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 birds over winter

Winter is a hard time for garden birds.  They need to eat a lot in order to keep warm and survive the cold nights, but falling temperatures make their regular food supplies scarce.  Putting up feeders is one solution, but many garden plants double-up as life-saving food resources for garden birds and no one has to remember to fill them!  The seeds and berries of many plants provide nutrient rich snacks from late summer into winter, whilst others hide tasty insects in their stems and foliage or provide sheltered roosting spots.  Here are five of the best bird-friendly plants to include in your garden.

Ivy (Hedera helix) is one of the very best sources of both food and shelter for overwintering birds.  Its distinctive creamy white flower heads appear from October onwards and their nectar attracts insects for robins and wrens to feed on.

ivyberries-brian-ecott

 

The large black berries which follow are devoured by a whole range of birds, including blackbirds, song thrushes and starlings while the dense foliage provides roosting spots out of cold winds and shelter for hibernating insects which make more snacks for the birds!
Gardening tips: Only mature plants over one metre in height will produce flowers and berries and ivy that’s kept tightly clipped year round won’t get a chance to flower either.  Try to keep at least a section of ivy in the garden that can get a bit messy and wait until early spring to get the shears out.

Holly, ivy’s traditional companion, is also well worth considering as part of a bird friendly garden.  Birds prefer red berried varieties such as our familiar native species, Ilex aquifolium, or English Holly, with its glossy, very prickly dark green leaves and abundance of small red berries from late autumn.  As well as feeding the birds, the berries provide a long-lasting splash of colour over winter as they ripen in late autumn, but don’t tend to be eaten until later winter.

 

holly-leaf

Frost on holly leaves on a freezing day in winter

Like all hollies, Ilex aquifolium is very slow growing, but will eventually reach 10 metres and make a very elegant architectural specimen tree for a large lawn or woodland planting.  Beware if planting in a border as the leaves will make weeding very painful!  Hollies thrive in any soil as long it is not waterlogged and tolerate pollution, winds and seaside conditions.
Gardening tips: Only female plants produce berries and require a male plant for fertilisation, so, unless you know you already have a male plant nearby, it’s safest to plant both.  It isn’t necessary for the male to be the same species so go for something contrasting, like ‘Silver Queen’ with its distinctive silvery margined leaves and purple stems.

Another all-time berrying favourite with birds is Sorbus aucuparia, otherwise known as the Mountain Ash or Rowan.  Its large bunches of deep red berries are a rich source of food for numerous species.  And if you’ve ever seen them glowing against a bright blue autumn sky, you know it isn’t just the birds who enjoy them.  This is a pretty tree in all seasons, with a naturally conical shape, dainty mid green, fern-like foliage and sprays of tiny white flowers in spring.  Berrying times vary depending on variety of tree – some starting as early as August, and others not until November.

sorbus-rose-queen-firgrove-photographic
It’s tougher than it looks and can tolerate harsh conditions while its modest height of 15m x 7m makes it ideal for a smaller garden.  Rowans prefer full sun to light shade and slightly acidic soil, but will tolerate any soil type.
Gardening tips: Rowans require minimal pruning. Remove any broken, diseased or crossing branches in late autumn or winter.

The common Hawthorn or May tree, Crataegus monogyna, supports over 300 insect species and provides food and shelter for birds all year round.  Shiny clusters of deep red berries, or haws, ripen in autumn and can stay on the tree until February or March to be enjoyed by many bird species including blackbirds, chaffinches, greenfinches, redwings and fieldfares.

hawsdavid-fenwick-aphotoflora-com

It is a small, rounded, deciduous tree with spiny branches, glossy, deeply lobed leaves and flat sprays of creamy-white flowers in May.

hawthorn-in-flower

I LOVE Hawthorn blossom – a true sign that spring has arrived, and such a pretty flower.

A lovely specimen tree for an informal or wildlife garden, hawthorn also makes an excellent hedge, either on its own or as part of a mixed wildlife hedge.  It thrives on any well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade and can tolerate exposed and coastal sites. Height and spread: 4-8m.

Rosehips are also a rich source of vitamins and antioxidants for overwintering birds. Some of the largest produced are the heavy round orange or red hips of Rosa rugosa (either ‘Alba’ or ‘Rubra’), which are especially popular with blackbirds, fieldfares and mistle thrushes. (Smaller hips are produced on Rosa canina (the Dog rose) and these last into late winter.)

rose-hips
Rosa rugosa is a vigorous species rose with distinctly pleated, leathery, dark green leaves that turn a buttery gold in autumn and a constant succession of fragrant, single, yellow-centred flowers from June to September. It makes an excellent informal hedge for an open, sunny site on fertile, humus rich, well-drained soil.

rosa-rugosa-flower
Gardening tips: Rosa rugosa requires little pruning.  Remove one third of older stems every 2 or 3 years to rejuvenate the plant.
 

Photo credits:  Janet Bligh, Firgrove Photographic, David Fenwick, Brian Ecott

5 essential … low growing shrubs for ground cover

Whilst we often think first of perennials when looking for ground cover plants, there are many low growing shrubs that do the job quickly and effectively and that can provide a longer season of interest and more spread for your money.

 
Cotoneasters are wonderfully versatile shrubs which can be evergreen or deciduous and vary widely in size and form.  However, one thing that they all have in common is their long season of interest and easiness to grow.  Cotoneaster conspicuus ‘Decorus’ is a low growing, semi-evergreen cotoneaster with very small, glossy dark green leaves, an arching habit and a mature height and spread of 1-1.5m x 2m.

cotoneaster-conspicuous-decorus-janet-bligh

The branches are smothered in small white flowers for a long period in summer which in autumn are followed by bright red berries.  Any well-drained soil and any aspect will suit this Cotoneaster which makes it especially useful in dry, shady spots, but it may need protection from cold, drying winds in colder areas.

Nandina domestica ‘Firepower’ provides neat, colourful ground cover with a long season of interest in a sun or part shade and looks great planted in groups.  It is a dwarf form of heavenly bamboo with a compact, rounded form and shiny mid-green leaves that turn fiery shades of red and copper in autumn.

nandina-firepower-janet-bligh

Additional autumn interest is provided by the glossy red berries while in mid-summer conical clusters of tiny white flowers appear amongst the leaves.  Frost hardy (it may need some protection in colder areas), it is not fussy about soil type as long as it is moist and well-drained.
Garden tip: lightly cut back any shoots that are spoiling the overall shape in mid to late spring.

As well as providing wonderful fast growing ground cover in full sun or partial shade, Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’, or purple sage, also scores highly on good looks, aroma and usefulness.  The highly aromatic young leaves emerge a deep reddish purple maturing to a lovely soft grey/green with a mauve hue (the hotter and sunnier the conditions the deeper the purple colouring).  Purple sage combines particularly well with any purple/lilac/mauve flowered plants such as lavender or nepeta, and bees love sage’s own beautiful lilac/mauve flowers that appear over a long period during May to July.

salvia-janet-bligh

Purple sage leaves have the same culinary uses as common sage including making a tasty, astringent tea which has a variety of medicinal properties and the edible flowers look really lovely scattered over summer salads.  Sage is fully hardy as long as it is grown on well-drained soil that is not acid and it makes a good container plant.  Height and spread: 100cm x 80cm.
Garden tips: Prune plants lightly after flowering and in spring to keep them bushy.  Mature and/or leggy plants can be pruned hard in spring (when it can look a bit shabby after winter), but take some cuttings as insurance.  Sage is prone to becoming woody and is best replaced every 4-5 years.

Viburnum davidii is a good looking shrub for all seasons with a low growing, naturally domed shape that makes for great ground cover beneath other taller shrubs of more vertical habit.  The large leathery oval leaves are dark green and heavily veined and held on red tinged stems.

viburnum-davidii-janet-bligh

In May flattened heads of tubular white flowers appear, followed later in the year by startling metallic turquoise berries on bright red stems (NB: cross-pollination must occur for fruits to be produced).  A must for woodland borders, Viburnum davidii is also happy in full sun and on any moderately fertile, well-drained and moist soil.  Height and spread: 1m x 1-1.5m.
Garden tips: Little to no pruning required.  If pruning is carried out, cut back to strong stems or to plant base to retain domed shape.

It’s hard to beat a good ground cover rose for sheer floriferousness and, well, ground covering.  Rosa ‘Kent’, one of the ‘Towne and Country’ series, is a repeat-flowering, reliable performer that forms a small, neat mound and looks good over a long season.

rosa-kent-janet-bligh

Slightly scented, semi-double white flowers with a cream flush open in great abundance from July to September, set off perfectly by the shiny dark green leaves and followed in autumn by small red hips.

rosa-kent-low-shrub-janet-bligh

Rosa Kent thriving in a mixed border in an exposed garden – used here to provide flowering interest & structure without blocking the views

Requires a fertile, humus rich, moist soil and full sun to light shade.  It makes a good patio plant in a container and the flowers, which stand up well to rain, are also good for cutting.  Height and spread: 1m.
Gardening tips: Little annual pruning required.  Remove dead, diseased, damaged or congested branches to the base in late winter.  If plants grow too large for their allotted space, prune vigorous branches by one third and prune side shoots to two or three buds from main stem.

 

Photo credits:  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.