On a Chalk Hillside – June 2024

Published: June 6, 2024

Let's start with a star plant for the beginning of June in my garden – which also happens to be a very long-lived hardy perennial – the Oriental Poppy, ():-


This month I am going to consider the life span of different plants, and how long I expect different plants to live.  This was a conundrum for me particularly this year as in April it became apparent that two completely different plants that had been in the garden when we moved here in 2004 had both suddenly not made it through the winter.  A forsythia, and the Rosa ‘Canary Bird'.

In both cases, my first thought was – did they struggle to survive the winter?  However, as we know this past winter has been extremely mild, wet, and windy (all of which conditions went on here from November to almost the end of April), with continuous flooding in the valley below us that entire time, saturated ground on my hillside, and very low light levels – had these contributed to these shrubs demise?   Had they been stressed by coping with the heatwave and over 40-degree heat two years back, followed by the freeze/wet/freeze/wet of the winter 2022-3 which had taken such a toll on other plants in my garden, but both of these had survived just fine.  The rose had been in fine flower last year, so much so that himself had cut one complete branch out in the summer, right to the ground as he felt it was taking over.  Here is a nice close-up from 13 April 2022:-


You may be able to see that the flowers dwarf the leaves at this point in the month – the leaves grow bigger and bigger as the flowers go over.  However this year, this rose had no leaves, and no flower buds at the beginning of April, though there was still green when I scraped the bark back a bit.  Checking every time we went down the path, by 22 April we had to accept that it wasn't leafing up, despite the blood fish, and bone we had fed it.

The forsythia on the other hand DID make some flowers, and then some leaves, just very very few of either. (What in baking would be a “not worth the calories” situation – taking up a lot of space, and mainly being just branches. Not worth the garden space.  In this shrub's case my intention is to cut it all down to stumps, give it some blood fish, and bone, and if that makes it sprout properly, good, if not NEXT winter, when I have some time I shall attempt to get the stump out – as you can imagine, a shrub at least 25 years old, that is more than 2m in all directions, is quite an effort to get out of the ground!  Currently, it abuts an Escallonia and winter flowering honeysuckle that a blackbird pair and a great tit pair are nesting in, so is out of bounds to me.

So how long would I, or should I, expect a plant to live?  When I got here all the shrubs were overgrown, and I followed best gardening practice to rejuvenate them – which I shall talk more about next month.  As I write, the Weigela ‘Bristol Ruby', and the Philadelphus Coronia, both here when we arrived, and both at least as old as the two shrubs that died, and which have been treated as they have all these years have both flowered beautifully.   Here's the Weigela flowering very well on 10 May:-


Some plants are described as “short-lived perennials” – hollyhocks being an example, here in a mixed border at Hidcote a white hollyhock looks very good against the topiary – replanted every year, apparently:-


Shortlived, like Rudbeckia Goldsturm, in this garden meant one flowering season as they didn't make it through the winter – again I thought either I had done something wrong in their care, or the climate wasn't right for them.

Here in full flower in September last year:-


I felt slightly better when I discovered they were “shortlived”!  However, I feel that should mean surviving more than one year if they are termed hardy perennials.  I understand “shortlived” in terms of slightly more tender plants like which might or might not make it through the winter, or some of the Salvias, which I take cuttings of each year as insurance against them not making it through the winter.    Here is a shot of some of my Verbena Bonariensis on the last day of September 2022, with some equally “short-lived” Gaillardia aristata Kobold at its feet, and then a close-up of the Gaillardia.   (The Gaillardia did not make it through that winter, whilst the verbena did!):-


If you saw the coverage of the RHS Malvern Spring Show this year on TV it is clear that most tulips also count as “short-lived” as in, “treat them like annuals”.  It seems very few tulips come back (either at all or as well) the following year, and it is recommended that you plant new each year.  I inherited a small clump of tall red tulips in the Rosa ‘Lavender Lassie' bed which come back each year – they must be very deeply planted as I dug over that bed and weeded it when we arrived without being aware there were bulbs in there! Here the returners are in mid-April:-


Interestingly – the close-up head of the tulip is where the clump was originally positioned in the bed, and the larger clump right under a Rosa ‘Lavender Lassie' have appeared in the past 5 years – I don't deadhead these bulbs, so maybe they set seed there?  You may also notice some Grape Hyacinths – which were rampant here when we arrived, and I spread all along the path down the garden as they multiplied, but I realised last year, there were hardly any left anywhere in the garden.  The wet winters may have been too much for them.

But some perennials are very long-lived – like the Shasta daisy, , that was here when we moved in, and which I still have large clumps of around the garden.   Here's a close-up in flower towards the end of June:-


Another long-lived herbaceous perennial that was here when we arrived – and is still in its same position, despite me trying to dig it out once or twice is a tall Solidago.  Here in flower in mid-sept:-


This Golden Rod also self-seeds with wild abandon, so I have to be ruthless.  The seeds blow a long way from the mother plant if you leave it to make its smokey/feathery seedhead that I love to look at.    Here the seedhead from the original plant in situ only a week after the above photo was taken – so beautiful, but note to self DON'T LET IT GET TO THIS STAGE!!:-

golden rod with rosa hips

If I leave a self-sown clump to overwinter, I am just about able to dig it out in February, if it is in situ for two growing seasons it is a REAL effort for me to get it out – the roots make an amazingly solid compact ball – football size, and even in our very light chalk it comes out as one lump – too heavy for me to lift far.  I can quite see why it is a proscribed pernicious weed in the Americas!

Another long-lived perennial is the Greater Periwinkle – which I had from a root dug out of my Mum's garden shortly after we moved here, together with some elephants ears – Bergenia – which she said were good for shade, and both have survived in the hostile dark dry environment under shrubs here – for almost 20 years.  Here's the Periwinkle flowering in April – though you can see desultory flowers for much of the year on it:-


Returning to the Red Oriental Poppy (Papaver orientale) I started with – this plant came with me from our London garden, so is well over 20 years old, and the clump returns each year and flowering beautifully at the beginning of June.  It doesn't expand, and I have tried (unsuccessfully) to take root cuttings, but it looks healthy and happy:-


As you can see, my rumination has not led me to any great conclusion – though I have decided that I should also consider whether a plant has just died of old age, rather than assume I or the climate have done for it. After all professional gardeners and nurserypeople are much more ruthless in turfing out underperforming or oddly shaped specimens so that they have vigorous youthful plants giving them the maximum impact in their displays for the paying public to see.

Having talked about how long I expect some plants to live, next month I shall talk in more detail about how to rejuvenate shrubs and hardy perennials to lengthen their life span.

Sheila May