Spikes and Spires
Text & photo: Louise Curley
I love using perennials in my garden borders that have upright, tapering stems, like botanical rockets shooting up towards the sky. Interweaving this type of plant in among rounder, more clump-forming plants adds a sense of a drama to a border, the vertical accents of the spikes and spires drawing your eye upwards and through the planting. It would all look a bit flat and boring if all the plants looked the same. It just so happens that my favourite spikes and spires are also pretty popular with bees so it’s a win-win to include them in your planting.
From late spring through to autumn there are lots of spikes and spires from which to choose, so with a bit of careful planning it’s possible to have a succession of height running through the borders.
The first to emerge in my garden is nepeta, also known as catmint, with its pretty lavender-coloured flowers amid a sea of fragrant grey-green foliage. ‘Six Hills Giant’ is a popular cultivar with stems that grow up to 1m high. I prefer the more compact and slightly shorter ‘Walker’s Low’, which flowers non-stop from late May to September.
Baptisia are a relatively new plant to British gardens, made popular in recent years by designers at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. They come into flower as the garden moves into summer with masses of pea-like flowers. I grow ‘Lemon Meringue’ for its splashes of primrose yellow which sits well alongside the nepeta, but there are lots of different cultivars with a great selection of colours.
Hardy salvias such as Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ and ‘Amethyst’ start to bloom in early June and will continue to flower all summer long. These are lower growing plants, which reach about 60cm high, and are prefect for adding vertical structure at the front of the border. Later in the summer tender salvias such as ‘Amistad’ come to the fore. This is a fabulous salvia with stems reaching 1.5m that are studded with deep purple flowers right up until the first frost.
Linaria, also known as toadflax, have slender stems topped with tiny snapdragon-like flowers. Purple is the colour of the toadflax that self-sows around brownfield sites, verges and hedgerows, but I love a cultivar called ‘Peachy’. The flowers, as the name suggests, are a soft orange-pink colour, and it’s sterile which means it flowers for months on end and it won’t set seed all over the place.
Another favourite is veronicastrum. These are tall plants growing to well over 1.5m, making them ideal for growing at the back of a border. They do need staking though, otherwise the tall stems can snap.
Antirrhinums, or snapdragons, have sturdy stems covered in a mass of tubular blooms. They are commonly grown as bedding plants, but these types have been bred to have short, dumpy stems and lack the necessary height and elegance. Grow the taller cultivars, however, such as ‘Giant White’, ‘Appleblossom’ and ‘Liberty Classic Crimson’ and they can be woven through borders. They also make great cut flowers, so add a few extra plants to a dedicated cutting patch.
Other spikes and spires to grow include:
Foxgloves: a classic late spring and early summer flower which adds a wild feel to a garden.
Lupins: a key cottage garden plant with impressive large flower spikes with blooms that are often bi-coloured.
Verbascum: this pretty perennial needs neutral to alkaline soil and if you can provide that it’ll reward you with spires of small, saucer-shaped blooms.
Kniphofia: for late season interest from midsummer onwards these poker-like flowers from South Africa come in a range of reds, oranges and yellows. Combine them with plants such as heleniums, rudbeckias and grasses.
Om Louise Curley
Louise is a horticulturalist, garden writer and author of the award-winning book The Cut Flower Patch. She’s passionate about the power of plants to make us feel happy and is an advocate for organic gardening and encouraging wildlife into gardens.Get to know Louise Curley
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