Well well well, that’s the first half of the year done and here we are in July. Each month I, Leigh Abbosh, Founder of Leaf & Dig (leafanddig.com) will bring you a timely horticultural topic with gardening tips, interesting facts, and inspiring places to visit. I hope you dig this months topic!
This month, we dig Lavender & Iris.
With the high temperatures we’ve experienced in the last few weeks, and low levels of rainfall it’s easy to see why there is a move in public gardens, such as those under the custodianship of the National Trust, to increasingly establish Mediterranean style gardens and even gravel gardens.
I’m currently in Kent as I spent yesterday gardening at Sissinghurst Castle garden. Over the last few years, the Sissinghurst gardening team, lead by Head Gardener Troy Scott-Smith and celebrated garden designer Dan Pearson, re-imagined Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson's (who originally created the Sissinghurst gardens) vision for a garden inspired by the Greek island of Delos. Vita and Harold set out their Mediterranean garden after being inspired by a trip to Delos in 1935. However, the Kent climate (at the time) combined with a north facing site and limited knowledge of Mediterranean planting meant the garden never really worked and over the years reverted to woodland style planting.
But in 2019 work began to bring the garden back. It has been fascinating to see the public
opinion to this part of the garden as, whilst Vita and Harold set out the Delos garden almost 85 ago, there have been many who think it doesn’t work to have such a stylised Mediterranean garden against the quintessentially English red brick walls and buildings of Sissinghurst Castle in the Kent countryside. Yet last night as I sat on the sandstone boulders under the glow of the late June evening sunshine, taking in Delos all to myself, all I could think was that this garden is a triumph. I love it. After the exuberance of the Rose Garden, and the serenity of the White Garden, Delos somehow lowers the heart rate and envelopes you in a feeling of calm. The many boulders offering a space to sit and contemplate whilst listening to the buzz of pollinators excitedly searching out the nectar. For me, it fits perfectly at Sissinghurst.
Photograph: Eva Nemeth/The Guardian
Delos also addresses critical questions for us gardeners about the warming climate. We are
increasingly experiencing hotter, drier summers and wetter winters. And so we need to consider plants that can cope with these conditions. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Head Gardener Troy said “I do worry generally about trying to perpetuate a garden like Sissinghurst, with its elaborate flower borders – delphiniums, lupins and all those things – in an increasingly drier situation. There’s no question, we won’t be able to have the same plants that we do now in 20 years’ time.”
And so two plants I’d like to consider that are famously well suited to the kind of conditions we are increasingly seeing, and that put on a fine show this month and into August are Lavender and Irises.
Lavender or Lavandula is a genus of 47 known species of flowering plants in the mint family, Lamiaceae. Native to the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Northern Africa and India Lavender has been used in gardens for over 2500 years. The hardiest varieties for our climate are those cultivars of English Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia and Lavendula x intermedia) with Hidcote Lavender being the classic variety most people will be familiar with. But others are worth seeking out too. I’m a particular fan of Lavender ‘Grosso’ which has a paler more delicate flower than Hidcote, although it is also larger at 1m tall and wide so it is often best placed as a feature plant rather than used as part of a lavender hedge. White Lavenders such as Lavandula angustifolia ‘Nana Alba’ should also be considered to provide a nice alternative to the classic purple lavender. French Lavenders (Lavandula stoechas) are less hardy and so likely to last only a couple of seasons at best, and so I rarely use these in planting schemes.
Once established, lavender needs very little care and in fact suffers if over watered or if the soil is too fertile. The one thing to remember is to keep them clipped to maintain a neat shape otherwise they will become overgrown and leggy and then it is impossible to get them back into shape once the stems thicken and become woody. An easy trick to help remember when to do this is 8-8-8. On the 8th day of the 8th month (August) you should cut your lavender down to 8 inches from the ground, either into a neat ball shape or as part of a hedge. This removes the flowering stems before they go brown and unsightly and ensures the foliage doesn’t become overgrown and leggy.
So mark that job for next month - 8-8-8!
Photograph: Leaf & Dig
Iris is a genus of 260–300 species of flowering plants. Another Mediterranean plant, it takes its name from the Greek word for rainbow - no wonder given the huge spectrum of Iris colours available. Iris is also the name of the Greek goddess of the rainbow! Most irises flower in the summer, apart from the earliest bulbous types, such as Iris reticulata, which flower in early spring.
You can plant irises in the border from late summer to autumn, or in the spring. Plant them so the top half of the fleshy rhizome, is above ground and facing South so they
are exposed to sun. Don’t let the leaves of the iris block the sun hence facing the rhizome South. Once they have finished their display, allow the iris leaves to die back naturally so the bulb can build up energy for next year. Once they have browned up, take some sharp secateurs or snips and cut the leaves back to a fan shape as seen in this image.
Photograph: Leaf & Dig
Iris are long-lived but flowering declines once clumps become older and congested. Rejuvenate them every few years, by dividing and replanting the younger, outer parts of the clump in late summer. Ease out the plants with a garden fork and then you can simply snap into single plants at the rhizome. Each plant only requires about 3 inches of rhizome so cut away anything longer and cut away any brown roots leaving only the white roots on the plant. You can then replant, with the rhizomes facing south as seen below. Don’t be tempted to replant all the plants. Instead, pick out the healthiest younger plants and discard the rest.
Photograph: Leaf & Dig
And finally onto a few places to visit in July for Mediterranean gardening inspiration:
Sissinghurst Castle Garden
As mentioned earlier, I highly recommend a visit to Sissinghurst and to the Delos garden if you are heading over to Kent this summer. A real feast for the senses as you move through the various garden rooms in this much celebrated National Trust garden.
Photograph: Leaf & Dig
Cotswold Lavender Fields
Transport yourself to Provence with a trip to the incredible lavender farm near Broadway,
Worcestershire. It can get quite hectic with Instagrammers, as it is a picture perfect location, but if you go a little later in the day you’ll be in for a more relaxing visit. They have a lovely cafe and as you’d expect there are quite a few dishes with lavender...I highly recommend the lavender ice cream!
Photograph: Cotswold Lavender
York Gate Garden, Leeds
Again this garden is further afield up in Leeds but with the summer upon us, hopefully you might find opportunity to visit if travelling north. It really is a magical garden. Small at only an acre but with so much beauty packed in, it really is lovely garden to visit. I’ve pulled this out as they have recently created a stunning Mediterranean gravel garden which you can enjoy from the terrace of the restaurant whilst tucking into some tasty Yorkshire cooking.
Photograph: Clive Nichols