I have always been attracted to gothic styles of planting and the heavy macabre black foliage which is used to create ‘The Gothic Garden’. One of the most instantly recognisable plants almost made to be planted en-masse in a gothic garden is Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’ also known as the black Queen Ann’s lace. Having highly decorative delicate filigree blackish purple leaves and during late spring and early summer, stunning black stems topped with white umbel flowers held over pinkish bracts. It looks go
od at the back or front of the border and I love it combined with purple sage, much maligned and ‘common’ it is transformed with the right combination of plants and really earns it keep holding the Gothic together. Another useful black foliage plant which is ever-green or should I say ever-black and incredibly useful for flower arrangers is Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’. ‘Tom Thumb’ is a low growing variety only up to roughly 1meter (3ft) in a neat mound with rich, glossy ovate leaves which range in colour from golden green when young through to deep purple bronze all borne on conspicuous black twigs. P. tenufolium is one of the hardiest species and ‘Tom Thumb’ also bears highly scented chocolate coloured flowers.
Another stalwart of the gothic style is the aptly named, Geranium phaeum ‘Mourning Widow’. Although it has green foliage irregularly blotched with brown markings, the flowers are the most sombre blackish flowers and it copes well with shade. Expect it to flower from May through to July.
It can grow fairly tall up to 80cm (2.5ft) and looks excellent when planted with the black leaved Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ as a back drop. Not only are the Sambucus leaves really deep in colour but the foliage is finely cut turning rich red in autumn. It also grows well almost anywhere including normally difficult situations such as waterlogged and chalky ground. During its flowering period it can look breath taking with a mass of creamy flowers against the back foliage. To keep its youth the Sambucus can be pruned back to the ground every spring.
I like traditionally laid out Gothic gardens and two which I think worked very well were the Gothic Garden at Arrow Cottage, Herefordshire which was complete with gothic grey gates and black reclaimed bricks for the paths. This garden also had mandrake, Mandragora officinarum, growing which added to the sinister feel. The other garden is the Crackenthorpe at Bryans Ground; I don’t know if this is strictly Gothic but it has one of the best melancholy feels I have seen. The two long stretching borders, terminated with large rust coloured stone urns at one end and the Sulking House with Gothic detailing at the other certainly have a gothic influence on me. The garden has a couple of features that really stand out, the large yew hedges and when I visited, masses of Astrantia. One of best Astrantia’s is Astrantia major ‘Hadspen Blood’ which will take full sun or partial shade, flowering from June through to August. Astrantia has been cultivated in Britain since the 16th century. A. Hadspen Blood has deeply lobed, dark green leaves with imperceptible black margins. The deep red button flowers are surrounded by a ruff of nearly black bracts and make long lasting cut flowers.
A really good hard working border addition to the Gothic Garden has to be the Ajuga. There are a number of dark foliage varieties from the very large leaved A. Catlins Giant through to A. Black Scallop. One of the most widely available is Ajuga reptans ‘Atropurpurea’ which again grows well in partial shade to full shade. It is a mat forming ground cover plant growing up to about 15cm (6in) and is very robust. The leaves are held in rosettes and range from pinkish purple to deep purple black. During spring small upright spikes of blue flowers appear and are a lovely added extra.
One of the most recent dark foliage plants which has been introduced to gardeners is Anglica ‘Ebony’. This form has to have the darkest foliage of any Angelica available. The foliage is deep, almost black, finely cut and highly glossy. Back purple buds appear opening up to sprays of pink flowers reaching a height of 1 meter (3ft). I have under planted mine with Tulip ‘Black Hero’ having deep maroon silky flowers appearing slightly ruffled like old damask. The Angelica flowers during May and reach about 60cm (2ft) and do best in a sheltered position.
For me gothic gardens work best when flower colour is limited which means some great dark foliage plants are sadly excluded. These include one of my favourite Dahlia’s, D. David Howard, which I believe has some of the deepest coloured foliage of any of the dark leaved Dahlias. It grows up to 75cm (2.4ft) and is topped with stunning rich orange flowers in late summer and early autumn and as we all know, Dahlia’s make excellent cut flowers. If you have a damp garden or want something a little special for marginal planting then Ligularia dentata ‘Britt Marie Crawford’ is a fantastic choice. Its leaves scream gothic, large flat glossy chocolate black leaves with deep purple reverses. Its only draw back for my taste of gothic are the brilliant orange/yellow flowers, appearing in August and reaching up to meter. It is highly attractive to slugs in the early part of the year, so beer traps at the ready and be prepared to give a generous mulch of manure or garden compost for really good results.
Lastly, I quite like the idea of incorporating topiary into the gothic garden, buxus hedging is a must to keep the gardens shape over winter but I rather like the idea of terminating a pair of gothic borders with purple beech, fagus sylvatica Atropurpurea, columns. Beech makes fantastic hedging, holding its crisp dried leaves long into winter. Giving the hedge a trim in later summer will actually encourage the plant to keep hold of its dried leaves longer. The purple varieties will turn the same stunning golden bronze as green varieties in autumn. Beech doesn’t do well in frost prone areas or if its feet are wet for long periods.