Try as we might, Valentine’s Day is a celebration that’s hard to ignore. Shops are strung with hearts and laden with cards; chocolate manufacturers do a little dance of joy, and love is in the air. But love is a funny old thing, and once past the first heady whirlwind of romance and infatuation, things are often not as clear-cut or reliably dreamy as one might be led to believe.
As the partnered-up well know, it would be unrealistic to demand perfection of even the finest and most attentive sweetheart, and a little bit of give and take is par for the course. Dancing in the moonlight may give way to grumpy in the morning or scruffy at the weekends. And it’s a rare and cherished lover whose behaviour is impeccable and appropriate at all times, and who is never, ever embarrassing.
So, while red roses are indelibly associated with Valetine’s Day, and receive a seasonal boost far in excess of their actual merit, there are other plants worth cherishing. People are frequently complicated; plants, however are loyal, faithful, handsome and always there for us.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and preferences are personal. There is something out there for everyone, whether you are seeking ethereal grasses, dainty alpines or bold and fabulous creatures like cannas or dahlias. The large-leaved glamour and excitement of monstera and colocasia might be a turn-on, while sweet peas and honeysuckle are fragrant and comforting. Some plants are thrillingly punky; edgy succulents and prickly cacti are achingly cool, while traditionalists might swoon over elegant birches or hunky oaks.
So whether dazzled by drama or charmed by consistency; inspired by the exotic or inclined to embrace the traditional, a gardening nirvana awaits you. Valentine’s Day is soon past, but plants are forever and if you love them right, they will love you right back!
Like the most charming of friends, some plants are impeccably turned out and blessed with perfect manners. We love to extol their virtues and their fine qualities have made them popular, if not ubiquitous. Pleasant characters like lavender, rosemary, hylotelephium and peonies; Miscanthus sinensis, astrantia, salvias and geraniums of every hue, are welcome wherever they go.
Eclectic they may appear, but these plants are united in virtue; ill-inclined to flop and sulk and flourishing gaily yet without abandon. Springing willingly from seed, they cover soil, create structure, and are obliging in every conceivable way. They are cheerfully trouble free, resist the depredations of slugs, snails, rabbits and deer and provide a long season of interest. Delightfully embracing every possibility for fine flowers, fabulous foliage and stunning seedheads as the year turns and the garden rises and falls.
Popular hard-working paragons include Mediterranean herbs like lavender, sage and santolina, which have flowers that are an attractive addition to the neat, evergreen mounds, while rudbeckia and echinacea segue from summer glories to subtle winter form and structure.
Rosehips are an under-appreciated asset too, particularly in varieties such as Rosa glauca and R. moyesii, while even peonies and irises can sport structural seedheads, in an unexpected and interesting twist.
Some plants look at their very best when massed together and, although they might also spread, self-seed and generally put themselves about in a most undignified fashion, their sheer joie de vivre and lust for life means that we just can’t get enough.
A single snowdrop or one tiny forget-me-not flower is unarguably beautiful, but it is when carpeting the ground in their thousands that they become truly magnificent. Like poppies, borage, hellebores and cerinthe, they can grow like weeds and may be hard to constrain when they get going, yet their profligacy fills gaps and cracks and injects a beautiful spontaneity and naturalism. Who, after all, would wish to constrain the bouncing optimism of erigeron? Who would eschew a handsome array of foxgloves, fail to be tickled by Stipa tenuissima, or turf out the cyclamen seeding wilfully, but sweetly, into the lawn?
Pop-party upstarts, these plants are like the friend who reminds you to relax and enjoy mingling once more; they give you a break and a boost with their effortless groundcover, and appear so serendipitously that you can actually congratulate yourself for not weeding.
So relax, have fun and let the good times roll. Alchemilla mollis, aquilegia and Californian poppies will never let you down, even if you do need to edit them occasionally, while Verbena bonariensis, calendula and nasturtiums can appear year on year, adorable, slightly hedonistic, and a righteous reward for just sitting back, going with the flow and letting nature take its course.
In February, possibly more than any month, we thank our stars for those plants with whom we have a permanent and stable relationship. When seduced by the heady colour and scent of summer, the strong and silent type may seem a little dull, then, when the flibbertigibbet blossoms and fly-by-night annuals are gone, the heart yearns for something more solid and structural.
For statuesque firepower, trees are unbeatable. Oak and beech are solidly impressive in a landscape situation, but in smaller gardens birches are bold and elegant, fruit trees have both structure and several seasons of interest as do versatile sorbus. A judiciously placed evergreen, meanwhile, such as holly, yew or cryptomeria, will add atmosphere and drama all year round.
Every garden needs a backbone of rugged heavy-hitters that will take the conditions in their stride and deliver regardless – Stipa gigantea, Euphorbia characias ‘Wulfenii’ or Japanese anemones in a sunny spot, or gunnera, Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, or pulmonaria where conditions are wetter.
When you have deep shade, heavy clay or any awkward site, you need a hero – a plant that is up to the job. Bamboos, berberis and cotoneaster may be brutish, but they are both bomb-proof and often evergreen, and in many tricky spots picking the right hydrangea, pittosporum, rhododendron or fern can answer your horticultural prayers.
The right plant in the right place will take everything that is thrown at it and bounce back on an annual basis. And when that place is your own garden and you know that the plants have your back, that joy is worth every ounce of unconditional love there is! *