Q & A with William Dyson, curator of Great Comp Garden

William Dyson is the Curator at Great Comp; he also runs his own nursery specialising in salvias which is situated within the garden.

Can you tell us about the different varieties of salvias?

The genus is huge and varied.  Amongst others, there’s the shrubby Mexican group which includes Salvia ‘Hot Lips’ that has a woody framework.  Rosette forming European salvias include the popular S. nemerosa ‘Caradonna’ and there are half-hardy salvias such as the striking very tall S.‘Amistad’, which has large dark purple flowers.

What conditions do salvias tend to enjoy?

Most salvias like a free draining soil and sun.  The shrubby Mexicans which have small leaves are particularly drought-tolerant and can cope with a lot of sun and dry impoverished soil, while those with larger leaves such as S. Concolor is a cloud forest dweller and tends to do better with a bit of shade and richer soils.  S. ‘Caradonna’ also does better in moisture retentive soil so clay is better than sand.

Can you give any tips on pruning?

Prune the dead stems on ‘Amistad’ to ground level in mid to late April.  With the shrubby Mexican salvias, keep them in a tight bush by pruning them back in mid-April by around a half but make sure you don’t cut down below where the new growth.  In mid-summer, as well as taking off spent flower heads you can give shrubby Mexicans a ‘Hampton hack’ by taking a third of the height off the plant to tidy them up and increase the amount of flowers for later in the season.

Tell us about the range of colours salvias come in?

As well as pinks and purples, the shrubby Mexicans have the biggest variety of colours and come in everything from pure white to peach and yellow such as delicate S. ‘Lemon Light’.  There are also lots of lovely blues such as S. ‘Sky Blue’ and ‘So Cool Blue.’  Another more unusual salvia is ‘Amigo’ a pinker alternative to ‘Amistad.’

Are there any plant combinations that you recommend?

Ornamental grasses such as stipa and deschampsia work well as they like the same conditions.  We have Salvia ‘Amistad’ with tall Miscanthus ‘Variegata’ or ‘Cosmopolitan.’  White gaura would make a good contrast with the very dark purple S. ‘Nachtvlinder.’