ALWAYS as pretty as possible. That is the best fashion there is, Oscar Wilde declared. And it’s especially true of gardens, particularly smaller ones.
Prettiness, like big sister beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder, but in the garden you can boil it down to a sure-fire, fashion-proof recipe – a profusion of small flowers around a few larger ones.
Think of the traditional charm of the cottage garden with its fat roses and frothy annuals. This is a formula that can be applied, sometimes even more effectively, to modern gardens, strong lines and sculptural forms.
It’s about interweaving solid and airy, adding a diaphanous, cloudy layer over, around or under stronger forms and lines, rather like spot veiling on a stylish toque.
Modern plantings rely heavily on grasses to work this kind of magic, but for vintage charm we’re looking at flowers and the smaller, the better.
The most effective are generally those on longish stems above loose rather than compact foliage, but let’s not be too strict about this. Wherever you go – and the effect is best seen in mature plantings rather than in garden centre pots and bags – keep your eye open for plants with starry, cloudy, butterfly and confetti-type effects, from ground covers to climbers and everything in-between.
These don’t have to be permanent plantings; some are strictly seasonal and their charm lies not only in their lightness but in their bravura transience, which you can enjoy as an experiment. Temporary or permanent, drop them in wherever there’s a suitable gap, in drifts, lines or splashes. Some are as good in pots as in the garden, and some seed themselves generously to even prettier effect.
The larger plants need space but that is no reason not to try them, even if you have a really small garden.
Big plants can do wonders for small spaces, while small plants, the low growers – tucked in and around bigger, bolder plants and allowed to roam and seed – are the making of the picture.
Gaura lindheimeri (wand flower). A whirl of white flowers on fine wand-like stems adds a champagne sparkle to any garden and is simply one of the most delightful plants of all.
A perennial native to the American prairies, it grows up to a metre tall and copes well with dry conditions, blooming from early summer to autumn. It needs space and sun to look its best. Note that the more compact, dark pink cultivars are very different creatures: they are pretty but lacking the exuberance and lightness of the species, which has a pink tinge to the buds and flower bases that are a subtle but important element in its liveliness and charm.
Ammi majus (Queen Anne’s lace). A simply wonderful and well-loved annual, its clouds of lacy white umbels can soar over a metre in best conditions. Scatter the seed among your “Icebergs”, perennials, sunflowers or sow en masse wherever you have a bare, sunny patch to transform the scene.
Erigeron karvinskianus (fleabane). This is another North American charmer, a tiny white daisy with pink-backed petals which give the flowers a starry luminosity.
A fine-leaved ground cover, it foams around plants and paving and seeds itself generously. It’s also great in pots.
Solanum jasminoides (white potato vine). A deceptively delicate-looking climber and one of our favourites for its graceful twining growth and papery clusters of flowers, which it produces intermittently all summer. Lovely for an arch, obelisk or trellis.
Clematis brachiata (traveller’s joy). Our own indigenous clematis produces clouds of creamy, sweetly scented flowers in late summer. Lovely over a fence or trellis, scrambling through a climbing rose or in a pot on a sunny patio, where its tendency to sucker can be controlled.
Geranium incanum (carpet geranium) is a scrambler and cascader, and has feathery leaves and bright mauve five-petalled flowers produced from spring to autumn. This is the best known and most widely available of three similar indigenous geraniums; look out also for Geranium x robustum, which (as its name implies) has less lacy leaves and more bouncy growth, making wonderful mounds of foliage, and exquisite Geranium flanaganii, which has white, mauve-veined flowers.
Crassula multicava (fairy crassula). This obliging succulent is at its best in semi-shade but is also able to cope with sun. Its starry pink and white flowers, held above round fat leaves, drift like a low cloud through the garden. So easy to grow, and little plantlets form on the flower heads as they fade; these drop and take root – generous in the extreme.
Sutera campanulata (white phlox). One of a number of winners among these starry little indigenous perennials, which are now at last widely available. Covered in tiny white flowers almost year-round, this species likes shade and semi-shade. Also look out for Sutera “Knysna Hills”, which has pale mauve flowers.