Get creative with layers

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Planning a new border? In this extract from his new book, Adam Frost explains how to make your planting scheme look balanced and natural, with layering

 For me, layers make planting look and feel right. They bring structure and seasonal interest, but most importantly they create atmosphere. Nature is the best place to learn about planting design,
and plant layers occur in all climates, from tropical rainforests to temperate oak woodlands.

Layers usually consist of bulbs, perennials and shrubs, with the lower canopy and upper canopy of trees above them. But in reality, layers are seldom as clearly separated, so you get blurring of lines as things intermingle over time. It’s a really interesting way to look at gardens and it doesn’t take long to notice when something is missing in a planted scene.

Below I’ve focused on a typical shady border as an example of how to plant in layers, using a selection of my favourite plants for shade.

When you have shady conditions, the choice of plants that will thrive becomes more limited than if you’re working with a sunny spot. That said, there are still lots of beautiful examples you can plant to create a lush little oasis.

This planting scheme combines texture, green tones and light-coloured flowers that can really enhance a shady area. All the plants I select have to work hard, and that’s particularly true for shady parts of the garden.

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Take each layer in turn, picking out textures and tones, and weave in pops of colour and seasonal interest

1 Consider the canopy

Here I’ve gone for a multi-stem cercidiphyllum to create dappled shade. Its leaves have a lovely shape and look crisp and fresh in spring, have a warm hue through summer, then fill the air with the scent of burnt sugar as the frosts arrive.

Underneath is Cornus mas – a small, hard-working tree whose bark has scaly orange brown plates, giving great winter interest. Small clusters of yellow flowers appear very early in the year, followed by dark red fruit in autumn. 

2 Create the shrub layer

Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’ has a strong architectural shape with its dark spiky foliage. As a bonus it also has good winter flowers and scent. Evergreen Buxus sempervirens provides a visual link with the mahonia; in a bigger border, you could use several to create rhythm. 

3 Plant perennials with texture
It’s not all about colour in a shady border, so in the perennial layer I’m adding ferns for texture. Matteuccia gives height and exciting lime-green foliage early in the year; dryopteris is a robust old thing that never seems to let me down. Planted apart, they’ll start to create a rhythm through the border.

4 Now add a shot of colour

The long stems of Euphorbia amygdaloides robbiae have round sprays of acid green flowers that will really lighten up this shady area. I’m also adding astrantia for its pin-cushion flowers – which are mainly white and fade to green; its palmately lobed basal leaves contrast well with the ferns. Geranium nodosum has small pink flowers and can be semi-evergreen. It has a sprawling habit with light green foliage and is very long-flowering – it starts in late spring and is still going in autumn.

5 Add vertical form and movement

Grasses are great for this, and here I’ve gone for bright green, mound-forming hakonechloa. It has light airy flowers in midsummer and it offers decent autumn colour, contrasting really well with the evergreen buxus. Digitalis works well as a strong vertical that can also bring a sense of freedom to the planting. I want the border to feel natural, and these biennials start to travel as they see fit, which, frankly, always works better than me doing it!

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This feature is xusudchnnc an edited extract from RHS How to create your garden (£20 DK) available from all good bookshops

Top 10 plants you can't kill

These robust plants will fill your garden with flowers and fragrance and ask for little in return. Author Jamie Butterworth nominates 10 of his favourites

Hydrangea paniculata  ‘Limelight’

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’

 1 Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ The bold and impressive flower heads of this hydrangea can’t fail to add theatre to the garden. Despite looking flamboyant and blowsy, they’re actually very easy to grow, performing reliably year after year. ‘Limelight’ produces large flowers like giant ice cream cones that last well throughout winter. Grow them in dappled shade, which helps keep the plant cool in summer. The clue to growing really good hydrangeas is in the name: hydor is Greek for water, so make sure they don’t dry out. Prune back to the old wood in late winter, cutting back the previous year’s growth to two buds from the main framework. H2.5m (8ft) S1.5m (5ft)

Pittosporum ‘Tom Thumb’ (black and green shrub towards left)

Pittosporum ‘Tom Thumb’ (black and green shrub towards left)

2 Pittosporum ‘Tom Thumb’ Pittosporum is a hard-working, easy-to-grow shrub that’s evergreen so ideal for year-round structure. It’s a superb alternative to box, and can be tightly clipped to make a topiary focal point or grown as low hedging. Its foliage is small, dense and waxy – new leaves emerge fresh green in spring and fade to a deep purple. These slow-growing shrubs love a sunny, sheltered, free-draining site, and their slow-growing nature means plants require next to no maintenance, just very infrequent clipping to keep the foliage dense and compact. Spread a thick layer of mulch around the base of the shrub during winter to help protect its roots from frost. H and S1m (3ft 3in)

Clematis armandii

Clematis armandii

3 Clematis armandii A reliable cottage-garden favourite, it’s possible to have a clematis in flower every month of the year. The delicate-looking flowers of evergreen climber C. armandii are breathtakingly beautiful – belying the fact it’s incredibly resilient and easy-to-grow, ideal for covering an ugly wall or adding height to a border. It can tolerate some shade, but for best results plant it in a sunny spot against a south-facing wall. Varieties such as ‘Apple Blossom’ don’t need regular pruning, but if it does start to become too big, prune it back just after flowering. Keep it well watered, mulch and feed during spring with a balanced, slow-release fertiliser. H8m (26ft) S3m (10ft)

Verbena bonariensis

Verbena bonariensis

4 Verbena bonariensis Verbena is loved as much by bees and butterflies as it is by us gardeners. Despite its gracious and airy appearance, it’s incredibly tough and will withstand the hottest of summers. Flowering from the end of June to the first frosts, even when it’s finished flowering, the silvery seedheads provide architecture throughout winter. Verbena adores a south-facing sunny spot with good drainage; gravel gardens offer the perfect planting location. Water them to get established and then again when the weather gets very hot (July to August), then just leave them to it. Cut it back in late winter. H2m (6 1/2ft) S45cm (18in)

Alchemilla mollis , frothy acid-green flowers in foreground

Alchemilla mollis, frothy acid-green flowers in foreground

5 Alchemilla mollis Lady’s mantle is quiet, understated and extremely hard-working. It comes into its own just after rain, as the droplets of water bead on the foliage and create the most mesmerising effect. Its foamy mist of butter-yellow flowers splays from the finely serrated foliage, this is one of the best foliage plants you can use in a garden. Make sure it doesn’t dry out during summer – although it loves full sun, it also thrives on moisture. That aside, it’s a reliable plant that’s relatively maintenance-free. If it starts to spread, dig up some clumps and share them with a friend. H50cm (19in) S75cm (29in)

Euphorbia characias wulfenii

Euphorbia characias wulfenii

6 Euphorbia characias wulfenii The spurge family is a huge group of plants and although most are succulents, the herbaceous varieties offer an exciting array of textural foliage in vibrant blue, green and gold. E characias wulfenii is one of the most popular: drought-resistant and practically pest and disease free. Its whorls of attractive, blue-green evergreen foliage last all year and in spring are joined by huge clusters of acid-lime flower bracts on stiff stems. They’re unfussy and tend to thrive in any soil as long as it’s well drained. Grow in full sun or part shade and take care not to get the milky white sap on your skin as it’s a toxic irritant. H1.5m (5ft) S1.2m (4ft)

Salvia ‘Caradonna’

Salvia ‘Caradonna’

7 Salvia ‘Caradonna’ One of the most spectacular salvias, ‘Caradonna’ features majestic purple flower spires that rise over a compact mound of foliage. Flowering from May through to the first frosts, salvias keep on giving long into winter when their skeletal flower stems catch morning dew and hard frosts. They’ll tolerate dappled shade, but the sunnier it is, the better they’ll grow. The key to success is to ensure it doesn’t sit too wet throughout winter. Though it’s hardy, it doesn’t like the damp so avoid growing it in clay soil, if possible. In February cut the plant back to ground level, mulch with rotted organic matter and watch it spring back to life. H50cm (19in) S30cm (12in)

Cosmos bipinnatus

Cosmos bipinnatus

8 Cosmos bipinnatus Cosmos is the princess of the cut-flower garden and queen of the container. It’s a fantastic annual that will bloom relentlessly from June through to the first frosts. Rapidly growing into large clumps, they can quickly fill gaps in borders while maintaining their elegance and chic composure, taking the form of a cloud of flowers. No summer garden is complete without them! Sow seeds indoors from March to April and plant outdoors once the last frost has passed. Keep deadheading and feeding throughout summer for continuous blooms. As cosmos can grow quite large, it can often be good to stake the plants with old birch stems to prevent them collapsing in heavy rain. H1m (3ft 3in) S30cm (12in)

Lonicera periclymenum

Lonicera periclymenum

9 Lonicera periclymenum ‘Graham Thomas’ Honeysuckles are one of the most iconic, sweet-smelling climbers and are a brilliant addition to any garden. They’re the perfect solution to most vertical dilemmas; they grow fast and produce impressive displays with minimum effort. The colourful tubular flowers are a brilliant attraction with an incredible aroma. They’re reasonably unfussy about soil type, location or aspect, although they won’t grow well in deep shade. Manage their size by cutting back hard after flowering; they have a tendency to become bare at the bottom. With an extra mulch and some controlled-release fertiliser in spring, they will keep rewarding you. H8m (26ft) S1m (3ft 3in)

Erigeron karvinskianus

Erigeron karvinskianus

10 Erigeron karvinskianus Every garden, no matter how big or small, has cracks and crevices where it can be difficult to grow anything. These are the perfect places for small alpine plants and the dazzling daisies of Mexican fleabane. This amazing perennial produces hundreds of tiny, daisy-like flowers from May to October, drifting and dancing through walling and paving, and creating a delicate froth of flowers along path edges. Grow them in full sun with good drainage; these plants will thrive in a tricky hot spot or suntrap, but won’t do as well in shade. H30cm (12in) S1m (3ft 3in)

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• This is an edited extract from 50 Plants you can’t kill by Jamie Butterworth (£16.99, RHS Books)

Create a slice of paradise

Combine flappy leaves with grasses and ferns; large, lush leaves create a range of shapes and textures, says Naomi Slade


Structural specimen plants with architectural stems, dramatic evergreen leaves, height and poise provide a year-round framework. If you have room, plant a tree with dramatic leaves such as Eriobotrya japonica (loquat), Liriodendron chinense, Catalpa bignonioides (which can be pollarded so its leaves grow even bigger) and Albizia julibrissin rosea with ferny foliage and rose-pink flowers.


For small gardens consider structural shrubs including Fatsia japonica, Tetrapanax papyrifer ‘Rex’ or hardy palms such as Trachycarpus fortunei (Chusan palm), slow-growing Jubaea chilensis (Chilean wine palm) and Chamaerops humilis (dwarf fan palm). Strappy-leaved yuccas and phormiums, with dramatic pink or yellow variegation, are a superb addition to an exotic-style garden, while half-hardy abutilon has evergreen leaves and handsome red and yellow bell flowers.

Bamboo creates a fantastic vertical accent, but it can run riot. Either choose well-behaved fargesia or bambusa species or sink the plant in a large pot and remove any shoots making a break for freedom.

Strappy, vertical grasses such as Miscanthus sinensis are useful and can persist through winter. Smaller, but no less striking, are Anemanthele lessoniana (pheasant’s tail grass), Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’ (Japanese blood grass) and shade-loving Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’.

With structure in place, layer in soft, lush, deciduous plants. Dicksonia antarctica tree ferns are magnificent, but only half-hardy, so in cold or marginal areas try more robust native ferns such as Dryopteris filix-mas, huge Osmunda regalis (the royal fern, which thrives in damp ground) and Matteuccia struthiopteris (the shuttlecock fern).

Hostas and colocasia cultivars have beautiful, dramatic ‘look at me’ leaves and, in damp soil, try experimenting with the exotic flowers and foliage of ligularia ‘The Rocket’ and Zantedeschia aethiopica.

Climbers and creepers are essential to knit any jungle together. Akebia quinata (chocolate vine) is handsome but huge, so also consider Trachelospermum jasminoides or Solanum jasminoides as an option. Actinidia kolomikta has exciting cream-and-pink-dipped leaves, while passion flowers and large-flowered clematis provide impressive tropical-style impact. 

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Must-have plants for carefree colour

Take a bold and adventurous approach to ‘difficult’ colours for borders that dazzle all year round. Val Bourne has some good advice.


Whenever I think about colour I'm reminded of the late, great Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter: a man who wasn't afraid of colour. He embraced the rainbow and he wasn’t a plant snob. He grew dahlias when they were wildly unfashionable, purely for the punch they gave to his late-summer and autumn borders, because he wanted to be excited by colour. His colourful collection of shirts reflected his personality and, following his death in 2006, his then head gardener Fergus Garrett, showed a picture of them piled up like a colourful leaning tower of Pisa.


We should all adopt his carefree approach to colour and that includes orange, the bête noire of many a gardener. It’s the best enhancer of blues and purples and, when teamed with shocking pink, it radiates colour. Golden yellow, often considered a no-no too, creeps into the colour palette in late summer and autumn when warm-yellow daisies abound. Those brash yellows make a golden setting for a sultry cactus dahlia like ‘Chat Noir’, or a late royal blue aconitum such as ‘Arendsii, or the sultry eupatorium ‘Riesenschirm’.

Take full advantage of seasonal changes too, because the colour palette changes season by season. Spring can be a jumble of colour because there are plenty of subtle yellows and creams that you can weave through. High overhead summer sunlight bleaches colour out and the plethora of soft blues and pinks needs a stab of deep colour. As summer blends into autumn, pigment-packed southern hemisphere flowers such as salvias, dahlias, agapanthus and fuchsias add a jewel box quality. When winter descends, low sunlight picks up texture and deepens colour.

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Say hello to hostas!

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You can’t beat hostas for fabulous foliage. Val Bourne picks her favourites for colour, fragrance and slug resistance

HOSTAS ARE PRINCIPALLY grown for their luxuriant foliage. They come in quilted grey-blues, golden yellows, swirling variegations in white, cream and mayonnaise-yellow, plus every shade of green under the sun. Hosta foliage funnels out very elegantly as well, so the leaves are always beautifully arranged and this makes them perfect foliage plants for a shady spot close to the house, the edge of a woodland border, or in containers.
You can mix and match the textures, shapes and colours because hostas come in all shapes and sizes. The tallest may reach a metre high and produce substantial leaves, or there are miniature ones with evocative names like ‘Blue Mouse Ears’ that make ideal container plants for small gardens. They’re all very hardy and long-lived.
Hostas need moist soil in the first part of summer because they come from the Far East, principally Japan, although some are native to Korea, parts of Russia and China. These areas of the world tend to experience a humid rainy season that usually finishes at the end of June, so hostas in British gardens need lots of moisture in order to produce their impressive foliage. Water in the mornings because you’ll attract fewer slugs and snails. Both nibble the foliage, although snails are the major culprits!
Most hostas also need shade because they’re found on woodland edges and clearings in the wild. However, golden- and chartreuse-leaved hostas, such as ‘Sum and Substance’, need a brighter spot to develop their sunny foliage. The leaves turn dull green if it’s too shady.
Although grown mainly for their foliage, some also produce fragrant lilac or white flowers. ‘Fragrant Bouquet’, ‘Royal Standard’ and ‘Stained Glass’ are among the best for scent.  

Best for lush green ‘Devon Green’ The most popular green-leaved hosta in Europe, it has ribbed, high-gloss bright green foliage. Looks good in a container or in the border. H and S45cm (18in)

Best for fragrant flowers ‘Guacamole’ Rounded gold leaves with darker green markings frame pale fragrant flowers in August. Plants enjoy a brighter spot. H and S70cm (28in)

Best for slug resistance H. sieboldiana elegans Large hosta with thick, puckered leaves that need a cool spot to keep their bluish colour. Pale lavender flowers in June. H and S1m (3ft 3in)

Best for small leaves ‘Blue Mouse Ears’ Rosettes of round, rich blue-green, mouse-ear-shaped leaves plus unusual buds and lavender flowers. Lovely in a pot. H and S15cm (6in)

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Plan the perfect cottage garden border

Mix fragrant blowsy blooms, towering spires and frothy umbels for a cottage garden that looks good and nurtures wildlife too. Val Bourne suggests the plants to go for

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The romantic cottage garden border harks back to simpler days when a garden had to provide food, herbs, medicine and flowers in abundance. Back in those days the garden offered a solution to all sorts of ailments: if you had a headache you chewed a leaf of feverfew or achillea; toothache was soothed by sucking on a clove. Food crops, vital for family survival, jostled among easily-grown flowers and paths were lined by fragrant pinks, primroses, violets and lavender. Even the old outdoor privy, its path illuminated by snowdrops on a chilly winter’s night, had a fragrant moss rose framing the doorway.

Birds, butterflies, moths and every type of insect flitted through those old cottage gardens and in modern times it’s more important than ever to sustain wildlife. We’re trying to recreate that sort of eco-friendly buzz for nature’s sake and our own wellbeing. Watching a bee forage on a favourite flower is as close to mindfulness as it can be. It calms the soul.

We’re more fortunate today in one way, because we have a much greater choice when it comes to plants. Modern cottage gardens span the seasons, using carefully thought-out colour schemes and lots of texture. Plants are still passed around, with not a plastic pot in sight, and self seeders are encouraged, but managed. Seeds are saved from year to year in old envelopes. Herbs are snipped for the kitchen and vegetables go from plot to plate in a trice. Cottage gardeners are also more likely to recycle and turn an old wicker basket, or colander, into a container for herbs. Their plots are still flower packed affairs and nature still looks as though it could break free at any moment. The skill’s in mixing your plants together to recreate the whimsical look of times past.  

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Make the most of a small garden


Most British gardens are tiny, but don’t dispair! Naomi Slade offers tips for creating drama on a small scale

Small gardens always present a challenge. How to create the verdant dream, grow your own fresh fruit and veg, experiment with new planting ideas and store the mower in a hemmed-in space the size of a match box? According to a report from DIY chain B&Q, the average British garden is 190 square metres (or three-quarters of a tennis court), while newer plots average 113 square metres. Victorian terrace gardens are always a narrow squeeze, and roof terraces and balcony spaces measure far less.

Yet we are a nation of gardeners and garden we will. And though a tiny plot may not always be easy, it does present its own opportunities. You only have to take a look at RHS Chelsea show gardens to see what can be achieved in a minute space – the artisan gardens are a masterclass in focusing on a theme. Closer to home, the National Garden Scheme offers plenty of relatable, budget-conscious inspiration too. Look out for group openings where lots of smaller gardens are open together and take design tips straight from the owners.  

Small gardens are often urban, overlooked and shaded by buildings. High surrounding walls and fencing make them feel even smaller than they are, and a square of shabby concrete might seem pretty short of potential. Crammed, untidy spaces help to diminish a garden’s horizons. 

Identifying the issues and embracing the positives can go a long way in realising your dreams:

• Know what you want: gather ideas that excite you and have a vision that’s achievable.

• Love the plot you’ve got and choose plants accordingly: a shady spot on heavy soil can be wonderfully lush, with forest-floor plants such as ferns and foxgloves, while a suntrap suits gravel, alpines and succulents.

• Rejoice in its manageability: no need to mow acres of lawn or dig over a large veg patch. Instead, enjoy harvesting tomatoes from tubs and deadheading sweet peas, gin-and-tonic in hand. Bliss! 

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Fill your garden with easy pleasers...

Aquilegias and foxgloves create a relaxed, cottage style

Aquilegias and foxgloves create a relaxed, cottage style

Use good-natured annuals, perennials and shrubs as the backbone for every planting scheme, advises Val Bourne

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. 

Some of them are veterans used for generations. Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, raised by Tommy Carlisle’s Loddon Nursery pre-1950, should be in every garden. Any plant with a Loddon prefix is well worth growing.

Others are far more contemporary. Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ (launched in 2011) and helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ (c2000) are more recent arrivals, although they’re here to stay. They both outperform the oldies and are grown by lots of nurseries, so don’t dismiss these readily available plants as ordinary. They’re far from it.

Then there are those that self-sow and place themselves through an area, helping to unite a planting scheme while delighting bees at the same time. They’re plants-for-free and very welcome to come and go, whether they’re annuals or perennials.

Finally, there are some very useful shrubs, which don’t grow large or swamp their neighbours. Many can be left to their own devices after planting.

Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ and perovskia ‘Blue Spire’

Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ and perovskia ‘Blue Spire’


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 such as ‘Blake’s Silver’, ‘Diana Clare’ and dappled ‘Leopard’ also work well.

Add in stronger colours with Dicentra 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, from the 1960s, 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’ all 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.

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Save time and effort with our top 10 gardening hacks

Spring is a hectic time in the garden and it can feel like there’s too much to do. So, having a few easy shortcuts up your sleeve can save you time, money and effort, making you feel more organised.

You don’t need to spend lots of money at the garden centre: instead make use of items lying around the house or that are cheap and easy to come by. Think laterally – you might not have a greenhouse, for instance, but that doesn’t mean you can’t grow plants from seed somewhere else.

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1. Make free fertiliser  Is your garden overrun 
with naughty nettles? Pop them in a bucket to make 
a fabulous fertiliser high in nitrogen. Cover the nettles with water and put a lid on top – it’ll become a bit whiffy as the nettles break down. After three weeks remove the sludge and put it on the compost heap. Decant the liquid into clean plastic bottles, label and store somewhere cool. Dilute one part feed to 10 parts water and use on leafy green plants.

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2. Make a picnic table for £2 Pallets are a favourite among recyclers and DIYers – they’re ideal for making all sorts of garden furniture, vertical planters, Adirondack-style chairs, tool racks and even decking. This simple idea uses two pallets (1.2x1m/4x3ft 3in) one on top of the other, smartened up with Sadolin Classic Woodstain, £34 for 2.5L. It’s easy to buy used pallets online – £2-£5 if you can collect them; most pallet recycling companies only deliver in much larger quantities. Or ask if they have some at your local garden centre, or recycling facility.

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3. Create a fancy water feature Build a stylish mini pond using a metal mesh cube. Buy a preformed gabion cage (£17.99 for 45cm3) or make your own from metal grids available from builders’ merchants. For self-assembly cages, leave the top panel off. Part-fill with large stones (such as Scottish cobbles) and place a 30cm (12in) black plastic washing up bowl in the centre. Add more cobbles to hide the sides of the basin. Fill with water from a water butt if available, or tap water. Leave for a few days to allow the chlorine to dissipate before adding small aquatic plants. Ours cost about £30 from Waterside Nursery. Don’t forget to include an oxygenator to keep the water sweet.

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4. Keep tools garden ready Fill a bucket with sharp sand and add 400ml 
(14fl oz) of vegetable oil. Stir to mix well. Position the bucket in your shed and when you come in from 
a day’s gardening, simply plunge tools into the oily sand. The mixture cleans, polishes and sharpens your tools and coats them with oil to prevent rust.

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5. Line containers Wrought-iron and mesh hanging baskets 
offer little by way of water retention for plants. Whenever you water them, the moisture drains right through, leaving plants thirsty. Fortunately, there’s something you can add 
to the basket, aside from water-retaining gel, that solves the problem: a nappy!

First, split open the absorbent central section with scissors (otherwise the nappy will hang onto the water). Place the nappy on top of the coir liner, then fill with compost in the usual way. Don’t add the nappy to the compost heap at the end of the season unless it’s 
a biodegradable, organic design.

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6. Waste less seed It can be hard to see where seed has fallen when you’re sowing direct into the soil. It’s only once they’ve germinated that you can spot any clumps and large gaps. For more even spacing, make your seed drill then line it with a strip of toilet paper. Mist the paper with 
a water spray so the seeds stick to the wet paper. Sow 
the seed evenly and gently position seeds as required. Carefully fold the paper in half then cover the drill with 
soil and water. The paper gradually decomposes in the soil, leaving the seeds in the right place to germinate.

7. Beat slugs with garlic Great news for hosta fans – spraying plants with a garlic tonic is said to make the foliage unpalatable to slugs. The tonic is quick and easy to make at home, too. Simply take two garlic bulbs and crush with the flat blade of a knife. Place in a pan and pour over a litre of water. Bring to 
the boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Take off the heat 
and leave to cool. Strain the liquid through a sieve then store in old plastic milk bottles that have been thoroughly cleaned and keep somewhere cool. To apply, mix 15ml (½ fl oz) of tonic in five litres of water and spray onto the leaves of plants such as hostas and delphiniums (but not edibles). Reapply every couple of weeks, or more frequently in wet weather.

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8. Upcycle plant supports Rather than using shop-bought wooden trellis panels or bamboo canes for plant supports, repurpose items stashed away behind the shed or visit a reclamation yard for inspiration. All manner of metal frames such as old metal beds (£30-£50), gates and rebar (the steel mesh used in reinforcing concrete) – can provide support for clematis, sweet peas and climbing beans. Old wooden ladders (£15-£20) can be sanded and painted to make a ‘theatre’ for a collection or group of smaller potted plants.

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9. Create a coldframe crate If you don’t have space or budget for a greenhouse, try this nifty idea using a plastic storage crate with a lid. Place pots or module trays inside and line the bottom with absorbent kitchen roll. Add drainage holes with a drill. Take the lid off on sunny days and replace at night or if rain is forecast. If frost is predicted, bring your crate inside; multiple crates can be stacked so they don’t take up lots of space. Use it for hardy annuals from mid-March and for half-hardy annuals from mid-April.

10. Make a parcel shelf propagator Line a shallow watertight box with kitchen 
foil to reflect lots of light, then position your seed pots inside it. Place the box on the parcel shelf of your car. Temperatures can fluctuate widely, so ventilate on hot days by opening a window slightly and using horticultural fleece to shade plants so they don’t scorch. The fleece also comes in handy if cold temperatures are forecast. To avoid damage, cover the parcel shelf with a waterproof oilcloth. Think about where you park too – a space under trees is too shady.

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Time to get a little bit crazy...?

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Crazy paving, gabions and charred timber are all set to dominate garden design in 2019, according to Britain’s leading garden designers. “I never thought I’d say this, but crazy paving and stepping stones are making a comeback,” says Sue Townsend, member of the Society
of Garden Designers (SGD). “With crazy paving, the trend is to use large, irregular slabs – the bigger the better.”

SGD members also predict we’ll see a rise in the use of gabion-style mesh cubes and the Japanese art of Shou-sugi-ban (charred wood cladding)– perhaps on sheds and fences. Traditional hanging baskets will be replaced by trendy kokedama, where plants are hung inside clay balls covered in moss.

Colour specialists Pantone(R) meanwhile predict that Living Coral will be our colour of the year. Remember Manoj Malde’s Beneath a Mexican Sky Garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2017 (top)? Turns out his coral-pink wall was ahead of its time!

Wyevale Garden Centres says bold colours are key for 2019 and latest plants include colourful new agapanthus ‘Fireworks’ (below) – an explosion of deep purple perianths that merge into pure white blooms. It won the coveted Glee Best New Plant Award 2018, and will be available in a two-litre pot in May/June.
• What are your predictions for 2019? Write and tell us!

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Rescue a tired front border



Silver-leaved foliage plants can transform this pretty front garden into a show-stopper, says Ian Hodgson


This attractive front garden is full of seasonal interest, with the pretty pink cherry in blossom, a passionflower clambering up the house walls, a handsome globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus), fragrant lavender and rosemary shrubs, and hellebores and daffodils for bright spring flowers.

Clearly the owner has spent time planning this display, so my comments here are suggestions on how to augment the silver and pink colour scheme in order to give the plants a real sense of purpose.

First things first: the cherry tree is planted too close to the house, I’m afraid. In about 10 years this will become a real nuisance.
In the meantime it’s worth ‘limbing up’ – removing some of the lower branches so the canopy develops higher up the main stem, but it’s likely that you’ll have to remove the tree altogether at a later date.



To partner the cynara foliage, which acts as a silvery foil for the pink blossom, I’d add more silver and white foliage plants. Sun-loving Euphorbia characias ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ would lend an impressive architectural note, and if the soil is light and well-drained, I’d use a couple of silvery artemisias: A. ludoviciana ‘Valerie Finnis’ and A. schmidtiana ‘Nana’ to bring in welcome contrasts of shape and texture. The velvetine silver foliage of Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’ is another good option that will cover the ground, or you could also include dwarf evergreen Santolina chamaecyparissus ‘Small-Ness’. Spiky eryngiums and/or perovskia would pick up on the spiky cynara foliage, too.

In contrast to all the sophisticated white, grey and silver plants, add a few pink and red accents to chime with the pink blossom in spring, such as heuchera ‘Sugar Frosting’, whose marbled silver leaves are shot with burgundy underneath.

Encourage the hybrid hellebores by dividing them and adding more pink or burgundy ones to the mix. For later flowers choose magenta-flowered campion, Lychnis coronaria, blooming July to September.

• Does your front garden need Ian’s help? Email


Cynara scolymus Thistly perennial with serrated silver foliage. Leaves develop early in year, and globe artichokes Aug-Sept. Plant in fertile, well-drained soil. H2m (6½ft) S1.2m (4ft)

Artemisia schmidtiana ‘Nana’ Groundcover shrub that forms a silky cushion of feathery foliage. Prefers moist but well-drained poor soil. Deer and rabbit-resistant. H30cm (12in) S45cm (18in)

Euphorbia characias ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ Variegated hardy sub-shrub with bushy habit and white flowers May-June. Plant in full sun in well-drained soil. H90cm (3ft) S75cm (30in)

Heuchera ‘Sugar Frosting’ Perennial foliage plant with silver marbling on burgundy leaves and white flowers April-May. Prefers sun or part shade in moist but well-drained soil. H45cm (18in) S40cm (16in)

Athyrium niponicum pictum Decorative hardy fern ideal for a shady spot beside shrubs or small trees. Foliage stands well over winter. Thrives in moist but well-drained soil. H30cm (12in) S45cm (18in)

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Guess our gardening celebrity anagrams

Can you tell what these anagrams are? They’re all famous gardeners and TV celebrities. No prizes it’s just for fun!

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1. Charlatan Smith

2. Gotham offline

3. Donny Tom

4. Locker nail

5. Hort crew prey

6. Fallow ryes

7. Dorothy Prechills

8. Blondy cub kat

9. Crab dishwasher

10. Admire choc milk

11. Heathered clam

12. Monday dove ID

13. Data forms

14. Frustrate Greg

15. Tell judge kerry

16. Greyish farm

17. Wobbly patrician

18. Hypermorph nut

19. Civil valets tweaks

20. RV has AN era


Boost your winter flower count

Hellebores at East Lambrook Manor

Hellebores at East Lambrook Manor

Fill your garden with flowers and fragrance this season. Val Bourne picks her favourite shrubs and perennials that bloom in deepest winter

You can’t have failed to notice, the days are stretching out and in a few weeks’ time we’ll have a full 12 hours of daylight. Luckily, plenty of winter-flowering plants are willing to brave the weather and, when it’s cold and grey outdoors, a few fresh flowers produce a special kind of magic.

These winter flowers have to be rugged to withstand the weather, so they tend to be small and subtle in form and colour. There are milkshake pinks and whites, and pallid, moonlit yellows. These colours stand out well in low winter sunshine while most of the garden is lying dormant.

Iris reticulata ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’

Iris reticulata ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’

The function of every flower is to attract insects, so that pollen gets transferred from one flower to another. At this time of year they can’t be big and blowsy, because they wouldn’t last five minutes in a downpour. Their secret weapon is fragrance, which is why so many winter-flowering plants are sweetly scented. Give them a sheltered spot, preferably one that gets afternoon sunshine, and their perfume will carry on the warm, still air.

Most of these sweetly scented flowers hope to attract an early bee. However, green flowers lure in flies and native Helleborus foetidus produces a meaty smell so it’s known as the stinking hellebore, but don’t let that put you off! It’s a stunner, with crisp, divided foliage and clusters of maroon-edged, apple green bells.

In order to survive, these flowers have developed several strategies. Some, like winter-flowering Daphne bholua, have thick waxy petals. Starry-flowered Magnolia stellata has spaces between its petals to allow frosty air to escape, while others are merely collections of stamens, perhaps with a few small petals facing downwards to shed rain and snow.

Winter flower lookalikes - answers



1. Galanthus nivalis (common snowdrop) 2. Convallaria majalis (lily-of-the-valley) 3. Leucojum vernum (spring snowflake) 4. Eranthis hyemalis (winter aconite) 5. Crocus chrysanthus (snow crocus) 6. Sternbergia lutea (winter daffodil) 7. Cyclamen hederifolium 8. Cyclamen coum 9. Cyclamen persicum (Persian cyclamen)

Try our lookalikes quiz!

How well do you know your winter flowers? Here we’ve picked our favourites to see if you can name them... answers below

1 Flowering Jan-Feb, these classic white nodding flowers spread from bulbs, creating naturalised clumps. Plants prefer sun or part shade. Often planted ‘in the green’. H and S10cm (4in)

2 Fragrant groundcover plant with white nodding bells (May) and broad leaves. Plants prefer part or full shade. Often used in wedding bouquets. H25cm (10in) S30cm (12in)

3 Nodding white flowers on tall stems March-April. Flowers have green tips to their petals. Plants prefer moist, well-drained soil and full sun. H30cm (12in) S10cm (4in)

4 Golden chalice-shaped flowers with bright green ruffs. Flowers Jan-Feb in sun or part shade. Will colonise damp shady woodland borders. H8cm (3in) S5cm (2in)

5 Flowering Feb-March, these golden-yellow blooms come from corms, have a purple outer mark on the petals and strappy leaves. Sun and well-drained soil. H10cm (4in) S8cm (3in)

6 Flowering Sept-Nov, these upright yellow goblets are fully hardy and prefer a position in full sun. Fast growing and will colonise a border in time. H15cm (6in) S8cm (3in)

7 Pretty marbled heart-shaped leaves and fragrant flowers in pink or white, Oct-Nov. Flowers emerge before the leaves, then leaves remain into winter. H12cm (5in) S15cm (6in)

8 Same genus as 7 but with squatter, shorter, upswept pink flowers, Dec-Mar. Rounded silvery-green leaves that die back in spring. Grow in part shade. H and S10cm (4in)

9 Same genus as 7 and 8 but not as hardy. Comes in various colours, with darker pink or dark magenta flash around mouth of the corolla. Flowers Dec-May. H20cm (8in) S10cm (4in)

For the answers CLICK HERE

Get ready for frost!

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Many gardeners greet frost with a heavy heart. It’s a sign that winter has finally taken hold of our gardens and that any tender plants left outside will have succumbed to its icy grip. While we can protect prized specimens with sheets of fleece, mulches of straw or organic matter, cloches and heated greenhouses, without such shelter or insulation, a heavy frost spells disaster for all sorts of plants – from tender perennials to newly established plants, exotics, succulents and those valiant little half-hardy annuals that are still in bloom.

Frost can strike at any time from autumn until late spring. It normally forms on still, clear, cold nights, when the cool air makes water vapour condense and form droplets as dew. When the temperature falls below 0C (32F) the dew freezes into ice crystals.

There are five main types of frost:

● Air frost occurs when the air temperature falls below freezing point at least 1m (3ft 3in) above the ground

● Ground frost occurs when the surface of the ground, objects or trees, has fallen below freezing point

● Grass frost can occur when grass freezes but manmade concrete or Tarmac surfaces don’t, because they can hold onto warmth

● Hoar frost is a particularly feathery type of frost. Here the ice crystals form when the ground or surface temperature reaches freezing point before dew begins to form. Fog tends to prevent the formation of hoar frost, because it reduces surface cooling

● White frost is more globular than feathery. This occurs when dew forms first, then subsequently freezes.


Frost causes damage because plant cells contain water. As temperatures drop, so the water freezes into ice crystals that can rupture cell walls and contents, and stop plant proteins from working. Symptoms include stems collapsing and foliage becoming scorched, browned or blackened. Sometimes plants can die.

Not every frost is hard enough to kill plants, however. Conditions such as a morning fog can slow down the thawing process, giving plants a chance to thaw out slowly, resulting in less damage. Hardier species contain a type of anti-freeze made from complex sugars and amino acids, which can lower the freezing point of their cell contents, while many shrubs and trees rely on bark to act as an insulation layer.

What’s more, those plants growing in sheltered positions, out of frost pockets, next to the house or shaded from morning sunshine can often escape without any damage at all.

The good news is that a frost-damaged plant isn’t necessarily a write off. After the risk of frost has passed in late spring, the plant may start to show signs of life again. Trim off scorched growth back to an undamaged bud and the plant should respond by producing new shoots.