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Colourful camassias perform beautifully when planted in grass, says Monty Don

Camassias came from the wet meadows of the northwestern states of the USA and, unlike most bulbs, need wet or heavy ground to thrive. They grew in vast swathes and the bulbs, boiled or roasted, were an important source of unappetising food for the native tribes and some early plant hunters.

They have vigorous, strappy leaves and a tall flower spike on which the petals open gradually, starting at the bottom and slowly working their way up. 

They give a nice long spring display and are very tough, so they seem unfazed by exceptionally cold spring weather. Bumblebees love them, while slugs and snails ignore them.

British gardening expert Monty Don shares his advice for thriving camassias. Pictured: Monty with his camassias

They are just as happy in a border or in grass although, as with all spring bulbs, the grass must not be cut until the camassia leaves have died right back – so they are not suitable for a lawn, nor, arguably, for a mixed border. 

This is because, once established, rather like alliums, camassias can become too dominant because of their foliage which seems to take a long time to die back and can suppress less robust plants growing along side them.

We grow Camassia quamash in the orchard beds and The Damp Garden, and in both places, it has become a bit of a thug – and I have come to realise that long grass is really its ideal home in a garden. 

ASK MONTY 

Q Lesser celandine has smothered my fuchsias. How can I kill it?

G Quelch, Suffolk

A Lesser celandine is a weed it’s best to learn to love because it will never go away completely. It can be carefully dug up but some will always remain behind and reappear.

Q The leaves on my rose bushes get black spots over them. What can I do?

J Burns, West Sussex

A This is blackspot, a fungal disease. It is always worse when the air is warm and damp. Collect fallen leaves and burn them, rake the soil around the roses of all debris each winter and mulch thickly in spring.

Q I’ve grown a banana plant from seed – how should I repot it, and which compost is best?

Alan Spence, N Yorks

A Repot when the roots reach the edges of the container they’re in. Always pot into a slightly larger pot and keep doing so until you run out of pots or the plant is fully grown. Use a peat-free general-purpose compost with added garden compost or soil conditioner, and feed with liquid seaweed throughout the plant’s growing season.

Write to Monty Don at Weekend, Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT or email [email protected] Please include your full name and address. We regret Monty can’t reply to letters personally.

C. quamash is the first to flower for me, around the end of April, with cobalt blue petals that add a good contrast to yellow or orange tulips – especially when grown in grass where their vigour of growth can be easily accommodated. 

However, the leaves are slow to die back compared to daffodils, alliums or tulips so the grass cannot be cut until at least mid-June.

Camassia leichtlinii has flowers that run the whole tonal range of blue from violet to white and are at their best in early May, but this cold spring (as I write these words) they have yet to show a glimmer. 

We grow the creamy white version (C. leichtlinii ‘Semiplena’) along the strip between The Damp Garden and Cottage Garden and although that area floods every winter, it seems very happy there.

C. cusickii is slightly smaller both in flower stem and leaf size and is a distinct shade of pale blue. 

We have this growing in The Cricket Pitch – where 20 years ago I had a cricket net for my son but which became a long strip of meadow with a thin mown path. Unlike most camassias, which are happiest in damp meadows, C. cusickii originates on hillsides so is the best choice for well-drained soil.

All camassias should be given room to increase in size so should be spaced no closer than a foot apart, whether in a border or long grass. While they naturally grow in open grass and full sun, most will be happy in light shade. 

They should be planted in autumn, four inches deep, and watered in so that the soil settles around them. 

The easiest way to propagate them is to let the foliage die back then dig up the offsets that develop around the main plant, replanting where you wish them to grow. This is a good idea if you are growing them in a border. 

MONTY’S PLANT OF THE WEEK: ROSA CANTABRIGIENSIS 

Monty said rosa cantabrigiensis (pictured) grows in almost any soil and in full sun or part shade

Monty said rosa cantabrigiensis (pictured) grows in almost any soil and in full sun or part shade

This is the first species rose – in fact the first rose of any kind – to bloom in my garden, its lovely primrose-yellow flowers breaking into bud along the length of its branches against the delicate, fern-like leaves.

These buds then open out into single discs of fragrant, gentle yellow flower that last for about three weeks.

R. cantabrigiensis grows in almost any soil and in full sun or part shade. Its name derives from the Latin for Cambridge, where the plant was created – a cross between R. hugonis and R. sericea – in 1922.

THIS WEEK’S JOB: THE CHELSEA CHOP 

This pruning, due now – when the Chelsea Flower Show is normally held – extends the flowering period of herbaceous perennials. Cut

 back some or all of a plant’s foliage and stems by up to a half to stimulate fresh side shoots bearing flowers that will bloom later than usual.


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