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Inspired to tame the wild; The natural garden can be a delight, but very hard work , says JANET WHEATCROFT.

FOR a few weeks each year, the roadside verges are as lovely as any garden. Driving along country lanes lavishly lined with rich mixes of wild flowers, it's hard to concentrate on the road ahead.

Great swathes of gowans are the signature plant in my part of the world, and the sheer numbers of their airy white daisies turn the verges into a bridal extravaganza.

Clouds of creamy Queen Anne's lace add an even frothier note, and for colour, great patches of pink campion and blue wild geranium mingle with the daisies. It's a picture unrivalled in any garden.

On a Scottish roadside in early June, it's impossible not to be moved by the sight of a profusion of wild flowers growing just as nature intended.

And if you're a gardener, your next thought is almost certainly: "How can I recreate this effect? Maybe there's somewhere I could make a wildflower meadow or patch."

You've probably seen pictures of them in magazines, all tastefully shot in soft focus, looking like heaven on earth.

At this point - and I speak from experience - alarm bells should start ringing. I know. I'm a veteran of a skirmish with wild-flower gardening.

My 30-yard square wildflower patch looked wonderful in spring with primroses and wild daffodils nestling in the grass.

Early summer brought naturalised leopards-bane, gowans and campion, wild garlic and Sweet Cicely. But by mid-July it was a seedy, overgrown mess.

Gradually, the ranker weeds moved in. Docks and dandelions gained a foothold and ground elder colonised large areas. Okay, they're wild flowers as well. It's just that they didn't quite produce the effect I had in mind.

Gradually, more and more of the area was dug over and put down to low- maintenance garden plants. I'd learnt the lesson that to keep a wild-flower garden in balance is time-consuming and frustrating.

And even if you pull it off, it's always going to be a squalid sight from midsummer onwards. Even so, I still hankered after the effect of a cloud of simple plants grown in apparently natural profusion and I've been playing around with how to achieve this goal for the last five years or so.

Yes, I want it to look as near to nature as possible, but I also want it to look intentional and planned - as much a part of the garden as the more formal areas.

The plan is a sort of halfway house between wild and conventional. The idea is to mix well-loved wild flowers with appropriate cultivated plants in informal swathes.

By encouraging them to mingle, and even to fight for elbow room, I hope to recreate the soft profusion of the wild with none of the coarseness.

Pink campion and foxgloves will always be welcome and Welsh poppies (meconopsis cambrica) and yellow flag irises (Iris pseudacorus) are other wild plants that look right in a garden setting.

There are also plants that have been in our gardens for so long that they've gone native. Myrrhis odorata - Sweet Cicely - is a lovely member of the cow-parsley family. The creamy umbrella-shaped heads of flowers are carried above delicate ferny foliage that smells of aniseed.

Doronicum pardalianthes (Leopardsbane), is a native of eastern Europe. Its skinny yellow daisies look perfect in a wild garden setting and it can hold its own with native plants.

These are some of my basic framework plants. And I'm really hoping to have a bit of fun with this area by searching out plants that are an unexpected variation of the wildflower theme.

For instance, cow parsley or Queen Anne's Lace looks wonderful by the roadside, but is a menace in the garden

There's a pale pink variety, Pimpinella major Rosea, that looks dramatic, isn't invasive and has all the delicacy of the wild plant. Or I could use the dark-leaved form Anthriscus sylvaticus Ravenswing to add just a bit more topspin to a familiar plant.

Pink Campion is unusually strongly coloured for a wild flower and deserves a place in a wild garden, but I'll go for the double version Silene dioica Flore Plena with its blowsy rose carmine flowers that last longer than the wild single.

There's a double Greater Celandine, too, Chelidonium major Flora Pleno, and that has the advantage of coming true from seed. Its soft yellow pompoms look great over delicate downy foliage.

Foxgloves are useful for keeping going well into the summer. My wild-area-with-a-twist will reject the familiar purplish-pink kinds and go for pure white or apricot. Both are easy from seed and will reproduce from self-seeding.

The only job is to inspect new seedlings and yank out any with purple stems as these will produce the wild-type flowers.

Our native wild geranium or cranesbill, Geranium sylvaticum, also has a nice white form, though the delicate mauve-blue of the wild plant is lovely. I'll use both and hope for some interesting offspring.

Its season runs into late summer and will overlap with the meadowsweets, a marvellous plant for dampish ground. The British native is Filipendula ulmaria and I'm after two unusual forms. One, called Aurea, has creamy yellow foliage, while the other, Flore Plena, is a frothy double.

The plants I've chosen may be slightly different from their wild cousins, but I'll plant them as they'd grow in the wild. They'll be close-planted, with drifts overlapping and running together.

I've learned from my other attempt at wild gardening that grass in a wild-flower garden is a nuisance.

I'll clear the ground first and use ground-cover plants to fill the gaps. Native bugles and the little yellow creeping Jenny are both natives and will do the job with gusto.

It's fun choosing the plants for a new area of garden. Some I already have, others need to be tracked down from specialist nurseries or raised from seed.

I can't wait to get started and this time I'm convinced I've cracked my wild-flower problem once and for all. I'll keep you posted.

DOWN TO EARTH: A gardener's notebook

HOUSEHOLD chores are a bore, and garden chores are nearly as bad. The only plus point about doing chores in the garden is that at least you're out in the open air. I don't mind weeding - you couldn't call yourself a gardener if you shirked a bit of weeding - but some things I do find deeply boring.

Top of the list is dead-heading, which I think of as the horticultural equivalent of dusting. It's a big yawn and I'm always tempted to leave it until it has piled up. That way I can at least see where I've been. It's no good, though. I'm afraid it needs doing on a regular, if not daily basis, in a garden the size of mine.

I hate to admit it, but the whole secret of keeping a garden looking good throughout the summer is to be conscientious about tidying. It really does make all the difference.

Dead-heading's perhaps the single most important way to give a garden a facelift, so I'll be out there every evening with the secateurs and the midge repellent.

While I'm at it, I can check if anything needs staking or spraying, my other two contenders for most hated jobs in the garden. I'm not really complaining about these dreary tasks, because even I admit that, once they're done, the garden has a sort of brisk professional look about it.

And occasionally, on the right day, when my mood as well as the weather is sunny, I can stand back with a sigh of satisfaction and say to myself: "Yes. It does look almost perfect."

PLANT OF THE WEEK: IRIS SIBIRICA

THERE is an iris for every location in the garden - from those that need dry and arid conditions to the species that will grow with their feet in water.

Some revel in the damp conditions of the west of Scotland while others, such as the majestic border Bearded Irises, do much better in the dryer east of the country.

The lovely Siberian Irises though, will do well anywhere as long as they are given a bit of moisture at the roots. They are so easy-going that they'll even tolerate neglect.

They are beautiful plants, tall and slender, with sheaves of narrow upright leaves that make a strong architectural feature even before the flowers appear.

Tightly scrolled buds appear in early June and the flower-stems then gradually elongate so that by the time the flowers open, they stand well clear of the leaves.

In fact, so slim and delicate are the stems that the flowers appear to hover over the plant like hummingbirds.

They have the classic iris shape, with three standards (upright petals) and three falls (drooping petals) and are some of the most elegant flowers in a family renowned for its sleek and classy flower form.

Flower colour ranges typically from pale violet blue through to deep purple, often enhanced by exquisite gold or silver veining on the falls.

There are some good white varieties - white swirl is one of the best - and a few reddish ones, including Eric the Red.

The yellow forms tended to fade badly. But back in the Seventies, an American breeder produced Butter and Sugar, a lovely cream and white that keeps its colour.

You can grow Siberian irises in moist humus-rich soil. They'll do well in shade, but they flower better in the sun. Plant them well and then leave them alone. They improve with each passing year.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Wheatcroft, Janet
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jun 17, 2000
Words:1575
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