5 essential … evergreen shrubs to clothe a wall or fence

Many shrubs adapt very well to growing against walls and fences and, once trained in, are usually easier to manage than climbers which can quickly outgrow their allotted space.  Here are five evergreens that lend themselves very well to being wall-trained and between them provide seasonal interest throughout the year.

Ceanothus (or ‘Californian lilac’) make excellent candidates for growing against a sunny fence or wall as they benefit from the protection provided against cold, drying winds.  One of the most strikingly beautiful is Ceanothus ‘Concha’ which produces a dazzling display or intensely dark blue flowers for several weeks in May and June, perfectly offset by the small, glossy dark green leaves.

Ceanothus © Firgrove Photographic

The bushy growth provides excellent screening for fences and walls and a perfect backdrop for a sunny border.  Ceanothus perform best on fertile, well-drained soil and benefit from a good mulch of organic matter after pruning.  To keep in shape, trim side shoots back by one third after flowering.

Ceanothus ©Firgrove Photographic

Some shrubs are definitely shown off to best advantage when wall trained and Garrya eliptica ‘James Roof’ is one of these.  Throughout the year, its glossy, wavy edged, dark green leaves make an elegant foil to other flowering shrubs when it is planted at the back of a border, but make sure it is planted where it can be fully appreciated in winter when the long, silken tassels of silvery flowers that cover it from December to February make it a really eye-catching architectural feature.  It can grow to 4m x 4m and looks best when given generous room to spread.

Garrya elliptica ©RHS

Happy in sun or shade and on any reasonably fertile soil as long as it is well-drained, it simply requires pruning after flowering to remove any dead or straggly growth.  Top tip: plant deciduous clematis nearby and allow to scramble through the Garrya branches to provide summer colour.

Itea ilicifolia is also a tassel bearer, but its striking greenish white, vanilla scented catkins appear in mid-summer to early autumn. It will tolerate shade quite well, but prefers a south or west facing aspect where its shiny, holly-like foliage looks lovely throughout the year with new growth in spring beginning in beautiful shades of red.  Young plants in particular benefit from the protection of a warm fence or wall as they may be hard hit by cold, drying winds and require protection from frost in exposed areas.

Itea ©Firgrove Photographic

Plant in any fertile, well-drained soil and mulch around young plants in autumn.  Grows to 4m x 3m in height and spread, but can be pruned to size.

Osmanthus burkwoodii performs happily when grown against a wall or fence in sun or shade where its glossy, dark green leaves make a neat backdrop, but it is particularly useful for bringing light and interest to shady spots in April and May, when the highly scented, white, jasmine like flowers appear.

osmanthus burkwoodii ©Janet Bligh

It will cover an area of roughly 3m x 3m and is a very easy going plant being fully hardy, not fussy about soil type and requiring only light pruning with shears after flowering to maintain its shape.

Gardeners have had a long and very literally painful love/hate relationship with Pyracanthas, but when properly trained and pruned they make a wonderful architectural feature against a house or garden wall.  Pyracantha ‘Orange Glow’ has dense clusters of tiny white flowers in May which are followed by bright orange berries in autumn/winter that are a favourite of blackbirds and thrushes.


It is very versatile, being fully hardy and happy on any reasonable soil and in any aspect apart from very dense shade (but the more sun, the more berries).  Height and spread: 2.5m x 2.5m.
Top tip: Prune in late summer shortening all side shoots that arise from the main framework and stopping just short of the clusters of berries (usually about two to three leaves from the base of the side shoot).  Wear thick gloves!

Top tip for all wall trained shrubs: the area next to a wall is usually very dry so plant shrubs at least 40cm from the base of the wall and make sure to prepare the soil well before planting.  Remove any rubble, incorporate plenty of well-rotted organic matter and water well to establish.

Picture credits: Janet Bligh, Firgrove Photographic, RHS

5 essential … plants to brighten a shady corner

Many people panic when faced with shady areas to plant and seem to think ‘nothing will grow in shade’.  SO not true!  It’s a fact that flowering interest is limited by shade (mainly to spring time), but by focusing on contrasting foliage colour and textures it’s possible to create a lovely scheme for shady areas.  Here are just some of the plants I rely on to brighten up gloomy borders.

Although it may not be top of the Most Exciting Plants list, Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’ is completely invaluable in difficult areas of the garden (including dry shade) and brings light and texture to even the gloomiest corner.  Somewhat misleadingly named, its evergreen foliage is actually dark green with white margins and may flush to a deep rose pink in winter that looks beautiful next to deep pink Helleborus orientalis.   Happy in both full sun and shade, this tough and obliging shrub will grow in any reasonably well drained soil and requires no more care than a light clip if it gets out of shape.

Euonymus Emerald Gaiety

Grown against a fence or wall (where it will spread to roughly 2 metres), ‘Emerald Gaiety’ makes an excellent backdrop for other shrubs such as white flowered camellias, Fatsia Japonica or Choisya Ternata.  As a bush its low spreading form (about 80cm high by 1m wide) provides truly low maintenance groundcover.  Top tip: prune out any plain green shoots to the base as soon as they are spotted.

Hosta  ‘Francee’ is a vigorous variety that makes an elegantly striking specimen in a shady spot in the garden.  Its large heart-shaped, puckered leaves are olive green in colour with well-defined white margins that stand out in the shade and provide an interesting contrast in shape and texture to those of other shade lovers such as ferns. They retain their freshness well into September provided they are protected from slugs and snails.  In July and August, impressive spires of pale lavender flowers rise above the leaves.  Hostas are fully hardy and very tolerant of soil type as long as it is reasonably moist.
hosta ©Firgrove Photographic

As we all know, the big problem with Hostas are the dreaded slugs and snails which just can’t resist those luscious leaves. ‘Francee’s’ thick, puckered leaves make it more resistant to damage than some other varieties, but protection is still a must for it to look its best.  Applying a nematode treatment in spring helps ward off slugs or try a generous mulch of ‘Strulch’, a mineralised straw whose texture and iron content does seem to be effective in deterring both slugs and snails.  Top tip: thicker, lusher leaves will be produced if your Hosta gets a good feed so mulch well around the base in autumn with a 5-10cm deep layer of organic compost or leaf mould.

Always an oddity amongst the asters due to its love of shade and its distinctive form, Aster divaricatus, or the white wood anemone, has finally been found out and reclassified as Eurybia divaricatus.  Whatever it might be called, it remains one of the prettiest of all the shade-loving plants, its branching, dark red/black, wiry stems and evergreen olive leaves contrasting perfectly with the frothy sprays of dainty white flowers produced throughout summer and autumn.

Aster divaricatus  ©Firgrove Photographic

Once established this hardy perennial is tolerant of dry shade and reaches a height and spread of 60cm x 45cm.  Top tip: grow along the edge of a shady border amongst Bergenias where the white flowers will provide a change of texture and a splash of light towards the end of the season.

Hakonechloa macra Alboaurea is a small, slow spreading ornamental grass that forms tufted, emerald green hummocks (40cm high x 35cm across) and creates light and texture on the edges of a shady border.  It is native to Japan and planted en masse makes an eye catching carpet of bright green that does indeed lend a Japanese feel to planting groups.   Added interest and movement are provided by sprays of fine lime green flowers in July and August while the gracefully arching leaves gradually turn rich russet shades as autumn progresses.

Hakonechloa ©Firgrove Photographic

This grass makes a lovely soft edging to paths and steps and its clean, neat form makes it a good choice for formal patios and courtyards and contemporary, minimalist plantings.  It prefers a cool, moist position and will benefit from a humus rich mulch in autumn. Top tip: cut old foliage back to ground level in early spring before the new leaves appear.

In early spring large, heart shaped deep green and silver leaves are followed by bright blue, forget-me-not flowers, making Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ one of the loveliest spring flowering perennials around.  It’s wonderful planted under deciduous trees and shrubs or front of border to create pools of light in shady borders or along a woodland path and looks especially effective intermixed with yellow Narcissi.

Brunnera ©Firgrove Photographic

For best performance, plant this hardy perennial in moist, humus rich soil.  Height and spread: 60cm x 45cm. Top tip: cut back any plain green leaves to the base as they appear.


Picture credits: Janet Bligh & Firgrove Photographic

5 essential … plants to grow under trees

One of the trickiest places to grow plants is under trees and shrubs where moisture and light are at a premium.  Here’s a small selection of plants which are perfectly suited to this difficult environment.

They say there’s a hardy Geranium for every site and Geranium maccrorhizum thrive in full shade and dry soil.  Add to this their long season of interest and deer resistance and it would be hard to find anything better to provide reliable and attractive ground cover under trees.

geranium maccrorhizum

The semi-evergreen leaves of ‘Bevan’s Variety’ and ‘White Ness’ are attractively divided and aromatic and often take on orange/red shades in autumn.  Both also flower from late spring to mid-summer.  ‘Bevan’s Variety’ produces bright magenta red blooms with deep red sepals and conspicuous veining, while ‘White Ness’ will brighten the shade with its profusion of pure white flowers.  Both grow to around 30cm tall and form spreading, rounded mounds.

Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ is a reliable and long-lived perennial known for its ability to deal with dry shade.  Its heart shaped semi-evergreen leaves are dark green when mature, but are at their most beautiful in early spring when they first emerge with a strong bronze red tinge.

epimedium sulphureum

Just before the foliage appears, in mid to late spring, tiny clusters of creamy yellow, fairy-like flowers appear close to ground level and last for several weeks.  Slow growing initially, it will form low, bushy clumps with a height and spread of 30cm x 45cm.  Top tip: use shears to cut the old leaves back to ground level in late winter in order to see the flowers as they emerge.

Also known as Variegated Wood Rush, Luzula sylvatica ‘Marginata’ is a great addition to the woodland garden providing textural interest with its dense, carpeting tufts of wide, evergreen strappy leaves.


As well as providing excellent, weed-suppressing ground cover, the glossy green leaves edged with creamy yellow will shine through the shade and in spring airy sprays of brownish flowers add height and movement.  Excellent in dry or moist soil, and happiest in partial to full shade.  Height 40-50cm.  Top tip: Comb or rake off any old, tired or dead leaves and flowers in spring.

Tiny, but perfectly formed, Cyclamen hederifolium (the ivy-leaved Cyclamen) provides very valuable perennial colour for the autumn garden. There are pink and white varieties to choose from, both growing to about 12cm high and making a stunning carpeting effect when planted en masse.  The dainty upright flowers last for several weeks from early autumn and are produced in succession to give a long lasting and beautiful display.  Heart shaped leaves with a silvery marbled pattern follow the flowers providing light and pattern on the woodland floor until they disappear in summer.

cyclamen hederifolium

Planted as tubers and spreading over time, these hardy Cyclamen enjoy sun or partial shade, and are very drought tolerant in shade.  They thrive especially in soils with added leaf litter so are perfect grown under trees and shrubs.

This is a bit of tongue twister since its renaming (it was previously known as Stipa arundinacea) so you might prefer to stick to its common name of pheasant’s tail grass.  However tricky its name might be, Anemanthele lessoniana is very easy to care for and provides year round colour, texture, structure and movement.  Its fountain of slender, fresh green foliage turns red, orange and yellow throughout the season and the colours intensify over the colder months.  It forms a clump of about 1 meter in height and spread and in late summer sprays of airy flower heads appear.

amenanthele lessoniana

Pheasant’s tail grass is a fast growing and versatile evergreen which grows very happily in partial shade and dry, moderately fertile soil.  Also a great plant to grow in a container, its only weakness is that it isn’t reliably hardy in prolonged cold periods when it may need some protection.  Top tip:  In spring, tease out dead foliage by gently running your fingers through it as if it were hair.

Designer guide to …. choosing paving stone for your garden

I have a number of garden design plans which are nearing completion at the moment and we’re getting to the tricky subject of paving choices. It really is one of the hardest decisions to make in the design and build of a new garden as there are so many factors to take into consideration, and it needs serious thought as the costs involved can be substantial. And unfortunately the choice isn’t getting easier as every year the major paving suppliers come up with new products to add to the mix! So if you’re bemused and bewildered by the choices on offer, here’s a simple checklist of things to consider before you decide what materials you choose:

What’s your style?
Is your house traditional or contemporary in style? Do you want your paving material to fit the style of the house or are you happy to contrast old and new?
If your house is very traditional and built in brick or stone, the obvious choice for paving is to go with brick and the same local stone or an all rounder such as Yorkstone which seems to work in pretty much any situation. If you’ve got a very contemporary house you may prefer something with a cleaner sharper look, maybe slate or granite, or a sawn sandstone.

sawn edged paving, chelsea flower show

Crisp clean lines for a contemporary look. Chelsea Flower Show

But you don’t have to be a slave to tradition and just do what’s expected, in fact modern materials can look fantastic next to traditional buildings and vice versa, but it’s something that needs to be thought out carefully. (And if you’re thinking long term – possibly about selling your house in the not-too-distant future – I’d advise you not to get too wacky in your choices. You could put potential buyers off).

Think about colour and its effect
Are you paving in a bright sunny part of the garden or is shade an issue? Think about colours of the stone you are choosing, not only to get the right tones to complement any nearby buildings and existing hard landscaping, but also in terms of the effect the stone will have on making a space brighter or not. A lighter coloured stone can really lift a gloomy space but with that choice comes the problem of keeping the stone clean.  You could consider sealing light-coloured paving to reduce the chance of staining (this can be done in advance by stone merchants, but there is of course an additional cost involved).

Are you concerned about where your stone is coming from?
You may also like to check that your supplier is sourcing their stone ethically – some of the stone currently on the market is unbelievably cheap, and certainly in the past concerns have been raised about the safety of some of the overseas quarries supplying stone. You may be aware that Indian Sandstone has become hugely popular in the UK over the last 10 or so years – and that popularity is based largely on price. Despite the fact it’s travelled so far to get to the UK, much of it is now cheaper than local stone or precast slabs. There’s no denying it can be a very good cost-effective alternative for the more expensive stones such as Yorkstone, however it can vary hugely in quality and also in colour (a real case of you get what you pay for).

Indian sandstone, stone merchants

Indian sandstone can vary enormously in colour & markings

And be aware that within one colour range you could be supplied with stone with tones of pink, beige, orange, grey …. I always advise my clients if at all possible to go to a stone merchants where you can see the paving laid out en masse to get a clear idea of the colours and textures you are likely to end up with. It doesn’t always look like it does in the brochure!  And look at it in dry and wet weather to get the full picture.

What about your budget?
Budget is often the deciding factor when it comes down to it, but it’s aso important to take into account the cost of laying the stone you choose. Many natural stones are supplied in varying thicknesses, and it’s a lot harder and more time-consuming for a landscaper to lay an area of paving if all the stones are of different thicknesses. Reclaimed Yorkstone in particular can be a nightmare as it can vary massively in this regard. It also weighs a ton which makes laying it a very slow and costly process.

Yorkstone paving

Yorkstone paving isn’t a budget stone but it looks fantastic.

You can pay a higher price to buy new stone that has been cut to a uniform thickness, or you could consider using pre-cast or reconstituted slabs. Some of the ‘fake’ products on offer these days really are pretty impressive in terms of mimicking natural stone, and they can be a better solution if for example you like the look of sandstone but don’t like the wild colour variations.

Concrete paving stone with brick detailing

Concrete paving stone with brick detailing

Of course there are many other very attractive natural stones to choose from apart from sandstone – limestone, quartzite, granite, slate, Purbeck stone and Travertine to name a few. The key is to do your homework and make sure you know where the stone originates from and (very importantly in the UK) that it can cope with freezing weather.

Where is the paving being used?
If it’s being laid in an area that gets little sun and it will be covered in algae by the end of winter that’s okay if you don’t need to walk on it. But for pedestrian areas you don’t want stone underfoot that will be really slippery and slimey when it gets wet (and the same goes for decking which can be lethal when wet). You also need to think about the surface finish of the stone you choose – a riven finish is great for a traditional look, but this uneven surface on sandstone and Yorkstone can be seriously dangerous when wet – as can a very smooth surface.

Sawn edged Yorkstone with a smooth finish

Sawn edged Yorkstone with a smooth finish

Consider opting for stone with a shotsawn, bush hammered or tooled finish on the surface which would solve the problem (you can specify this by getting the stone directly from a quarry).  In recent years we’ve seen Porcelain tiles being introduced to the landscaping market.  It’s great for a clean crisp look and is marketed as being easy to clean and slip-resistant.

Jetwashing will get rid of the algae and do a lot to keep paving clean but it can also damage mortar joints, so you could consider laying paving with clean edges which can be ‘butt-jointed’ (ie no mortar joints between the slabs).

A cost effective alternative to stone slabs is loose stone (gravel, shingle, chippings etc.). If you want to use a space for outdoor dining for example, gravel is best avoided where you will be putting your furniture as it will be difficult to move the chairs easily. And do avoid laying gravel right next to the lawn (always use a mowing edge like a strip of brickwork) or you could have stones flying through your windows next time you cut the grass!

Gravel next to seating area laid with sandstone setts

Gravel next to seating area laid with sandstone setts

Also choose a stone of a reasonable size that won’t be carried in to the house on your shoes, or kicked about all over the garden (or used as a toilet by next door’s cat!). Avoid the big stones (reminiscent of Brighton Beach) as they are a nightmare to walk on, and ideally go for flatter stones for any pedestrian areas, as they move less and create an easy surface to walk on and use wheelbarrows etc.

What about drainage?
One big advantage of choosing gravel surfacing is that you won’t need to worry about rainwater draining away as you might with a large surface area of paving. And this could be something to bear in mind particularly if you are planning to create or increase the size of a driveway in your front garden. It is now a requirement to gain planning permission for any new area of impermeable driveway over 5 square metres in size (unless it drains to a permeable area), so if you don’t want to use block pavers or porous asphalt, gravel would be a good option.

There are 3 major stone companies who supply stone merchants nationally in the UK, so if you don’t have a local quarry who can supply what you want, it’s worth taking a look at their websites to get a feel for the variety of paving products available.  Check out Marshalls, Bradstone and Stonemarket.

You’ll soon realise that paving is a big subject (and I haven’t even mentioned alternatives to stone such as bricks, setts, cobbles, block pavers, sealed gravels, timber….)  and it may not be the most exciting subject in the world (!), but if you’re planning some new hard landscaping in your garden it’s important to spend some time thinking really hard about what you are looking to achieve.  If you don’t, you could risk making an expensive mistake by choosing materials which are completely unsuitable for your needs.