Lobelia – but not as you know it
Lobelia is most often seen as the little semi-trailing blue, white and purple plants that are used as frothy little annuals in borders and hanging baskets.
There are perennial lobelia too and I prefer them. I’m concentrating on Lobelia speciosa; there are just over 30 varieties of them, all of which are in the deep pink, scarlet, purple colour spectrum. Some varieties are very unusual. The most popular is probably ‘Russian Princess’ which has reddish leaves and bright scarlet flowers.
We grow a number of varieties which are clump forming, generally getting up to about three feet high (or a metre in new money) so make sure you have the room as they won’t fit in many baskets!
They like a fertile soil that is moist but not waterlogged, and they are often planted by ponds. We keep ours in the Walled Garden, which, like the rest of Dartmoor, is reliably moist. If you have full sun or partial shade that will be fine. They aren’t too fussy but as bees love them and they are very brightly coloured I try to plant them in a sunny spot. We use plant supports in our borders so they are secured against the wind. If you leave them unsupported they should be fine but can flop a bit in very windy or wet weather. As a rule of thumb, they should be OK unsupported but pop some supports around the clump if it’s likely to flop onto a path or a lawn.
If you grow lobelia from seed you’ll find it is very fine so you’ll get a clump of seedlings to carefully prick out. Just keep the soil moist and warm until germination. I’d water from the base as the seedlings are very delicate until they get a bit more established.
With the established plants we have I divide them in spring to make new clumps, so once you have either bought a plant or grown some from seed you should have a good source of these super plants for years to come.
How to grow Actaea
The Actaea pictured is ‘Black negligee’; a thigh-high plant with frilly-flowered spikes of tiny white-to-pink flowers. It earns its name from the dark, deeply bisected leaves that suggest a lace pattern around the edges.
Actaea is a valuable September plant in the border.
Actaeas are perennial, and a good choice for herbaceous borders. Plant them in good garden soil and mulch or feed at least once a year. They are forgiving plants as they don’t mind wet soil and they aren’t fussy about acid or alkaline. Try to give them some shelter and they will grow to a couple of feet wide and over a metre tall. If all you can offer them is an exposed, windswept site with poor soil – don’t bother. They may be forgiving, but there is a limit to their generosity!
September flowers with plenty of early morning and evening scent
They flower in September, so plant yours somewhere where you can loiter in early morning to enjoy the sweet, exotic fragrance. Maybe you will enjoy your ‘Black Negligee’ while you garden in your pyjamas!
Actaea spread by extending their rhizomes – flat fingers of rooty bulbs. They are not invasive and the rhizomes are handy as you will like as not want to divide them to create more plants in early spring. It’s easier than growing them from seed.
If you have enough room plant a few to form a dark wall of foliage, under spires of flowers that can reach waist height with a scent that will catch on the breeze and attract pollinating insects.
There are plenty of varieties to choose from; almost all have the dark foliage that I prefer. Actaea is a favourite of mine as the leaves are a perfect backdrop to pretty much any brightly coloured flower whilst the flowering spikes are worth attention in their own right. I have planted them in our long borders, fronted by bright pink dahlias, yellow fennel and a variety of other “hot” and purple flowers.
Nick Haworth – Head Gardener
Our Annual Plant sale begins on September 1st.
Take home special plants at very special prices – we will be taking 40% off almost all our stock. We specialise in offering interesting plants from local specialist nurseries. Many of the more unusual plant varieties are propagated from the fabulous plants you can see growing throughout the garden.
Friends of The Garden House can get first sale pickings
Are you a “Friend of The Garden House?” Members get to access the plant sale before anyone else, so shop earlier on the 30th and 31st of August, show your membership card and enjoy 40% discount.
If you aren’t a member – why not join? it’s just £28 per year for unlimited garden visits and many other benefits, including free entry all year to our sister gardens, Trebah in Cornwall and Coleton Fishacre in South Devon.