We took the kids to RHS Tatton Park this year and they thoroughly enjoyed the children’s activities – decorating plant pots, studying butterflies, sky-riding on the big wheel and learning about the history of the site on the discovery trail. But when my 8 year old asked to explore the floral marquee (it had been his idea to accompany us in the first place) and began to hunt for genera which he particularly wanted to see, I saw the enthusiastic stirrings of a thirst for botanical knowledge which inspires me in all of my work. His favourites were the hostas and cacti – he liked the variation in foliage colours of the hostas and the different shapes and arrangements of the spines on the cacti.
I love my hostas – which thrive in pots on the shady patio, dusky glints of copper tape visible beneath the corrugated canopy, and my cacti collection which I began last year in an attempt to recapture my youth – the nearest I’ve yet come to a mid-life crisis. But at Tatton this year, my eye was drawn to both bold and understated uses of colour in the planting palette:
1. Zantedeschia ‘Cantor Black’
I bought my first zantedeschia, or calla lily, just after Hampton Court in 2015, lured in by those aubergine spathes and the delicately speckled foliage. It was supposedly ‘Cantor Black’, but when the flamboyant funnel finally unveiled, the expected velvety soft blackness was actually a mild pink. This year I tried again and when my new calla lily opened this week it revealed the inky throat and luscious sheen I’d been hoping for.In the floral marquee, Brighter Blooms presented a striking display of calla lilies – looking dramatic en masse with wide swathes of purples, whites and pinks. As usual I preferred the deeper colours – ‘Cantor Black’ and ‘Picasso’ (a large, bi-coloured variety displaying white trumpets with purple veining and purple throats). It must be something about zantedeschias, as I’ve also grown this variety and instead of the eye-catching colour contrast, mine, once again, produced a pink (albeit rather lovely) flower. I grow my zantedeschias in pots on the patio which means I can bring them inside in winter out of the frost and, just as importantly, out of the wet. Unlike Zantedeschia aethiopica (Arum lily), the coloured zantedeschias don’t like to be too wet and favour well-drained compost in a sunny spot. I put mine out in late May when the danger of late frosts has passed, and wait for the inevitable pink flowers to appear!
2. Allium ‘Red Mohican’
It’s hard to believe what variety and interest stem from a flower which is, essentially, a purple ball on a stick. But alliums bridge the seasonal gap between tulips and the perennial summer stars, working beautifully alongside other early herbaceous flowers, adding vertical structure to evergreen backdrops such as box or grasses, as edging along a path or creating visual continuity when dotted throughout a border.
Alliums in the front and back garden
I love any allium where the purple blends with red tones – my favourite is the stately Allium atropurpureum. At the W.S. Warmenhoven stand (one of the 5 RHS Master Growers this year), amidst a wash of bees, I found Allium ‘Red Mohican’. This maroon-red drumstick allium with its tufty yellow flowers at the tips grows to 1m tall and would work well in borders or pots. I’ll be giving this quirky late spring-flowerer a try next year as I generally have to treat alliums as annuals due to my clay soil. Alliums thrive in free-draining soil in full sun and even with grit underneath the bulb, they struggle in my garden. But that does allow me to trial new varieties every couple of years, in a relatively small garden, so I’m not complaining.
3. Verbascum ‘Pink Petticoats’
Many verbascums have soft, dusky orange and peach flowers with subtle darker tones in the flowerbuds and centres which stop the colour becoming cloying. One of my favourites in our garden is Verbascum ‘Clementine’ with washed-out orange petals and a rich purple centre. It creates a lovely contrast planted amongst blue perennials like Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’ and Echinops ritro ‘Veitch’s Blue’. Verbascum ‘Pink Petticoats’ has delicately ruffled petals which I’d say were more salmon than pink. It makes a soft foil for purple flowers like these drumstick alliums and also blends well with the glaucous foliage in the background, so would combine well with eryngium, perovskia, artichokes (Cynara scolymus) and cardoons (Cynara cardunculus).
Striking Verbascum ‘Clementine’ and soft ruffles of Verbascum ‘Pink Petticoats’
4. Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’
Yes, I know I can’t count and that Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’ offers colour in its foliage rather than flowers, but I couldn’t resist adding it as its presence was everywhere at the show. I first noticed it in the cool basement of The Live Garden and then I struggled to find a display or garden with evergreen structure where the spreading white-flecked spider’s web fronds weren’t engaging in photo-bombing fun.
The Live Garden
I first used this Japanese aralia in a garden a few years ago and it offers a smaller alternative to the standard fatsia (‘Spider’s Web’ reaches 2.5m x 2.5m). It likes partial shade and the delicate white variegation helps to add light to these darker areas, especially when combined with other plants with white flowers or foliage, like Brunnera macrophylla ‘Looking Glass’ and Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Joubert’.
Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’ can be a bit of a marmite plant – but I love it
It was lovely to experience this last RHS show of the year with the family, rather than visiting with colleagues or by myself with a camera, notebook and pen for company. We returned today with two decorated plant pots filled with oregano and thyme nestled in the car door pockets and a shared sense that our family plant explorations are only just beginning.