As I write this post we are swept up in the Corona Pandemic, and coming to terms with a new way of living in the day to day. With long days spent at home and with limited company, the garden is a sanctuary, now more than ever. It’s a wonderful thing that many are finding new solace in their gardens, spending time with family, four legged friends, and plants.
Blissfully oblivious, our garden is currently a wild flowery party, dancing the days away to the tune of the birds, and thankfully, the rain. The height of autumn perennial flowering is joyous, welcome light in otherwise dark days. While we can’t share our garden in person with human friends, we can find company in the garden itself. Today’s garden party is attended by a mix of characters and personalities, some flamboyant, others shy. Some are rock stars, others ballerinas. Some yell, some whisper.
Our life is best when enriched by many characters and personalities. So too a garden filled with flowers in different shapes and sizes is a happy one, feeding different insects and birds, and offering a feast for our senses. When we peel away the immediate impact of colour, it’s the forms and shapes that have the strongest personalities – these are the lead characters, the colour is the make-up!
I find it useful to think of flower forms in my garden as fitting more or less within these groups, each has a different role and fill an important place in my garden community. I outline them below. Embrace the differences and surround yourself with these characters. After each colour image, I have included a line drawn image, a useful way to understand the shapes without the veil of colour.
Let me introduce you!
DAISIES AND STARS.
These are the happy flowers with round open faces and big smiles, always pleased to see you. They are cheery, from the littlest sparkling on mass, to the single flamboyant stars of the show. With a button or tufted centre and radiating petals, this shape is that most commonly drawn by children. They’re fun and joyous!
While many of the flowers below are not technically daisies, it’s the shape we’re thinking of – circular and welcoming.
Favourites are the larger smiling faces of the Dahlias (“Home Run” and the “Bishop” cultivars are lovely). Then there’s the classic white and yellow Shasta daisies and all of the traditional daisy forms like the Anthemis and Chrysanthemums. The warm tones of Rudbeckia and Helenium are cheery, and of course Echinacea (though sometimes tricky to grow) is a treat. The littlies including Seaside Daisy, Aster and Chamomile are gorgeous on mass, and the everlasting paper daisies that keep on shining. The round fluffy faces of Scabiosa are worthy too, as are the bobbing rounded flowers and buds of the Japanese Windflowers, thirsty but so beautiful.
SPIRES AND STEEPLES
These flowers point skyward, reaching for the sun and the stars. From tightly packed spikes to long bell clusters, their vertical shape is both beautiful and elegant, and optimistic! While some make a bold and strong statement standing tall among their peers, others cluster like choir groups, chins up, singing in chorus. All are invaluable in the garden for vertical emphasis.
My favourites are many, but at the top of the list are the Salvias, Anthony Parker, Indigo Spires and Amistad, with the shorter S.nemorosa also lovely. The narrow spires of Veronicastrum are divine and Veronica (V.spicata and V.longifolia) are blissful, well worth seeking out. Penstemon, Agastache, Lupins, Delphiniums, Liatris, Lythrum and Verbascum are all gorgeous, and of course the classic Foxglove. I never have much luck with Foxgloves but will keep trying!
Oh the umbels, intricate, lacy and complex. With tens and hundreds of radiating spokes topped with wee flowers, these umbrella blooms generously provide shelter for insects that hide beneath their canopy. Despite their beauty and complexity, they are down to earth practical types, but they also know how to put their dancing shoes on. Think parsley flowers and carrot tops.
A definite winner is Queen Anne’s Lace, both the Green Mist and Chocolate forms are gorgeous. Achillea (Yarrow) is a perennial must have, loved by insects and in a myriad of colours. Sedums too have umbrella shaped blooms, Autumn Joy and Purple Emperor are favourites. Angelica is also beautiful.
Then there are the edibles, parsley, fennel and carrots. Make sure you let some go to seed, they are magical in flower and the bees will be in heaven!
BAUBLES AND SPHERES
Bibble bobble BOOM! Perfectly engineered, some orbs sit proudly atop rigid stems like disco balls. Others are sturdy and no nonsense, reminiscent of the big drumsticks in a marching band. Then there are the firecrackers, exploding at the end of their stalks with a look-at-me bang, and the little bobbling pearls clustering on multiple stems, far more understated but delightful. All are rotund and proud of it!
Allium bulbs are the absolute stars. Technically they are umbels, but they are such perfect orbs that visually they sit perfectly here.
Also lovely are Billy Buttons, Sanguisorba and the pom pom flowers and seed heads of the Phlomis that string like big pearls along their stalks. Even some Buddleia (B. weyeriana shown below) )have lovely spherical blooms. Then of course there are the luscious rounded heads of the Hydrangea macrophylla, and Snowball Tree (Viburnum opulus). These could also fit into the Big and Blousy group below.
Echinops are fabulous spiky rounded forms, and the rounded buds of Artichoke and Cardoons have lovely swollen bellies. These spiky characters could even form a group of their own, joined by the fabulous Eryngium (Sea Holly).
I love using these plant forms against clipped round forms of Teucreum, Buxus and Lonicera nitida to repeat the shapes. The rhythmic repetition of shape is satisfying!
FEATHERS AND FROTH
Whimsical and ethereal, these magical inflorescences are dreamy and relaxed. They sway with the wind, whispering as they go, or drift in a gauzy haze like a smoke machine. Though delicate, on mass they have the most beautiful voice. The grasses in particular are the stars of the autumn garden, blurring the line between the garden and the paddocks. They keep singing into winter too, wearing the frost like a glittery suit, a last hurrah before a momentary pause.
I adore Miscanthus, really adore it. It is the backbone of many parts of my garden and shines through all seasons. Calamagrostis, Panicum and Stipa are also treasured grasses worthy of a spot. The wispy forms of perennials Perovskia and Thalictrum are treats, and the bobbing butterfly flowers of Gaura also fit nicely into this group. The smoky froth of flowers above the foliage of Heucheras is magical in spring, H. americana and H. Plum Pudding are stalwarts here.
The froth of Cotinus flowers is hard to beat too, it’s called “Smoke Bush” for a reason!
BIG AND BLOUSY
When I think of the blousy blooms, the first that spring to mind are the cabbage-like roses, then peonies (I’m still waiting for mine to flower) and the delicious less uptight dahlias. These are the opera singers – voluptuous, languid and romantic flowers that wear layers of frilled petticoats, dropping petals with abandon as they relax with age. The kind of flowers you want to bury your face in. Go right ahead, social distancing rules don’t apply.
Favourites – all David Austin Roses, Abraham Darby is my all time number one, Jude the Obscure, The Endeavour, Golden Celebration…the list goes on and on. There are so many other beautiful roses too, like the billowing rambler Crepuscule and the classic pillar Pierre de Ronsard. All peonies are blissful, how can you separate them, and the fabulous tea stained Dahlia Cafe au Lait is divine. For me the rigid dahlia forms lack the romance, though if you love them go ahead and plant them! Many of the blousy hydrangeas fall within this whimsical group too. Though water dependant, it’s worth finding a sheltered corner for one or two.
Of course these groups are not exhaustive or scientific. They are simply my observations of the way these flowers sit within my garden, how they communicate with their peers, and how they complement each other. A mix of flower shapes creates interest and is good for the birds and insects too. It’s a also a lesson in looking closely, beyond initial impressions to understand the personalities in the garden. There’s a party going on and in these Corona days when human interactions are on hold, it’s the perfect time to discover new friends!