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

5 essential … plants to brighten a shady corner

Many people panic when faced with shady areas to plant and seem to think ‘nothing will grow in shade’.  SO not true!  It’s a fact that flowering interest is limited by shade (mainly to spring time), but by focusing on contrasting foliage colour and textures it’s possible to create a lovely scheme for shady areas.  Here are just some of the plants I rely on to brighten up gloomy borders.

Although it may not be top of the Most Exciting Plants list, Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’ is completely invaluable in difficult areas of the garden (including dry shade) and brings light and texture to even the gloomiest corner.  Somewhat misleadingly named, its evergreen foliage is actually dark green with white margins and may flush to a deep rose pink in winter that looks beautiful next to deep pink Helleborus orientalis.   Happy in both full sun and shade, this tough and obliging shrub will grow in any reasonably well drained soil and requires no more care than a light clip if it gets out of shape.

Euonymus Emerald Gaiety

Grown against a fence or wall (where it will spread to roughly 2 metres), ‘Emerald Gaiety’ makes an excellent backdrop for other shrubs such as white flowered camellias, Fatsia Japonica or Choisya Ternata.  As a bush its low spreading form (about 80cm high by 1m wide) provides truly low maintenance groundcover.  Top tip: prune out any plain green shoots to the base as soon as they are spotted.

Hosta  ‘Francee’ is a vigorous variety that makes an elegantly striking specimen in a shady spot in the garden.  Its large heart-shaped, puckered leaves are olive green in colour with well-defined white margins that stand out in the shade and provide an interesting contrast in shape and texture to those of other shade lovers such as ferns. They retain their freshness well into September provided they are protected from slugs and snails.  In July and August, impressive spires of pale lavender flowers rise above the leaves.  Hostas are fully hardy and very tolerant of soil type as long as it is reasonably moist.
hosta ©Firgrove Photographic

As we all know, the big problem with Hostas are the dreaded slugs and snails which just can’t resist those luscious leaves. ‘Francee’s’ thick, puckered leaves make it more resistant to damage than some other varieties, but protection is still a must for it to look its best.  Applying a nematode treatment in spring helps ward off slugs or try a generous mulch of ‘Strulch’, a mineralised straw whose texture and iron content does seem to be effective in deterring both slugs and snails.  Top tip: thicker, lusher leaves will be produced if your Hosta gets a good feed so mulch well around the base in autumn with a 5-10cm deep layer of organic compost or leaf mould.

Always an oddity amongst the asters due to its love of shade and its distinctive form, Aster divaricatus, or the white wood anemone, has finally been found out and reclassified as Eurybia divaricatus.  Whatever it might be called, it remains one of the prettiest of all the shade-loving plants, its branching, dark red/black, wiry stems and evergreen olive leaves contrasting perfectly with the frothy sprays of dainty white flowers produced throughout summer and autumn.

Aster divaricatus  ©Firgrove Photographic

Once established this hardy perennial is tolerant of dry shade and reaches a height and spread of 60cm x 45cm.  Top tip: grow along the edge of a shady border amongst Bergenias where the white flowers will provide a change of texture and a splash of light towards the end of the season.

Hakonechloa macra Alboaurea is a small, slow spreading ornamental grass that forms tufted, emerald green hummocks (40cm high x 35cm across) and creates light and texture on the edges of a shady border.  It is native to Japan and planted en masse makes an eye catching carpet of bright green that does indeed lend a Japanese feel to planting groups.   Added interest and movement are provided by sprays of fine lime green flowers in July and August while the gracefully arching leaves gradually turn rich russet shades as autumn progresses.

Hakonechloa ©Firgrove Photographic

This grass makes a lovely soft edging to paths and steps and its clean, neat form makes it a good choice for formal patios and courtyards and contemporary, minimalist plantings.  It prefers a cool, moist position and will benefit from a humus rich mulch in autumn. Top tip: cut old foliage back to ground level in early spring before the new leaves appear.

In early spring large, heart shaped deep green and silver leaves are followed by bright blue, forget-me-not flowers, making Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ one of the loveliest spring flowering perennials around.  It’s wonderful planted under deciduous trees and shrubs or front of border to create pools of light in shady borders or along a woodland path and looks especially effective intermixed with yellow Narcissi.

Brunnera ©Firgrove Photographic

For best performance, plant this hardy perennial in moist, humus rich soil.  Height and spread: 60cm x 45cm. Top tip: cut back any plain green leaves to the base as they appear.

 

Picture credits: Janet Bligh & Firgrove Photographic

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.

luzula

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.