Bernhard FeistelThe re-emergence of a small flower bed

How much poorer would the conversations of gardeners (and many others) be if the seasons with their weather patterns were more stable and predictable? Instead, the excited gardener, before reaching the stage of becoming philosophical, worries because the winter was too cold or not cold enough, because the tender shoots or buds have shown already or they haven’t shown yet, because the winter was too wet or not wet enough. Gardeners know very well how it is to have not enough or too much…

What the gardener definitely doesn’t have after spring has arrived at last is time. Whilst supposedly hardly anything seemed to happen a week ago, too much is happening at the same time seven days later, particularly after a good and gentle rain and slightly risen temperatures.

Whereas the uninitiated passers-by admire the parade of daffodils, the gardener wonders where those particular tulips or camassias might be he had added last autumn, or why there is much less of the variety he planted the year before. While nature, if left to itself apparently copes easily, the artificial garden, naturally enough, always needs help, consideration, planning ahead and perhaps a well stocked reserve bench around the corner to improve or improvise.

Thus, the wonderful season of spring is a time of expectation and of reckoning. How would, for instance, a bed or border appear after the winter and behave in the new year? Perhaps you would like to accompany me through the conception and season of a small flower bed I had started converting about a year ago: This retrospective stroll through the year of an East Anglian flower bed, starting in March last year ending this April, might also connect the contrasting seasons of Europe, North America and Australia in this blog.

Last March I was being asked to change a small front bed which had been slightly neglected and in which some of the shrubs had outgrown their position, although not their life span.

Luckily there was enough space in a near open woodland area so I could dig some of them out and relocate them where they are now thriving in a less restricted way, being able to show their flowers more freely, too. Particularly the view out of the window should not any longer being blocked by evergreen shrubs. Only the rose was sacrosanct as a family treasure.

The principle plan was to have a ground cover and foliage structure or texture to hold the picture together for as long as possible during the growing season and to have a successive, yet consistent display of colours as a bonus. There should be no particular highlight period since this bed is more or less in constant view all year round. This is an idealistic concept since, as I suggested earlier, season and weather are not really predictable and flowers will not always play together as planned. Therefore, in my opinion, good foliage and texture is always more important than ingenious colour arrangements. In the worst case scenario, though, (I am telling myself and others) clashing flowers could be picked and brought inside and the plant relocated, if necessary.

The general colour scheme was supposed to play between blue, pink, violet and white. Since the area is rather small I refrained from experimenting with different and contrasting colour successions in the same border, as elsewhere, but selected perennial plants that could flower twice like delphinium, echinops, pink, catmint, geranium, polemonium or achillea. Thus the gardener, though constantly worrying and on the alert, can sometimes have the cake and eat it! This is also the case with early spring bulbs underneath “foliage” plants like artemisia or acanthus which take over when the leaves of the spring flowers wither away. I particularly like the delicate blue-green leaves of artemisia to link plants together. It is perfectly possible to play with height by picking/cutting some leaves for an herbal tea or to flavour an aperitif. In both cases a good and sure precaution or remedy for an upset stomach. Thus you can even have your cake and drink it! The variety artemisia Powys Castle is especially good in borders since it grows rather horizontally than vertically.

The irises I had chosen both for their early flowers and their contrasting leaves, which should, ideally, be hidden by other leaves when they wither. Woodruff was meant to cover the lower ground and link the plants with its fresh green but it should be divided and restricted in autumn because of its expanding habit. Yet, I feel it saves labour to cover the ground quickly and divide or restrict later, if necessary, in comparison to maintaining bare soil. The leaves and stems of peonies were meant to provide some red colour long before and after their flowering period, whereas Phlox paniculata and Japanese anemones (not in the pictures) conclude the flowering season.

Catmint, geranium, pink and achillea were being used as edging and to break the sharp line of the paved path.

After it was a great surprise how quickly the new planting scheme developed into a whole picture in a couple of weeks after planting, I was curious how the whole bed would come into the new season. It looks quite fresh and refreshing so far. In order to provide for some early spring colours I inserted tulips (Ronaldo) in the autumn to support the dicentra, which I left there after the initial clearance. They duly appeared despite my worries about mice damage and also the peonies look as if they could give a large impact this year.

I am aware that the whole planting scheme might be too fussy and in any case too dense, but this allows for flowers to be picked generously and for creating propagating material to be used elsewhere. Yet, my favourite approach to create variations inside a recognisable framework is prone to go through many trial and error periods, for which I can’t and won’t blame rain or drought. In any case, how boring, if not frightening would it be if the gardener were able to plan to the minutest detail how the long awaited spring will look like, or indeed any season?

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Bernhard Feistel

About Bernhard Feistel

Gardener and academic in rural England and sometimes also in his native Saxony, Germany; special interest in herb, maze and wildflower meadow designing and gardening. Norfolk, UK

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