French garden diary - Hooray for the helenium in July

From her Vosges garden, Cathy Thompson reveals her seasonal plant tips

9 July 2018
By Cathy Thompson

Those early mornings in a July garden when the daisies hover amongst the flowering grasses: the vision of a Shasta daisy seems heaven-sent to cool you down when you can take no more of this month’s heat.

Leucanthemum x superbum is just a glorified and taller relation of the common meadow daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare, and as tolerant of anything I can do to it. And you should see what I do! When I am moving it around the garden to stick in gaps in the odd corner here and there, I have left it lying, soilless, in the sun for hours and hours while I dug and worked – and still the rhizomes take. Completely unfussy about soil, it may not be the most exotic of plants, but it’s a keeper for its reliability and freshness in flower.

It also responds well to the so-called ‘Chelsea chop’, named for the late May cutback (around the time of the famous show) that we can administer to plants inclined to get too tall and leggy. Cut plants back by up to a half and they bloom later on bushier, more compact mounds of foliage.

The Shasta daisies grow so well here that I need to add some more (perhaps more interesting) cultivars to the single nameless white I already possess. I think ‘Banana Cream’ in pale yellow would be similarly fresh, while the much more spidery double blooms of ‘Christine Hagemann’, with elegantly down swept outer petals, might look very classy. And there’s ‘T.E. Killin’ (awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit): also a double, but with the central ring of petals shorter and prettily fringed around the central brown eye.

If you look beyond European grassland to the plains and prairies of the United States, there are plenty of other fresh daisies to grow – and almost all are ideal for hot dry gardens and resistant to the lunching habits of local fauna.

In Europe they have been hybridised extensively by German growers and made popular in the prairie plantings innovated by Dutch designer, Piet Oudolf. If you go for his ‘New Perennial’ style, with grasses and these daisies in broad swathes, maintenance is easy. Go over the top with a strimmer and then a rotary mower in very early spring, leave the debris to mulch the plants, feed if you like, and perhaps carefully use a spot-on weed killer from time to time. Hey presto – the ‘meadow’ grows up again to give pleasure for another year!

There are two other daisy stars in this planting style: Echinacea and Helenium. Echinacea you may know as a herbal remedy that is supposed to boost the immune system and aid recovery from colds and the flu. In fact, the North American plains Indians, who first used the roots of Echinacea, believed it to be an overall pain medication – useful against sore throats and headaches.

When you first put them in the ground they need careful watering before the long taproot is properly established, but afterwards that taproot provides a great insurance policy against drought.

Echinacea white swan
Echinacea White Swan

The best garden cultivar of the purple coneflower, a rather swell version of the wild plant, is probably Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’. I also grow a lovely white form, ‘White Swan’, which is more refined but just as tough at heart.

If, like me, you are attracted by the down swept petals of the Echinaceas, you are bound to fall hard for the ethereal beauty of Echinacea pallida, in which that characteristic is magnified and exalted in thin, spidery, pinky-purple petals – the last word in elegance. E. paradoxa, in yellow, is similarly attractive for its arty profile. And there is an ever-increasing plethora of cultivar colour. How did breeders ever arrive at the rich reds of ‘Tomato Soup’ or the startling orange of ‘Tangerine Dream’?

After the Echinaceas, my favourites in this style of planting are the Heleniums: although growing to 1.5m, they rarely need staking. There are three old German standbys in this department. The best has got to be ‘Moerheim Beauty’ in deep coppery orange, for colour, flower-power and good manners in the garden. To vary the palette we have the bright orange of ‘Waltraut’ and the vibrant copper yellow of ‘Wyndley’.

My newest addition, tall ‘Dunkle Pracht’, is a satisfyingly rich mix of dark coppers and lighter oranges.

With ornamental grasses (Miscanthus, Deschampsia and Stipa, for example) and the hazy purples of another grassland plant from the cold steppe of Russia, Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), you have the makings of a low maintenance, delightfully colourful, late summer garden.

MONTHLY TIPS

If the summer sun becomes too hot for leafy vegetables such as cabbages, perpetual spinach and chard, you can always copy growers in the steamy south of the US and erect temporary shade tunnels over crops that are suffering. Cut yourself appropriate lengths of greenhouse shading and install it on bamboo canes, so that it hovers over the foliage and keeps off the worst of the heat. 

OVER TO YOU

I’ve talked about prairie style plantings – do you have a favourite planting style and why is it appropriate in your garden? And do let me know if you can add any favourite daisies to my wish list! You can send me an email at: editorial@connexionfrance.com.

Read Cathy’s garden blog at gardendreamingatchatillon.wordpress.com

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