Category: A-Z of Perennials

Papapver orientale at Old School Garden

Papaver orientale at Old School Garden

Papaver (poppy) is a genus of 70 species of annuals, biennials and perennials native to many parts of the world. The perennials include Papaver orientale (Oriental poppy), which is native to the Caucasus, northeastern Turkey, and northern Iran.

Perennial poppies are easy to grow – all are sun lovers and will grow well as long as they are in the sun and the soil is not waterlogged. They do best in poor but deeply cultivated, well-drained soil, (on the calcareous side) or even sharply drained in the case of Papaver alpinum and its forms. Apart from Papaver orientale other perennial poppies tend to be short-lived.

Poppies are tap rooted and do not transplant well, so should be sited carefully when first planted. Propagation is mainly from seed.

The flowers (which open from late spring into mid summer), are short-lived but beautiful – I particularly love the way a lowish sun can light up the garden as it shines through the large, brightly coloured, silky petals of the flowers. The flowers are followed by distinctive ‘pepper pot’ shaped seed capsules – best removed if you want to avoid abundant self seeding, but if this is not a concern, leave them to ripen on the plant –  they also provide a striking feature amidst other early summer flowering plants.

The flowers are low in allergens and are good for arrangements. However, they need to be picked at night before the bud opens; the bottom of the stem dipped in very hot water; kept cool overnight; then arranged in the morning. The seed pods are also good for arrangements, either fresh or dried.

The only drawbacks to poppies are that they often need to be staked; are prone to downy mildew; and the foliage can become untidy after flowering, This should be removed and another flush of leaves (and sometimes a second flowering) will follow. Alternatively, make sure the foliage, once removed does not leave a gap in your border by having other plants nearby that mature a bit later and take up the space left behind.

Further information:

Papaver orientale – Kew Gardens

Papaver orientale – RHS

Papaver orientale ‘Ladybird’

Nastional collection of Papaver orientale

Papaver alpinum

Papaver nudicaule

Poppyland: A Victorian romance and the birth of Norfolk tourism

Old School Gardener

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Osteospermum ecklonis

Osteospermum ecklonis

Osteospermum is a genus of some 70 species of annuals, perennials and evergreen sub shlrubs from mountainous, forest edge or grassland habitats in southern Africa and the Arabian peninsula. It has several common names: African Daisy, South African Daisy, Cape Daisy and Blue-eyed Daisy.

They are mostly tender or half-hardy, but a few are reliably hardy, and hybrids are being produced from these which are also hardy. In frost – prone areas the more tender types can be treated as annuals.
Osteospermum have three features that commend them to the gardener:

  1. A very long flowering season
  2. They are evergreen
  3. They make excellent ground cover

Their daisy-like flower heads have ray florets of pink, white or yellow- with a wider range of shades available in the cultivars and often with contrasting, darker disc florets.


Osteospermum Daisyweb

Osteospermums are relatively new to most gardeners, and were almost unheard of 25 years ago. They have risen in popularity in the last decade as they have become more commercially available. Osteospermums have now become very popular as summer bedding plants, either to put in the border or in pots. The prostrate varieties can be used in hanging baskets. Osteospermums require full sun for the flowers to fully open, although while half-closed it is possible to appreciate the different colours on the underneath of the petals. Some old favourites such as ‘Whirligig’ and ‘Pink Whirls’ have spoon shaped petals. There are also stunning variegated leaf varieties available such as ‘Giles Gilbey’ and ‘Silver Sparkler’.

As well as preferring a warm and sunny position they like rich, well drained soil- a sunny bank is ideal. They also  tolerate poor soil, salt or drought well. Modern cultivars flower continuously when watered and fertilised well, and dead-heading to prevent self seeding is not necessary, because they do not set seed easily, Deadheading will improve and prolong flowering, however. They make good cut flowers. If planted in a container, soil should be prevented from drying out completely. If they do, the plants will go into “sleep mode” and survive the period of drought, but they will abort their flower buds and not easily come back into flower. Moreover, roots are relatively susceptible to rotting if watered too profusely after the dry period. Regrettably, like most daisy- like flowers, they are highly allergenic. They are prone to downy mildew in wet areas.

O. 'Lemon Symphony'

O. ‘Lemon Symphony’

Sources and further information:


RHS plant selector

BBC- O. jucundum

Old School Gardener

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Nepeta- soem varieites are called Catnip or Catmint because cats love them!

Nepeta- some varieites are called Catnip or Catmint because cats love them!

Nepeta is a genus of about 250 species of perennials and a few annuals, native to cool and moist to hot and dry habitats in scrub, grassy banks, stony slopes or in high mountains, in non tropical areas of the northern hemisphere. So as you can see, there’s pretty much a Nepeta to suit every garden situation!

Some members of this group are known as catnip or catmint because of their effect on cats – the nepetalactone contained in some Nepeta species binds to the olfactory receptors of cats, typically resulting in temporary euphoria!

They have sturdy stems with opposite heart-shaped, green to grey-green leaves. Nepeta plants are usually aromatic in foliage and flowers. The tubular flowers can be lavender, blue, white, pink, or lilac, and spotted with tiny lavender-purple dots. The flowers are located in ‘verticillasters’ grouped on spikes; or the verticillasters are arranged in opposite groups – toward the tip of the stems.

Nepeta can be drought tolerant, being able to conserve water. They bloom over a long period from late spring to autumn. Some species also have repellent properties to insect pests, including aphids and squash bugs, when planted in a garden. Nepeta species are used as food plants by the larvae of some butterflies and moths and as nectar sources for pollinators like bees.

Nepeta makea a wonderful sprawling edge to an informal border

Nepeta makes a wonderful sprawling edge to an informal border

Nepeta can be grown in any well drained soil in full sun or partial shade. Some species, like N. govaniana and N. subsessilis prefer moist, cool conditions, whereas N. sibirica likes it fairly dry. There are a few tall growing varieties, like ‘Six Hills Giant’, with a more upright habit. These need staking or support to see them at their best.  Most Nepetas will rebloom if sheared back after their initial flowering (N. x faassenii and N. nervosa for example). Some won’t provide much of a second show, but their foliage will be refreshed and tidied by the shearing.

Nepeta looks wonderful when covered in flower from early summer. The pale, often lavender-blue flowers perfectly complement the hairy, scalloped and wrinkled, silvery, blue-green leaves. The flowers appear as a haze of blue from a distance. It is often used as an informal, low hedge echoing the colours of lavender (and is used as a substitute where lavender isn’t hardy enough). But it has a rather lax form and will spread itself to cover its allotted space (and more!). Nepeta is best planted at the front of the border, edging a path, so that when you brush past it you will catch the full scent from its aromatic leaves. Nepeta is also a classic underplanting for roses. The colours complement and the foliage hides the ugly ‘knees’ of the rose bush.

We have some here at Old School Garden and this year I’m experimenting with it in some raised planters to try to get a cascading effect, as I’ve seen it used effectively this way on top of an old garden wall in Devon, though I suspect some varieties will have longer stems than others so are better suited to this treatment. The pastel blues of Nepeta combine wonderfully well with pinks and yellows, such as day lilies and yarrow (Achillea). It also looks good with Allium cristophii and Zinnia elegans ‘Envy’.

Some suggested varieties:

  • N. nervosa ‘Felix’ – Compact plant with vivid lavender-blue flowers. (12″ H x 24″ W)
  • N. x ‘Six Hills Giant’ – One of the tallest growing Nepetas, with lavender-blue flowers.(36″ H x 30″ W)
  • N. subsessilis ‘Sweet Dreams’ – Pink flowers with burgundy bracts. Likes a bit more water than most Nepetas. (2′ H x 3′ W)
  • N. racemosa ‘Walkers Low’– has 8″ spikes of lavender-blue flowers.  ( 2 H’ x 2′ W)

Nepeta faassenii 'Six Hills Giant'- foliage

Nepeta faassenii ‘Six Hills Giant’- foliage

Nepeta is one of those plants that thrives on neglect. Too much fertilizer will only make it grow lots of flimsy foliage. A lean soil and somewhat dry growing conditions will encourage both flowers and scent. Many of the newer varieties of Nepeta are sterile, producing no viable seeds. This is a plus if you don’t like the weedy, self-seeding habit of older Nepeta varieties, but it means you will need to either buy plants or make plants from divisions or cuttings.  Division is not a requirement, but if you’d like more plants divide it in spring or in autumn. The Royal Horticultural Society have given it their prestigious Award of Garden Merit.

Nepeta longipes

Nepeta longipes

Sources and further information:


BBC – Catmint

One plant 3 ways- Nepeta design tips

Old School Gardener

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monarda 'Cambridge Scarlet' in one of the borders at Old School Garden,sittign well alongside a young Gleditsia triacanthos

Monarda ‘Cambridge Scarlet’ in one of the borders at Old School Garden, sitting well alongside a young Gleditsia triacanthos and Lysimachia ciliata ‘Firecracker’

With around 20 species of annuals and rhizomatous,clump-forming, herbaceous perennials, Monarda – or ‘Bee Balm’ because of it’s value in treating bee stings- would be a relatively small genus, though it also has many garden-worthy, hardy hybrids.

Hailing from North America, and otherwise known as ‘Bergamot’, Monarda like sun, but will grow in dappled shade too, but plants established in partial shade or filtered sun have higher incidences of rapid horizontal spread and flower less. Their natural habitats are the dry prairie and also woodlands, so they vary in their soil requirements from those that like a dry soil to those liking moisture – all need moisture retentive soil though and if the soil is too dry they are prone to mildew, as they are here in Old School Garden. It can also tolerate clay soil. The incidence of powdery mildew can be reduced by allowing good air movement between plants, ensuring the soil does not dry out, removing diseased leaves and stems to destroy the overwintering stage of the fungus and choosing mildew-resistant cultivars. Fungicides or horticultural oils can also be used to control powdery mildew.

Generally, propagation occurs by hardwood and softwood cuttings, root cuttings, layering, and division. The latter, quite frequently, is the most popular method out of necessity:  on soil that stays moist, plants can spread fairly quickly so the plant should be divided every 3 to 5 years to reduce spread, keep the central core of the plant healthy, preclude root rot, and improve air circulation about the foliage.

The flowers are a delight, arranged in whorls, rather like sage. They are tubular, with 2 lips, an upper one that is hooded and a lower one that spreads and they often come with coloured bracts. The plant is long flowering, from mid to late summer, and blooms almost continuously if deadheaded periodically. The blooms make excellent cut flowers, both fresh and dried.

Wasp on a Monarda punctata

Wasp on a Monarda punctata

Being attractive to bees and butterflies it is a good plant for wildlife gardens, though only Bumble Bees can gain direct access, honey bees and other insects getting in only after something larger has made holes!  Because of oils present in its roots it is sometimes used as a companion plant around small vegetable crops susceptible to subterranean pests. Bee balm is considered a good plant to grow with tomatoes, ostensibly improving both plant health and tomato flavour.

Ranging in height from 20–90 cm (8–35 in), Monarda have an equal spread. The stems are distinctive, in that they are square in profile, and taller varieties often require staking. The slender and long-tapering (lanceolate) leaves are not particularly striking to look at but are aromatic and are a definite reminder of ‘Earl Grey’ Tea, which is flavoured with Bergamot and the leaves are sometimes picked for pot pourri. Slugs can attack new growth in the spring but the genus is low in allergens.

Most hybrids are derived from Monarda didyma or M. fistulosa.There are over 50 commercial cultivars and hybrids, ranging in colour from post – box red to pure white to deep blue, but these plants tend to be smaller than wild species, and have often been developed to combat climatic or pest conditions. Other hybrids have been developed to produce essential oils for food, flavouring, or medicine. The following cultivars have gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit (AGM):

  • ‘Beauty of Cobham’(pink)
  • ‘Gardenview Scarlet’
  • ‘Marshall’s Delight’ (pink)
  • ‘Squaw’ (red)
  • ‘Talud’ (pink)
  • ‘Violet Queen’
Monarda citriodora ('Horse Mint')

Monarda citriodora (‘Horse Mint’)

Monarda are great perennials for meadows and wild gardens, along streams and ponds, in woodlands and also in the garden border. The boldness of bee balm makes it equally good for massing or as an accent, and it mixes well with other summer perennials such as phlox, iris, day lilies and yarrows. The long season of colour attracts bees, butterflies (and in North America, hummingbirds) and these will capture your attention as well.

Monarda also looks good with:

  • Veronica ‘Blue Charm’ which bears spikes of light blue flowers at the same time as bee balm. The habit and flower shape contrast well.
  • Aster – masses of small, pale blue flowers appear in summer on heart-leaf aster and provide an airy contrast to bee balm.
  • Coneflower (Echinacea) – the large daisy flowers of purple coneflower mix well with those of bee balm, especially in sunny wildflower gardens.
  • Evening Primrose (Oenothera) – blooming in summer, the clusters of yellow goblet flowers of common sundrops mix well with bee balm, especially the mahogany-colour varieties.
  • Astrantia major ‘Ruby Wedding’
  • Persicaria ”Red Dragon’

Sources and further information:


‘The Monarda Speaks’- blog article

Monarda citriodora (Horse Mint)- video from Texas

Monarda and powdery mildew resistance- University of Chicago study

Old School Gardener

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Leucanthemum x superbum 'Becky'

Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Becky’

Other wise known as ‘Shasta Daisies’ Leucanthemum is a genus of around 70 flowering plants (annuals and perennials) from the sunflower family (Asteraceae).

It occurs naturally in Europe, Northern Africa and the temperate regions of Asia. Many species have been introduced into America, Australia and New Zealand. It was previously classified as a chrysanthemum and the most important group of perennial Leucanthemum- the group x superbum is still known by some as Chrysanthemum maximum. They were split from the genus Chrysanthemum, because they are not aromatic and their leaves lack grayish-white hairs. L. vulgare is the ‘Ox Eye Daisy’.

The superbum group (the Shasta Daisy proper) consists of robust, easy going plants which grow well in sun or half shade in any good soil – but in heavy clay they have a reputation for not surviving. Growing to a height of between 0.5 and 1 metre tall, they are lax plants and so some form of support is usually required. Gardener Richard Barrett says,

‘If you find they grow too tall in your border and require too much staking, then dig them up each winter and replant them insitu. This has the side effect of keeping the foliage and flowers to a compact size, this method works well for other robust herbaceous plants.’

They reappear every spring with fresh dark green leaves before flowering with the typical daisy configuration of long elegant petals around a yellow eye. Their foliage is handsome, but can be attacked by slugs as the planst break ground kin spring – this tends to result in no regrowth, so protection is important.

Making a great display in your borders from June to September during which time it is good at attracting butterflies and bees, flowers are solitary and can be either single or double, and with simple petals or frilly, feather-like structures. Flowers of Leucanthemum are excellent for cutting and are favoured by flower arrangers.

L. 'Sonnenschein'

L. ‘Sonnenschein’

L. 'Goldrush'

L. ‘Goldrush’

Although other species in the genus have yellow flowers, the flowers of these hybrids had been exclusively white with yellow discs (tending to be paler in double-flowered types). However, the cultivar ‘Sonnenschein’ has yellow buds that open to cream flowers and there are other yellow cultivars available. New varieties include several with more petals to give a ruffled effect and a striking golden yellow version. Most will re-bloom happily if cut back after flowering. Leucanthemum combine well with Phlox in August. White flowered varieties make an excellent contrast to the blue of Salvia nemorosa ‘Ostfriesland’ whilst the strong yellows are great to accompany Gaillardia aristata ‘Goblin’.

Leucanthemum x superbum 'Snowcap'

Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Snowcap’

Old School Gardener

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KniphofiaA genus of 70 or so rhizomatous perennials from central and southern Africa, Kniphofia – or ‘red hot pokers’ – can often be found in moist places; alongside river banks, in grasslands or mountainsides. They are also called tritoma, torch lily, knofflers or poker plant. The Kniphofia genus is named after Johann Kniphof, an 18th-century German physician and botanist.

Kniphofia form clumps, with arching, strap-like leaves. They can be evergreen or deciduous, the leaves of the deciduous varieties tending to be narrower and shorter than the evergreens. They thrive in any soil as long as it is moisture retentive, prefer sun but will tolerate light shade and can vary from tender to fully hardy. Many tolerate coastal conditions. Coming from South Africa, they are not completely hardy, particularly in the far north. For safety grow the more hardy evergreen varieties, where you should tie up the leaves over the winter, so protecting each other from frost.  They are also susceptible to ‘wet feet’ – this is particularly bad in clay soils when they are also cold.

The flowers are cylindrical or tubular and usually hang down (‘pendent’), though in some varieties are upright. Flowers are borne well above the leaves in dense spike – like racemes. The flowers come in various colours, including green and toffee, but most of the commonly seen types open red and turn to yellow, giving  the characteristic, bicoloured flower spikes.

Red Hot Pokers make good cut flowers. The flowers produce copious nectar while blooming and are attractive to bees and butterflies. In the New World they may attract sap-suckers such as hummingbirds and New World orioles. They are low in allergens.

Tritoma group

A group of Kniphofia or ‘Tritoma’

Red hot pokers seem to have suffered a bad press over the years, stemming from Victorian times when one influential garden writer (Shirley Hibberd) thought they were vulgar and that their use required “a little extra care to avoid a violation of good taste”.

Cultivars range from 50cm to 2 metres in height, and the taller ones may need staking. Late-summer flowers such as Crocosmias look good with them, as do different sorts of marigolds; e.g. ‘Touch of Red’ and ‘Art Shades’ which are ideal for a showy look. Salvia uliginosa combined with yellow or coral-coloured pokers gives a more subtle effect. They mix well in the border with other tall plants such as Alliums and Echinops.  Sometimes a mixture of gaudy colours – Delphiniums, Alliums, Lilies and Knifophia – is quite attractive.

Kniphofia caulescens

Kniphofia caulescens

You can grow them from seed quite easily using ordinary seed compost – just push the seeds partially into the compost in April, water and they will be transplantable by summertime. Once mature, after a year of growth, the plant is dividable to increase stock. Do this in late September, into pots of 50% compost 50% grit. Dividing is easy enough, they pull apart quite easily and you can simply pot them up. Leave the divided plants in pots in a cool but frost-free greenhouse, and replant in May the next year. When transplanting your Kniphofia, dig a hole that is about 20cm deep by 10cm wide, and half fill with 50% compost, 50% grit mixture and then top up with compost and plant in this. Each spring give them a mulch with good rich compost. You can also give them a liquid feed in June when they start to show signs of flowering. I have some in my long borders at Old School Garden and they are just coming into flower.

Kniphofia and Echinops. Photo- Jenny Cochran's garden

Kniphofia and Echinops. Photo- Jenny Cochran’s garden

Further information:

How to grow Kniphofias- Telegraph article

How to grow Kniphofias-Mirror article

RHS- Kniphofia ‘Bees Sunset’ and other links

RHS 2007/9 Kniphofia trials

Old School Gardener

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jasmine-bush OK, I know that Jasmine is technically a shrub or climber and not strictly a ‘perennial’ but it is a perennial plant like all shrubs, so perhaps you’ll allow me some license on a letter of the alphabet that is decidely low on choice of ‘proper perennials’!

Jasmine (Jasminum) is a genus in the olive family (Oleaceae). It contains around 200 species native to tropical and warm temperate regions. Jasmines are widely cultivated for the characteristic fragrance of their flowers. They can be either deciduous or evergreen, and can be erect, spreading, or climbing in habit. The flowers are typically around 2.5 cm (0.98 in) in diameter, are white or yellow in colour, although in rare instances they can be slightly reddish. The flowers are borne in clusters with a minimum of three flowers, though they can also be solitary on the ends of branchlets. Each flower has about four to nine petals. They are usually very fragrant. The berry fruits of jasmines turn black when ripe.  Of the 200 species, only one is native to Europe, but a number of jasmine species have become naturalized in the Mediterranean area. For example, the so-called Spanish jasmine or Catalonian jasmine (Jasminum grandiflorum) was originally from Iran and south western Asia, and is now naturalized in Spain and Portugal.

Widely cultivated for its flowers, jasmine is enjoyed in the garden, as a house plant, and as cut flowers. The flowers are worn by women in their hair in southern and southeast Asia. The delicate jasmine flower opens only at night and may be plucked in the morning when the tiny petals are tightly closed, then stored in a cool place until night. The petals begin to open between six and eight in the evening, as the temperature lowers.

Symbolically, Jasmine was used to mark the Tunisian revolution of 2011 and the pro democracy protests in China of the same year. Damascus in Syria is called the ‘City of Jasmine’ and in Thailand, jasmine flowers are used as a symbol of motherhood.  Several countries have Jasmine as their national flower. ‘Jasmine’ is also a girls name in some countries.

There are many cultivars of Jasmine – for summer and winter. Jasminum officinale (summer jasmine) is perfect for a sunny, sheltered spot in mild regions of the UK. Trachelospermum jasminoides, also known as ‘Confederate’ or ‘Star Jasmine’ is a sweet-smelling vine with small white flowers. It grows quickly up walls, trellises, fences, and even thrives as ground cover, but It is especially well-suited to be grown indoors.

Trachelospermum jasminoides

Trachelospermum jasminoides

The cheery yellow flowers of Jasminum nudiflorum (winter jasmine) will brighten up even partially shaded and cold sites at a time when little else is in flower. A popular and reliable shrub, introduced from China in 1844, and widely grown as a wall shrub, it can be allowed to scramble freely over a low wall or up a bank, or trained up a vertical framework. Unlike many other jasmines, winter jasmine does not twine, so will need tying-in if grown vertically. The stems are bright green and give an evergreen impression, even in winter when the tiny bright yellow blooms appear, weatherproof in all but the coldest snaps. Regular pruning keeps bushes under control and prevents bare patches from appearing. The Royal Horticultural Society has given it the Award of Garden Merit (AGM).


All jasmines need a fertile, well-drained soil in full or partial sun. Summer jasmine needs a sheltered spot, full sun and a south- or south west-facing aspect. Winter jasmine is more tolerant of partial shade and a south east or north west aspect. North and north east aspects are best avoided. Frost hardy species are fine in an unheated conservatory or a cold greenhouse kept frost-free with a small heater. Tender species may require a minimum night temperature of 13-15ºC (55-59ºF). Jasmines make lovely container specimens. Ensure you use a container with good drainage holes, cover the holes with crocks or grit, and fill with John Innes No 2 compost. Leave space at the top for watering, and place the pot in bright but filtered light.

Jasmine plant care is not difficult but does require vigilance.Well worth it to have that wonderful evening fragrance in the summer or some brightness in the dark winter months!


Sources and further information:


Beginners guide to Jasmine

Royal Horticultural Society – growing Jasmine

How to grow Jasmine

Pruning Star Jasmine

Growing Jasmine indoors

Trachelospermum – RHS

Old School Gardener

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Irises by Van Gogh

Irises by Van Gogh

I’ve thought for some time that I must grow more Irises in my garden, but somehow the massive choice and being not quite sure about how to grow them successfully tends to make me wary.
I have grown some bearded irises in pots (and they’ve done quite well, despite a bout of Iris Rust last summer), and also some bulbous varieties in the border – they always please, as much for their strappy green foliage as for their flowers. I must be a bit more adventurous and devote a largish area to a bold display of one or two varieties – when I can afford it!

Iris persica - a bulbous Iris as drawn by Sowerby in 1792

Iris persica – a bulbous Iris as drawn by Sowerby in 1792

Irises – otherwise known as Flags, Sword Lilies or Fleur de Lis – is a genus of some 300 species from very varied habitats from around the northern hemisphere. They vary between those that are bulbs, those with rhizomatous (expanding, tuberous) roots, and some that are fleshy – rooted. They can be evergreen or deciduous and have very varied growth requirements. Irises are classified by the Royal Horticultural Society into these sub sections or ‘subgenera’:

  • Bearded species and cultivars– various sizes from miniature dwarf to tall. These are the most widely grown group of Irises, are rhizomatous and prefer well drained soil.
  • Aril irises are a group of bearded irises that become dormant in the summer after flowering and need to be kept dry whilst in this state.
  • Beardless irises generally have more flowers per stem, than  bearded types. They are also rhizomatous and prefer well drained conditions, apart from the Laevigate group which needs damp soil.
  • Crested irises are rhizomatous, spread freely, and prefer moist soil.
  • Bulbous irises are beardless and summer dormant. They prefer well-drained soil.
Iris aphylla -with prominent 'beard'

Iris aphylla -with prominent ‘beard’

Iris orientalis showing rhizome roots

Iris orientalis showing rhizome roots

The Iris has connections with ancient Greece, where Iris was the messenger of the Gods, communicating between heaven and earth through a rainbow (so a reference to the wide range of Iris colours available). Irises have been valued plants for a long time and the flowers have had a long association with heraldry and royalty.

The iris flower has three outer and three inner tepals (a uniform type of petal on the outer part of the flower). The outer three bend back and may also hang down, so are referred to as ‘falls’ – they are usually the most colourful part of the flower and are especially large and colourful in the bearded irises, which have white or coloured hairs, like a beard, in the centre of each fall. Crested irises have a ridge (or crest) on each fall.

The three inner tepals are called ‘standards’, as they generally stand upright in the middle of the flower (like a flag), but may also lie horizontally as in I. tectorum; droop as in I. bucharicha; or be much reduced as in I. danfordiae.

Three modified styles called stigma flaps reach out over the falls from the middle of the flower and can be an important feature. The iris flower is of interest as an example of the relation between flowering plants and pollinating insects, the shape of the flower and the position of the pollen-receiving and stigmatic surfaces on the outer petals forming a convenient landing-stage for flying insects. All parts of the Iris plant are poisonous and contact with the sap may cause skin irritation. However, Irises are low in allergens.

Iris orientalis

Iris orientalis

Iris 'Samurai Warrior'- the closest breeders have come to a red Iris

Iris ‘Samurai Warrior’- the closest breeders have come to a red Iris

Irises are extensively grown as ornamental plants in home and botanical gardens. They grow in any good free garden soil, the smaller and more delicate species needing only the aid of turf ingredients, either peat or loam, to keep it light and open in texture. The earliest to bloom are species like I. junonia and I.reichenbachii, which flower as early as February and March (Northern Hemisphere). These are followed by the dwarf forms of I. pumila which blossom in Spring, and these are followed in early Summer by most of the tall bearded varieties, such as the German Iris and its variety florentina, Sweet Iris, Hungarian Iris, Lemon-yellow Iris and their natural and horticultural hybrids such as those described under names like I. neglecta or I. squalens.


The Iris is hardy, reliable, and easy to grow. Irises also attract butterflies and make lovely cut flowers. The Old Farmers’ Almanac suggests the following tips for growing Irises:

  • ‘Irises need at least half a day of sun and well-drained soil. Without enough sun, they won’t bloom.
  • They prefer fertile, neutral to slightly acidic soil. If your soil is very acidic, sweeten it with a bit of lime, and forbear summer watering, which can lead to rot.
  • Bearded irises must not be shaded by other plants; many do best in a special bed on their own.
  • Soil drainage is very important. Loosen the soil with a tiller or garden fork to a depth of 12 to 15 inches, then mix in a 2 to 4-inch layer of compost.
  • Plant iris in mid to late summer.
  • Bearded irises have rhizomes (fleshy roots) that should be partially exposed, or thinly covered with soil in hot climates.
  • Plant rhizomes singly or in groups of three with the fans outermost, 1 to 2 feet apart, depending on the size.
  • Dig a shallow hole 10 inches in diameter and 4 inches deep. Make a ridge of soil down the middle and place the rhizome on the ridge, spreading roots down both sides. Fill the hole with soil and firm it gently.
  • Water thoroughly.
  • When planting, top-dress with a low-nitrogen fertilizer, and again in early spring.’

As I conclude this article, I’m already thinking of an open, sunny spot where a bold display of summer flowering bearded Irises (one of the brown ones like ‘Kent Pride’) would look great in Old School Garden. Perhaps mixed in with some purple Heuchera to mask their rhizomes and some later seasonal interest ….watch this space.


PicPost: Bearded Beauty

Bearded Iris drawn by Sue Walker White

Further information:

Pictures of Iris varieties

About Iris

British Iris Society

National collection of water irises event

Iris weekend 6-7 July, Rosemoor, Devon

Places to see Bearded Irises in May- June:

Godlington House, Kent

Marks Hall Garden & Arboretum, Essex

Doddington Hall, Lincolnshire

Old School Gardener

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Hosta shoots

Hosta shoots -courtesy Marcus Bawdon

‘Everyone has Hostas’… OK so you may think them unfashionable, but I love them… the whole growth process –  new shoots spearing up above the soil surface (right now in Old School Garden), the unfurling leaves, the full blousy foliage and the delicate flowers of pinks, lavenders and whites.

Otherwise known as the ‘Plantain lily’, Hostas come originally from eastern Russia, China, Japan and Korea. They are very hardy. Most of the 40 – 70 or so species (there is disagreement over the exact number) and over 7000 cultivars are grown for their foliage, though for many the flowers are also noteable. True perennials, their foliage dies back and they descend underground over winter, to send up new growth spears in spring and achieve their full glory in summer with some varieties flowering into early autumn. Some species also give a second, albeit brief, display in autumn.


The leaves vary between round, ovate, lance or heart – shaped and are between 12cm and 50cm in length. They come in all shades of green, some solid in colour others with margins or centres variegated in shades from white to golden yellow. Flowers range from bell to trumpet shaped, and are held in one-sided racemes or ‘scapes’.


Hostas will grow in full sun to full shade – they flower better if in the sun and the yellow-leaved varieties also do better in full sun. Overall, however, they tend to do best in dappled shade and where they are away from the hot noon-day sun (the blue – green leaved varieties have more intense colouring in the shade). They need moisture at their roots and this is even more the case in full sun – so they need watering in dry spells and generally do best in moist ground which is rich in organic matter and neutral to slightly alkaline . Foliage will start to wilt if they are too dry. They can be easily propagated by division at almost any time of year – a sharp spade or knife thrust down to split the roots is all that’s required.

Slug and snail damage

Slug and snail damage

Pest problems focus on slugs and snails which can nibble the emerging shoots – such damage can scar the leaves for the rest of the season, so preventative and quick action to remove slugs and nails is crucial, especially in early spring. Sometimes, especially in water – logged ground, the plants can be susceptible to ‘crown rot’ and if this is the case they should be moved to a more suitable site. Hostas have low levels of allergens. Some Hostas are edible, their young shoots being forced and harvested in the far east, eaten sauted or rolled in proscuitto!


Hostas look good in groups around ponds and damp areas, and are particularly useful in areas of medium to light shade.   Their foliage makes for a bold texture so they are good as focal points, contrasting well with grassy – like leaves and stems. They are also good in containers where the leaves and flowers can be seen close up. I grow most of mine this way, in black planters in our Courtyard Garden – the black provides wonderful contrast to the rich greens and yellows of the foliage. But it’s important to keep them well watered once growth starts. Other ideas for using Hostas include:

  • ‘Plant different varieties in large masses or drifts for reliable color and texture in the garden.

  • Brighten shady garden areas with gold or variegated hostas.

  • Use hostas to bridge gaps in seasonal perennial bloom.

  • Variegated hostas with white or cream margins paired with other white flowering plants glow in “moonlight gardens” when homeowners arrive in the evening from work.

  • Hosta leaves emerge just as spring bulb foliage starts to fade, hiding it from view.

  • A single hosta in a container is dramatic and sculptural. Hostas look great in containers paired with other foliage plants or annuals. Remember to provide adequate water.

  • Plant fragrant hostas close to paths and walkways for best appreciation.

  • Use small hostas for edging along walkways and flower borders.

  • Hosta leaves and flowers are attractive in floral arrangements.’

Source: University of Minnesota Extension

Images from:  Newtonairds Lodge Hostas and Garden (the national collection), Wikipedia and other sites as shown on picture titles.

Further information:

RHS- Growing Hostas

British Hosta and Hemerocallis Society

Slug resistant Hostas

How to lift and divide Hostas (video)

Hosta varieties and where to buy etc.

The National Hosta collection

Winsford Walled Garden, Devon- success with Hostas

Hosta shoots wrapped in prosciutto

Hostas and their flowers


Old School Gardener

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Geranium 'Johnson's Blue'

Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’

Geraniums comprise over 400 species of annual, biennial and perennial plants commonly known as ‘Cranesbills’. They originate from around the globe.The perennials are very useful as border plants, with beautiful flowers. They are easy to grow, long lasting and are useful ground cover. Underplanted with spring bulbs, their leaves are good at hiding untidy bulb foliage after flowering. They also give new life to a border otherwise left bare when the spring bulbs are over.

They don’t like waterlogged soil and so in the wild you find them all habitats except boggy ones. They are a diverse group, varying in both hardiness and their growing needs. G. malviflorum is unusual in that it makes top -growth through the winter, flowers in spring and disappears until winter!

Geranium pratense (Meadow Cranesbill)

Geranium pratense (Meadow Cranesbill)

Geranium platypetalum

Geranium platypetalum

Geranium dissectum

Geranium dissectum

Most Geranium flowers are saucer-shaped, but can be flat or star like. They can come in umbels, panicles or cymes. They range in colour from white to dark plum through an array of pinks, blues and purples. Leaves are grouped around the base and the stem and are often deeply divided and toothed, and some are evergreen.

Many species are floppy or scramble and most need some sort of support to make them look reasonable. They all need shearing over the autumn/winter to encourage new basal growth, and some species, if sheared immediately after flowering will put on a second flush of leaves and flowers. Propagate by taking semi-ripe cuttings in summer, by seed, or by division in autumn or spring.

Geranium sanguineum showing 'bill' which aids seed dispersal

Geranium sanguineum showing ‘bill’ which aids seed dispersal

Most are drought tolerant and all are low in allergens. Some, such as G. nodosum and G. procurrens root when their stems touch the soil and G. thunbergii self seeds to a considerable extent, so should be deadheaded before the seeds form, if you want to restrict its spread.

Pelargoniums are often given the common name ‘Geranium’- both genuses are members of the Geraniaceae family. both were originally part of one family as defined by the botanist Linnaeus.

Geranium maculatum

Geranium maculatum

Geranium maderense

Geranium maderense

Further information:

10 AGM Hardy Geraniums for the garden- RHS

‘Geraniums- my hardy heroes’ – article by Bunny Guinness

Geraniums for shady places

National Collection of Geraniums- Cambridge Botanic Garden

Geranium phaeum - from Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885

Geranium phaeum – from Thomé ‘Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz’ 1885

Old School Gardener

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