5 essential … plants for a flowering hedge

We tend to think of hedges as plain green blocks, made up of plants such as Yew, Beech and Laurel, marking the boundaries of our beds and gardens and providing the backdrop to more interesting planting. It doesn’t have to be this way: flowering hedges can be decorative elements in their own right.  As the traditional hedge planting season draws to a close, there’s still plenty of time to plant a flowering alternative.

Choisya ternata

A hedge of Choisya ternata provides both backdrop and decoration: the glossy, aromatic, bright green foliage provides an excellent year-round background for a mixed border, and in late spring the whole plant is smothered in highly scented, star-shaped white flowers. Other factors that make this evergreen shrub a popular choice for hedging include its fast rate of growth, dense habit and easy-going nature: Choisya ternata grows well on any reasonably well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade, reaching a maximum height and spread of around 2m by 2.5m. Its only special requirement is a relatively sheltered site as it won’t be happy in a very cold or windy spot.

 

Choisya ternata.JPG

The cultivar Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’ has the same characteristics as its relative, but the young leaves are a glossy bright yellow in full sun or a more subtle yellow/green when grown in partial shade.  I have to admit I’m not a fan of this variety as I think it looks a bit sick but it does brighten a gloomy area!
Garden care: established hedges should be pruned fairly hard immediately after flowering which may also encourage a second flush of flowering in autumn. Cut out frost damaged stems in early spring.

Hydrangeas are great shrubs that flower all summer and autumn and make highly decorative informal hedges. There a number of different varieties, but Hydrangea macrophylla cultivars make an excellent choice for hedging as they have large, long-lasting flowers and a compact, rounded habit and require only minimal pruning once a year.

Hydrangea, Nymans

Although deciduous, the mopheads in particular retain year-round interest as the dried flower heads persist well through the winter. Which cultivar to choose will probably pose the biggest problem as the flowers come in two shapes – round ‘mopheads’ or flattened lacecaps – and a wide range of colours – whites, pinks, violets, blues and reds – while the stems and leaves can vary from green through red to near black. The final variant is size, cultivars varying from around one to two metres eventual height and spread.

Once the choice is made, all the macrophylla Hydrangeas are fully hardy shrubs that require little shelter and thrive in windy gardens, including seaside ones, and perform well in full sun to part shade, but they do appreciate having their feet in cool moist conditions so prefer a deep, rich soil with plenty of organic matter dug in and a good spring mulch.
Garden care: it is best to leave the flower heads over winter to give protection to the growth buds below. Dead head in spring after the danger of frosts, cutting back the stem to just above the first healthy buds.

Hypericum x hidcoteense ‘Hidcote’ is one of a large genus, commonly known as St John’s Wort, that includes annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs which are all instantly recognisable for their prolific bright yellow, cup-shaped flowers. Of all the family, Hypericum ‘Hidcote’ is the most commonly used for hedging because of its dense, bushy, spreading habit, and its hardiness and versatility.

 

Hypericum Hidcote

This is a very hardy plant surviving temperatures down to -12 degrees centigrade, making it suitable for most areas although it will appreciate some protection from cold winds. It grows well in most types of soil, preferably well-drained, and is happy in full sun or partial to full shade although flowering will be more prolific in a sunny spot. Appearances obviously matter too, and the dark green foliage makes a superb backdrop to the profusion of stunning golden yellow flowers with orange stamens which come in relentless succession from mid-summer until late autumn.

Hypericum Hidcote is referred to as ‘semi-evergreen’ as the leaves can drop for a couple of months in the hardest of winters but regenerate in spring when the whole hedge will benefit from a trim to remove last year’s growth and maintain its bushy habit. Eventual height is 1.5m, but Hypericum Hidcote hedges are best kept to a maximum of 1m high to prevent them getting straggly.
Garden care: apply a good mulch of rich organic matter after pruning.

The relatively recent move towards more naturalistic planting has led to a much wider use of ornamental grasses in planting designs and the introduction of the idea of using grasses as screens and hedges. Although maybe not the most obvious choice when thinking of hedging, grasses lend themselves very well to the job as they add both colour and movement and can be designed to be a textural through-line in a garden, lending themselves easily to straight lines or sweeping curves.

Miscanthus Yaki Dwarf

Of the many grasses available, it’s hard to beat the cultivars of Miscanthus sinensis for their long season of interest, colourful flowers and sturdy ability to remain standing through winter.  Miscanthus ‘Yakushima Dwarf’ has fine textured, silvery-green leaves that form upright, arching clumps up to 1.2m high and in late summer long-lasting plume like panicles of pinky-brown, silky flowerheads emerge and delicately change to silvery white as they mature. The flowerheads and leaves glow with gold and orange when they catch the winter sun and are breathtakingly beautiful with a coating of hoar frost.

It’s not a fussy creature, apart from disliking winter wet, and grows well in any fairly moist and well-drained soil, becoming drought tolerant once established. Maintenance couldn’t be much easier either: simply cut down once a year before new leaves start to grow and divide every few years.  I like the fact that a hedge of grasses is a dynamic addition to the garden, and changes throughout the year rather than simply being a static object like a more traditional hedge.

Shrubby Potentillas are the victims of considerable garden snobbery: mention their name to many gardeners and what comes to mind is a rather common, ‘old-fashioned’ little plant covered in brash yellow flowers. It’s one of those tough old plants, like Mahonias and Forsythias, that got their unfavourable image largely through being the uncared-for survivors of long neglected gardens and their unfortunate tendency to have unsubtle, unfashionable bright yellow flowers. But times have moved on and nowadays Potentilla fruticosa, the most commonly available species in the UK, comes in a whole range of colours, still including many yellows, but also numerous shades of white, pink, orange and red.

Potentilla Abbotswood
Potentilla fruticans ‘Abbotswood’

It’s a good idea to choose your colour carefully as you’ll be seeing a lot of it – given a sunny spot, Potentilla fruticosa will produce masses of saucer shaped flowers, resembling those of single roses, from May until September and needs very little care or attention to do so. The dainty, deeply divided, deciduous leaves vary in colour from dark to grey/green and the shrub has a spreading habit that forms neat mounds roughly 1m high by 1.5m wide. Potentilla fruticans ‘Primrose Beauty’ AGM is a particularly long-flowering variety with pale yellow flowers and grey/green foliage and Potentilla ‘Abbotswood’ AGM has large, pure white flowers and mid green leaves.

Potentilla fruticans is a tough, resilient, fully hardy shrub that needs no watering once established, thrives in poor, well-drained soils and is pretty much impervious to pests, diseases and deer. All of this makes it an ideal choice for hedging, especially on a hot, dry site and it makes a very good companion for other drought tolerant plants, especially those with silver leaves.
Garden care: trim lightly with shears after flowering.

 

Potentilla Goldfinger
A splash of summer colour from Potentilla ‘Goldfinger’

 

 

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5 essential … plants for winter seedheads

Even in death plants with interesting seed heads that stand well over autumn and winter manage to look strikingly beautiful especially on those rare but magical early mornings when they are coated in hoare frost and sparkle in the sun.  Not only do they look good, but their seeds provide a valuable source of food for birds, especially in cold winters when other foods may be scarce. With all this in mind, it’s important to stop and think whether you might be depriving your garden of some winter wonder before wielding the secateurs in the autumn tidy up.

Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) is a native British wildflower which makes a strong architectural statement in a sunny relaxed planting scheme.  In summer, spiny pale green, thistle-like flower heads rise on strong stems from prickly rosettes of leaves and from mid to late summer are covered in tiny pale lilac or white flowers.  The flowers act as a magnet for bees and the seed heads have the same effect on goldfinches whilst also looking wonderful right through the autumn and winter months.

teasels-janet-bligh

These are biennials, flowering in the second season of growth and once established they will self-seed quite prolifically so will need to be controlled by weeding out unwanted seedlings.  Teasels are not fussy about soil type and are happy in full sun or part shade.  Height and spread: 150 cm x 50cm.

A dramatic perennial that is also a valuable addition to the winter border, Phlomis russeliana provides a strong focal point from late spring to early autumn owing to its long flowering period.

phlomis-firgrove-photographic

Whorls of pale yellow flowers are produced at intervals along tall, erect stems above large heart shaped leaves and provide striking silhouettes throughout winter.

phlomis-seedheads-janet-bligh

Again, bees love the flowers so this is an ideal plant for the wildlife garden and also works well in Mediterranean or Prairie style plantings and gravel gardens.  Phlomis russeliana is a vigorous, spreading perennial that needs room to grow and will do so happily on any reasonably fertile, well-drained soil.  Height and spread: 90cm x 75cm.
Gardening tips: Shorten any frost damaged stems in mid-spring, cutting back to just above a healthy bud.  Remove any weak or diseased stems to ground level.

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) produces clouds of soft green, feathery foliage that smell and taste of aniseed and are delicious in salads and fish dishes.

fenneljanet-bligh

In late summer large flat umbels of sulphur yellow flowers attract hover flies and are followed by aromatic seed heads that are eaten by birds, but whose skeleton still makes an attractive and imposing presence in autumn and winter on stems up to 2m tall.

fennel-janet-bligh

Bronze fennel, which has the same characteristics but with beautiful bronze leaves, looks particularly striking grown with Verbena bonariensis which also maintains a fairly sturdy winter outline. Fennel likes a sunny position on fertile, loamy, well-drained soil, but will grow in partial shade where it produces ample foliage but fewer flowers.  Height and spread: 1.5-2m x 45cm (at the base).
Gardening tips: Self-seeds prolifically especially in very hot weather so weed out unwanted seedlings regularly.

The seed heads of biennial Honesty (Lunaria annua) are truly beautiful.  Rounded to oval in shape, the cases are dainty, paper thin and silvery translucent with the flat black seeds clearly visible inside.  The dried stems and seed heads of Honesty are much more fragile and delicate than those of the other perennials mentioned so far, but remain on the plant well into autumn and look wonderful especially when backlit by the sun.

honesty_lunaria_annua-anne-burgess-635791

White or lilac flowers in May and June precede the seed heads and are very attractive to bees and butterflies making this another good candidate for the wildlife garden.  Honesty flourishes in sun or partial shade on fertile, moist, well-drained soil where it will self-seed and naturalise happily.   Height and spread: 90cm x 30cm.
Gardening tip: Pinch out growing tips in spring to encourage bushier growth.

Many ornamental grasses provide excellent structure in autumn and winter and among these is Miscanthus sinensis ‘Yakushima Dwarf’ which makes an ideal front of border feature for winter interest.   Its short, stout tufts of green leaves with white midribs form clumps about 1m tall.  In mid to late summer fluffy pink, tassle-like flowers emerge from the centre of the clump, ageing to silver and persisting long into the winter months.  This grass makes an excellent specimen plant in a small garden and looks very effective planted in generous drifts in larger borders.  I grew it as a hedge in my last garden and it became a real feature in autumn when the low sunlight shone through the flowers.

miscanthus-yakushima-dwarf-janet-bligh

Happiest and most free flowering on an open, sunny site it will also tolerate some shade and performs well on a wide range of soils.  Height and spread when flowering about 1.5m (but if you want less spread it’s easy to hold in the centre of the plant with supports or tie with string).
Gardening tips: Cut foliage down to the base in early spring.  Large clumps can be divided in March to April.

Picture credits:  Janet Bligh, Firgrove Photographic, Anne Burgess

5 essential … small grasses

This month’s focus is on small grasses, a group of plants that between them provide a long season of interest, striking focal points, a wonderful foil to other plants and contrast and movement in almost any aspect and planting scheme.  At a time of year when gardens can start to lose their oomph, grasses are invaluable to keep the interest going well into autumn.

Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’ is one of the most versatile and lovely grasses around.  In early summer, silvery, reddish-brown flower spikes emerge from the dense mounds of slender, mid-green arching leaves and mature to form clouds of finely textured golden seed heads that last well into autumn. All this and easy too: Deschampsia despitosa ‘Goldtau’ is evergreen, fully hardy and thrives in full sun or partial shade and neutral to acid, dry to moist soil.

deschampsia-cespitosa-goldtau
Deschampsia Goldtau at Bury Court in Hampshire

Plant front of border in groups at the base of taller perennials for best effect.  Top tip: remove faded flower heads in late winter before new growth appears and cut back any tatty looking foliage to the base at the same time.  Height and spread when flowering: 75cm x 75cm.

One of the smallest, but the most dramatically coloured of all the ornamental grasses is Imperata cylindrical ‘Rubra’, or Japanese blood grass.  It was grown in Japan as a companion to bonsai for more than a century before being brought over to Europe where it got its common name from the intense dark red colour of its leaves. These emerge quite late in the season and are initially lime green with dark red tips, but as summer progresses the colour spreads through the whole leaf and becomes more vivid and translucent.

imperata-cylindrica
Imperata cylindrica Rubra planted en masse for maximum effect (Oudolf Field, Somerset)

Colouring is best when grown in full sun, but this slow-growing grass will also grow well in light shade, doing best on good garden soil which does not dry out.  It is happy in containers too, where it will make an eye-catching feature, as long as it is kept well-watered.  Height and spread: 40cm x 30cm.
Gardening tips: cut down to the ground in late February.  In colder areas roots should be protected with a thick mulch of straw or well-rotted compost.

Another strikingly coloured grass is Festuca glauca (Blue fescue), an evergreen species forming neat, spiky clumps of intensely blue/green foliage with dainty blue flower stems in summer that fade to pale straw.  Best colouring develops in full sun on thin, dry soils and good drainage is essential (but make sure to water well whilst plants are establishing).

festuca-elijah-blue-_mg_7430
Festuca ‘Elijah Blue’

Festuca glauca looks particularly good if grown as an accent plant, in groups or individually, in a Mediterranean style planting or gravel garden or in a planter.  Height and spread: 30cm x 20cm.  There are various cultivars available, ‘Intense Blue’ and ‘Elijah Blue’ being amongst the best coloured.
Gardening tips: Remove dead foliage in winter by combing through leaves with the fingers.  This is a fully hardy grass, but may need replacing every few years as it can start to become tatty looking.

Stipa tenuissima (full name Stipa tennuifolia syn. S. tenuissima) is an undemanding, versatile grass that is perfect for adding light and movement to a gravel garden or perennial border and also works well in containers.  Tight upright clumps of pale yellow-green leaves are accompanied in summer by masses of silky, arching silver/green flowers that mature to golden buff and sway with the slightest breeze.

stipa-tenuissima

Stipa tenuissima looks very effective in group plantings and is a great addition to a new perennial border where it quickly fills out to provide a wonderful foil for plants such as Achilleas, Salvias, Echinacea and Alliums.
Likes a medium to light, moderately fertile, well-drained soil in full sun.  Height and spread: 30cm x 60cm.
Gardening tips: cut down to the ground in early spring before new foliage appears.  Warning: Stipa tenuissima is very free seeding and will tend to invade adjacent graveled spaces or paved areas with soft pointing.

In contrast to Stipa tenuissima which thrives in full sun and is at its peak in summer, Sesleria autumnalis is a cool season grass for shady areas which puts on new growth in spring and autumn and tends to die back a little in summer.  This summer lull, however, is only the precursor to its autumn glory when the grey/green foliage takes on a fresh lime green hue and the silvery grey flowers open to reveal silky white stamens that shimmer in the breeze.

seslaria-autumnalis

Evergreen and fully hardy, Seslaria autumnalis provides year round interest and striking focal points when planted along the edge of a woodland path or threaded through a shaded border. It is easy to grow, thriving on alkaline soil, but happy on any and tolerates drought, but not winter waterlogging.
Gardening tips: cut back to the base in early spring to encourage new growth and maintain good shape and habit.

 

Photos:  ©Janet Bligh

5 essential … plants for a tropical look

Luckily for UK gardeners who fancy going for a tropical look, steamy tropical weather is not required to achieve it.  Dramatic and contrasting foliage is the key to creating an exotic look with a long season of interest and there are both sun and shade loving plants that fit the bill.  Here are a few of both.

Nothing does the hot tropical look better than Cannas, but despite their steamy looks they can be grown easily in any area of the UK provided they are given winter protection. Most Cannas grow to an average of 1.5m tall and have striking, architectural leaves and fiery flowers in hot reds, oranges, yellows and pinks.

canna leaf c.Firgrove Photographic

Cannas are extremely versatile plants and have a lot to recommend them in addition to their good looks, not least the fact that despite their height they are sturdy enough not to require any staking.  They also have a long flowering period, from late June to October, are happy on any soil as long as they get plenty of feed and will tolerate drought conditions as well as being happy in standing water.  Finally, Cannas will flourish in both sun and shade, but for best leaf and flower colour they should be grown in partial to full shade to prevent fading.

Canna c.Firgrove Photographic

There is a wide range of Cannas to choose from with leaf colours varying from plain green or deep red/purple through a range of striped colour combinations.  All are equally happy in the border or patio planters.  Canna ‘Durban’ [also now known as ‘Phasion’] is very popular owing to the dazzling effect created by its leaves which are variously striped in green, purple, orange and pink and topped by bright orange flowers.  I love it!
Growing tips: Cannas require minimal attention during the growing season, but they do need winter protection. Lift the rhizomes as soon as the first frosts blacken the leaves, pot up and keep just slightly moist in a frost free shed or greenhouse.  Never deadhead Cannas as new flower shoots emerge from the dead flower heads.
Curious fact: Cannas were originally grown in the Americas for food and the starchy rhizomes are still eaten in some parts of Bolivia and Colombia.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Strictus’ is a tall, elegant, grass which is very similar to the more widely known Miscanthus ‘Zebrinus’ (aka ‘Zebra Grass’), only this variety is more upright and harder to find!  Like Zebrinus, it has unusual creamy yellow bands on its leaves making it a really striking plant to grow [NB: these bands are temperature dependent and usually only appear after mid-summer]. Silky panicles of pale pink flowers appear in August to September turning to silvery seed heads that last well through winter.

Miscanthus strictus

Miscanthus Strictus grows up to 2m+ in height, making an excellent specimen plant and also looking very dramatic grown in groups towards the back of the border.  The pale stripes can suffer from scorch if grown in full sun so this grass is best grown in light shade where it makes a perfect backdrop for Cannas.
Growing tips: This is a fully hardy deciduous grass and should be cut back to the ground in late winter before new growth appears.

Fatsia Japonica is an oldie but goodie, and this hardy, handsome, tropical looking evergreen shrub continues to enjoy well-deserved popularity.

fatsia

The huge, glossy, palmate leaves provide instant architectural interest and contrast in any aspect from full sun to deep shade while in autumn exotic looking panicles of creamy white, spherical flowers are produced, often followed by round black fruits.

fatsia variegated

Other varieties of Fatsia include Fatsia japonica ‘Variegata’ (no surprises for guessing it has variegated leaves!) and a newer very attractive variety called Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’ which has unusual speckled white markings on the leaves.
Garden tips: Frost hardy and extremely easy to care for, Fatsia Japonica requires little or no pruning or attention of any kind once established.  Its only requirement is adequate space as it has a potential height and spread of 4m, although it can be kept happily to about half of this with regular pruning.

Another plant grown as much for its foliage as its flowers is Euphorbia Mellifera – the bright green leaves with their central white stripe contrast brilliantly with those of Fatsia Japonica.

Euphorbia mellifera

This magnificent Euphorbia has a naturally domed form (up to 2m high & wide) and makes a strikingly tropical statement in the border in full sun or partial shade.  The leaves are arranged in whorls around stiff stems that produce bronze tinted, honey scented flowers at their tips in spring (hence its common name of ‘honey spurge’).
Garden tips: Euphorbia Mellifera prefers a well-drained soil, will thrive best in a fairly sunny, sheltered spot and may require winter protection in colder areas.  Cut back faded flower stems in autumn.

Melianthus major is a plant with quite stunningly beautiful foliage that make it a really wonderful specimen plant for a sunny tropical planting.  The leaves emerge quite late in the spring, but are well worth waiting for: up to 50cm long, they are a lovely soft glaucous grey/green in colour with stunningly crisp serrations at the edges.

Melianthus major

In hot summers curious bronze red tubular flowers may appear between May and July, but it’s really the foliage that’s the star turn.  After the spring growth there’s a bit of a lull until late summer when the plant puts on another spurt and can reach a height of 1.5-2m.
Growing tips: Prefers a sunny aspect on reasonably fertile, well-drained soil and a good mulch of organic material such as well-rotted manure in spring .  Although it is a shrub, treat Melianthus major as a perennial for best results, cutting the stems back to two or three buds in spring to prevent it getting leggy.  It is not fully frost hardy and requires protection from frost with a dry straw or bracken mulch in late autumn.  If it does get knocked back by frost, don’t panic!  Chances are it will reappear in spring if the winter isn’t too harsh.