In my quest for old, used garden books I have come across a few from the Readers Union that have satisfied. This publisher is from Britain like so much of the canon of gardening literature, particularly earlier publications when the writing held as much value as the information communicated, and was thus more of a joy to read.

One such book that I came across, by Bennington Marsh (1973), bears the unlikely title If Your Rhubarb Is Backward, Bend It Forward or The Ill-Tempered Garden. In searching the internet I could find only scant information on this book and none whatsoever in terms of biographical material on the author. This is regrettable as the book is well written with considerable common sense, in terms of gardening knowledge, and humour. That this book/author not be forgotten, we shall likely return to it at some point in the future.

Accordingly, here is an excerpt from the book, Chapter 7, entitled Flyweights and Heavyweights; note that my spell-checker lit up like a Christmas tree upon scanning it so I suspect that the botanical notation is obsolete (and some cultivars vanished) – all spelling and capitalization is as in the original.

Jim Thorleifson

If Your Rhubarb is Backward Bend it Forward or the Ill-Tempered Garden

Bennington Marsh

Gardeners Book Club

Newton Abbot 1973

Readers Union / David & Charles

Chapter 7


A number of flowers give the impression that they are designed for flight. Some seem to hover gently, others prepare to lift off for the stratosphere or are just about to touch down upon safe return.

Miniature-flowered plants like gypsophila, Thalictrum dipterocarpum and Aster cordifolius have innumerable little pale blossoms that live suspended in a twiggy haze like stars in the Milky Way. There are fragile bell-shaped and cup-shaped flowers supported or hung on such slim threads of stem that they move about in the lightest breeze. Such are alpine flax, hare-bell and Dierama pulcherrimum, the wand flower, sometimes listed as Sparaxis pulcherrima.

More patently aerodynamic in form, shaped like descending shuttlecocks or parachutes, are cyclamen, michauxia, Narcisssus triandus and N cyclamineus; also lilies like the Turk’s cap and panther forms. The plant long known as the shuttlecock flower, or helenium, sets its course the other way – upwards into space. In a mature phase the blooms of some of the rudbeckias or cone flowers assume the same shape. One modern cultivar has in fact been named Sputnik.

This ‘ascending’ line of flowers is the more interesting for being a rather small group, unless we include various spiky flowers like red hot pokers and foxtail lilies as being in the ‘rocket’ class. One or two of the poker or kniphofia family certainly do ask to be seen in this light, the more so when their colour is a fiery orange-red. An interesting example, for June-July flowering, is Kniphofia caulescens. Unlike others of the family this plant develops a central stem, with broader glaucous leaves flexing downwards in rising tiers as if swept back by the wind of the flowers’ upward flight. The spearheaded blooms, made up of densely packed salmon-red and yellow florets, rise severally from the central stem, with their point of branching concealed by the upper leaves. The height is around 4ft, but the stems vary within a given plant.

Some of the most appealing flowers that look ready to take off are as gentle and fragile as pokers are lusty and forceful. High on the list stands the modern long-spurred type of aquilegia. Unlike the old granny-bonnet columbines, the aquilegia hybrids of today incline their flowers upward instead of almost vertically downwards. Their long and delicate spurs convey an impression of rare tropical birds in flight.

The spurs of Aquilegia caerulea McKana hybrids are sometimes nearly 4in long and the flowers over 4in across. Langdon’s Rainbow strain, which gained an award at Royal Horticultural Society trials, is another top columbine in mixed colours, while the bright Dragonfly confirms its name in its airy form. The McKana hybrids can grow as much as 3ft tall, but the other two are semi-dwarfs and reach only half the height.

For those who like to select individual colours, aquilegias in mauvy-blue include Mrs Nicholls, Blue Bonnet, Blue King, and the paler blue-and-white Sky Blue. There are good pinks in Rose Queen and Pink Bonnet, while A longissima is a 3ft tall variety in pale yellow with very long spurs. The well known bi-colour Crimson Star has white petals forming the centre, with outer sepals and spurs of deep crimson.

All aquilegias are perennials, but the preference some gardeners have these days for planting perennials in the spring must be waived in this case, unless the plants are container grown. Aquilegias suffer a major setback at being disturbed, and should be transplanted in the autumn to give them six or seven months recovery time before flowering. Growing them from seed is always interesting, since the seedlings are at once minute and attractive. Because of their tiny beginning and rather slow growth, they need to be started in a cold greenhouse in early April, except in very mild areas, or they may not put on enough size to flower the following year. In the first six months transplanting does not have the same adverse effects that it does later.

Aquilegias are hardy and adaptable, and will flower in sunny or half-shady positions. They generally do best in their second year of flowering. For all their seeming fragility the flowers keep their form well in rain, and their soaring aspect is a charming facet that takes no imagination to perceive.

The modern cultured forms of delphinium, with their close packed columnar flowers and ring of secondaries, are hardly ‘flighty’ subjects, but Delphinium nudicaule, a dwarf alpine species from California, with widely spaced cup-shaped florets and a jaunty spur that sits quite straight astern, is in the air-minded class – the florets seem eager to take off in all directions round the stem, upwards, sideways and downwards. The colour is a beautiful quiet shade of vermilion; it is certainly not scarlet as is claimed with irritating persistence. The flower stems stand 1ft and rise from a neat rosette of glossy green foliage to make an ideal rockery plant. It can be set in the autumn, but I have also grown it from spring-sown seed as a biennial.

To keep this alpine going as a perennial is on the cards but none too easy; for although it is fairly hardy, it will not hold its own against even modest -encroachment by weeds and other rockery plants. It needs watching and looking after. In other words, like so many things interesting it is a plant for a good gardener, and I find I am never a good gardener in all corners of my garden in any one year. So the nudicaule delphinium needs a bit of luck with me.

Another plant with airy-fairy florets, softly waved to left and right of the branching flower stems, is Curtonus paniculatus, still sometimes sold under the older name of Antholyza paniculata. The florets are narrow and tubular, apt to curl first downwards and then upwards at the tips. Together in a spray they recall a flock of lapwings – albeit in exotic red and yellow plumage. With sword-shaped leaves the Curtonus is like a taller and more luxuriant montbretia, with the shortcoming that it is hardy only in areas safe from sustained hard frost. The large corms should be planted in autumn, set 3in deep in well drained soil in a warm sunny position – if we have one.

A starry-flowered plant whose hardiness is not in doubt is Zigadenus elegans. It has delicate grassy leaves like gypsophila, with erect sprays of small greenish-cream flowers. This is a bulbous plant of North American origin. It blooms in July at about 2ft, and has a particularly good record growing in peaty conditions in Scotland.

These are just a few examples from the intriguing range available of airy, stellar, or flight-minded flowers. I will refrain from suggesting that no garden is complete without them. For one thing, any garden that hopes to be complete, which presumably means representative of most of the flora possible in the local climate and soil conditions, is going to be a very big property armed with a staff of gardeners to run it. But I do think the flowers I have named add up to a line in plantsmanship too often relegated to mere light relief for more showy and robust-looking plants; or else raised for the benefit of interior flower arrangers. The picture should be considered the other way round. Miniature and aerobatic flowers have enough appeal of their own to merit the companionship of bigger, perhaps clumsier plants to throw them into relief. With a nice discretion we can probably deploy them both to their mutual advantage.

If we take thalictrum, alpine flax, and aquilegia as archetypal on one side of the picture, it seems likely that the best complement on the other side lies with thickly foliaged, chunky types of plant whose first quality is density. And it may take a score of the first kind to balance one of the second. A minor problem arises, however, in that dense chunky types of plant are mostly late developers, at least so far as annuals and herbaceous perennials are concerned; whereas some of the best airy-fairy species, including blue flax and aquilegia, have their fling in the late spring and early summer – though the flax often obliges with a few flowers right through till August.

So I suggest that compact evergreen shrubs and dwarf conifers are valuable for being always ready to partner their dense greenery with the more fragile, flighty type of material. If dwarf conifers might seem too small to play their part, until very mature, it should be remembered that cyclamen and species narcissi are examples from the other side of the picture that are likely to be even smaller. It is generally agreed that a mixing of midget conifers with early spring bulbs is one of the optimum combinations in the calendar for a rockery. Even the tulip, for all its associations with prim formal lay-outs in public parks, has miniature-flowered forms of an airy and wayward elegance; none more so than Tulipa clusiana, the slender Lady Tulip which leans forward over rocks with slim pliant stems that curl upwards at the tips to hold the little crimson-and-white blooms erect – the only flaw is the almost linear foliage, which is inclined to die back tattily at the tips.

At the same time, the heavier member in this partnership need not necessarily be the taller plant. For instance, Thalictrum dipterocarpum, a dainty species of perennial meadow rue with mauve and white forms reaching 4-6ft, can be grown between examples of annual kochia or burning bush; this, of course, is a dense if soft-edged football of a plant, variable as between soccer and rugger types of outline, at half the height.

Incidentally, I find that if one feeds kochia freely with compost and an all-round liquid fertiliser, in order to make it voluptuously big and huggable, it becomes so late turning its famous beetroot red that autumn frosts are likely to spoil it before the event. For those who have not yet tumbled to the point, this falls in with a general rule of gardening: the more one feeds a plant, the longer it delays doing its own thing, whether it be flower, fruit or autumn colour that it has to offer. Feed for gigantism and lateness, starve for minimificence and earliness. Presumably nature has reflected that a starved plant is not likely to live long anyhow, so it had better get on with its botanical programme while there is time, however poorly it is done.

The first part of this gardening axiom reminds me of an adventure I once had with a dahlia – which has nothing to do with the old woman of Westphalia (or Australia in some versions), dear to some of us with senseless recollections of school-day limericks. It happened with a giant decorative variety called Royal Pennant, not much heard of nowadays, though still obtainable if we hunt around hard enough. I bought it as a potted cutting from an attractively dark and dingy old shop in a street with the most distinguished name in the city of Leicester, England. Local progressive minds deplored the shop’s drab little frontage as letting the street down. But needless to say the plants from there always grew.

So I took Royal Pennant home and planted it at one end of my lawn in a real nosh-up of ripe compost. It soon grew a lusty stem and a luxuriant spread of foliage. It went on growing and greening, but no flower buds ever appeared. The sun declined and the frosts came, and it was all over for the first season.

The following year, having lifted and stored the young tuber successfully over the winter, I got it going early in a cold greenhouse and then returned it to the same strategic point in the garden in late spring. Obstinately – no, from sheer ignorance – I again gave it lashings of rich compost, and waited. I forget how many stems it put out, but the growth was fabulous. By August, if it wasn’t the biggest dahlia plant in the world, it was certainly the biggest I have ever seen, before or since. And one day in late September I counted twenty-six magnificent large blooms in royal purple, all wide open together. By exhibition standards the blooms may not have been quite in the giant class, but it was a stupendous sight. And look as I would, I could not detect that element of coarseness which I know many connoisseurs claim to discover in dahlias and other flowers that have been wantonly fed – though I did not add anything to counter the concentrate of nitrogenous garden compost.

That, of course, was the sort of plant, with its rounded densely-foliaged form and encirclement of deep-hued blooms, that could have made the perfect autumn foil to miniature-flowered perennial asters. Through the fashion for flower arranging these are beginning to emerge again after long neglect. More than a dozen species are on the market, with subsidiary cultivars in a few cases. The most widely obtainable is a cultivar named Silver Spray, belonging to the cordifolius group I mentioned at the opening of this chapter. This is a 4ft plant to bloom in October with thousands of tiny, starry white flowers flushed bluish-mauve, with maroon centres. Another feathery form, able to stand 5ft tall and flowering very late with masses of little white daisies, is the asparagus-like Aster tradescantii.

The cordifolius asters repay more frequent division than is needed with their cousins, the michaelmas daisies. This reduces the chance of verticillium wilt in the late summer or as they approach flowering. But I have not yet found evidence to support the claim that they benefit from division in spring rather than autumn. I find them equally hardy and vigorous either way. But I have learned to divide almost every year.

I mentioned the value of evergreen shrubs and dwarf conifers for being ready at all seasons to contrast their dense greenery with lighter, flightier types of plant. Suitable evergreen shrubs include forms of Euonymus japonica, Berberis irwinii, holly, senecio and tree heathers, all of which will stand clipping or pruning if they threaten to get loose and straggly. With the grey foliage of Senecio greyii and S laxifolius, especially successful along milder coasts, and a choice of variegata among hollies and euonymus, there is a fair choice of colouring here. Purple-foliaged shrubs are mostly deciduous, and there is no better example than Berberis thunbergii atropurrpurea. All these are thickly foliaged shrubs naturally solid of form, and. of course the senecios and barberries (berberis) blossom with great freedom in shades of yellow and orange; or coral-red in the case of Berberis irwinii coccinea.

Among dwarf conifers, I particularly have in mind some of the comfortably round and oval varieties of cryptomeria and thuya. Cryptomeria japonica globosa nana and C j vilmoriniana are two very slow-growing rounded bushes. The second is particularly dense of habit, and reaches a globe of 2ft diameter in about twenty years – though speed of growth with almost all conifers varies very widely with conditions. Of the same size is Thuya orientalis aurea nana, interesting for its upright fans of foliage arrayed in close vertical layers. The colour is rich gold in spring and early summer, turning to green for the remainder of the year.

In my own garden I have the somewhat faster-growing T occidentalis ericoides, which has made an oval 3ft high by 2ft 3in across in eleven years from a I ½ in cutting. This little tree arrays itself in heath-like juvenile foliage, which is rich green in summer and bronzy-purple in winter. For some years it has needed a light tie-round against snow in winter, and more lately against heavy rain at all seasons. Green twine need not show.

These and some of the conical and mound-shaped dwarf conifers attain a precision of form akin to the triumphs of the topiary art, but without affront to nature. After very slow beginnings, during which their annual growth can usually be measured only in eighths of an inch, some of them accelerate to 2-3 in a year until they reach 6ft or more – like the dwarf spruce at the base of my rockery (p52). This is the well known Picea albertiana conica, a never failing source of attraction. So it is wise to check on the potential size before planting in too cramped a space.

Plants with very broad leaves, especially where the outline is simple rather than lobed, palmate, or otherwise broken, introduce another kind of weight in a garden which is just as valuable as density. Examples are ligularia, the giant ragwort with showy orange daisy-heads that rise above plate-like leaves in late summer; Bergenia cordifolia rosea, the largest-leaved of a popular family of spring-flowering rockery plants, again with plate-like foliage; and Hosta plantaginea, with rich grass-green cordate leaves framing sumptuous trumpet-shaped flowers in late September and October.

This latest-flowering of hostas is an odd one out in its family in several ways. The flowers are purest white, instead of mauve or pale amethyst, and are unexpectedly fragrant. The supporting stems are shorter and sturdier than usual, keeping the flowers only just above the foliage and preserving the plant’s compact form. Finally, it is one of the few hostas that really enjoy a sunny site.

We can, of course, find plants with leaves very much larger than these; so large, and associated with such monumental flowers, that they become outstanding accent plants in any company. They can no more be partnered with aquilegias for contrast than an ocean liner can be partnered with a sailing dinghy. They have to stand alone, or at most in twos and threes, whereupon they lend dignity and form to the whole garden.

Here are just four giant plants, with proportionate foliage, that have particularly impressed me: South American ‘prickly rhubarb’, New Zealand flax, yucca from southern USA, and an obscure double sunflower of unknown origin, background, and future – if any.

Rhubarb: it means a great deal to me, because of memories.The common edible form was one of the pioneer plants in the first patch of ground I was ever able to call my own to cultivate. Not that I was pining for it down long years of anticipation, for I was only four. The plant, I’m sure, was no named variety. I chiefly remember that it was very small, but I didn’t mind about that for I was none too large myself. It was also very red, which I was not, and tasted more than usually good when stewed and eaten with sugar and cream. Ignoring the sacred rules of rhubarb cultivation, I pulled sticks in the first season after planting. Or more probably I bent them this way and that, gave it up and cut them. I still do not know how to pull rhubarb sticks with confidence. I no longer worry, as I must have done with the first newly set little root, about the whole thing coming out of the ground; for my current plants are well established – rhubarb can prosper ten years without being moved. But I do worry lest the growing shoot break up under the strain of being pulled, for with me this has happened several times. If cut the stumps are supposed to bleed or get diseased, but mine never do.

A quite different encounter with rhubarb came when I was ten. This time it was so big I could stand under the leaves. It was the period when I had the run of a big suburban garden. In a wild part called The Plantation, where I had a wiggly one-rope swing dangling from one of three well grown elms, a rabble of huge coarse rhubarb plants lorded it over all other greenery. It shot up in the early summer to 7ft or more. High above me there were broad umbels of white flowers, flushed pink when in bud, bigger than any dishes I had ever seen. I have never discovered the name of this plant, nor ever met the identical variety again. But the previous owner of the garden was an eminent biologist, so perhaps he grew the exotic plants as food for the long-eared vole or the fan tailed godwit.

It was not till many years later that I came upon the so-called prickly rhubarbs of South America. They belong to a different botanical order from the plant of the kitchen garden, but they send up the same multi-lobed leaves on long arching stalks from ground level. I have not met the tallest of them, Gunnera chilensis, a Chilean species which can reach 10ft. But I am now familiar with the rather better known kind, G manicata from Brazil, whose leaves are sometimes just about tall enough for an adult to stand under, after rising flush from the ground each season. But it is the span of each individual leaf that impresses most, this being 4-6ft either way.

Even in cool temperate countries, a single plant of Brazilian prickly rhubarb can show an overall spread of 15ft. Clearly a plant for a substantial garden. The ‘sticks’, manifestly non-edible, are as thick as a man’s wrist and covered with down curving barbs. In the absence of a central growing stem, the flowers rise from the ground like the leaves. They take the form of bizarre horny spikes in a rusty chestnut colour, thrusting up massively soon after the first leaves in May.

G manicata is one of those none too easily accommodated plants that likes its feet in ground that is wet, even boggy if possible, with its head in the open sun. It needs abundant watering in dry summer weather. In winter some protection is needed in any country where there is frost, the usual practice in Britain being to wrap up the crowns in the plant’s own spent leaves.

Of the several yuccas introduced to garden cultivation there can be no doubt that the famous Y gloriosa, from southern latitudes of the USA, is the most statuesque and arresting. I will refrain from burdening the world’s print with yet another description of Adam’s Needle or Spanish Bayonet, to quote two of the vernacular names. But a couple of things may be worth mentioning.

Firstly, although Y gloriosa is parsimonious with blooms and may take ten years to produce the first, it is not true that the daring flower spike only appears once in seven years. It may even turn up two years running on a mature plant, though rarely three. Secondly, failure of the young plant to get off the ground, so to speak, in damp soil and climate can usually be put right by simple treatment.

For years one of these plants in my very damp garden used to lose its growing shoot at the end of each winter, through rot at the point of emergence from the soil. So I not only replanted it in the sunniest spot in the garden, but even more important I surrounded it with pea gravel 2-3in deep at the point of emergence. I kept the gravel close up to the neck, so that no soil at all touched the shoot near the surface. This both reduced static damp and stopped the biting effect of icy soil under expansion from hard frost.

The shoot survived the first winter and then the second. After that the stem grew from strength to strength. As soon as a hard ‘leg’ was formed, supporting the familiar rosette of sword-like leaves, I knew the plant was safe. But note: children and dogs may not be safe, unless we snip the fiendish needle points off the hard armoured leaves. These could blind in a trice.

Phormium tenax, or New Zealand flax, is not only a striking ornamental plant, it is so tough against gales off the sea that two or three together can make a useful windbreak. Without a growing centre, dour waving tongues of slender leaves soar 5ft from the ground. In July red and cream-yellow flower panicles, like clusters of small lilies, are displayed on enormously strong stems often more than twice the height of the leaves. These dizzy flower stems can stand upright through raging gales right at the sea’s edge. The plant sometimes flowers in consecutive years, but not every year.

P tenax likes well drained, damp soil; or, if growing on light quick-drying soil, as I have seen it do in the Scottish West, it needs a minimum rainfall of about 40in per annum to do well. It is hardy all the way up the British west coast and in the south-west, but is difficult far inland and in the east; though I do know of two dogged gardeners who have grown it successfully in north Bedfordshire and East Lothian. There are also varieties with variegated and purple leaves.

I might not be including sunflowers in this short selection of garden giants were it not for the Year of the Powder Puff Doubles. A vintage summer helped – it was the hot sunshine summer of 1955, with a hosepipe needed over most of the UK and certainly used freely in my garden. The seed packet just said ‘Sunflower, double’. This is the straightforward article that most of the seeds proved to be. I grew them just for the change, thinking in the back of my mind that the commoner singles probably had a more simple classical beauty.

But half a dozen of the plants turned out to be different.

The face of the flower, composed of a dense mass of short petals, swelled out into an improbable hemisphere of radiant fuzzy gold. And as soon as the king flower faded, four or five others nearly as big rose radially from the same stem to take its place. They faced all round the compass on perfectly stiff laterals, and at 7ft against the dazzling blue sky of that great summer they were an unforgettable sight (p69). They could only be described as golden powder puffs-each with a dimple in the centre. Decorative support was given from extra large heart- shaped leaves of great substance, which stood out stiff on the hottest days.

As I have said, there was nothing on the seed packet, either in word or picture, to suggest that the contents were in any way exceptional. But I have never been able to find seeds like them again, nor have I met anyone who claimed to have encountered sunflowers like outsize powder puffs, swollen into lush hemispheres while still in the prime of flowering. Yet somewhere, some day, I like to think that this magnificent golden explosion will occur again for some astonished gardener.