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 … 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 … 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.

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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.

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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).

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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 … 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