. My three year trial, which sat on this very ground before the garden replaced the test beds, contained about fifteen different varieties of which half were retained as the best. My trial, with its regular rows and spacing to enable close observation of each singular plant, did not allow for the conditions now the garden has developed its own microclimate. The depth of the beds has allowed the community of plants to work together, protect the ground and diminish the weeds, but the community is never static and for it to remain in balance it is timely to plan some gentle intervention.
The sanguisorbas register well en masse with their suspended thimbles acting like a veil and atomising colour. Used liberally and in drifts they allow for more acute punches of concentrated colour to appear to hover in suspension; vernonia, now for instance, or a mass of aster. My plans worked well in the first year, but slowly, as the sanguisorbas have developed heft with our soil providing them with everything they need, they have become the largest person in the room and have started to lean upon their neighbours.
Sanguisorba officinalis ‘Red Thunder’ was the first to need more attention and last year I staked it, to prevent the weight of flower toppling after rain. I am trying to stake as minimally as possible here, so this year I tried an experiment, cutting half of the plants completely back to the ground once they started to ascend in the middle of May. A ‘Chelsea Chop’ would usually halve the height in the last week of May to promote sturdier regrowth, but I wanted to diminish their vigour and see if I could get lightness back into the second round of regrowth. It felt entirely wrong being this drastic when the garden looked so pristine in the first week of summer, but in no time they were back and have gone on to be lighter and less weighty than those that were left to do their thing.
Sanguisorba ‘Cangshan Cranberry’ has such handsome early foliage that it would be entirely wrong to attempt the same treatment, but the plants are nearly ten feet tall and leaning, each of them half their height into their neighbours. The plan come the spring is to remove about a third of the group to make more space for the Actaea cordifolia ‘Blickfang’ planted amongst them and then start a yearly round of splitting a third of them so that there are always three generations. The range of ages provides an immediate lightness, the younger plants standing straight and aspiring to the full-blown display provided by the elders. Sanguisorba tenuifolium ‘Korean Snow’ has similar habits and will be treated accordingly to see if my efforts avoid having to stake and retain the ‘air’ in the planting.
In making my notes for change, I am marking the plants with canes so that I am less reliant on my memory to open up breathing space come spring. So far S. ‘Blackthorn’, with its upright long-fingered thimbles and S. tenuifolia ‘Stand up Comedian’ are behaving better. As are the flamboyant S. hakusanensis. Midori, the head gardener at the Tokachi Millennium Forest, describes these plants as like large birds sitting in their nests and, indeed, you need the space to allow them to huddle low and to splay. The September assessment, and then the gentle changes that result from it, will be the way forward if I am to retain the balance and an engagement with change.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 19 September 2020