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  • Writer's pictureAnne Jennings

Munificent Mavericks

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

Gardens that give space to self-sowers have a comfortable, personal feel. These plants fill a gap and are wonderful accessories in our overall aim of keeping the show going. Many people are frightened of self-sowers, thinking that, if allowed, they will lose control and that their garden will look a mess. So they apply thick mulches to prevent this. What they are missing!

Christopher Lloyd (1921-2006) Great Dixter House and Gardens

Christopher Lloyd was in simplest terms a great gardener. His adventurous, playful, avant-garde approach to gardening at his famous Edwardian family home in Kent has been hugely influential to a generation and more of professional and amateur gardeners. These days his work is carried forward by the equally inspirational Fergus Garrett, previously head gardener and now Chief Executive of the Great Dixter Charitable Trust. Visit the garden, read Christopher Lloyd’s books and grow ‘Dixter’ plants - your life will be the richer for it.

A traditional Edwardian garden for many years, Christopher transformed the site into an ecological and artistic paradise that employs the strong underlying structure of Edwin Lutyens’ architecture to underpin rather than dominate planting. For most of his generation, the freedom with which plants frolic and weave through borders, topiary, paths and steps would have been an anathema, but Christopher LLoyd encouraged and celebrated such horticultural freedom.

His favourites included ferns, arum, violets and hellebores in shaded areas, with opium poppy, verbena, campanula and hollyhock through sunny borders, paths and walls.

Self-sown plants became an essential ingredient to the character of Great Dixter and continue to be so today. (The quote at the head of this blog continues with a reference to selection and thinning, thus allowing the self-propagators to make their contribution without dominating and swamping their planterly neighbours.)

Having passed away while Christopher Lloyd was still a boy, Ellen Willmott (1858 -1934), is well known for being the guest who arrived with full pockets and leaving after secreting her personal gift to garden owners.

Willmott, a wealthy and extraordinary horticulturalist, plant hunter and breeder lived at Warley Place in Essex, a large country house with acres of gardens. She had a favourite plant - Eryngium giganteum, a prickly sea holly with shades of blue extending through stems, leaves, flowers and seed heads, the latter filled with the makings of the next generation of plants. Ellen would visit and discreetly scatter seeds from her pocket throughout the garden to secure the offsprings’ future in many a new location.

The plant is best known by its common name ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’.

My garden is pretty much stripped back to its bones at the moment after so much clearance, and yet still they appear, those miniature plants from seeds dropped through last year’s growing season, or indeed scattered when prunings were cleared to the compost this spring. I find foxgloves, euphorbia, honesty and forget-me-nots.

In low walls, growing for their second year are snapdragons, the seed of which probably relocated from seasonal planters standing on nearby steps. Also, wonderfully welcome, Echium pininana, the tree echium, grown on an off here over the years (apologies Cornwall where you may well consider this marvel a weed in some areas!)

But now my indulgence – the destination to which this whole musing has been travelling:

My Favourite Self-Sower. - Erigeron karvinskianus – Mexican Fleabane

This humble, prolific (yet never-a-nuisance), long-flowering, delicate, animated giver of a plant would be my final selection to take to the desert island. It froths around the base of anything that needs disguising – rose stems, lumps of concrete, even small changes of level. It has fine cut leaves and strong but delicate stems, with pink buds opening to small white daisies in March or April. continuing through to October even November if mild. Those fine stems allow the flowers to bounce delicately in light breeze, revealing a still-pink underside to the petals.

This little erigeron, around 25cm high has an additional characteristic that secures its indispensability to me. Its self-seeding habit occasionally benefits planting borders, but more valuable is the ability of those dusty little particles to nestle in walls, paving cracks and the line of step risers (refer back again to Lutyens-designed treads at Great Dixter). In these situations the little plants grow from a single stem in the first season to a frothy mound of delight in future years, inoffensively dressing architecture, binding and transitioning soft and hard garden elements.

It can actually be a bit of a blighter in terms of sowing in pots which I attempted in great number this spring with a plan to line a new axial route with cheaply procured plants. I think the compost was too rich, the covering too dense. Whatever the reason, there are only a handful of reluctant little seedlings showing just now, at the same time that my neighbour’s broken crazy paving is adorned with miniscule fleabane, the progeny of my front garden specimens.

Erigeron karvinskianus is one of those plants that needs freedom to choose its future in life – not unlike a free-spirited child who will find his or her own path, with or without a parent’s guidance.

What a dull world ours would be without the mavericks of the human and plant world.

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