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.


Jobs for the garden in November

At this time of year gardening is largely about clearing up and protecting your garden for the winter, but November also marks the start of the tree and hedge planting season.  Here’s a quick rundown on what you could be doing this month:

Prepare for winter by checking anything that is at risk of cold, wind or water loggingRaise pots on bricks or feet so they can drain freely.  Insulate terracotta, glazed and stoneware pots.

Lag outdoor taps and insulate glasshouses.  Move worm bins to a frost-free place or insulate them.  Put away or protect garden furniture – in particular wooden furniture should not be left in contact with the soil, as this can lead to rotting.

Remove dead leaves from the tops of plants and netting on a regular basis.  If you have snow, make sure to remove it before any damage is done to plants or structures such as fruit cages.

Robin in Garden by Firgrove Photographic

Keep a regular supply of food & water for the birds.

Plant bare-rooted trees, shrubs, roses and hedging plants.  Make sure you stake any large plants, including root-ball hedging.  If you’d like more information before you start, take a look at my blogs on planting hedging and choosing the right trees for your garden.

Now is a good time to move plants that you have been meaning to shift.  Large deciduous shrubs are easier to move than you think if you have the manpower.  Leave evergreens until the spring.


Dahlia by Firgrove Photographic

If you don’t want to risk your Dahlias by leaving them in the ground over winter, dig up tubers after the first frost (when the foliage has blackened), dry them and store them either wrapped in newspaper or in dry compost. Don’t forget to label them!

Take root cuttings from perennials with thick fleshy roots (such as Echinops and Oriental poppies).


Apply a layer of compost mulch to borderline hardy plants such as Agapanthus, Salvia patens and Melianthus Major to protect them over winter.

Plant Tulip and Hyacinth bulbs, and finish planting any other spring bulbs providing the ground is not water logged or frozen.

Continue to cut the grass if it continues to grow but raise the blades.  Stay off the grass if you can.

Clean and store submersible pumps.

Check for pests and diseases before bringing outdoor plants in the glasshouse

Picture credits:  Janet Bligh & Firgrove Photographic

Choosing spring bulbs for your cutting garden

If you’re a keen gardener you’ll no doubt appreciate that there’s rarely a time when you can kick back and forget about your garden.  Even as summer draws to a close and it feels like there’s a chance to relax, it’s already time to be preparing next year’s garden.  Spring bulbs need to be planted from September onwards (although Tulip planting should wait until mid October or November), and that means it’s now time to decide what you want to plant and to get your bulb orders under way.

If you have a dedicated cutting garden or just want to add to your mixed borders, then there are a number of really good spring bulbs which will ensure you have a constant supply of cut flowers throughout the season.

Tulips are the mainstay of the spring cutting garden – and for good reason.  They offer an enormous variety of colour, and provide cut flowers in April and May.  Tulips are divided into ‘groups’ which flower at different times, and which come with different flower shapes and sizes.  Generally, the best groups for cutting are Triumph, Viridiflora (multi-coloured), Lily flowering, Parrot flowering and Double Early Tulips.

If you are looking for elegance, I would recommend trying creams and whites (such as ‘Spring Green and ‘White Triumphator’) and the beautiful dark purple of ‘Queen of Night’.   And Lily flowered Tulips are a particularly lovely shape.

Tulip ‘Jan Reus’

For intense reds and oranges, go for ‘Jan Reus’, ‘Havran’ or ‘Abu Hassan’.  In the purple and pink range, try ‘Recreado’ or ‘Shirley’.  One thing to bear in mind when planting Tulips – they need good drainage, so if you garden on heavy soil, do add grit below the bulbs.


Daffs (or ‘Narcissi’ to be technical) are also invaluable as cut flowers as they provide blooms right through from February to May.  They range in height from about 20cm up to 45cm, and colour-wise from pure white through to golden yellow.  If you are adding them to a mixed border, or aiming to naturalize them in grass, then make sure you plant them in groups and think carefully about planting different varieties which will extend the season of interest in your garden.  There’s little point in planting dwarf Narcissi where they won’t be seen, or buying bulbs especially for scent unless you are cutting the flowers for the house or positioning them where you can appreciate their fragrance.

If you are looking for scent, go for a variety such as the lovely white ‘Thalia’ which flowers in March and April.  If you prefer smaller varieties, then ‘Tete a Tete’ and ‘February Gold’ are perfect.  One of my favourites (as I’m not too keen on the big yellow varieties) is the ‘Pheasant Eye’ Narcissus. It flowers quite late and is a lovely understated plant which will brighten up any border in May.

‘Pheasant Eye’ Narcissi

Hyacinths are invaluable to bring scent in to the house.  I’m personally keener on the multiflora varieties of Hyacinth which have (to my eye) a more natural look than the varieties which are more generally available. I think that’s down to the fact that their flower heads are less dense – though still highly scented.  Hyacinthus mulitflora ‘Anastasia’ is a particularly attractive blue variety.

Fritillaria Imperialis

For a bit of drama, try growing Fritillaria imperialis (the Crown Imperial).  With yellow or red flowers in April, growing to a height of about 3 foot, they look fantastic in a tall vase.  In the garden they are also very attractive to bees.

The great thing about planting spring flowering bulbs such as the ones I’ve mentioned is that it needn’t cost the earth, and can be done on any scale – even if it’s just in a few pots.  The key is to experiment and see what works for you.  And if you’re interested in creating a cutting garden for yourself, then please get in touch.

Photo credits: Firgrove Photographic

Fabulous plants for September

Here’s a small selection of wonderful plants I’d recommend for the garden in September.  When I drew up the shortlist I hadn’t realised that most of them hold the RHS Award for Garden Merit (AGM), but that just helps to indicate what great plants they are.  No need to just take my word for it!!

Tricyrtis formosana
Such an exotic looking perennial for a shady border.Trycirtis formosana by Firgrove Photographic

The ‘toad lily’ has stunning flowers in August and September and is ideal for a woodland garden with reasonably moist soil.  My own garden is a bit too dry to grow it unfortunately (and I’ve tried a couple of times) so it’s one of those plants I always lust after at this time of year when there aren’t that many perennials which flower this late on in shady conditions.  Tricyrtis gets to about 80cm high and 50cm wide, and will die back over winter.

Aster x frikartii ‘Mönch’ AGM

Aster Monch by Firgrove PhotographicPerfect for the late summer border, this sun-loving lavender-blue perennial looks great with pretty much anything including ornamental grasses.  It grows up to about 90cm tall and about 40cm wide, so may need staking, but otherwise is pretty much trouble free.  Asters generally need fertile soil to do well but this variety can cope with some dryness.  Plant in big groups for maximum effect right into the autumn.

Pontederia cordata AGM
If you have a pond or pool, this is a lovely aquatic plant to grow for its attractive spear-head leaves, and its deep blue spiked flowers in late summer.

Pontederia cordata, Firgrove Photographic

Growing to a height of about 1.2m, it’s a plant which works well if you want something quite architectural either in, or on the margins of, your water.  I particularly enjoy the sight of this plant later in the day when the bright green leaves glow in the evening sun.  It’s a plant that will spread so if space is an issue, plant it in a basket.

Stipa gigantea AGM
Stipa gigantea (or ‘Golden Oat grass’) is a fabulous statement plant for a sunny garden with well-drained soil.  It has an evergreen base of leaves with tall flowering shoots (up to 2.5m high) which glow in the sunshine.  This is a grass that provides height and movement in the border without blocking the view.

Stipa gigantea

It starts to flower as early as May and continues on into autumn so it’s a very valuable plant to include in the garden.  What’s more, you only need to cut back the old stems when they start to collapse, and that’s pretty much it as far as maintenance goes.  Neil Lucas of Knoll Gardens, which specialise in ornamental grasses, particularly recommends the variety ‘Gold Fontaene’.

Eucomis bicolor AGM
This is a bulb with a difference.  Eucomis bicolour is commonly known as ‘two-coloured pineapple lily’, and it’s not that hard to work out why!

Eucomis bicolor by Firgrove Photographic

The flower grows on a spotted stem (about 50cm high) above a low rosette of fleshy leaves, and it adds a bit of a tropical flavour to late summer planting schemes.  Eucomis needs a sunny sheltered spot, and it is generally recommended to mulch it over winter for added protection as it’s on the tender side.  That said, it has survived in my garden (albeit quite sheltered) for years with absolutely no special treatment!

Indigofera Heterantha AGM
This is such an attractive shrub with slender arching branches, delicate foliage and gorgeous deep pink pea flowers which last for weeks and weeks.  I grow it against a fairly sunny fence in dry soil, where it’s tied in to horizontal wires, and it looks lovely.

Indigofera heterantha

It reaches a height of about 2-2.5m, and if grown as a free-standing shrub (with an arching habit) it would spread about the same amount too.  Indigofera lose their leaves in winter, and although a hardy shrub, it can be quite late to come into leaf, but it’s definitely worth the wait.

For details of other plants which are great for this time of year to see, click on the links
Leycesteria Formosa AGM
Dahlia ‘David Howard’ AGM

Picture credits:  Janet Bligh & Firgrove Photographic