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.

cornus stems

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.

cornus

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.

 

Hellebore sternii.JPG (1)

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.

mahonia charity

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 … 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 … plants for a splash of colour!

I’ve noticed over the years that so many of my clients prefer planting schemes with cool colours – white, green, purple, blue, and maybe a dash of pink or dark red.  And classy restraint is all well and good but there’s nothing like a big splash of bold and beautiful colour to bring a garden to life and lift the spirits.  Here’s a small selection of perennials in vivid hues of reds and oranges for spring and summer.

Early in the year nothing provides a splash of colour in the garden to greater effect than a bold planting of tulips.  The goblet shaped flowers of Tulipa ‘Abu Hassan’ have velvety petals of a rich deep mahogany-crimson edged with gold.  Gloriously vibrant planted en masse, especially amongst lime green Euphorbias, it also matches perfectly with the new red foliage of Photinia ‘Red Robin’.

Abu Hassan flowers from mid-April to May on sturdy stems that make it an excellent cut flower.  Like all tulips, it needs well drained soil and prefers a sunny to lightly shaded sight. Height: 45cm. Tulips make very good container plants, especially when several varieties are planted in layers to provide a succession of colour over several months.

Garden tips: Plant outdoors from October to December after the cold weather has set in to reduce the risk of viral and fungal diseases.  Plant 20cm deep and 8cm apart.  Leave all the leaves to die right down after flowering to allow the bulbs to store more food and be at their best the following year.

Geums bring the next wave of bright colour to the borders and produce wonderful combinations of form and colour as planting companions for late season tulips.

 

The frilly, fiery orange flowers of Geum chiloense ‘Prinses Juliana’ begin to appear in late April, several weeks earlier than most geums, and are at full throttle in time to provide the perfect foil for the sombre, stately Tulipa ‘Queen of Night’.   I have noticed that Orange Geums have been a firm favourite in gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show in recent years – and I have to say I find them a welcome antidote to all those very subdued green, white and purple schemes which seem to dominate every year!

Bright orange Geums add vibrancy to this subtle planting scheme at Chelsea

The flowers are supported on strong, wiry stems above neat mounds of deeply puckered mid-green leaves and continue to emerge in succession throughout June and July.  These hardy perennials have a height and spread of 60cm x 45cm and are best positioned front of border in full sun to partial shade. They are easy to grow on any fertile, well-drained, moist soil.

Probably the biggest and boldest splash of red in the border is made by Papaver ‘Beauty of Livermere’, and it’s a real favourite of mine.

This exuberant oriental poppy has sturdy stems that reach 4 to 5 feet in height and its flowers are huge and sumptuous, the dazzling scarlet petals splashed with black at the base and arranged around dark, velvety stamen.  A large part of the pleasure in growing these wonderful flowers comes from anticipating their arrival, spotting the large round buds starting to split and watching as the crumpled petals begin to unfurl.  Each flower lasts only briefly (especially in windy weather!), but an established clump will produce numerous flowers from late May to the end of June. The basal leaves are downy green and much divided, emerging early in the year to form large clumps.  Oriental poppies die back once flowering is over so they are best planted amongst companions that will fill the gap they leave, such as grasses or dahlias.  All poppies like an open, sunny site with moist, well-drained soil.

Garden tips: After flowering, cut the untidy looking clumps back to ground level.  A new flush of foliage will emerge and may be accompanied by more flowers later in the season.

As the poppies fade, the day lilies, or Hemerocallis, start to bloom, bringing warmth and colour to fill the mid-summer lull in flowering.  One of the best varieties is Hemerocallis ‘Stafford’ which produces masses of lily-like dark red flowers with yellow throats and midribs that contrast beautifully with its fresh, bright green leaves. It’s an absolute stunner!

Each flower lasts only for one day (Hemerocallis comes from the Greek term meaning ‘beautiful for a day’), but there are several buds on each stem and Hemerocallis ‘Stafford’ reliably produces many new stems throughout July.  The flowers contrast well with other hot coloured flowers such as Crocosmias or Rudbeckia fulgida and the clumps of strongly arching leaves help to anchor taller perennials such as Echinops ritro and Verbena bonariensis.

The young strappy leaves of Hemerocallis emerge early in the year, bringing a zing of lime green to light up the ground between spring flowering bulbs and then quickly forming large clumps which help disguise the fading bulb foliage.  They are semi-evergreen in milder areas.

Day lilies are easy to grow in any soil, but flowering is prolonged if the soil is kept moist over summer.  They thrive in full sun to part shade.  Red flowered varieties like ‘Stafford’ fade in intense sunlight, so are best planted in partial shade or where they receive protection from midday sun.

Garden tips: Hemerocallis flowers start to look unsightly as soon as they fade so regular dead heading is needed to keep the plants looking their best and slugs and snails can be a problem.

Fiery by name and by nature, Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ is one of the earliest blooming Crocosmias, starting in mid to late July, and is still setting the garden alight right through August and September.   The airy arching stems of flaming red flowers branch out from clumps of large, pleated leaves which are an architectural feature in their own right.

It is an imposing presence, reaching 1.2 metres in height and makes maximum impact planted in bold swathes in a sunny or partially shaded site alongside other hot themed perennials such as Heleniums, deep red Dahlias and bright gold Achilleas.  For truly show-stopping vibrancy, try combining it with the dark foliage of Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaf’ and the lime green bracts of Euphorbia schillingii or palustris.  Like all Crocosmias, ‘Lucifer’ will perform best in fertile, moist, humus rich soil in a sunny, sheltered spot (Crocosmias are natives of southern Africa where they grow in damp open areas among grasses and perennial plants in full light). They may need protecting over winter with a layer of bark chip, bracken or straw in colder areas.

Garden tips: The secret to keeping Crocosmias flowering well is to rejuvenate clumps by regular division during the dormant season (avoiding frosty conditions).  In congested clumps, the rhizomes become starved of nutrients, producing fewer leaves and very few flowers.  And remember to stake large clumps before they get too tall or they will flop – especially after rain.

 

Photo credits:  Janet Bligh, Firgrove Photographic

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