Footballs in the garden

THIS COLUMN DOES its best to keep up to the minute, so today, I’m going to talk about footballs

THIS COLUMN DOES its best to keep up to the minute, so today, I’m going to talk about footballs. Not the kind being kicked around in South Africa, which, as far as I can understand, has come in for a fair amount of criticism, and is not a very happy item.

No, I want to talk about floral footballs here: the sort that are completely above censure. Why nature arranges the flowers of certain species into spheres, I don’t know – although I’ve trawled the internet for an answer. But I do know that there is something particularly happy-making about ball-shaped flowers.

The classic globe in the garden is, of course, the allium. The season starts with ‘Purple Sensation’ which, in May and June, bounces its violet tennis balls across the top of many borders. It’s a good plant to fill the gap after the tulips finish, and before the summer herbaceous stuff gets going.

A few weeks later, it is the turn of the larger relatives. These include the immense, silvery-lilac A. cristophii, and the aptly named ‘Globemaster’, where the densely packed florets combine to make each head the size of a small melon. The latter is one of the best for creating that otherworldly look of a solar system of purple planets hovering over the vegetation. What’s more, the celestial orbs last for weeks, after which they collapse into straw-coloured chimney brushes.


There are white alliums (‘Mount Everest’ is probably the best known) that flower around the same time, and are luminous against a dark wall or in front of a dusky hedge. And about now, one of the latest, the small A. sphaerocephalon, is unwrapping its miniature, clover-red drumheads. Its botanical handle means “round-headed” in Greek: sphaero + cephalon – making it a tiny bit easier to remember. As with all of the ornamental onions, it looks best planted en masse: you need a throng of them (at least a dozen) to bring a smile to a person’s face.

Alliums are planted as bulbs in autumn, and they last many years if the soil is not too damp in winter. Look out for them in garden centres from the end of August. You can also order them from Mr Middleton (; 01-8603674). In the vegetable patch, the more utilitarian members of the family, onions and leeks, also produce pleasing globes, if you forget to harvest them. As with all of the allium genus, they are a hit with bees. In fact, most spherical inflorescences are attractive to bees, wasps, hoverflies and other nectar-hunters. The tiny flowers that make up each bloom-ball carry their nectar within easy reach of foraging insects, and are a lifesaver for short-tongued species such as the honeybee.

Completely round flowers are rare, but there are a few others worth mentioning. The perennial globe thistle (Echinops), which likes a well-drained soil and a sunny position, is spiky and silvery in bud, and opens into a sphere studded with blue stars. The widely-available variety, E. ritro ‘Veitch’s Blue’ has a long flowering season, and intense colour.

Pom-pom dahlias, of which there are many varieties, are also good and round: they are the ultimate cartoon plant, in jelly-coloured shades of orange, pink, peach, deep red, purple and white. Dahlias are tender perennials: they won’t stand up to a hard winter such as this recent one, and they are also martyrs to slugs and snails. They are best grown in pots for their entire lifespan, or at least confined to the safety of a container when young, while the new growth is vulnerable. The drumstick primula – a dainty thing happiest in heavy, moist soil – is another roundy character, in shades of pink, red, violet and white, depending on the variety.

If you are prepared to accept buttons and ovoids as well as orbs, there is a much wider palette of plants available. Among the former are the Knautia clan: the pink or red K. macedonica and the taller, more airy mauve-flowered K. arvensis; the herb yellow tansy (Tanacetum vulgare); the moisture-loving astrantias in pink, red and creamy-green; and the little sea pink (Armeria maritima). Ovoid, or egg-shaped, flowers include the annual wine-coloured globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa) and the perennial Sanguisorba (maroon, pink or white). As with the floral footballs, these are all insect-friendly: bees will assemble and buzz, like a frenzy of tiny vuvuzelas.

Diary dates

Today and tomorrow (July 3rd and 4th): The garden at 49 Carysfort Avenue, Blackrock, Co Dublin is open from 1.30pm to 6pm in aid of Blackrock Hospice. Refreshments, raffle. Admission: €5.

July 5th to 9th: Rose Week at Altamont Gardens, Tullow, Co Carlow. Gardens open daily: 9am to 7.30am. Admission: free. Guided tour each day at 2pm (€2) with head gardener, Paul Cutler. Large collection of old shrub roses for sale at Altamont Plant Sales.