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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Designer guide to … creating the perfect outdoor room for summer

At this time of year (when the weather allows) many of us want to spend much of our time outside.  With TV programmes such as Channel 4’s Inside Out Homes dedicated to linking the house with the garden it just underlines how important the space beyond the four walls of our house is and what an underused resource a garden can be.  To make that valuable space outside work well there are a number of things to consider.

Key to being comfortable outside (I think) is the creation of cosy spaces to sit in.  Whether using plants or structures such as walls, fences, or trellis screens to achieve this, there’s no doubt that the sense of feeling enclosed results in a more comfortable space to spend time.

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Tall plants at Scampston Walled Garden create a sheltered, cosy space for sitting and relaxing

On that theme, many of us are now overlooked by neighbours so planning screening along the boundaries or next to seating areas helps to create a sense of privacy.

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Pleached trees are a brilliant tool to screen out neighbours without completely enclosing a space

Whilst it’s lovely to create enclosed spaces around a garden, there’s a balance between feeling cosy and feeling blocked in, so keeping views out of and through the garden are also something to bear in mind.

 

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Taking out a section of hedge in this garden gave my clients a fantastic view of the South Downs to enjoy from their new terrace

When I go to visit potential clients I am often struck by the fact that most gardens have a paved area outside the back door, then some lawn and all the plants are arranged around the boundaries of the garden.  Bring them closer!  There’s nothing nicer than having plants flopping over walls and paving near the house to add colour, softness and scent.

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Planting next to the house and terrace bring colour and seasonal interest to this Hampshire garden all year round

If plants are used to soften paths, there needs to be enough space to allow for that, so the paths should be built at a reasonable width (I’d say 900mm as a minimum without plants overhanging, but ideally I’d go much wider to allow enough space for 2 people to walk side by side comfortably).

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The scale of entertaining spaces is very important – especially with the popularity of large outdoor sofas – so it’s important to ensure that paved areas are large enough to accommodate seating and tables and chairs.

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Large furniture needs plenty of space

Permanent outdoor furniture is great!  It definitely encourages us to get into the garden more – even if just for a quick cuppa in the sun without the palaver of having to carry a seat outside specially.  So create spaces to leave seats and benches in key positions around the garden and I guarantee they will be used all year round, not just in summer.

If space allows, it’s a bonus to have areas around the garden to enjoy at different times of the day.  Evening is a key time for most of us to unwind and enjoy the late sun so I always try to design even just a small space for my clients to sit out at the end of the day.

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This circular seating area was built into the flower bed as it’s exactly where my clients can enjoy the late evening sun in summer

Whilst we tend to focus on sitting in the sun in the UK – with it being such a rare treat! – it’s also important to create spaces for shade.  And that may be something as simple as having a space under a tree to have lunch on a hot summer’s day.

 

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This tree seat provides somewhere to sit all year round and valuable shade in hot weather

I always encourage clients to include garden lighting in a new scheme – not just to create a lovely atmosphere when the sun has gone down, but to make it safe to navigate steps and paths around the garden.

 

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These subtle step lights built into the wall provide a safe route around the garden at night

As well as sofas, hot tubs, pizza ovens, firepits and even outdoor fireplaces, another recent trend is the addition of an outdoor kitchen to the garden.  Moving on from the simple built-in barbecue, many companies now offer something far more extravagant – all-singing all-dancing outdoor kitchens complete with fridge, work surfaces, gas barbecue, kitchen sink ….

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The A La Carte Linear outdoor kitchen by Gaze Burvill is a great example of how far we’ve moved on from a simple barbecue outside!

It’s definitely true that the Outdoor Room concept has come a long way, even in the last 10 years, and gone are the days for a lot of us being satisfied to cook a few sausages over charcoal and eat them from the comfort of a deckchair!!

 

Photo credits:  Janet Bligh, Gaze Burvill