Keeping in touch with 'pen' friends; With their beautiful flowers that last for an age, penstemon deserve a place in any plot - and won't attract the attention of slugs and snails.
THIS year our penstemons have excelled themselves. Despite a fairly short-lived summer (it lasted for just over a week here!), they've flowered and flowered.
Some are in a small bed where we experimented with plants that are unattractive to slugs. It worked.
Penstemon belong to the family scrophulariaceae, which all seem to be detested by slugs and snails.
The clan includes familiar garden plants such as foxgloves, verbascums and even hebes.
But though this is a virtue, it is not the main reason for growing them.
They are easy-going, simple to propagate but, above all, the flowers are beautiful - and last for a long time.
There is a wide range of colours - mostly pinks, reds and purples, though there are even species of penstemon with yellow flowers.
Their wild ancestors come from the other side of the Atlantic from Alaska through the Rocky Mountains and as far away as Guatemala.
But the most widely grown penstemon are those popularised in the Victorian era and a host of new cultivars bred since.
They are evergreen perennials, some hardier than others - the hardiest seem to be those with smaller flowers and more slender leaves.
Even the hardiest are best renewed from cuttings on a regular basis - the best insurance policy to ensure fresh stocks should older plants succumb in cold winters. You can take cuttings from penstemon over several months but now is a great time.
When plants have been regularly deadheaded they produce lots of new shoots, full of vigour, which make excellent cuttings material.
The younger and stronger your material, the faster it will root.
Early morning is the best time to take cuttings, when the stems are at their most turgid (swollen with sap).
The riper the cuttings, the slower they will wilt but the longer they will take to root.
Take short shoots either with a heel, where you gently ease a side shoot from the main stem, or directly under a leaf, severing the stem with a sharp knife.
Take off a few of the bottom leaves so that when the cuttings are pushed into the compost, leaves will not rot.
I always nip out the top of the growing tip because it results in a bushier plant.
Dibble the cuttings around the edge of a pot (clay pots are best - cuttings root faster in them).
Space them out so they don't touch and dress the pot with grit, which retains moisture, stops the cuttings rotting and dissuades weeds. Then give them a good watering.
Put them in a warm, bright place but out of direct sun and spray leaves with water each day until you know they've rooted.
Evidence of this is white roots protruding through the pot's bottom.
You can either separate them at this stage, giving each one its own pot, or leave them in their pots over winter and pot them up singly in spring.
As far as cultivating, it is easy. Good drainage is essential if plants are not to succumb to cold in wet stagnant soil - they don't like soggy bottoms.
If your soil is on the heavy side, dig in grit and if you've got your own garden compost add that to the planting mix too.
Give them the sunniest position you can - they are plants from open, exposed sites and just won't thrive in the shade.
If you've not grown them before, start with the hardiest and easiest. Large-flowered cultivars such as p. 'Thorn' or 'Osprey' - white with a pink flush - and lavender and white 'Alice Hindley' make showy border plants and flower for months.
Among the hardiest are 'Firebird' and 'Garnet', both awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit.
If you like your penstemons dark and mysterious, 'Blackbird' and 'Raven' would fit the bill.
P. 'Raven' is almost black.
For those who like to look on the brighter side, blue-flowered penstemons reign supreme.
They are all descended from Penstemon heterophyllus, a Californian species.
The tubular flowers of seed strains such as 'Blue Springs' or 'Heavenly Blue' make you think of clear blue skies and sunny days.
They can be short-lived, sometimes bearing such a wealth of flower they all but flower themselves to death.
But a batch of cuttings taken now will give you a batch to start with next spring all over again.
Penstemons are plants we can all enjoy every year.
Sharp-eyed... Carol trims leaves, left, and |cuttings from 'Firebird', above MAIN IMAGE, LEFT AND ABOVE BY JONATHAN BUCKLEY
Mysterious... |Penstemon 'Raven'