Sunday 21 January 2018

Diarmuid Gavin: Go for Olympic gold with a mellow yellow garden

Go for Olympic gold with mellow yellow

Gold rush: Various yellow flowers make an impression at Belfast castle
Gold rush: Various yellow flowers make an impression at Belfast castle

Diarmuid Gavin

As a child the plants that most intrigued me were buttercups. Holding them under each other's chins and seeing that yellow light reflected. They seemed to capture the sun and appeared golden.

Gold is the colour of the month - Olympic gold. In Rio de Janeiro, our athletes will compete with those of the rest of the world's nations to demonstrate their best and win for their country.

And gardening isn't immune to the gold rush, with festivals around these islands awarding medals for magnificent floral displays or dramatic show gardens.

Late summer has always been a time for hot colours in our borders, so how do we reflect a golden hue with planting?

Well, by using the colour yellow. It's superb, especially at this time of the year - whether through foliage or flower, yellow is a winner. My little girl has just burst through the door with a handful of the pretty flowers of hypericum (St John's wort), often dismissed as a slightly unruly ground cover. It's so useful, growing in the dry and dappled shade, not very high, and covered like a blanket in those sunny flowers now.

And what about early in the year, when there was the brilliant and sweet-smelling flowers from mahonia, 'Charity' being the most common variety. They are distinctive, upright and help to herald the new gardening year.

There's lots of Olympic golds going to Rio this year, and from me none more so that fremontodendron 'California Glory', a wall shrub that produces huge trumpet-like flowers which trail along sturdy branches.

And of course for children, sunflowers. Is there anything brighter or more giddily infectious for them than to grow the largest flowers they possibly can? Collect seeds shortly and store for next year, or roast them in the oven. Birds will appreciate them during a harsh winter.

In terms of foliage, plants with yellow variegation are very handy as they can brighten up duller areas. We are familiar with common ones like variegated hollies that have splotches of yellows on otherwise green leaves, as if they have been attacked by Damien Hirst.

Variegated foliage can do extremely well in lightly shaded areas, so they are useful in terms of added interest in a spot that otherwise might be dark. Other ones you might include in your golden border would be choisya ternata 'Sundance', or yellow variegated cordylines and New Zealand flax can make a splash.

Unusual effects with yellow can also be achieved through stems such as the vibrant stem of golden Swiss chard in a vegetable border, or even grown in Long Tom terracotta pots.

In the herbaceous border, achilleas, with their flat plates of yellow flowers, are dancing at this time of year. Other herbaceous golden treasures are day-lilies, rudbeckias, heleniums, coreopsis and anthemis tinctoria, the golden marguerite. Solidago, otherwise known as golden rod, can grow a little rampant but really does sprinkle and reflect sunlight through the border. Alchemilla mollis will perform all summer long and self-seeds prolifically through the borders.

Of course, it's not just yellow - you can include orange tones using marigolds, Californian poppies, and Turk's cap lilies. The colour that goes extremely well with both of these is purple, so a haze of something like verbena, lavender or nepeta will help integrate your golden border with the rest of your floriferous efforts.

It might be an idea for you to aim for gold by beginning to develop a golden garden now so it will be maturing nicely by the time the 2020 Tokyo Olympics come around. It takes about four years for most shrubs to achieve a nice height, for small garden trees to reach some maturity, and for herbaceous borders to produce bountiful blooms. So in four years could your garden be worthy of gold?

For now, though, how about commemorating the great achievement of our athletes by planting a golden border in their honour?

Roberto Burle Marx

The golden boy of Brazilian gardening

If you are in Rio for the Olympics or have plans to visit in the future, do take some time to marvel at the work of gardener and designer Roberto Burle Marx (1909-1994). He’s my gardening hero, a genius who is celebrated as a national hero.

His first public commission was in 1935 in Recife, and his idea was to use native plants in bold block planting.

In 1949 he bought a house, now called Sitio Roberto Burle Marx, near Rio de Janeiro, which he used to propagate plants he found during expeditions to the forests and savannahs of Brazil, and where he experimented with plant associations and designs for the rest of his life. It was given to the government in 1985, and Burle Marx died in 1994.  The house is beautiful and holds an important tropical botanical collection. Burle Marx was also an abstract painter and his garden has a famous abstract wall with bubbling fountains, using local themes throughout, an intoxicating mix of planting and materials. It is a wonderful context-sensitive design.

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