The Casual Gardener: Astilbes are simply sensational

For impact and architectural splendour in a damp patch nothing fits the bill like astilbes

The crimson plumes of Astilbe 'Fanal'

CONTENTMENT comes on a summer’s evening, beer in hand sitting by the pond, the light from the dipping sun beginning to filter through a variety of foliage, flowers and grasses. A collared dove calls from the higher branches nearby, while below a blackbird flutters. The air is buzzing with insect life.

They say that the best things in life are free. I’d concur insofar as life’s best experiences don’t necessarily come with an obvious monetary value but would argue further that things we’ve crafted and worked on ourselves provide additional satisfaction. And so it is with the garden.

It’s said a garden takes seven to eight years to come to maturity, whereafter it should lose its contrived, synthetic look. It can take many more years of patience and effort to create a garden that actually meets our desired standard. But when we get there, those moments spent savouring the splendour we’ve fashioned in tandem with nature are near to nirvana.

I cast my eye around the plants that populate the edges of the pond. Shuttlecock ferns, hosta, flag iris, crocosmia, valerian and canna lily. Foliage and texture tend to trump colour, which gives the astilbe on the far bank greater impact. To call it breathtaking is perhaps to overstate the impact of Astilbe ‘Fanal’ but not by much.

The deep crimson plumes, made up of scores of tiny star-shaped flowers, give the this herbaceous perennial an elegant, architectural quality. These plants love a damp site and hate being dried out. Locate them close to ponds and streams, or in a bog garden, for best effect. The ground should be enriched with well-rooted homemade compost beforehand, watering in well until established. Apart from moisture for their roots, astilbes are generally unfussy and suitable for all soil types, including acid soils.

The red ‘Fanal’ is by far my favourite astilbe but they also come in pink, purple, cream or white depending on variety. The upright flowers contrast well with the foliage which can ranges through bronze, bright green, mid-green to dark green. The plumes turn to a rich russet brown if left fade, which continues the interest well into autumn.

Astilbes tolerate semi-shade and therefore are suited to woodland gardens. Accordingly, they combine well with hostas, daylilies and semi-shade tolerant grasses. After a few years, they can sometimes lose their vigour and not flower to the same degree. However, if you divide clumps in late winter or early spring they should quickly regain their va va voom.

Recommended varieties include 'Straussenfeder', which has pink flowers in late summer and early autumn and is a little taller than the average of 50-60cm.

'Irrlicht', a smaller cream variety flowering in late spring and early summer, while ‘Deutschland’ is white flowered and fragrant, as well as being compact and early to flower.

‘Sprite’ is another of the smaller varieties – little over 30cm – and produces pink flowers on arching plumes in mid-summer and also wonderful glossy bronze leaves.

If it’s something bigger you’re after, check out ‘Professor van der Wielen’, which can reach well over 1m in height and boasts slender, red stained stems with creamy-white flowers heads up to 50 cm long.

The biggest of them all is A. chinensis var davidii, which grows up to 2m and has bronze-tinted leaves and erect panicles of purplish-pink flowers in late summer.

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