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The art of alchemy

Transforming Parham's gold border

The English Garden Magazine, August 2020

Change is the lifeblood of a garden. From the micro to the macro it is forever in flux. Plants self-seed, run, colonise. They senesce, they retreat, they die. The weather changes on a sixpence, and the seasons provide an overarching framework of alteration. No matter how much we may wish it otherwise, gardens do not remain static. And when we embrace change and all the opportunities it affords, that’s when gardens truly come to life, when they take our breath away.

It has been in this spirit of change that over the last few years Parham's garden team have redesigned and revitalised the borders of its four-acre walled garden, starting with the iconic blue border in 2017, and culminating with the glorious gold border.

Colour theming a border has many advantages. Firstly, it is a good way of disciplining your planting: by restricting your colour palette, your design will be more tonally balanced and cohesive. There is an inherent elegance and sophistication when working with analogous colour tones, since nothing is too jarring. You can easily create different moods: blues will be soothing and tranquil; conversely, reds – vibrant and bold. Be warned though: a white border can quite rapidly become a brown border without regular attention!

There are many reasons to change a border. Over time they lose their identity. Certain plants begin to dominate, others to retreat. Gaps appear. And no matter how judicious the editing, sometimes they simply won’t stick to the script. Then there’s weeds. Unlike a vegetable plot, which is regularly cultivated, a border is often merely titivated. The result is that pernicious perennial weeds can take up residence.

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© 2019 Diana Jazwinksi

And, of course, there’s taste, always a provocative catalyst for change. Styles come and go, and gardens are as susceptible to the caprice of fashion as anything else. Trends catapult new plants and planting styles into the spotlight and relegate others to history. Finally, there’s simply the desire to acquire a new portfolio of plants and do something different – take risks, push the envelope.

The impetus for the renovation of Parham’s gold border was a combination of all these factors. It was originally designed to echo the muted tones of the tiles on the distant dovecot roof. So, amid the golds, there were pewters and terracottas and silvers and purples. Over time though, the gold had receded. Bindweed was becoming entrenched. With the introduction of new plants, there was also a chance to extend the season of interest and ensure, as with the other revamped borders, that it sang right across the season. Finally, and most seductively, it afforded a golden opportunity to innovate, to think outside the box

The other Parham borders had been laid out in an orthodox manner, with large blocks or drifts of plants set out and repeated with an established ratio of heights: back, middle, front. The whole thing knitting together like a large patchwork quilt. For the gold border the approach was quite different. Head Gardener at the time, Tom Brown and his team, didn’t want a yellow version of the blue border. Rather, they were looking for something more ephemeral, something wilder, more contemporary.

One option was meadow planting, with much smaller plant communities intermingling in a sort of pointillist sea. But this would be a dramatic deviation from the ‘Parham style’. The best gardens have distinct aesthetic values and stylistic properties, and Parham is no different. It has an overarching romanticism, a naturalistic sensibility, clearly contained within a very English, walled garden framework. So, what they came up with was a compromise, a kind of hybrid between traditional herbaceous border planting and a more contemporary meadow-style mix.

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To help assemble the plant wish list, the team turned torenowned plantswoman, Marina Christopher, who had recently taught a garden masterclass at Parham. Marina, renowned for her sound knowledge of plant ecology, and interest in more esoteric prairie and meadow plantings, came up with an exciting list of cultivars, many of which were unfamiliar to the team. These introductions would lend a certain wildness and help expand the garden’s already enviable portfolio of herbaceous plants.

Think gold, think daisies: rudbeckias and echinaceas, helianthus and heleniums. These plants had already proved successful throughout the garden and the team knew they could be relied upon to anchor the scheme, around which there would be plenty of room for experimentation. So, the first move was to lay out large drifts of selected asteraceae cultivars, such as Echinacea ‘Aloha’ and ‘Big Kahuna’; Helenium ‘Riverton Beauty’ and ‘Rauchtopas’; and Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ and ‘Green Wizard’. These were augmented by similar drifts of crocosmia, solidago and other herbaceous stalwarts. Everything was planted from 9 cm pots into soil that wasn’t improved with any compost or fertiliser.

Then, amongst these islands, they dotted grasses and herbaceous plants, all chosen to add painterly daubs of colour and texture in a naturalistic, meadow-like matrix. This acted as a more impressionistic counterpoint to the solidity of the large drifts. With any border, particularly one on this scale, you need to think not only about the big picture, but also the individual accent points that draw the eye.

Former senior gardener Henry Macaulay likens it to a choir, ‘where every so often someone needs to step forward and take a solo; there’s backing singers and there’s divas, some are there to act as a foil; others to provide the fireworks.’

 

The golden pyrotechnics came courtesy of some real showstoppers. The decidedly hirsute Helianthus salicifolius, with its feathery green foliage; the statuesque umbellifer Angelica archangelica; the tall prairie aristocrats Silphium lacinatum and S. mohrii (both Marina’s selections); and the suitably named Solidago ‘Fireworks’, which arches and falls like a roman candle, coruscating with bright yellow sparks from tip to toe. Less lofty, but still with the Midas touch, is Gladiolus ‘Sylvia’, a relatively short form whose golden-yellow flowers sport carmine-flecked throats; and the fluorescent mounds of Euphorbia polychroma. Plus of course the golden haze of the grasses, Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinaecea ‘Transparent’ and ‘Heiderbraut’, Millium effusum ‘Aureum’ and Carex elata ‘Aurea’.

But not all that glitters is gold. The scheme is peppered with oranges (Geum ‘Prinses Juliana’; Cosmos sulphureus ‘Polidor’); pale yellows (Digitalis lutea, Sisyrinchium striatum, Stokesia laevis ‘Mary Gregory’); and a range of browns, bronzes and caramel tones – from Baptisia ‘Brownie Points’, with its glaucous foliage and amber flowers, to the mercurial Achillea 'Terracotta'. There are even plums and reds (Astrantia ‘Hadspen Blood’, Papaver 'Patty’s Plum', Aquilegia ‘Ruby Port’) in the mix, providing subtle signposts for the wandering eye.

As with all borders, the proof of its success still lies ahead, as it matures and knits together. To retain its inherent ‘goldness’, it will need to be carefully edited and maintained. Already, some of the more vigorous wanderers, the bronze fennel, angelica and sisyrinchium in particular, have had to be chased back assiduously. But at the end of the day a border is mutable, and its character will continue to be formed, either through skilful modulation, or via those random associations that take place by happenstance.  

There has recently been a changing of the gardening guard at Parham. With a new team in place and new plans afoot, one thing is for certain, this delightful Sussex garden and its stunning borders will continue to change and develop, and that is something to be celebrated.

Photographs © Dianna Jazwinski

https://www.theenglishgarden.co.uk/

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© 2019 Diana Jazwinksi