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PEACHY KEEN

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Elisabeth Ginsburg
You need this in your perennial border.

Standing in the middle of my back garden, I am immediately struck by two things: the number of weeds in every bed, and the constant singing of birds in neighboring trees. Usually I ignore the weeds (at least until I am in need of some mindless, stress-relieving toil), and focus instead on the bird song. Here, in one of the most densely populated areas of the United States, I can close my eyes and hear innumerable cardinals, catbirds, sparrows, buntings and chickadees, with the musical cooing of wood doves and the raucous commentary of blue jays thrown in for good measure. Sometimes when I let myself relax enough to absorb the bird song, I think about Rachel Carson’s classic 1962 book Silent Spring. Carson was a pioneer; writing about ecology and the dangers of pollution before such words had become part of the American (and world) lexicon. A single cardinal’s mating call makes me realize what a tragedy it would be if we consumed, wasted and polluted ourselves into an actual "silent spring".

The cardinal’s song forces me to slow down and appreciate one of the newest plants in my garden, ‘Chettle Charm’, a peach leaf bellflower that is now in bloom hard by a clump of larkspur and a ‘New Dawn’ rose.

Peach leaf bellflowers (Campanula persicifolia) are graceful perennial plants native to Europe and northeastern Asia. The slightly elongated leaves, which are clustered at the base of the flower stalks, must have reminded someone somewhere of the leaves of peach trees, hence the name. Like other members of the campanula (Campanulaceae) family their flowers are bell shaped. (Campanula are undoubtedly the "silver bells" that team with "cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row" in the classic nursery rhyme "Mary, Mary Quite Contrary".) The peach leaf varieties are classic cottage garden subjects—charming but not obvious. Standing from 2-3-feet high in mid-border, ‘Chettle Charm’ and its cousins bloom in mid to late spring. Reference works will tell you that they flourish in full sun to light shade. I can say from experience that they do just fine planted under the outer edge of an adolescent maple tree’s canopy.

There is such a demand for blue flowers and so many species that simply lack the genetic wherewithal to produce those blue flowers that it is nice to report that peach leaf bellflowers can add to the blue array. Garden centers generally stock a common dark blue variety and well as a white one. Campanula persicifolia coerulea sports flowers that are brighter blue than the common bellflowers. The ‘Telham Beauty’ cultivar grows to a full 3-feet tall, with purplish-blue blossoms. My pride and joy, ‘Chettle Charm’, an English import, has white bells with blue edges. From a distance the flowers look pale blue overall. ‘Chettle Charm’ was developed by the trailblazing British firm Blooms of Bressingham, a breeder of first rate garden plants. I can only hope they continue creating new peach leaf bellflowers.

If you want to add a little extra interest to your garden, try Campanula persicifolia ‘Kelly’s Gold’, which features golden green foliage in addition to blue-tipped blossoms similar to those of ‘Chettle Charm’. That touch of gold might be particularly valuable in partially shaded spots.

Being a perennial plant, peach leaf bellflower will not ape its annual cousins and bloom from May through the first frost. It will, however give you a couple of weeks of pleasure, as its blossoms don’t all open at once. Pinching the spent flowers also helps encourage limited repeat blooms. If you can stand to remove some of the flower stalks from the garden, these bellflowers also look wonderful in small to mid-size arrangements. Be sure not to overwhelm them with big showy flowers. They are much more comfortable with their cottagey horticultural soulmates, such as white cosmos and some of the less assertive coreopsis cultivars.

Campanulas don’t like arid conditions, so it’s a good idea to mulch your plants and give supplemental water, if needed, during dry spells. Eventually you can increase your supplies by division. Unlike hostas, ornamental grasses and some other garden favorites, campanula persicifolia does not require a hacksaw to divide. Just dig up the clump, separate the roots into two or three pieces with your fingers (aided if necessary be an old kitchen knife). Plant one of your divisions in the original hole along with water and some compost. Put the second one elsewhere in the garden, and give the third one to a friend. Bellflowers are eminently companionable plants that are meant to be shared with congenial people.

There are so many members of the campanula clan that if you wanted to you could probably make a garden entirely of campanulas. While you are contemplating such a dramatic step, start with peach leaf bellflower or two. It won’t give you garden fireworks, but for a few weeks in late spring it will provide a nice steady glow.

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