Use good-natured annuals, perennials and shrubs as the backbone for every planting scheme, advises Val Bourne.
If you’re new to gardening, then you need to find a selection of perennials to build the foundation of your garden around. Perennials return year after year – so choose the right ones that you can plant and then forget about.
Every experienced gardener relies on a backbone of bombproof perennials that return again and again, without becoming a nuisance. These need little maintenance, other than a yearly trim, and they don’t require regular division either.
Nor are they ‘rare’ (surely another name for difficult!). They’re just good doers that perform year after year without any mollycoddling from you.
Which perennials should you choose?
As spring beckons, silver-leaved plants stand out against the dark earth, like melting snowflakes.
The heart-shaped green-veined foliage of Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ is soon followed by sprays of dainty blue flowers.
Good forms of low-growing deadnettle Lamium maculatum include ‘White Nancy’, strong pink ‘Beacon Silver’ and paler ‘Pink Pewter’. All flower in early spring, when bees are short of nectar. Pulmonarias, such as ‘Blake’s Silver’, ‘Diana Clare’ and dappled ‘Leopard’ also work well.
Add in stronger colours with Lamprocapnos formosa ‘Bacchanal’, a deep-red bleeding heart with ferny green foliage, and hardy epimediums. Delighting gardeners since 1854,
E. versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ has two-tone, pale yellow flowers that tremble on wiry stems, like young ballerinas on pointed toes. Its red-flushed, heart-shaped foliage emerges just afterwards.
Polemonium ‘Lambrook Mauve’ is a non-seeding Jacob’s ladder whose soft-lavender flowers have a butterscotch middle. This curtseying plant perfectly partners terracotta, lily-flowered tulip ‘Ballerina’.
When it comes to summer, few gardeners can resist a hardy geranium. If you’ve room, opt for a sterile cultivar that will flower for months on end. Pale-blue ‘Rozanne’ sprawls over three feet of ground and blooms from May to September, although a Chelsea chop makes it later. ‘Patricia’ forms a generous roundel of black-eyed magenta flowers and both perform in light shade and in north-facing borders. The smaller ones prefer more sun and good drainage. Magenta ‘Ivan’, pale pink ‘Mavis Simpson’ and bluer pink ‘Dilys’ make good edgers.
Many daisies are easy, and shoulder-high sunflower, helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, lights up August with its darker centred, primrose-yellow flowers. Like all sunflowers it faces the sun. Place it next to a burgundy cloud of Eupatorium maculatum ‘Atropurpureum Group’ – a superb combination. Add in a late-summer golden-yellow daisy such as knee-high Rudbeckia fulgida deamii.
For an earlier splash of gold, try easy helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’. The dazzling orange and brown flowers shimmer in the border, beginning in July. Blue Succisella inflexa ‘Frosted Pearls’ produces masses of grey-blue bobbles and provides the perfect contrast.
Need more help choosing the right plants?
Subscribe to Garden Answers and get more gardening inspiration straight to your door. You can get 7 Issues for £24.99 today, and the time saved not having to go to the shops to buy the mag means more time spent in the garden.
Choose self-seeders for happy-go-lucky planting
These easy annuals and perennials create cottage-style colonies loved by bees. Self-seeders often place themselves in just the right spot, pleasing bees, hoverflies and butterflies. You can either leave them to their own devices, or harvest the seeds (on a dry day in early autumn) and keep them from year to year.
Calendulas, with crescent-shaped seeds, come in sunny oranges and yellows, and are hoverfly magnets. I’m fond of mahogany-centred single ‘Indian Prince’ and more double, but similar ‘Neon’. Direct sow the cobalt-blue larkspur Consolida regalis
‘Blue Cloud’, for its airy delphinium-like spike of flowers in spring.
Add a pinch of nigella too. They’re good in bud and flower, and the seedpods, globular maroon and green sputniks, look amazing. Grey-blue ‘Miss Jekyll’ combines soft blue flowers with feathery foliage while lime green annual bupleurum, sold under
names such as ‘Chatterbox’, ‘Garibaldi’ and B. griffithii, offers a cool green background.
Nasturtiums, frost-tender annuals with huge child-friendly seeds, are adept at self-seeding too. Modest trailing forms are good at softening edges; the dark foliage of Tropaeolum majus ‘Empress of India’ sets off the rich-orange edible flowers.
Lots of perennial plants self-seed freely too and aquilegias love moister soil. These flower in May, filling the gap between spring bulbs and summer flowers. Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Munstead White’ is a stable seed strain that comes true and the green-tinged white flowers have an airy elegance. There are frilly doubles, such as ‘Ruby Port’, and ‘Hensol Harebell’ is a good single blue. The smoky, curled foliage of bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’) is an attractive foil. Early-flowering Geranium macrorrhizum and G. phaeum prefer light shade, have good winter foliage and also self-seed. Dainty wood millet, Melica uniflora albida, a self-seeding grass, looks adorable with hardy ferns, while yellow-beaded Bowles’s golden grass, Milium effusum ‘Aureum’, sways and shimmies above bluebells.
Hot, dry borders are perfect for aromatic plants and silver foliage. Lychnis coronaria has a rosette of silver leaves with pure white, vivid or muted pink flowers. Teucrium hircanicum, Caucasian germander, has aromatic crinkled foliage topped by stout spires of purple-red flowers. Plant it with Linaria dalmatica, a tall lemon-yellow toadflax or the bee-pleasing Malva moschata with pink or white flowers.
Many foxgloves obligingly shake their seeds around, but these only germinate in daylight so you may have to dig over the ground to uncover them. Native biennial Digitalis purpurea comes in pink, apricot or white and flowers can be plain or heavily spotted. The perennial rusty foxglove,
D. ferruginea, has gently hued butterscotch-lipped flowers and prefers a brighter position, while willowy D. lutea, with narrow spires of soft-yellow flowers in late spring, suits shade or sun.
Plant no-nonsense shrubs
Mix evergreens for year-round foliage and deciduous shrubs for seasonal spectacle.There are plenty of no-nonsense shrubs for the easy-care garden. Some, like Viburnum burkwoodii, pack a fragrant punch in spring. Clusters of white flowers emerge from pink buds and some foliage persists through winter, so this semi-evergreen is perfect above spring woodlanders. Its lily-like fragrance really carries. Sarcococca is highly fragrant too, and so easy at the front of a border, or in a pot.
Summer fragrance tends to be less heady and mock oranges, or philadelphus, have a fresh lemon zing. ‘Belle Etoile’ has starry four-petalled white flowers and a hint of blueberry in the middle, and ‘Beauclerk’ has fuller white flowers with a soft cerise eye. These are the pick of the bunch.
Every garden deserves an evergreen or two, and the red-tinted new foliage of Photinia fraseri ‘Red Robin’ is handsome all year round. It works really well with miniature blue scillas and muscari. Aucuba japonica is shade-tolerant and slow-growing. Add a splash of sunshine with variegated ‘Crotonifolia’, or try ‘Rozannie’ with green serrated leaves.
When summer fades to autumn, smoke bushes, or cotinus, develop a wiry tracery of stems above their lollipop foliage. Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ has deep-claret foliage that lingers late. For something even darker, opt for Sambucus nigra ‘Gerda’ with its highly divided black leaves.
Find out more every month in Garden Answers Magazine!