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A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself.
-Mary Sarton

Courtyard Garden: Plant #4

In the last episode of this garden re-design, a flat slab of  Soleirolia-infested side lawn was converted into a raised, crescent-shaped bed. Here in the 2-d outline plan I’ve squeezed and pasted an image of the new side garden for illustration.

courtyard garden stage3

Stage 4: half-moon gravelling of top lawn (making the lawn mower redundant)

The Corsican curse of  Soleirolia soleirolii had already moved on to colonise the top lawn and so my overly optimistic Stage 2 endeavour to salvage the shady grass  fell through. Actually this was a blessing, as back at the drawing board, it became obvious that by gravelling over this area too, the courtyard garden would look much more cohesive and more expansive in the process. 1

soleirolia lawn weed

top lawn falls victim to the Corsican curse

Work began as the growing season came to a halt. I skimmed off  2 inch spadefuls of weedy turf, turning and laying it around the bedding margins, to overwinter. Though poor quality, the sods would at least add precious inches to the soil levels. Next came the all important permeable weed-supressant membrane which allows water to drain through and small insects to circulate. With some vintage bricks reclaimed from a local source, I constructed a rustic (!) semi-circular edging, which doubled as anchoring weights throughout the windy, winter days.

weed membrane and marble tiles for gravelled container garden

preparing the top patio and container garden

Opportunely, I’d also discovered some decorous, marble floor tiles, just begging to be reclaimed. Initially the idea was to use them as stepping-stoned paving through the gravel but this was impractical. Marble in the wet is slippery; add mud and it would be an ice rink. The matt undersides though safer for pedestrians, were far less attractive and so I was stuck with the tiles and no solution until the eureka! moment of uniting them as a central,  hard-standing area for container plant displays. 2

With the onset of Spring, the gravel is in place and the potted area is starting to develop but that awaits another posts. Here is a tantalising glimpse of the new garden area, overhung with this months’ signature plant.

growth spurt of epimedium sulphureum from march to april

spurt of Spring growth from March to April

Plant #4: Some of my favourite plants are the garden toughies and Epimediums fall into this category, with E. x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ being one of the most notable, even in dry shade. Making its way back from semi-deciduous winter appearance, this woodlander is somewhat scruffy as it puts on a consecutive first flowering and neonatal leaves. Gardening advice suggests removing the old foliage  at ground level in March, so as to fully reveal the novel forms and colours. Instead I trim off the very straggliest, allowing last year’s leaves to mature fully into purple bronze, which makes for a striking contrast.

pink, fleshy new leaves of epimedium

neonatal leaf form and colour

This is a 50-50 plant in my book which means I grow it as much for its foliage as for its flowers. The young leaves are crimson and hairy like begonia leaves, quickly becoming  a compact, heart-shaped ground-cover of  lime tones with mosaiced blushings. Vigorous without becoming a strangler, the rhizomatous clumps can be divided after flowering or in Autumn and as added bonus make ivy-substitute, foliage spillers for container gardens.

epimedium sulphureum leaves and flower

flower and foliage contrasts of 'Sulphureum'

The yellow hued bi-colored contrast between sepal and petal is what gave ‘Sulphureum’ it’s name when  raised by Donckelaar in Ghent in the mid 1800s. Spurred like a columbine, collared like a daffodil and yellow as primroses – the blooms are hard to describe but have a strange, squat beauty that is dangled before the admiring gaze on wiry stems. A few cut flowers and foliage make a delicate display, in a bud vase.

yellow flowers and spiny leaves of epimedium sulphureum

Sulphur yellows and soft, spiny-edged leaflets

The common names of Bishop’s hat is reference to the mitred bloom shapes whereas Barrenwort and  Horny Goat signify the differing and literal medicinal action of fertility and virility on the sexes. Having drunk a standardised leaf tea of Epimedium I can only vouch for it being soporific but a brew of freshly picked Spring leaves from the garden might prove more stimulating.

The RHS has given E. x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ its AGM meritorious award and I second that. Were there more growing room, I would want to collect  other varieties but for now this one makes a strikingly reliable signature plant and is April’s offering in the ‘ Dozen for Diana’ courtyard garden meme.

Dedication: With especial thanks to Diane who has given me a loose reign in the makeover of her garden and despite the baffling explanations I put forth as proposals, trusts me enough to go ahead anyway.

1. Londoners are being urged to keep their lawns  to prevent water run off and maintain green corridors for wildlife. This was impractical here and so needed to be compensated for in terms of other features. The redundancy of the electric lawnmower is however a power saving, earth-friendly solution.
2. Anna@Green Tapestry’s posts on the potted displays at Great Dixter are a great source of inspiration for how this area might evolve: Great Dixter visit
Useful Links:
RHS: Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’
How to make Horny Goat weed tea
Wild about gardens: Gravel Garden
©Copyright 2012 Laura Thomas.
All rights reserved. Content created by Laura Thomas @PatioPatch

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