Short-lived showstoppers to bring glamour to your garden

They may not live very long, but these beautiful blooms are all the more precious for that

As gardeners, we inevitably learn to prize those hardworking, reliable species that guarantee us a long flowering period and multiple seasons of interest. But essential as these kinds of resilient, dependable workhorses undeniably are, I’d still hate to be without some ephemerals – those glamorous, giddy butterflies of the flower border whose fleeting blooms are all the more precious because they’re so very short-lived.

Imagine, for example, a world without herbaceous peonies, that long-lived ultra-hardy perennial whose giant, ruffled blooms are one of the quintessential flowers of early summer. Their heavy-headed, scented flowers don’t last long at all – not much more than a week – but then part of their special charm is the time spent watching and waiting for their large, plump, spherical buds to swell, ripen and slowly unfurl to reveal themselves in all their decadent beauty.

Fittingly, this long-lived aristocrat of the early summer flower garden, which can be found in bloom from late May until mid-June depending on the particular variety, can be demanding to grow well. Don’t, for instance, make the mistake of moving a peony plant unless you must, or it will often sulkily refuse to flower the following year. And if you must, then do so in autumn when the soil is still warm. Don’t plant it too deeply either, or overgenerously mulch it (the dormant leaf buds should be no more than 2.5cm below the surface of the soil), or it may never flower. Try to give it the very best of cool, rich, deep, moist but free-draining soils (not freshly manured, not too acidic), and a sheltered spot in sun or light shade, with some form of support to protect its flowers from being flattened by a heavy shower or sudden gale.

A plant with a long and fascinating history of cultivation, many different varieties of herbaceous peonies are available, some of them double, some semi-double, some single, and in varying shades of cream, white, pink, crimson, yellow and coral. Classic varieties include the powder-pink double ‘Sarah Bernhardt’; the semi-double ‘Coral Charm’ which fades in colour as it ages from a deep coral-pink to a dusty apricot; ‘Shirley Temple’ (a double variety with very pale pink flowers fading to white); the pink-and-cream, golden-eyed, semi-double variety ‘Bowl of Bath’; the pale lemon-and-yellow ‘Claire de Lune’, and the dark red-and gold ‘Chocolate Soldier’. Alternatively, for some proper, blue-blooded garden credentials, seek out the hard-to-get peony commonly known as ‘Molly the Witch’ (Paeonia daurica mlokosewitschii), a famously beautiful, early-flowering variety with giant, cup-shaped, pale lemon golden-eyed blooms. Or for the classic, blood-red, cottage garden variety, grow the robust ‘Rubra Plena’.


Of course peonies associate beautifully with oriental poppies, yet another aristocratic but ephemeral beauty of the early summer border that likes similar growing conditions and whose large, delicate flowers come in a range of similar colours, excepting lemon. Classic varieties include ‘Patty’s Plum’, a semi-double variety with heavily blotched flowers in the most exquisite shade of faded maroon-rose, and the scarlet-and-black ‘Beauty of Livermere’.

Imagine a world without the smell and sight of a lilac bush in full but fleeting bloom?

But unlike peonies, whose handsome foliage persists long after the flowers have faded, the oriental poppy is a messy plain Jane after its giant, luminously beautiful flowers have faded. The best way to tackle this is by cutting the plant back hard after the first flush of flowers have faded and then giving it a liquid feed to encourage it to produce a second, smaller flush of blooms. If you can protect them from slug damage, then planting dahlias close to it will also do a lot to plug the visual gap and provide floral interest from late summer until late autumn. Alternatively, fill it by popping in some fast-growing short-lived annuals such as cosmos or some of the taller ornamental sages.

One of the qualities that these much-loved late spring and summer-flowering ephemerals share is their enduring power to seduce us, so that we somehow always forgive them their flighty ways. Imagine, for example, a world without the smell and sight of a lilac bush in full but fleeting bloom? Likewise, anyone who saw the images of the British designer Sarah Price’s gold-medal winning design at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show will surely have fallen in love with its bearded irises, (Iris x germanica), a sun-loving, drought-tolerant rhizomatous perennial whose sculpturally beautiful but very short-lived blooms were the stars of its otherworldly planting design.

Price’s outstanding show garden celebrated the late British artist, gardener and plantsman Cedric Morris, who dedicated his life to breeding what would become known as the Benton irises, a selection of bearded irises that he introduced in the mid-20th century and which became renowned for their painterly beauty. Almost lost to cultivation by the turn of the century, it took determined detective work by the plantswoman Sarah Cook to bring them back from the brink.

Some of the varieties that Price used in her Chelsea garden include ‘Benton Olive’ (named after Olive Murrell, a fellow iris breeder and friend of Morris); ‘Benton Menace’ (named after a troublesome tomcat); ‘Benton Nigel’ (named after his partner); ‘Benton Lorna’ (named after a friend and fellow gardener Lorna Styles) and ‘Benton Farewell’ (named in honour of Morris after his death in 1982). Others include ‘Benton Susan’, ‘Benton Deidre’ and ‘Benton Pearl’. Unfortunately, these oh-so-covetable varieties are almost impossible to come by in Ireland, but you’ll find other non-Benton varieties of bearded iris for sale in good garden centres at this time of year. Alternatively, a wide selection can be sourced from a handful of European specialist nurseries including, and

Bearded irises look great in a gravel garden or, if you have the growing space, grown by themselves in a hot, sunny border

How to grow these movie stars of the early summer garden? Firstly, bear in mind that bearded irises are best planted in late summer, just after the plants have finished flowering.

Also, that unlike peonies or oriental poppies, this hardy, deciduous species of iris needs a light, very free-draining soil in full sun where its rhizomes (the plant’s fleshy root structure) can gently bake in the heat of a summer’s day. Give it plenty of space (this is a plant that hates to be crowded out or overshadowed) and make sure to plant shallowly so that its rhizomes aren’t fully buried but instead have their upper flanks exposed to the light.

For this same reason, bearded irises look great in a gravel garden or, if you have the growing space, grown by themselves in a hot, sunny border along the base of a wall or against the footings of a glasshouse. Unlike oriental poppies, their handsome grey-green leaf spears make a useful architectural contribution to the garden long after the flowers have faded, making this plant one of those ephemerals of the summer flower garden that redeems itself in other useful ways.

Dates for your diary

Continuing until Monday, June 5th, Bord Bia Bloom, Visitor’s Centre, Phoenix Park, Dublin.

June 11th, Spink Community Grounds, Abbeyleix, Co Laois, R32 PW80, Laois Garden Festival: Buds & Blossoms, with guest speakers including gardener and nursery owner Hester Forde of Coosheen Gardens; gardener, blogger and Irish Garden columnist Rose Maye aka the Insomniac Gardener; gardener and florist Julie Ann Kelly, who featured in Ireland’s Garden Heroes; and Fionnuala Fallon, horticulturist, flower-farmer-florist and Irish Times gardening columnist.

This week in the garden

Check pot-grown plants, young transplants and seedlings in trays twice daily (morning and again in the evening), to make sure that they’re sufficiently well-watered, as their vulnerable root systems mean they’re ill-equipped to cope with long periods of hot, dry weather. To revive containerised plants and seedlings whose root systems have badly dried out, place them up to their necks in a wheelbarrow filled with water until the compost has fully hydrated. If a container-grown plant repeatedly dries out very quickly, consider repotting it into a larger pot using a fresh, good-quality soil-based compost.

Many kinds of vegetables can be planted out into the kitchen garden now as young transplants including courgettes, leeks, beetroot, lettuce, French beans, runner beans, winter cabbage, broccoli, kale, and chard. To give them the very best start possible, make sure they’re well hardened off, pre-soak their rootballs in a weak solution of liquid seaweed feed and always plant into well-prepped, weed-free soil.