5 essential … plants for winter interest

In the depths of winter plants which provide structure, colour and fragrance in a garden are especially welcome. Here are a few easy plants which will offer much, if not all, of that.

It isn’t just leaves and flowers that add colour to the garden – stems can do it too and those of shrubby Cornus (commonly known as ‘dogwoods’) do it in style. Depending on the variety, at this time of year their upright stems provide a stunningly vivid display of dark red, orange, limey green or dark bronze-black, from leaf fall right through the winter.

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For maximum impact, go for a group planting of 3 or more and they will look truly spectacular in an open spot where they will literally light up when the winter sun hits them.

Although you could argue its star turn is in winter, Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ also produces small white flowers in spring followed by white berries in autumn and its golden yellow leaves turn red and orange in Autumn.

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So basically it’s a great plant for interest pretty much all year round.  It isn’t fussy about soil, but will do best in moist soil and is a useful plant for wet areas of the garden.
Top tip: Prune hard to 30-40cm above ground in early spring to prevent the shrub getting too large and to rejuvenate it so that fresh coloured stems grow each year.

Hamamelis or ‘witch hazel’ is definitely a wonder in winter when the bare branches are covered in clusters of sweetly scented yellow, orange or red spidery flowers. Plant it on a woodland edge, or in winter border alongside a path, where its fragrance can be appreciated and you can cut the flowering twigs and bring them indoors to perfume your house in winter.

Hamamelis intermedia 'Bernstein'

This large spreading shrub/small tree grows (slowly!) up to around 4m in height and spread, so give it plenty of space to expand in time. Hamamelis prefer a moist, well-drained neutral to acid soil in sun or partial shade.

Helleborus sternii is a very attractive evergreen perennial with pretty creamy-pink-green flowers that will brighten up a winter woodland or shady border from January to March.

 

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Standing about 30cm tall it has glossy, prickly-edged leaves and provides architectural shape in the border all year round, so it’s a great plant if you want some attractive evergreen structure at a low level or to grow under trees and shrubs.  It’s also ideal to plant in a raised flower bed, where the flowers can be seen more easily.  Helleborus sternii likes a neutral to alkaline soil in sun or partial shade and will benefit from a mulch of well rotted organic matter in autumn. Most hellebores are very hardy, but this variety may need a bit of shelter from cold winter winds.

Phyllostachys Aurea is a tall, strongly upright growing bamboo that’s great for hedging and screening, but also makes a very elegant specimen plant whose stems when mature can add a wonderful splash of golden colour to your winter garden.

Phyllostachys

For maximum impact, plant in full sun and prune the lower side shoots away to reveal the canes in all their glory.  If you’re not too keen on the yellow colour, opt instead for Phyllostachys nigra which has very attractive black shoots.  Plant in moist, well drained soil in sun or partial shade, and protect from cold, drying winds.  Top tip: if you don’t want to find this plant running amok through your garden (and the garden next door!) surround the roots with a non-perishable barrier that will restrict the plant’s spread. You have been warned!!

Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ is a tall, imposing and highly architectural plant that will add year round structure and winter interest to a shady area of the garden. Despite its large size and prickly leaves, this plant has one of the most delicious and delicate of scents, very like that of Lily of the Valley, which makes a wonderful surprise in the winter.

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The spikes of fragrant pale yellow flowers are held above rosettes of large dark green, holly-like leaves from November to March and provide a valuable source of nectar for pollinating insects in winter while the blue/black berries that follow will attract birds into your garden.  This hardy shrub will be happy in a moderately fertile moist or well drained soil.

Mahonia

 

You can also find more plants for winter interest in my previous blogs:

5 essential … plants for winter seedheads

5 essential … small evergreen plants

 

Photos:  Janet Bligh

 

 

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5 essential … trees for spring blossom

Nothing lifts flagging winter spirits like the first signs of blossom on the boughs, the clouds of pink and white that follow bringing with them the first true promise of spring and a new gardening year. While the iconic blossom trees are April’s ornamental cherries, the blossom season lasts from February to early May, moving through the Prunus family (from blackthorn, apricots, plums and cherries) and then on to the later crab apples, apples and Hawthorn.  And right now it’s the perfect time to be planting trees so get busy and ensure you have lots of beautiful blossom to look forward to!

One of the earliest blossom trees to flower is Prunus mume ‘Beni-chidore’, a dainty Japanese apricot that grows to only 3 metres and produces deep carmine pink, almond scented flowers on bare stems in late February to March.

Prunus Beni-chidori ©Ornamental Trees

The yellow fruits that follow are edible, but not pleasantly so as they are very bitter. It prefers a moist, fertile, well-drained soil and is best planted in a sunny, sheltered spot next to a path in order to catch the scent. It also makes a good container plant.

For something a little bit different, ornamental pear trees flower ahead of most other blossom trees and are usually easy to grow, tolerant of most soils and conditions and disease resistant. Pyrus calleryana ‘Chanticleer’ is one of the best. It is an upright, compact tree to 7-10m in height and carries large white flowers on bare stems in March.

Pyrus calleryana ‘Chanticleer © Marc Deraeve

The fruit aren’t suitable for human consumption, but make useful late season food for birds and the leaves take on fiery tints in autumn, later than many other trees.

Amelanchier lamarkii is another early bloomer, smothering itself in delicate, star shaped white flowers in March to April. In early summer these go on to produce edible purple/black fruits that are a particular favourite of blackbirds. The small leaves provide dappled shade in summer and turn from striking bronze when they emerge to green and then brilliant red and orange in autumn.

Amelanchier. © beechwood nurseries

It is a slow grower and makes an excellent choice as a specimen for smaller gardens. It can also be grown as a multi-stemmed tree, providing additional structural interest in winter. Happy in sun or partial shade, this tree tolerates extreme cold and wet, but does need a lime free soil.

The real stars of the show are the ornamental cherries, many of which have Japanese names as they were bred from Japanese garden cherries by the famous plantsman, Collingwood ‘Cherry’ Ingrams. Amongst the most unusual of these is Prunus ‘Ukon’ as its clusters of large, semi-double blossoms are neither pink nor white, but pale sulphur yellow. These open from pink buds in mid to late April and are perfectly complemented by its bronze/brown young foliage. It has an attractive, spreading habit and umbrella-like canopy and is altogether a beautiful tree for any garden. (Ultimate height and spread approximately 8m x 10m).  Prunus avium Plena (AGM) is not Japanese, but the double flowered version of our native cherry and is covered in a profusion of pure white drooping flowers in late April to May. Its young bronze leaves turn to dark green and then a rich, vibrant red in autumn. At about 10m x 10m it makes a spectacular specimen or avenue tree in a large garden.

Prunus avium plena ©RHS plants

 

If it’s pink that takes your fancy, Prunus ‘Ichiyo’ is a lovely, dainty tree (up to 6m tall) with neat, shell-pink blooms set off by bronze-green foliage.

Prunus Ichiyo ©rhs
Ornamental cherries grow best in fertile, well-drained, soil in sun or partial shade. They will not tolerate water logging.
Late bloomers, but no less beautiful for it, the crab apples see the blossom season out in style. They are related to our domestic apple (for which they make excellent pollinators), but have much smaller fruits which can only be eaten cooked and are mostly made into jellies and jams. In late spring, they have pretty, scented, usually single flowers, ranging in colour from pure white to deep pink, depending on the variety.  Some cultivars have purple leaves.  In autumn, they have small, attractively coloured red or yellow ‘miniature apples’ and they often have good autumn leaf colour as well. Most crab apples do not grow to more than 6m tall, and take quite a long time to get there so they are excellent trees for small gardens.  Malus hupehensis is an exception to this rule and, at up to 12 metres tall, makes a wonderful spreading specimen tree.

Malus-hupehensis ©rhs

It has profuse clusters of pink-budded white flowers in spring, followed by cherry-shaped, deep-red fruits, and red and yellow autumn tints to the leaves.
Crab apples are very hardy, and happy to grow in almost any soil, provided it does not dry out easily in summer. They like a sunny position, but will tolerate some shade.

 

Photos credits:  Ornamental Trees, Marc Deraeve, Beechwood Nurseries, Royal Horticultural Society.

 

5 essential … plants for a relaxed country look

As much of my work is in country gardens around Hampshire, Surrey & Sussex, I often need to find ways to blend the plants inside the garden with those in the wider landscape beyond the garden boundaries. There are a number of plants which I use for that purpose, and also where the planting needs to transition from cultivated flower beds to a wilder look in the further reaches of a garden, where wildflowers such as daisies and cow parsley may be growing for example.

With millions of people watching Country File on the TV every week, there’s no doubt that an awful lot of us hanker after the Great Outdoors and yearn for a touch of countryside in our lives, so even if you have a small suburban plot by choosing the right plants to put in it you can bring a flavour of country life into your own garden.

You can’t get much more ‘relaxed country look’ than Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’. Romantic as the name sounds, this is in fact a rather more sophisticated and elegant form of the very familiar cow parsley.

Anthriscus AS

 

The difference is in the foliage, still deeply cut and lacy but a wonderful deep purple/black in colour that perfectly offsets the umbels of delicate creamy white flowers appearing from May to July. Rising to a height of 1m, but with a dainty spread of just 30cm and happy in sun or partial shade, this short-lived perennial or biennial will self-seed freely and makes a perfect companion for ornamental grasses in less formal or meadow areas of the garden. Fully hardy and prefers well drained soil.

Foxgloves are a wonderful addition to natural planting schemes, providing vertical interest and self-seeding freely. And bees love them too! Digitalis ‘Pam’s Choice’ is a particularly attractive form, its nodding white trumpets of flowers heavily dotted and splashed inside with deep maroon.

Digitalis AS

The flowers last from May to July on stems that reach 1.5m high and the basal rosettes of soft green leaves spread to about 45cm. They like a moist, humus rich soil and full sun to partial shade, but don’t worry too much about positioning – once you have them in the garden, one of the joys of foxgloves is watching them pop up each season where they know they’ll be happy.

Leucanthemum x superbum ‘TE Killin’ has been awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit for consistent and reliable flowers of great beauty. The large, white, semi-double, daisy-like flowers have golden yellow centres and are held on sturdy stems with dark green leaves from July to August.

Leucanthemum ©RHS

With a height and spread of 80cm x 60cm this makes an excellent mid-border plant and gives a relaxed, meadow-like feel to any summer border, looking especially effective when planted in large drifts. An easy-to-care-for, free flowering and fully hardy perennial happy on any reasonably moist and fertile soil in full sun or partial shade.

Viburnum Opulus ‘Roseum’ (also known as ‘Sterile’ which doesn’t sound half as nice!) is a beautiful large shrub which is covered with snowball-like white flowers in May and June. Berries follow the flowers and later in the year, the fresh green leaves turn a beautiful purple-red colour before dropping. This is not a fussy plant, thriving in sun or some shade, and any reasonably fertile soil – just give it plenty of room as it could potentially reach a height and spread of up to 4 metres.

Vib opulus Roseum RHS

A smaller variety of this plant is Viburnum Opulus compactum, at approximately 1.5m height and spread – making it a much more manageable shrub for a smaller garden.

Viburnum Opulus (commonly known as ‘Guelder Rose’ even though it isn’t a rose!) is often used in native mixed hedges and is a magnet for wildlife as well as being hardy enough to cope with exposed positions.

Everyone loves honeysuckle don’t they?! I do anyway, and Lonicera periclymenum ‘Graham Thomas’ is a climber I plant regularly when I don’t need something neat and well-behaved!

Lonicera AS

This is ideal to plant on a large pergola structure or to scramble over walls or through trees. The flowers are a pale creamy yellow and are at their most fragrant on a warm summer evening. This is a vigorous twining plant and it will get up to 6 or 7 metres high, so it needs a lot of space as well as sturdy support.

It’s an easy plant to grow, tolerating most soil types plus some shade, (although it’s at its best in a sunny position for maximum fragrance). It’s also a valuable plant for wildlife with nectar and berries attracting bees, butterflies and birds.

Other plants which I like to use for the country look include the ornamental grass Deschampsia ‘Goldtau’, the brilliant red poppy Papaver ‘Beauty of Livermere’, Crataegus monogyna (Hawthorn) and the wild rose, Rosa rugosa.

Photos:  Firgrove Photographic, Royal Horticultural Society

Chelsea Flower Show 2017 – highlights

I love my annual trip to the Chelsea Flower Show in London, exhausting though it always is! This year though I have to say it was pretty disappointing due to the reduced number of the bigger show gardens – less than half than in 2016. My main reason for going to the show is to be inspired by great design and innovative use of materials and planting, so the lack of gardens was keenly felt. Still, it’s always a good day out and a great opportunity to see beautiful plants.

The ‘Best Show Garden’ award was won by the M&G Garden designed by James Basson.

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Clearly a very well-constructed and thought-out design inspired by an abandoned Maltese quarry, it was notable to see how few members of the public were gathered around the plot looking at the garden. You normally have to fight your way through the crowds to get a glimpse of the big gardens!  I think this one was just a bit too abstract and stark for many of the show goers who were there to see a more traditional ‘garden’ packed full of flower and colour.

Speaking of which, the Morgan Stanley Garden designed by Chris Beardshaw was stuffed with beautiful plants, with a lovely oak and limestone loggia as its centrepiece – much more crowd-pleasing.

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Not surprisingly this garden won the People’s Choice Award for Show Gardens.

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Winner of this award in the ‘Fresh Gardens’ category was the Breast Cancer Now Garden – Through the Microscope. I liked the simplicity and structure of this garden.

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So many of the gardens at the show are filled to the brim with planting, that it can be a welcome relief to find something a little more calm and open.

Another Fresh Garden with a strong, simple structure that I liked was Beneath a Mexican Sky. This was a very successful homage to the Mexican modernist architect Luis Barragan who used colourful walls and pools in his work.

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I have a bit of a thing for orange, so particularly liked the use of California poppies and the fabulous agave planted against the backdrop of an orange wall.

Far more subtle and restrained – and archetypally Chelsea – was the planting in the RHS Greening Grey Britain garden.

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Lots of lovely purple, white and green froth contrasting with the dark foliage of Sambucus nigra shrubs. Yum!

At the other end of the scale, with pink walls and much more colour, was the Silk Road Garden, Chengdu, China.  The pink wasn’t to everyone’s tastes judging by the comments around the garden (!), but the garden was designed as a showcase for just some of the many, many plants which we use in our gardens today and which originate from China.

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I usually find a few products and suppliers of interest at the show and this year particularly like the rusted steel screen panels used on the Alitex trade stand.

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I also liked the bespoke pots and furniture used on the 500 years of Covent Garden designed by Lee Bestall.

 

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One thing that never disappoints at Chelsea is a garden designed by the Ishihara Kazujuki Design Laboratory from Japan.

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They create the most beautifully atmospheric Japanese gardens which always draw a crowd. The attention to detail in their gardens is completely mind-boggling and a gold medal was – as usual – very much deserved.

I just hope we get a lot more to look at in 2018!

 

Photos: Janet Bligh