When I first started gardening, in London, I was a little like a kid in a sweet shop. I would visit a garden centre, buy lots of interesting plants, and plant them in the garden. Although I paid attention to shade and sun, I did not understand the pros and cons of gardening with London clay soil, and often chose inappropriate plants.
Lavender in London
My most memorable experience of this was also my very first foray into planting. I bought half a dozen lavenders, dug them holes, threw in some fish, blood and bone, and watered well.
The next morning when I went into the garden to admire them I found them dug up and ripped to shreds. In London you are never far from a fox den, and a very active den, with new cubs, lived next door. The foxes had been attracted by the smell of fish, blood and bone, and had gone hunting.
Soil is King
I replanted lavender several times, but each time I did, they died. In truth, lavender does not thrive on heavy, thick clay soil, and it took me a while to learn that soil is king. I can plant lavender here in Oxfordshire, of course, just as I can plant sedums, euphorbias, marjoram, sage, aquilegias - all plants that tolerate or even prefer dry sandy soil.
Replanting the sunny border
I began to reflect on this principle - soil is king - recently, when planning my new design for the sunny border. This border is in the formal garden, and faces south. It is currently dominated by mature eucalyptus tree and a number of mature shrubs. Once heavily infested with ground elder, it is now, after about 18 months of repeated weeding, only moderately plagued.
Dreaming of helenium
Initially I had dreamed of planting it with drifts of Helenium 'Moreheim Beauty' and scarlet Mondard (Bergamot). But the more I researched those plants, the more I realised the folly of such dreams. These plants need full sun, certainly, but also reliably moist soil, and this is one thing I do not have. That pesky eucalyptus, which Mr P so loves, and those mature shrubs, suck all moisture from the sandy, gravelly soil, leaving the remaining plants parched.
So I bowed at the throne of King Soil, looked around the garden to see which plants thrived in such conditions, and replanned. It will not be quite what I would dream of, but it will, I believe, be both a beautiful and sustainable design. The bees, too, should be happy, and I will have plenty of herbs for the kitchen as well.
So the border is to be edged with drought-tolerant and fragrant herbs, beloved of bees and hover flies: sage, marjoram, catmint, curry plants, and thyme. The middle of the border will be stacked with sedums in contrasting reds, pinks and greens. The back of the border will be filled with Rudbeckia and Asters, plants which also prefer moisture and can suffer during drought, but after good rain will perk up and flower well. I hope King Soil will nod approvingly.