Life Home & Garden

Tuesday 20 August 2019

In The Garden: Luxuriant astilbes are like sugar candyfloss for the garden

FLOWING APPEARANCE: Astilbes flower in early July
FLOWING APPEARANCE: Astilbes flower in early July

Gerry Daly

Astilbe is a wonderful garden flower with pointed foamy heads of tiny flowers. Another of its many qualities is that is revels in moist soil, even slightly boggy, though not constantly wet. It can even survive in drier soil, if given a spot with light shade for part of the day to prevent it being dried out.

Grown in full sunshine, and moist, fertile soil, astilbe makes a luxuriant plant like a sugar candyfloss, not least the soft colour of the flowers, many pinks and white, although there are good reds and wine-purple too. The flower plumes vary quite a lot in size and structure between different species and varieties. Some have very tight, dense plumes, others are much more feathery.

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While some of the colours are quite strong, most are gentle and even the stronger ones have a slightly softened appearance. The soft and airy ones can add a dreamy look to the part of the garden where they are planted. They have the lushness of many moisture-loving plants. As the flowers fade, many of them turn to shades of dull red or brown and last for many months into winter, extending the season of their decorative value to almost year-round.

There is a great choice of varieties, in terms of size as well as the variations in colour. Some are very short and some tall, the tall ones having the biggest plumes. Some kinds are capable of towering to over one metre, and some are just knee-high. The smaller kinds are suitable for the edges of beds and borders, while the medium to tall kinds are ideal for large sweeps around and under trees, or in the open over wet ground. The big kinds are really only suitable for a large garden because they are best seen in large clumps.

'Fanal' is a favourite with deep-red flowers over green leaves, about medium size. About the same size, 'Irrlicht' has white flowers over green leaves and flowers early. 'Federsee' has pink flowers, a strong grower of medium size and late flowering. 'Rheinland' has pink flowers in summer on a medium-size plant. 'Venus' is tall with bright pink flowers over green leaves in early summer.

'Purpurlanze' is over waist-high with dense bright purple-red flowers in late summer and 'Sprite' has feathery soft pink flowers at medium height. Some kinds spread more than others and these are the best for ground cover, but none is a nuisance. Most make a nice clump that expands slowly. Many of these varieties were bred in Germany and are very frost-hardy. Another quality of this outstanding plant.

Astilbes die back to soil-level crowns in winter. In spring the new foliage emerges, often in pretty shades of bronze as well as fresh apple green.

The new foliage is much divided and toothed and has many of the qualities of ferns, being soft to touch and fern-like in appearance. It is very good ground cover and very few weeds emerge through it when it has become well established.

But it is important to keep astilbes weed-free until the plants have grown large enough to cover the soil. Astilbes have a lovely flowing appearance planted in big swathes. They combine very well with daffodils, the daffodils flowering over the early growth of the soft foliage and later the withering daffodil foliage is hidden by the astilbe leaves.

By the time the astilbes flower in early July, the daffodil foliage has completely withered. Daffodils don't mind heavy ground, though not quite wet.

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