Sylvia Clare’s Column – Light & shadows

Published: 31st July 2022
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Light and shadows, contrast and complement,
plant cameos at different times of day

I am a very amateur photographer but I still love to record my garden through each month and year and this month it struck me that as I walked around, camera in hand both at lunch time and again this evening, how different the same views were with different light and shadow effects. Also I notice how different colours combine and complement each other, or clash and contrast. I am in awe of the talent and knowledge of Christopher Lloyd and Vita Sackville-West in exploring these aspects of designing a garden and a plant layout, but in my usual experimental way I am pleased with some of the effects that are increasingly developing in my garden through the years, some by design and just as many by happy accident.

I think there are big and often longer lasting combinations and then much smaller and more ephemeral or seasonal ones. The latter do not always occur each year since the seasonal shifts affect the exact flowering of many plants and whereas last year we had so much in flower all rushing to do their thing during a late spring, this year it has been a far more leisurely affair after a mild and very wet winter. This has benefited my garden no end since there is still plenty of moisture in my soil, a rare occurrence at any time of year unless immediately after rain due to the sharp drainage into the valley floor about 20 feet below us, and the stream running therein.

I love shrub combinations and one of my favourites helps to form a boundary hedge. In front is a rather spreading Buddleia loricata with lovely willowy silver leaves and later on clumps of insignificant white flowers. Behind it is a flowering crab Profusion with lovely dark leaves and flowers, almost spoiled by over-use for municipal planting but I love it anyway, a flowering current in full bloom and behind them all a towering still with its silvery catkins dangling although I will prune this in the next week or so. Behind them is a last spring afternoon blue sky and what more could you want for a snapshot view. Now look at the contrasting light and shadows playing with these colours between noon and 5.p.m. and see how these factors help to create wonderful changing views.

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Then we have small spring groupings like bulbs and emerging perennials. I love the little triandus hawera daffs, they are so dainty, and by chance last year one of my ‘let them seed where they want' Euphorbia ‘Dulcis Chameleon' decided to plonk itself right next to a clump whilst they were dormant and out of sight. Yet it is a lovely combination on my baked sunny south facing bank in noon sun and afternoon light levels. Lower down on the same bank another slightly different coloured Dulcis plonked itself next to stachys or Lambs ears and lovely species tulips which are doing as I wanted and expanding their numbers each year, albeit too gradually (I can be impatient although gardening is not good for that). Contrasting against the blue-grey foliage of Dianthus, it is a lovely little cameo in all lights, especially as hardy Geranium ‘Bill Wallis' comes into flower, covered in bees, all seeming to delight in this harsh setting. But the colours seem washed out in direct sunshine compared to semi shaded later on.

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The glaucous coloured foliage of Cerinthe purpurescens, already in flower as it did not get cut back this winter, against a backdrop of acid green Euphorbia martinii and under sprinkled with pale blue self-seeded for-get-me-not, light up a short corridor from one part of the garden to another and into the central circle. Here another favourite planting of mine is contrasting dark red Tulipa ‘Gavotta' and I think ‘Caravelle' against the dark red bark of Tibetan cherry and the equally dark red foliage Berberis ‘Helmond' pillar. This dark colour theme is lit up by bright blue Pulmonaria (I think it is ‘Blue ensign' but as an un-named gift I am not sure) and a few random self-seeded forget-me-nots, along with the now fading hellebores whose bright green new leaves are thrusting through everywhere as the bruised colours fade and are left with bursting full seed pods, almost as stunning as the flowers themselves. In other places these hellebores are giving way to a few early fern fronds pushing up between them.

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I do love the dark flowered crab apples and I am gradually one crab into a ball, partly to keep it in growth check near to the house and partly not to block out views of the castle behind but yet to get maximum flowering impact and autumn fruit for the blackbirds which nest in our courtyard in a climbing hydrangea. But they look quite different with sun and in shadow. In one place I have this same species of tree in the centre of other shrubs so that it is just sticking out above them, its flowers contrasting against the blue sky and toning so well with the old brick and hung tiles of our gable end. and later on in the year this specimen is covered in two dark red and purple .

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Other blossoms already out are the early cherries and I have a few, including Amanagowa and others whose names I have also forgotten but I love them just the same. Other shrubby blossoms at present include the whose wonderful perfume is a favourite to visit on an evening walk around, and in front of that is a pruned twisted hazel in full catkin array, a view through as it were, with light changing the contrast through the day. On the subject of white, one of my favourite colours for evenings and shade viewing, I totally adore white honesty in clumps or scattered about liberally, such an easy rewarding plant for a naturalistic garden like mine although I prefer in shade.
My final combination was more or less planned as a jungly screen in front of our living room so that people coming and going from the car park would not be looking in on us or we always down on them, yet I wanted to keep some of our view of the castle from here too. So I have planted lots of Photinia red robin to shine red in contrast to lots of self seeded of various sorts, also variegata is starting to show itself already as it was not cut back completely last winter, and some yellow and green stemmed bamboo fargesia which can ramble around the place. Under-planting these are Helleborus argutifolium and more of my favourite lambs ears, whilst in front is a row of box balls interspersed with lavender balls. Later on the whole thing is inter-planted with towering sunflowers and these can also double as cut flowers with branches of red robin for foliage contrast as stunning vases for our visitors. In the middle of this is an old fashioned beehive -at present decorative only but if I got enough bees going I would probably use this colony also as it is in perfectly good working order. Looking through this cacophony of colour and texture to the landscape beyond is always a joy.

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Sylvia Clare

Text and photographs by Sylvia Clare, who has been an HPS member for more than 10 years.