Garden plants - one-hit wonders

Posted: Monday 9 June 2014
by Adam Pasco

This has been a good year for peonies. But their display can be very short, so do they really deserve the space they take up in gardens?


This has been a good year for peonies. Several gardens in my area are boasting large clumps in full flower now, and my own ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ and ‘Bowl of Beauty’ are carrying more flower than I’ve seen in many years.

Much as I’m enjoying the moment, this can be very short-lived, particularly with the wet weather we’ve been experiencing. Large double peony flower heads get weighed down in rain, and once the water gets into them they soon start to rot.

Early in April I remembered to pop metal plant support frames over my clumps so that shoots would grow up through them for support. April’s warm, damp weather certainly encouraged them to grow taller than usual. But despite this support, the individual flower heads are now hanging low after recent downpours.

Peony displays can be very short, which leads me to ask whether plants like this really deserve the space they take up in many gardens. It’s not even as if they make much of a contribution to the borders when they’re not in flower. The same can be said for oriental poppies. At their peak of perfection they can look lovely, but blink and they’re over. And with heavy rain forecast, any opening bloom probably won’t even last a day! I’m really not convinced that devoting space to these poppies is worthwhile, although I have persevered with some varieties for more years than I really should.

And what about flag iris? Many Chelsea Flower Show gardens boast great drifts of them. They look glorious on the day of judging, but return a couple of weeks later when those short-lived flowers have faded and the display will be very different, and possibly not worthy of the gold medal some gardens received.

My regular response to anyone asking for advice on choosing plants, particularly for small gardens, is that every plant really must earn its space. Choosing varieties with attractive foliage as well as flowers helps extend their season of interest, and varieties with a long flowering period are essential, like hardy geraniums, astrantia, penstemon, alstroemeria, dahlias and many half-hardy annuals.

Although their flowering is usually over by early July, I can just about justify devoting some space to early summer flowering perennials like delphiniums and lupins, but borders must be planned with neighbouring plants that grow in to take up the space left when these are over and have been cut back. Individual blooms on daylilies may be short-lived, but that’s made up for by their generous free-flowering nature.

Perhaps I’m expecting too much of some plants, and should just relish the anticipation, and enjoy the moment – however short-lived. But when there are so many good alternatives that perform better, for longer and more reliably, I know which side of the fence I'm coming down on.

Several large pots of garvinea (hardy gerberas) are now into their third year on my patio, and they're flowering better and earlier than ever. If past experience is anything to go by, these dainty daisies will be produced in succession right through until the end of summer.

So which do I devote more space to in my garden – oriental poppies or hardy gerbera? Peonies or hardy geraniums? Flag iris or penstemon? I think you know the answer.

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cera wilkins 20/06/2014 at 13:28

Yes, most certainly. When the peonies are in bloom, I simply love them to bits, I touch them, cup the flowers in my hands, they are so delicate and beautiful. I have 17 in my garden, thinking of adding more.

hogweed 20/06/2014 at 13:54

Certainly not a plant I would buy - I think they are pretty boring. Not a long enough flowering period for me. But  I could be persuaded - photos anyone?

J.J. 21/06/2014 at 21:42

my peonies this year only had two flowers that bloomed the rest were tiny dry buds that dried out. any one know why,

star gaze lily 21/06/2014 at 21:46

I have 2 peonies, they both flowered this year for the first time for a couple of years. Both are red but would love a pink one. I think they are beautiful and it was worth the wait. Tho I hope they flower again next year!! 

Salino 21/06/2014 at 21:58

..excellent article by Adam Pasco, the best I've read recently, probably because I very much agree with what he

... I no longer grow Peonies or Iris's... for the reasons he gives...but enjoy daylilies and some annuals even, as they go on for longer...and this is important now in a smaller garden I find...

... he didn't mention tender perennials - Geoff Hamilton's favoured planting... and I think there is a lot to be said for some of these too...

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