Dreamy Spires

Monday morning in late June: grey, dull and threatening rain. Good weather for a garden visit? Absolutely. English flowers (by that I mean herbaceous perennials in soft colours - whether they actually come from England or not) look so much better on overcast days. When light levels are low, pale colours and those at the blue end of the spectrum sing out. Add a bit of drizzle and the scene becomes ethereal and distinctly romantic. When I arrived at Godinton House on that gloomy Monday the delphiniums were looking their absolute best. As I wandered among the artists who were spending the morning painting in the gardens, it was as if the azure spires around us had reached up and stolen all the blue from the sky. Majestic and stately, the delphinium looms large in the annals of cottage gardening. Related to the annual native larkspur, but perennial, they have over time been carefully hybridised into the majestic beauties we see today. They're much coveted by flower arrangers because they are one of the very few vertical blue flowers and as every flower arranger knows, verticals are a key design element. The name comes originally from the Greek delphis or dolphin. Since when is a delphinium like a dolphin (I hear you ask)? When it's seen through the eyes of a botanist - the buds are supposed to look like dolphins. Hmm. The fine walled kitchen garden at Godinton House is a lovely place to be whatever the weather or season, but in early summer the vegetables and flowers in the potager are surrounded by the statuesque platoons of delphiniums. The Kent and East Sussex Delphinium Society hold their Delphinium week here each year towards the end of June. During the week the Society are on hand to dispense advice, sell plants and generally enjoy the blooms of their labours. The delphiniums they grow are from the Elatum group of cultivars and are much longer lived than some of the other types available. They come in a range of colours from the classic blues through to cream, white, mauve and even some pink. Someone somewhere has now bred a red one, but I really can't think why - red is just not the colour for a delphinium. Most of the plants on display stand stiffly to attention in parade lines, trussed up with canes and string, but one section has been planted as a mixed border by Viv Hunt, head gardener at Godinton, and her team. Along this wall the delphiniums are supported in a more natural and actually, says Viv, a more reliable way, using discreet deciduous prunings instead of bamboo and cat's cradle. The companion plants have been chosen carefully - yellow Achilleas with their flat flowerheads and horizontal lines contrast and enhance the elegance of the blue spires while Stipa tenuissima and lower growing perennials dance softly at their feet.

Growing magnificent beauties like those at Godinton takes dedication and experience, as delphiniums, despite their popularity as the quintessential cottage garden plant, are quite demanding and are not grown by many of us. I suspect that we've all tried to grow them at least once, and then been disappointed, either by stunted sparse flowers, or by their failure to emerge from the soil at all. Having just seen some prize examples though, I think I might give them another go. It's probably not worth growing them from seed unless you're really keen - they need a period of vernalisation (where you pretend it's winter and shove the seeds in the fridge for a bit) in order to germinate successfully and won't flower until their second year. Instead buy good named cultivars and plant into well-prepared, rich, moist, but well drained (ie add manure/compost) soil. The better the soil, the more spectacular the spire. Delphiniums have two main enemies - slugs and wind. Both of these are fairly inevitable, especially if you garden in an open situation on Wealden clay. Sprinkle some grit around the base of each plant, together with crushed eggshell and anything else slugs don't like sliding over. If you have to use slug pellets, use them sparingly in the evening and then dispose of the corpses before the birds are tempted to eat them. It's the new shoots that the slugs are after, so you need to be on slug patrol early in the spring when the shoots are emerging. Once they're growing strongly you can relax a bit and turn your attention to protecting them from the ravages of the wind. Delphiniums need staking, but if you can get the supports in early and adapt them as the plant grows, they'll stand a chance of looking naturally tall and elegant and less like uneasy prisoners in a stringy cage. At Godinton they use pliable woody prunings and construct their supports so that by the time the plant grows up through they are invisible. According to Viv the taut string and cane approach can cause the blooms to snap in the wind more often than when a looser support is used. Once you've held your own private Delphinium week and the flowers are just about over, grab your secateurs and cut the stems down at the base. With luck and a favourable wind - or preferably no wind at all, you should get another lot of flowers in September. Alas the delphinium display is over now at Godinton House, but the gardens there are well worth a visit at other times. There's something to suit everybody - a walk in the magnificent parkland, a stroll among the more formal gardens and herbaceous borders, or just a picnic in the wildflower meadow. Book a tour of the house and a cream tea for a comprehensive visit, or even arrange to do some painting in the gardens.

Contact Rachael Fagg for details of the many events running through the year at Godinton House & Gardens, Godinton Lane, Ashford, Kent. TN23 3BP. 01233 643854 www.godinton-house-gardens.co.uk