Cheerful, hardy and a magnet for insects, daisies will keep your garden buzzing right through until autumn, says Ambra Edwards.
This is the time of year when the perennial daisies really come into their own. Their fiery colours make them stars of the hot border, and their easy-going ways make them indispensable for meadow-style plantings. Best of all, the bees and butterflies love them.
Daisies look marvellous together, so try an uplifting combination of tawny Helenium, golden Rudbeckia and paler, lighter Coreopsis. Alternatively, mix them in with spires of monkshood or Veronicastrum, bobbles of Verbena bonariensis and billowing, sun-bleached grasses for an elegant but easy-to-care-for display. There isn’t a place in the garden where you can’t enjoy a daisy, from a crack in the paving to soggy clay. Have fun experimenting with their different shapes and sizes, whether it be the knee-high clouds of stars provided by dainty Aster divaricatus or the two-metre-high raggedy blooms of Inula. Wherever you use them, they will always make you smile.
My Favourite Daisies
Some gardeners turn their noses up at the Sicilian camomile, Anthemis punctata subsp. cupaniana, because it is so easy to grow. And it’s true that – given the full sun and free-draining soil it needs – it can be a bit of a thug. But when you’ve got grotty dry banks where nothing else will grow, or a lean space that needs rapid filling, this plant is a boon, with its aromatic, knee-high mats of silvery dissected foliage and masses of white flowers. In my warm garden it’s in flower by early May. Cut it back hard when it finishes and you’ll get more later.
Traditional Michaelmas daisies (Aster novi-belgii hybrids) are pretty plants, and very useful in the autumn, to both gardeners and bees. Unfortunately they are also martyrs to mildew. Near-relative Aster ‘Little Carlow’ offers abundant lavender flowers and superior disease resistance. For me, though, the pick of the asters is Aster divaricatus. It is earlier to flower (June to October), but more than justifies its place in the garden because it performs so well in dry shade. Its delicate white stars of flowers are held on wiry black stems above shiny, dark foliage. This plant was a great favourite of Gertrude Jekyll’s – what finer recommendation could there be?
I love Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonbeam’ (50cm) for its bounty of pale lemon flowers and fine filigree foliage – plus the fact that, with a little light deadheading, it will flower its socks off from June right through the summer. I can’t keep it for more than two or three years because my soil gets too wet in winter, but if you can give it the drainage it needs it will be hardy and reliable, and it can put up with partial shade.
A few years ago this fashionable North American coneflower was only available in pink, purple or greenish-white. Now there are all sorts of fabulous colours; Primrose Bank Nursery, near York, has a fine selection. In my experience, though, these are not as reliable as old stalwarts Echinacea purpurea or Echinacea ‘White Swan’, and they can die suddenly for no apparent reason. However, a plant as spectacular as sunset-hued Echinacea ‘Arts Pride’ or Echinacea ‘Fatal Attraction’ (90cm) is probably worth it for one year alone! Give yourself the best possible chance of success by planting in a sunny position in rich, well-drained soil that doesn’t get waterlogged in winter. If you deadhead them they will flower longer, but then you will lose the pleasure of the bristly cones that persist through the winter when the petals have dropped.
It’s hard to describe the colours of Heleniums, as they tend to evolve over time, so that each flower flares and fades like a mini-sunset. Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’ (90cm) is a deep, wonderfully rich coppery red. Maroon-to-gold Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ blooms for longer, starting as early as June and lasting until November with firm deadheading. Heleniums are wetland plants, requiring moist (but not waterlogged) soil in the sun.
Many of us don’t have room for Inula magnifica, a majestic creature reaching over 3 metres high, topped with huge golden dinner plates of daisies that are thronged with butterflies all summer long. But if you can find room for just one – perhaps in a wild area, or at the back of a largish border – you will never regret it.
Another Jekyll favourite was Erigeron karvinskianus, which famously seeds into steps and crevices at her iconic garden, Hestercombe. The best way to encourage this habit is not by scattering seed; instead set a pot of this daisy close to the area you would like it to colonise and leave it to its own devices. In time you will be rewarded with soft mounds of foliage up to 20cm high, topped with a froth of diminutive pinky-white flowers that last from March to November.
Annual sunflowers are fun to grow if you have room, but the classic perennial sunflower, Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, offers infinitely more. It is an elegant but easy back-of-border plant that is at home in every garden. It produces an abundance of graceful lemon-yellow daisies on a well-behaved plant that grows 1.5 to 2 metres high. It seems to do equally well in sticky clay or poor dry soil, flowering generously from August to November.