We moved to Anglesey almost exactly two years ago, and I found myself the proud owner of an overgrown front garden with sandy soil, in full sun, right by the sea.

the front garden two years ago

Hugely exciting, as my previous garden was much smaller, with heavy clay soil and limited sun! The more I thought about the feel I wanted, the more I realised that I was after the kind of calm feeling you get from lots of repeated plants. I even blogged about how I restrained I was going to be. A huge challenge, given that I was like a child in an old fashioned sweet shop, mesmerized by all the options I now had. All those sun loving plants I had admired on other people’s blogs, in magazines, on the TV, and had never been able to grow. I also want to make the view the star, so am aiming to avoid really strong colours that steal the eye. At least that cut out a lot of plants on my “must have” list! I did decide to be kind to myself and compromise, rather than have the whole garden one very simplified whole, I decided to use the fact that you can rarely see all of it at any one time to have a different feel to the two long edges.

One, the fence border, runs along the path that leads to the park, and a stand of willows. It becomes quite shady near to the house, so I decided that the area closest to the lounge window would have a spring focus – something to look at over lunch on a dull March day – and the whole border should have a green, purple and bronze theme to it. The other, that runs along the little road into the rest of the estate, is in full sun, and already had two huge mophead hydrangeas. It is also the area that leads most obviously to the gap between the pillars, through which we have a view of the beach, the sea, and the cliffs beyond. Silvery foliage, whites, blues and mauves, with bronze grasses to pick up the colours on the cliffs was the plan. The plan was to repeat forms if not actual plants to knit the two together, and use the central area to merge the two schemes more closely. So echinacea purpurea in the fence border, echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’ in the wall border. Verbena bonariensis everywhere. That kind of thing.

Now, two years on, and probably 18 months in to actually developing the garden, I find myself needing to take stock.

front garden fence border

I started with the fence border, and it has filled out amazingly since I first planted the bulk of it last summer. One of the issues I have is that it is hard for me to get out and visit gardens, and there are not any really good garden centers close by. Consequently, plant choice for this border has tended to be based on what I already know, what I can easily grow from seed (less expensive if I make a mistake), and things I have fallen in love with on other people’s blogs or elsewhere online. The internet is my friend, and most plant buying is done on line.

yellow- green and white

Up near the house, I have Hakonechloa macra, Alchemilla mollis (it never grew this big in my previous garden), Cephelaria gigantea (which truly is gigantic), Euphorbia palustris and a poppy which just appeared from where I had cleared the old shrubs that filled this space originally. The white foxgloves were a surprise – they were carefully labelled “digitialis ferruginea”. Hah! But pretty, and they worked, so ho hum. Another thing that seems to be working that I wasn’t at all sure about is the Astrantia major ‘Shaggy’. I wasn’t sure it would thrive in what is fairly sandy soil, but it seems to be settling in nicely.

Astrantia major 'Shaggy'

I am totally in love with the Cephelaria gigantea, the soft colour works perfectly, and the sight of the buttons – flower or seedhead – bouncing around on tall wiry stems against the sky is magical.

wiry buttons against the sky

Further along, Verbena bonariensis does the same thing, and so far seems to be happily perennial – it always used to die in my previous garden. I mustn’t take this for granted though, I need to propagate it, it is one of my “knitting everything together” plants, appearing in both long borders, and I want to bring it up closer to the house to mingle with the cephelaria too.

Echinacea and Anemanthele lessoniana

Another source of delight is the sight of the echinacea flowering in front of the Pheasant’s Tail grass (Anemanthele lessoniana). The grass is muscling out the phormium, so more moving to do in the Autumn, but the echinacea works even better than I thought it would – it barely flowered last year, as I only sowed in the February.

Inevitably not everything is working so well.

Not a good combination

Knautia macedonica is one of my favourite plants, and it works beautifully in this border, but it does nothing for the Aster frikartii ‘Mönch’. I think I am going to move this lovely plant to the other side, but I’m not sure what to replace it with at the moment. Possibly more echinacea, as I am after simplicity.

hidden aster

This end of the border will change soon anyway, as it needs to feed in to the revamp of the bottom half of the garden.

I’ve enjoyed the self-seeded wild verbascums that have appeared along here, they were very civilised, placing themselves carefully at the back, and it does highlight that I do want some spikes – Digitalis parviflora is a candidate. The other plant I have been wondering about is sanguisorba. More wiry stems, but a contrast to the buttons, and a deep wine colour could work really well. I was lucky enough to make it to a plant fair a few weeks ago, held at Plas Newydd, and oh, what a joy to see lots of lovely plants “in the flesh”, so to speak. There is no substitute. I confirmed that I want to add at least one Stipa gigantea, though TNG and I will need to have a vigorous debate about the pros (me) and cons (him) of semi-transparent screens of wafting stems where the sea view is concerned… I also confirmed that I will opt for Calamagrostis ‘overdam’ rather than ‘Karl Foerster’. And I may have bought a few plants too…

sanguisorba 'rock and roll'

Sanguisorba ‘Rock and Roll’ just leapt into my basket. Its really pretty, but I think I may have to move it into the central bed, it isn’t quite impactful enough where I have put it.

sanguisorba rock and roll

I’d never heard of Stachys aethiopica ‘Danielle’, but again it was love at first sight.

stachys 'Danielle'

It is a diminutive little beauty, happy in sun or part shade, and should flower all summer, apparently. I have taken a couple of cuttings in the hopes of it becoming a regular, but like the sanguisorba it is still being auditioned for a role.

I think that’s one of the main things I have learnt since coming here. I might know that I want a blue salvia to add a contrasting colour to the central bed, but I’ve never grown any salvias – other than culinary sage, that is. So how do I know which one to choose? So I am feeling my way forward, cutting down the potential candidates on the long list to a few potentials, and then buying a single example. For instance, I bought Knifophia ‘Little Maid’ thinking it could be the perfect foil for the vigorous yellow daisies of Anthemis tinctoria ‘E.C. Buxton’. The slugs got to it within days of its arrival, and I refuse to knowingly buy slug fodder, so that’s that.

Hmm. This has been a really useful exercise for me, but it is turning in to a long one, and I am getting hungry! So I’ll tackle the other half in another post, and leave you with another photo of a plant bought on spec that has passed its audition with flying colours – Achillea ‘Terracotta’

Achillea terracotta

Do you audition plants? Or is it just me?!

50 thoughts on “On simplification and auditioning plants

  1. Your garden is looking great after just 18 months. I also audition plants after learning by trial and error that’s the best way to know what works before investing in more. After a year or so I propagate from the original or purchase more plants from the same source if possible.

    Simplifying and repeating the best plants has been my focus this year and I do feel the garden is much more relaxing for that approach as well.

    1. Hi Shirley, thanks for dropping by and commenting! I’m glad I am not alone with the auditions, although I have to confess to getting impatient sometimes, when it comes to propagating shrubs and larger plants! I have a wonderful book by Carol Klein called “Grow Your Own Garden’ – all about propagating plants yourself and therefore gradually creating the garden you want from seeds, cuttings, gifts etc. It is my inspiration.

  2. Hi Janet,

    Very nice to see more of your front garden! I can’t believe how well it’s doing. Your grasses and such are filling out amazingly well.

    I don’t audition plants as such, but it often turns out that way as I discover what I thought was a good site, in fact isn’t.

    1. Hi Liz, ah yes, accidental auditioning! Sort of like the intern who turns up on day 1 but then legs it from fear and you never hear from them again… I am amazed at how well it has all filled out, but there again I do tend to plant closely, I hate bare ground. I have to compromise now, as I do want the forget-me-nots and poppies to still self seed themselves around.

  3. I love that Achillea. This week I bought ‘Walther Funcke’, just the one, a very similar colour. It’s only this year that I’ve resorted to auditioning plants, after a few notable disasters. Slugs are the main culprits here too, but anything that abhors wet is a big risk. I am still learning.

    1. Oooh, I’ve been wondering about Walter, so to speak, I look forward to seeing him on your blog some time, I rather fancy adding in another group of achilleas in similar but subtly different shades. See, I can do subtle, me. No problem *cough*…

  4. It must be fascinating to start a garden with completely different conditions to your last one. I guess it is a huge learning curve to see what thrives and what doesn’t. Full sun and sandy soil must give some interesting options …
    I do audition plants, but I also rely on those old stalwarts which I know will perform well.

    1. Hi Jane, I am really enjoying the process of learning about what I can grow here – the light is different too, the proximity to the sea, I think. Its a shame you can’t rent plants with a view to buying the ones you like! I have visions of wandering around the garden, plant pot in hand, much like I might with a paint or carpet sample indoors…

  5. 18 months on and your garden is looking fabulous! Still no room for complacency and it’s a good idea to reflect and take stock on which bits you are happy with and which ones you aren’t and make plans on the changes you want to bring :)

    1. Thanks guys, I am happy with the progress, it begins to feel as if it is developing personality. I do enjoy the process, and when I am dissatisfied all I have to do is look up, admire the view, sniff the sea air, and remember how very lucky I am.

  6. Your garden is looking absolutely stunning… I know I should audition plants, but I seldom have the heart to discard anything which isn’t working. Your achillea looks good. Mine, however, are not and they’ve had their audition now. I shall be strong and rip them out!

    (Garden centres / nurseries – I use Fron Goch near Caernarfon. Definitely recommend it, 90% of the time; nobody’s perfect but they have a good selection. And unlike plants from Crug – and it’s not just me – the ones from Fron Goch tend to stay alive. Hm, must get up there soon!)

    1. Hi Kate, gosh, thank you! I have to admit to being a rather ruthless gardener when it comes to plants being in the wrong place, or just plain wrong. Shame about your Achilleas. I have Fron Goch on my list of places to visit, and I did note a couple of nurseries from the plant fair too. Am fascinated to hear what you say about crug plants not surviving, is it because they are so experimental?

      1. I could do with being more ruthless. I’ve got some lovely agapanthus, for instance, that I knew I needed to move last year when they were smaller, but couldn’t bear to uproot. Now they’re driving me mad… no prevaricating this autumn.

        I was in despair about garden centres too, until I discovered Fron Goch – worth the trip, probably slightly closer to you than me. Plus ace cafe – for once both the plants and the cakes are good. Re Crug, I’m not sure what it is, but everything I’ve bought from them has keeled over. I thought it was just me being incompetent, but other people have mentioned it too. The garden there is actually quite sheltered – perhaps that’s it?

        1. I need to decide about agapanthus – whether, where and which. I’ve not seen any growing round here yet, which is interesting. I suspect you may be right about the shelter at Crug, hence it was for my back garden that I was contemplating a visit. Fron Goch looks to be about an hour away, I shall plan a pilgrimage with cake.

          1. I’ve not seen any round me, but mine rampage. FG is the same distance for me – we should try and co-ordinate our pilgrimages!

          2. Oooh, yes please, we can restrain one another. Or egg one another on… When works for you? Himself says hell work round me viz vehicle access, and I have salvias to interview…

    1. Hi Sue, I am beginning to think that gardens tend to look larger on blogs than they do in real life, I know Cathy was surprised by how small this garden was when she visited. In fact, the back garden here is almost exactly twice the size of our previous garden, being 10m deep and 20m wide, and that doesn’t include the patio. The front garden is about 20m long but narrows to a blunt point, but is still larger than the old back garden. I keep reminding myself of this, and that it took 20 years to get the old garden so established and densely planted. This is definitely a work in progress.

  7. As always an enjoyable, and interesting, post with lots of good photos. I have to say that the hydrangea caught my eye.
    I usually grow one or two new plants most years to see how’ll they’ll do and if they’ll join my list of favourites. xx

    1. Hello Flighty, the hydrangeas are all that remains of a hydrangea hedge that ran along most of that side against the wall. One of our neighbours still has one, very dramatic. I am comforted by the number of people who audition plants.

  8. We are the opposite way round, when we lived in the north west we were on sand, full sun and by the sea, now it is heavy clay, loads of shade and inland, a steep learning curve for us both! Your garden is coming on so well, bear in mind that the experts don’t get it right all the time, first time. Love the Achillia Terracotta, that would be lovely in my Sunset bed, but would it like my soil?!

    1. Hi Pauline, that made me smile! I keep having to remind myself that I can’t make the same assumptions I did about plant growth now that I am no longer on clay. Not sure about the achillea, I found ‘cassis’ did really well on clay if I Chelsea chopped it, got to be worth an audition though…

  9. It’s taken me many (7 or more!) years to finally feel I’m getting the garden I want, so you are doing really well! That border looks quite lovely, and I agree about the Cephelaria against the sky. I will have to take a closer look at that as I can imagine it in my rockery. Love that Achillea… I have been thinking of getting that one or a similar colour. Does it get very tall? I gave my yellow one the chelsea chop this year and it has helped tremendously as it usually falls over by the time it flowers. I rarely get the chance to see plants in the flesh before buying them either. Buying on the internet has the advantage of no impulse buying, but then that is the fun of going to
    plant sales and nurseries isn’t it!

    1. Hi Cathy, seven years sounds about right, by which time you are ready to try new experiments! I don’t think a garden is ever finished, is it, but you do get to a stage where you feel it is mostly as you intended. I am enjoying the process very much. As for internet shopping, I agree that it lessens the impulse buying, and with a good nursery quality isn’t a problem. I do find it hard to gauge colour accurately though, and sometimes the difference between perfect and horrid is a very fine margin. The cephelaria would make a dramatic statement in your rockery, but beware, the foliage makes a huge clump. As for the acillea, on my sandy soil it seems to grow to around 40cm and stays strongly vertical without the chop and despite the windy site. I think it is a marvellous plant.

      1. Thanks Janet. I think that Achillea will like my well-drained soil too, and the foliage of the Cephelaris might be useful for filling a steep space in the rockery. :)

  10. Your fence border is looking so different from when we saw it in December, and it has been intriguing to read about the auditioning going on – it is so easy to give plants ‘bit parts’, squeezing them in because you like them but knowing there isn’t really room for them or it may not be the most appropriate spot. I suppose we need to learn to be ruthless if they don’t perform well enough but sometimes it takes more than a season for them to reach their potential. All part of that good old learning process… ;)

    1. Hi Cathy, yes, I am currently attempting to encourage forget-me-nots to seed in some of the patches that will otherwise be bare in winter, and will transplant some primroses too. It is wonderful to see the daisies of the echinacea making an appearance this year, I missed their colour and form last year. I am still happily growing singletons of must-have plants in the back garden, and am letting it evolve much more haphazardly, but yes, I really feel the need to be ruthless in the front to achieve the effect I want. Just have to work out what to do with the other half of if now that it is almost cleared!

  11. I really enjoy how you combined color, texture, and plant combinations to create such a wonderful combination. It seems you have really done well with the new garden conditions that challenged you.

    1. Hi Charlie, thank you, the contrasting textures is a really important aspect of it all for me. I still need to settle on my strong verticals though!

  12. I used to always try to buy in 3, 5, 7’s as all good designers do; but in reality here I am still learning what will really work so loosing 7 plants is an expensive learning process; now am prepared to buy one and audition it and then hopefully reproduce from the parent plant if it passes the test. Planting the slope with just plants that were reproducing themselves in the rest of the garden and allowing annuals and biennials to choose their own positions has made me even more sure that simplicity is planting is what I think works best. There are lots of plants I will remove in the future in the rest of the garden. Regarding Overdam, I found that it needed a lot more water than ‘Karl Foerster’ and doesn’t always provide such a strong vertical accent.

    1. Hello Christina, your slope is a major inspiration for me, in that there is continuity through the limited plant palette yet looseness thanks to the self seeding. I am getting better at taking cuttings, and will soon be taking them from my lone teucrium to start a hedge. I do find I have to live with a plant for at least a year before I really understand how to work with it, particularly when it comes to combining it. I am hugely encouraged to hear you now audition too, it may take longer to achieve the desired effect, but it is a lot less costly to change ones mind! I’m really interested to hear you say that about Overdam vs. Karl Foerster, I just fear the latter will prove too tall. I feel another auditioning coming on…

      1. I just think that it is the strong narrow vertical form that Karl Foerster creates is its main attraction, Overdam (for me) doesn’t always do that and as usually (not this year) they lose their green colour early anyway it is the form that is more important than anything. Both need more water than you read in books.

  13. I’m way too impatient to audition plants, therefore waste way too much money (shh! don’t tell anyone). I’m learning now and not being quite so hasty.
    I’ve did the Achillea Terracotta audition (I did buy 5 plants, so expensive mistake) and it didn’t do well here in my back garden but even if it did, the smell was really off putting. I’ll be interested to hear what you think when your audition is over. I do hope it does well for you. Your Sanguisorba is a nice one – I find they look great mingling with Nepeta.

    1. Hi Angie, did you get your 5 ‘terracotta’ plants from Plant Me Now by any chance?! I’m sorry they didn’t work out for you. I don’t mind the smell at all, and really love them, I am relieved they are coming back up again as they seem to be rather late this year.

  14. Is it two years already Janet? Seems just like yesterday when you first mentioned the possibility of moving. You have achieved so much in your new garden in that short space of time, I like the thought of plants auditioning whilst you choose those with the X factor.

    1. I know! How is it possible! I both feel I have just arrived, and that I have been here forever. And thanks, Anna, I am now feeling I ought to assemble a panel of judges to shout at the plants and one another, and that I should perhaps buy a few obviously ridiculous choices just to liven things up…

  15. Two years ago already? Shum mishtake shurely. I have 4 Cephelaria gigantea and frankly, they’re pants but I’ll congratulate you nevertheless on yours (though through a rictus grin). They are one of the plants that have been swamped in the long borders and I’m excited at moving them and planting properly. Your Knautia too looks fantastic and again far better than mine. Please stop demoralising me. I did though smile at your need to propagate Verbena bonariensis. Come to the Priory, Janet – you may fill your pockets with seedlings. Actually bring friends and family – they can fill their pockets too. Well done. You’ve achieved an awful lot (no rictus grin). Dave

    1. Thanks Dave *blushes*. I did have to move one of the cephelaria only a few weeks after planting it as they took off like rockets, at least in the foliage department. This is the first year for the flowers. I am really looking forward to seeing what you do with your long borders, I think they look great as they are, but it seems there are a lot of us experimenting with simpler planting schemes, and I am eager for tips. As for the v.b., I am perplexed that they don’t seem to have self-seeded for me, everything else seems to after all. Maybe this year. Otherwise I will be round with a large carrier bag!

  16. no need to audition plants when they pick you. Am impressed with the pink hues against the grass – echinacea and the ‘rock and roller with its grassy leaves. Imapctful is a new word for the lexicon! Who knows where the times goes Janet – but your garden is showing its been well spent p.s the acer blocks that pole nicely and the top triangular corner is very interesting – you have replicated a shingle beach! Can’t block the sea view when you are bringing it into the garden

    1. Hello Laura, thank you, I am really enjoying the soft pinks too, must be my age! The tree is very well placed, isn’t it, though inevitably not from all angles. TNG has been working hard, demolishing the walls and cascade that surrounded the old pond, I’m hoping to get the pond filled in soon so that I can work out where the bench or chairs need to go and how the path will work. All rather exciting, I can’t wait for the builders bags full of recovered gravel are emptied to create paths and gravel garden. It’s slowly coming together, like a giant jigsaw that I am making up as I go!!

  17. Janet you and TNG have performed marvels in your 2 years, it’s interesting hearing your thoughts while viewing the photos, the story,
    I’m interested in how well your cephelaria is growing I bought 2 a few years ago for the damp meadow as I read they like a damp soil, one has died and the other is not doing well, as you have a sandy soil, I imagine free draining then mine were clearly in the wrong place, will move the survivor,
    your little stachys looks similar to my stachys officinalis, betony, a native, I love mine, the foliage is different and neat then the lovely mauve flowers, and it divides well but never gets out of hand as it grows to about a foot 30cm diameter and stops, you’ll see mine in my end of month view next week,
    I love the echinacea with the grass, Frances

    1. Hi Frances, I was nervous that the cephelaria might require more moisture and/or heavier soil, but they are thriving. I hope you can find them a spot, they would look superb in your garden, they have the stature to compete with the surrounding landscape. My stachys sounds very similar to yours, I will be planting more of it in due course, lots more seeds to sow this autumn.

  18. I have come more and more to simplification. It’s partly dictated by the fact that I can grow a reduced range of plants up here but even more by the effect. I like the rhythms of repeated use of the same plants and am less and less interested in the one of everything approach. I love your cephalaria. It’s such a presence. I might have to give it a go…

    1. Hi Elizabeth, sorry, just found your comment lurking in the spam folder. I think the cephelaria would work well in your garden, and it has the added benefit of rather nice foliage which does a great job of smothering the weeds. There is something very calming and satisfying about repeating plants, its just hard to pick which plants to repeat!

  19. Redesigning can be a huge task as I am finding but as I have been forced to only look it is helping me know what I will plant and what I will yank…what I will divide and what i will buy…things are looking quite nice and I like echinacea mixed with aster…both are native here and are stunning together in my meadow.

    1. Hi Donna, interesting that the echinacea and aster naturally grow together, they do combine well. I have a bulging notebook full of lists of things to move, collect seed from, try cuttings of, etc, it can get quite overwhelming, but it is also exciting.

  20. Your garden is looking splendid, with some lovely combinations. I’d like to add some sanguisorbas and persicaria here too; Rock and Roll is particularly fine. I think most of us audition plants in some way or another; those that flourish can then be further propagated around the garden for even greater impact. Growing from seed does make it less traumatising when much-wanted plants don’t make it; it is really just a little time and effort that has been sacrificed then.

    1. Sanguisorba are wonderful, I think, they add that waftiness and blend with so many other plants well, they make excellent border glue, sadly its hard to get seed for them! I am planning more persicaria for the back garden, they add good architecture even before they flower.

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