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

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.

Pyracantha

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

Jobs for the garden in December

As the year draws to a close you can afford to take a bit of time off from labouring in the garden, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do!  Here are a few of the more important tasks you should be carrying out this month:

Finish clearing leaves and debris, particularly from borders and rock gardens where they can smother small plants.  This will also help to reduce slugs and snails who like to hide in amongst them. Burn any diseased plant material you find while clearing up.

If the ground is not too waterlogged or frozen, dig new planting areas, using boards to stand on to avoid compacting the soil.  Add bulky organic matter such as garden compost or well-rotten farmyard manure.

Well-rotted manure

Winter is also an ideal time to check soil pH and nutrient levels and put right any deficiencies.

While the evenings are dark and you’re likely to be at home more, think about where you could benefit from additional garden lighting, either from a safety point of view, or just to be able to enjoy the garden from inside the house.

TREES & HEDGES
When the leaves have fallen you can start to prune deciduous trees and some shrubs (leave the pruning of more tender shrubs until spring).

Continue planting bare-root trees and hedges when the weather allows.

Prune overgrown deciduous hedges (such as Hornbeam and Beech).

SHRUBS & CLIMBERS

Rose by Firgrove Photographic
Plant bare root roses (shrubs and climbers) now – but not in frosty conditions.

LAWN CARE
Carry out lawn repairs if conditions permit, rake up fallen leaves. However avoid walking on the lawn when it is frosty or waterlogged.

POND CARE
Remove netting from ponds and prevent your pond from freezing over by floating a rubber ball on the pond which you can remove to leave a hole for oxygen for fish, frogs and other pond-life.

frozen pond

Alternatively stand a saucepan of hot water on the frozen surface until it melts a hole in the ice.

PESTS & DISEASES
Keep an eye on overwintering rhizomes and tubers (of plants such as Dahlias and Cannas) for signs of rot.

This is a good time to fork over vacant ground as it exposes pests to hungry birds.

Picture credits:  Janet Bligh & Firgrove Photographic

Fabulous plants for August

If you’re looking for colour in midsummer, here’s a small selection of my favourite easy plants for August

Perovskia atriplicifolia
This plant, commonly known as ‘Russian Sage’ is technically known as a sub-shrub, as it grows from a woody base. This is a plant that thrives in hot sunny borders with well-drained soil and it’s always a very welcome sight in midsummer which can be a difficult time to find colour in the garden – the early flowers are over and the later autumn flowering plants aren’t quite at their best yet.

Perovskia 'Blue Spire' at RHS Wisley Gardens

Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’ at RHS Wisley Gardens, Surrey

To succeed with Perovskia, you should prune plants in late spring when they are starting to put on growth, rather than cutting back in autumn. You’ll then be rewarded with upright silvery grey stems with fragrant leaves and lovely violet flowers in late summer.  The best known Perovskia is probably ‘Blue Spire’ which reaches 1m in height, but I also use ‘Little Spire’ which as the name suggests is a smaller variety, reaching 60-80cm in height as a rule. For maximum impact, grow them in groups.

Geranium Rozanne ‘Gerwat’
This is one of those really long-flowering perennials I seem to include in pretty much every garden I plant!  I’m always looking for reliable, great value plants and this particular hardy Geranium is invaluable.

Geranium 'Rozanne'

Geranium ‘Rozanne’

No kidding, it flowers from June to October or even into November, and there aren’t that many reliable plants that can offer that sort of flowering period!
It’s fast-growing and spreading (up to 1 metre wide), forming a wide clump of foliage which is great to smother weeds, and its large blue flowers are held on stems above the mound of leaves.  Fine in sun or some shade, not fussy about soil type and generally very easy to grow.   Hardly surprising Geranium Rozanne was named ‘Plant of the Centenary’ at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2013!

Lythrum salicaria ‘Robert’
This ‘loosestrife’ is another long-flowering perennial which provides a real splash of colour in midsummer, and will attract lots of insects in search of nectar, so it’s great if you’re interested in planting for wildlife.

Lythrum salicaria 'Robert'

Brilliant colour from Lythrum salicaria ‘Robert’

Flowering from July to September Lythrum ‘Robert’ has dense upright spikes of deep pink flowers and reaches about 75cm in height.  It will grow in some shade, but Lythrums do need a reasonable amount of moisture in the soil to thrive.  In fact most Lythrums are ideal for bog gardens and to grow as marginal plants next to water. ‘Robert’ though, is alleged to be more tolerant of slightly drier conditions than other Lythrums and I have grown it successfully in the garden above, which has fairly water-retentive soil but is far from being classed as boggy.

Lythrum Feuerkerze

Lythrum salicaria ‘Feuerkerze’ AGM

A slightly taller variety is the reliable Lythrum salicaria ‘Feuerkerze’ AGM (Award of Garden Merit from the RHS).  It gets to about 90cm high and about 45cm wide, so all in all a slightly larger variety than ‘Robert’.

Clematis viticella ‘Venosa Violacea’ AGM
This is a very easy two tone purple Clematis which will tolerate some shade and isn’t too fussy about soil conditions.  Flowering from July to September and reaching up to about 3 metres in height, it’s great to climb up trees and scramble through shrubs which have finished flowering and could do with a bit of extra colour at this time of year.

Clematis venosa 'Violacea' AGM

Clematis venosa ‘Violacea’ AGM

It’s not so big that it will get out of control and is such a good plant it’s been awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit.

Eryngium giganteum ‘Silver Ghost’ AGM
Eryngium (or ‘sea hollies’) are great plants for dry sunny gardens with poor soil, where they will thrive.

Eryngium Silver Ghost, Perovskia, Echinacea

Great planting combinations at RHS Wisley – Eryngium ‘Silver Ghost, Perovskia and Echinacea

They look fantastic with grasses and plants like Lavender, Perovskia and Nepeta which like similar conditions.  But they are not only valuable for the fact that they will grow where many other plants won’t, but because they offer such a long season of interest, having a beautiful architectural form which lasts long in to the winter.  There are many varieties of Eryngium, and ‘Silver Ghost’ is a biennial (which means it flowers in its second year and then dies after setting seed).  The flowers turn blue as they mature and can be dried for flower arranging.

Eryngium 'Silver Ghost'

Eryngium ‘Silver Ghost’

Many other Eryngiums are perennial and it’s worth growing a mix of varieties for different flower forms, heights, and shades of blue and silver – if you have the right conditions in your garden.

Picture credits: Janet Bligh & Firgrove Photographic