Get creative with evergreens

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Make the most of these versatile and colourful winter plants. Val Bourne explains which to choose and how to use them.

Winter brings shorter days and colder temperatures and many plants retreat underground, or drop their leaves in order to survive. As a result much of the garden looks bare, like a finely worked charcoal sketch featuring shape and contour alone. Any hard landscaping, whether it’s a brick path, an area of paving, stone wall or steps, comes into focus as the sun gets a little lower day by day.
The only solid blocks of deep colour come from evergreen foliage and these can offer privacy, provide shelter for insects and birds and some will even berry and fruit. Those blocks of green lift the spirits, whether it’s tightly clipped box balls, cylinders of yew, a well-clothed shrub, an evergreen hedge or screen. And even tiny gardens can include a touch of green magic by containerising small evergreen shrubs supported by winter hardy ferns and grasses.

Create an evergreen backbone
Evergreens offer the perfect solution if you need a year-round private boundary. English yew (Taxus baccata) takes time to make a fine hedge, but only needs trimming once a year in August. You can get a reasonable-sized hedge within eight years if you start off with pot-grown, foot-high yew plants and enrich the soil.
For structure throughout the year, one of the best evergreens is the winter-flowering Viburnum tinus, because this will grow in shade making a shoulder-high roundel. Good forms include ‘Gwenllian’, which is faster growing than many, with pink buds that open to produce unscented white flowers. Also flowering in winter, the Christmas box, Sarcococca confusa, has shiny green foliage and flowers with a heady lily scent, or you could use a skimmia such as ‘Kew Green’. This sweetly fragrant small evergreen bears conical heads of long-lasting buds that finally open to cream flowers. Sarcococcas and skimmias are small enough for containers.
Some evergreens come into their own in frost; Viburnum davidii has leathery green foliage etched in deep veins that show up well in winter, along with the black berries. The frilly-edged climbing English ivy, Hedera helix ‘Parsley Crested’, picks up a silver-edge in frost, or you could use a ground-hugging green ivy such as ‘Ivalace’.
Your green oasis could also contain the rusty bristled soft shield fern (Polystichum setiferum) and the rugged Epimedium perralderianum, which has wiry stems topped with heart-shaped leaves. Add Daphne laureola, for its rich green rosettes and lime green winter flowers, along with the winter-flowering Vinca difformis ‘Jenny Pym’. And if you have a sunny south-facing spot, ceonothus ‘Concha’ has superb evergreen foliage. Its red-tipped buds are followed by sky-blue flowers in early summer.

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Get creative with autumn colour

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Use nature’s warmest palette for dazzling seasonal effects. Val Bourne shares some good advice

There’s still plenty of life left in the garden in October because we get far warmer autumns than we used to. The days may be getting shorter and the night-time temperatures may feel a little chillier, but that encourages a host of high-altitude South American plants to come into their own and they keep going until the first frost bites as long as you deadhead them. Dahlias, salvias and penstemons all put on a fabulous show this month and their pigment-packed flowers glow in the misty light peculiar to late-autumn. As the sun sinks a little lower, day by day, it backlights the borders and picks up the flutter-by butterflies and bees, still on the wing looking for their late nectar fix.
There are fading flowers too and these can look even more seductive than the flowers, whether it’s sedum heads looking like mugs of hot chocolate, or those silky ‘spiders’ some clematis produce in shades of silver. There are also fresh flowers, ones that spring from bare earth as if a magician had popped by. Cyclamen hederifolium will send up short, magenta-nosed flowers in white or pink, before the ivy-like foliage appears. This can be completely silvered or beautifully veined. Colchicums, perfect on a sunny autumn border edge, send up swooning pink or white flowers and they capture the languid mood of October perfectly, especially when planted among pink Hesperantha coccinea ‘Pink Princess’.

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Meet the autumn chameleons

Acer 'Osakazuki'

Acer 'Osakazuki'

Japanese maples can bring a statuesque beauty to any garden, large or small.
Val Bourne nominates the best

Japanese maples have it all. They’re slow-growing, long-lived and their leaves change colour like chameleons. Their elegant, intricate outlines resemble garden-sized bonsai, with leaves that can vary from simply lobed to finely cut, and turning a fiery red, or a golden-yellow or a rich marmalade-orange in autumn. It’s no wonder they’ve been popular with British gardeners for decades.
Although they’re always called Japanese maples, because they’re grown in almost every Japanese garden, Acer palmatum is also found growing wild in Eastern China, Taiwan and Korea. In the wild these shrub-like trees thrive underneath the protective mantle of taller trees. This is a good way to grow them in the garden too, in fertile soil that’s shaded by a much taller tree. They don’t like bright light or dry conditions (Asian summers include a rainy season of several weeks) and prefer reasonable drainage too. Their slow growth rate makes them very suitable for containers and this is how many gardeners grow them, although watch they don’t get waterlogged in winter.
Acer palmatum was introduced to the UK in 1820. Edward ‘Chinese’ Wilson also collected seeds in China in the early years of the 20th century, although they produced rather ordinary trees. The Japanese meanwhile had already named roughly 200 unusual forms collected in the wild over a 300-year period. It’s these named trees that are the most popular today, and Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire holds a Plant Heritage collection of 297 Japanese maple cultivars. Most are planted in the Acer Glade, the Maple Loop and in The Link in Silk Wood, where they draw gasps of admiration in autumn. Some of the trees in the Old Arboretum are more than 100 years old so well worth seeing.

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Choose glamorous groundcover

These handsome plants will cover bare soil and keep your garden looking lush. Louise Curley picks the best for every site and soil

Successful garden design usually exhibits some kind of layering, comprising upper, mid and lower tiers of plants. While taller plants such as trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials tend to grab our attention, low-growing groundcover is just as important.

The best groundcover plants tend to be evergreen, require little attention and spread out across the soil forming a verdant mat of leaves. Not only does this look much more attractive than exposed, brown earth, it also helps to suppress weeds – ideal for time-strapped gardeners.

Groundcover can be particularly useful for tricky areas such as slopes, where plants that need more regular maintenance can be difficult to look after. The roots of groundcover plants can also help to stabilise soil on slopes and help to stop erosion.

For really tricky spots under trees and hedges, it’s good to know that some of these groundcover plants don’t mind dry shade; they’ll also hide the unsightly foliage of fading spring bulbs.

Best of all, these practical plants are the antithesis of boring. With glossy foliage, silvery leaves, autumn colour and pretty blooms this selection of ground-hugging plants will add a touch of glamour to any garden.

1. Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Bevan’s Variety’ This species of geranium provides superb groundcover in sun or part shade. Once established it can cope with drought, which makes it a perfect plant for growing en masse under trees. The semi-evergreen leaves are aromatic and develop lovely shades of colour in autumn. This is an old variety with deep magenta flowers. A good plant for pollinating insects. It’s easy to grow as long as the soil isn’t waterlogged. Flowers May-October H45cm (18in) S1m (39in)

2. Bergenia ‘Claire Maxine’ Thick evergreen foliage forms rosettes that take on attractive tones of red in autumn and winter. From March this variety flowers on and off until October producing magenta bell-shaped blooms that are held on sturdy crimson-coloured stems. Easy to grow in sun or part shade in most soils as long as the drainage is good. Can be prone to vine weevils – tidy up any old foliage and treat with nematodes if necessary. Flowers March-October H50cm (20in) S60cm (24in)

3. Ajuga reptans ‘Caitlins Giant’ Bugle is a useful groundcover plant for the edge of shady borders where it forms clusters of foliage that knit together to create an attractive evergreen carpet. Throughout spring spires of densely packed flowers appear. This variety is particularly vigorous, with green foliage that has hints of purple and bronze and purple flowers, which are loved by bees and butterflies. It can cope with sun and poor soil as long as it doesn’t dry out. Flowers March-May H45cm (18in) S60cm (24in)

4. Euonymus ‘Silver Queen’ A low-maintenance evergreen with creamy-white variegated leaves that are often tinged pink. Often grown as a shrub, it will also spread to cover bare soil and it’s particularly useful on steep slopes. A tough plant that will grow pretty much anywhere – it can even cope with pollution and coastal locations. Good for shady spots where the leaves will brighten up a gloomy corner. H2.5m (8ft) S1.5m (5ft)

5. Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ Creeping Jenny sends out long tentacle-like stems that quickly spread along the ground. Use it to soften the edges of borders or hard landscaping. Will happily grow in moist soil, so it can be planted around a pond or in boggy areas. ‘Aurea’ has golden yellow leaves and striking yellow cup-shaped blooms. It can be invasive so pull out any stems that outgrow the space. Flowers June-August H7cm (3in) S5m (16ft)

6. Persicaria affinis ‘Superba’ This spreading plant creates a dense mat of green foliage which makes it excellent for suppressing weeds. There’s a long season of interest with short poker-like stalks covered in tiny pale pink flowers that deepen as they mature, followed by bronze-coloured foliage in autumn that remains all winter. It’s a reliable plant with an RHS Award of Garden Merit, is rabbit resistant and will cope with dry soil. Flowers June-September H45cm (18in) S75cm (30in)

7. Stachys ‘Silver Carpet’ A fabulous variety of lamb’s ears with tightly packed rosettes of soft, silvery-grey leaves. Other types of stachys produce fairly non-descript flowers, but this one rarely blooms, putting all its energy into producing the most intensely silver leaves. It combines well with pastel-coloured flowers. Thrives in full sun and well-drained soil – it doesn’t like winter wet. H20cm (8in) S45cm (18in)

8. Cornus canadensis The creeping dogwood is an especially elegant plant for a woodland border with green leaves that surround white petal-like flower bracts like a collar. Tiny, pea-sized, glossy red berries appear in autumn. Creeping roots allow this plant to colonise areas of well-drained, neutral to acid soil. Will benefit from the addition of leaf mould when planting. Flowers May-June H10cm (4in) S1.5m (5ft)

9. Lamium maculatum ‘Beacon Silver’ The handsome leaves of this dead nettle are marbled silver with green edges, perfect for lighting up a shady corner. It forms a mass of semi-evergreen foliage and for several months, from late spring, nettle-like magenta flowers appear. Happiest in cool, moist, free-draining soil in part shade, once established it can cope with drier conditions. Ideal for under deciduous trees and shrubs. Flowers May-June H15cm (6in) S60cm (24in)

10. Vinca minor Periwinkles have glossy evergreen foliage and tubular flowers that open out into five flat petals. Vinca minor is less rampant than its cousin V. major but it can still smother more delicate plants - grow it in wilder areas and contain its spread by pulling out unwanted runners. Try the lavender-blue ‘La Grave’, the white ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ or the deep purple of ‘Atropurpurea’. Perfect for tricky areas like slopes or dry shade. Flowers March-May H10cm (4in) S1.5m (5ft)

Grow late summer lovelies

They’re fashionably late, but worth the wait… Val Bourne nominates her favourite plants for late summer colour

The days may be getting shorter and the nights might be a little bit chillier but the garden is even better because it has mellowed into a dreamworld full of rich harvest-golds, vivid oranges and jewel-box pinks and purples set off by sun-bleached seed heads and grasses. Like a woman in her prime, the garden wears a confident air, and there’s time to sit back and enjoy life as summer slides towards early autumn. Have a glass of fizz, whether it’s elderflower or Prosecco, and sit back and enjoy the butterflies as they skim through the garden looking for a nectar fix.
Keep August as fresh as you can by deadheading any fading flowers on summer perennials, dahlias, pelargoniums and roses. Cut out any signs of brown in summer and autumn-flowering borders, right up until the end of August, so that the garden keeps looking summer-fresh. Once September arrives you can allow autumn to creep in a little because seedheads and red berries look sensational in the crystal-clear light created by evenly balanced days and nights. Those longer nights suit southern hemisphere dazzlers such as salvias, dahlias, fuchsias and penstemons. At last they come into their own along with Japanese anemones and hardy chrysanthemums. 

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VAL'S TOP TIPS
• Keep watering containers until the end of September.
• Keep feeding containers weekly with a high potash tomato food to encourage flowers and toughen up foliage.
• Deadhead repeat-flowering roses, summer-flowering perennials and annuals to prevent them setting seeds – until mid-September.
• Cut out patches of brown in August to keep the garden looking fresh.
• Plug any gaps by visiting the garden centre to find flower. Penstemons, dahlias, later pokers and crocosmias should be available.
• If you have a green area of the garden, don’t panic. You can make a new container with flowering plants, or add a splash of foliage colour using heucheras.
• If you have bare gap in the border, fill it with a hydrangea in a container placed on two bricks. Keep it watered.  

PUT FOLIAGE FIRST

Excerpt from Gardening with Foliage First by Karen Chapman and Christina Salwitz

Like an expertly blended cocktail, this citrussy mix has the perfect ratio of sweet and sour notes. Taking the bergenia as inspiration with its large leathery leaves in yellow and green, the other plants (hakonechloa, and dicentra at the back) echo the lemony colours. These are balanecd with a squeeze of lime from the hosta and yellow-margined tricyrtis. Top it all off with a decorative pink flower or two and you have a designer cocktail that’s sure to become a spring favourite.
Spring through autumn offers the most exciting colour medley, with both the dicentra and bergenia adding pink flowers to the mix. In winter the evergreen bergenia will turn burgundy, introducing a new hue into the garden when the perennials are dormant. Underplanting the grass and tricyrtis with snowdrops would be a lovely way to add contrast to the winter scene, and they would perform well in this part-shady location. As the strappy bulb foliage dies back, the emerging perennials will quickly hide them from view. For ongoing care, thin out the bergenia occasionally to stop overwhelming more delicate plants, but otherwise the perennials should be able to blend easily for many years.
Best for: part shade and moisture retaining soil

PLANTS TO USE:

Athyrium filix-femina ‘Dre’s Dagger’
This dwarf deciduous fern has lacy foliage and thrives in moist woodlands in part or full shade. A. filix-femina ‘Vernoniae Cristatum’ is a reliable alternative that may be easier to find. H45cm (18in) S45cm (18in)

Hosta ‘Miss American Pie’
Most hostas prefer moist and semi-shaded conditions like these, but will need protection from slugs. H41cm (16in) S1m (3ft 3in)

Hakonechloa macra ‘Stripe it Rich’
This herbaceous grass cascades into a soft yellow waterfall, each golden blade lightly striped with white. H25cm (10in) S50cm (19in)

Tricyrtis hirta ‘Gilt Edge’
An easy herbaceous perennial for the shade garden. The green leaves are edged with gold and in midsummer freckled purple flowers appear. H60cm (24in)) S30cm (12in)

Bergenia ‘Lunar Glow’ 
This evergreen perennial has new foliage that opens creamy yellow, matures to green, and turns burgundy in winter. Fat spikes of pink flowers in spring. H30cm (12in) S45cm (18in)

Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’
This herbaceous perennial is a colourful addition to the shade garden, with apricot-pink stems, pure gold leaves, and rose-pink spring flowers. H and S60-90cm (2-3ft)

READER OFFER
This is an edited extract from Gardening with Foliage First by Karen Chapman and Christina Salwitz (£17.99, Timber Press). To order the book for the special price of £16.50 with free p&p (UK mainland only) please contact EFC bookshop on 01872 562327 or visit www.efcbookshop.com

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OPPOSITES ATTRACT

Contrasts: Bobbly Allium sphaerocephalon with fluffy fennel foliage

Contrasts: Bobbly Allium sphaerocephalon with fluffy fennel foliage

By Liz Potter

The mixed summer border contains a joyous abundance of flower and foliage forms. From daisies and pompoms to stately spires and billowing clouds of feathery ‘froth’ – there’s plenty to excite and draw the eye. Many of the best planting schemes have a pleasing ‘free for all’ look, so it’s surprising how much organisation goes into them.

One quick and foolproof way of making a border scheme hang together is by making deliberate plant contrasts. That is, picking opposites and planting them next to each other to emphasise their key attributes. This might entail partnering a plant with rounded umbel flowers (for example, achillea or orlaya) against one with upright spires (salvia ‘Caradonna’), strappy foliage (irises) or feathery fronds (Stipa tenuissima). Any of these opposites would work well with the rounded umbel flower, so it’s just a matter of playing with the different options until you settle on something that works.

For most of us, this ‘playing with plants’ aspect of design involves a visit to a nursery or garden centre to spend time juxtaposing the different plant forms, without having to commit to buying them! Another useful idea is to visit open gardens to take photos of the successful plant contrasts they’ve used, then simply copy them at home. You may need to do a bit of detective work to find out exact cultivars used, but usually the gardening team is happy to help if you show them a photo.

Try not to limit your contrasts to flower colours alone. Although this is an easy and reliable means of striking a successful contrast in a planting scheme, don’t forget about plant texture and form, height and habit. For instance, tall and very short plants can look fabulous together – just think of any woodland scheme where spring bulbs carpet the soil around a statuesque, coppiced cornus. There are opposites in habit too: mounding and clumping plants provide an excellent foil for more upright or spiky forms: think of the way that strappy crocosmia foliage seems to ‘leap out’ of a border full of rounded evergreen shrubs.

There are some potential pitalls to avoid: you do need to know the site and soil preferences of your opposing plants before you start. It’s no good trying to partner sun-loving heleniums with lush green ferns that prefer damp shade. Instead, find opposites that will love the same growing conditions you have to offer, and work from there.

You need to get the timing right too. For least fuss and best year-round value, choose opposing plants that offer a long season of interest so your contrasts work effectively for as much of the year as possible. Some plants, such as sedums, peonies, hellebores and clematis offer an amazing array of different colour and texture effects throughout the year, and each stage of life can be paired with an opposing partner. For instance, the red spring growth of a peony can be paired with red cyclamen or heucheras, while the later peony blooms and glossy foliage might work well with the spires of foxgloves and delphiniums. It’s all about spotting the opportunities offered by your plants, and partnering them with good neighbours that will bring out their best.

 

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Grow the plants that love to mingle

Cottage garden plants are famously relaxed and sociable. Here's how to get the look

By Louise Curley

The ‘cottage-style’ of gardening has evolved over the centuries but retains an enduring charm. Born from the need to scratch a living from the land, it became a romantic ideal during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and remains popular today. The exuberant but loose and relaxed style of planting suits our modern lifestyles. It embraces sustainable grow your own and wildlife-friendly ideals, and mingles cut flowers with useful herbs. Any planting style that has a naturalistic feel and embraces self-seeders will appeal to time-poor gardeners who find pristine gardens hard to maintain.
Plants are key to achieving the classic cottage look. Plant them close together to banish bare soil and create the all-important romantic tangle of flowers as they weave through each other. This also has the added advantage of keeping weeds down! Here we’ve outlined the key plants to mix and match...

Minglers include annuals, biennials, some perennials and bulbs with single flower stems and generally not much foliage. If they do have leaves these are delicate and add to the soft relaxed feel that prevents the planting from looking rigid. They’ll drift through your borders and many will self-seed, adding to the relaxed planting style.

Clumpers are herbaceous perennials that stay in one place, creating pockets of colour. They can be used in drifts for a classic cottage garden look or in blocks for a more contemporary take. Some ‘clumpers’, such as hardy geraniums and alchemilla, have a floppy habit. Use these to tumble over edges to soften hard landscaping. Divide every 3–4 years to reinvigorate the plants.

Frothers are the plants that offer lots of tiny florets into your planting scheme – the ideal counterpoint for more solid blooms such as roses and dahlias. Use them to create a billowing cloud of summer colour that seems to float on the breeze. These plants are ideal for path edges where they will soften the hard landscape.

Climbers can be used to make the most of every available growing space – a key element in cottage gardens. Use climbing roses, clematis and honeysuckle to clothe walls and fences or to scramble up over arches and pergolas. Make space for an obelisk or two in your borders and grow compact roses and clematis or annual climbers such as sweet peas or nasturtiums.

Spires add strong structural form and interest to cottage garden borders providing a contrast to the soft, floaty planting around them. They work best when planted in the middle to the back of a border where they can rise above the ‘minglers’ and ‘clumpers’.

Edibles were an essential component of cottage gardens. Nowadays most of us don’t have the time or space for self-sufficiency, but it’s still possible to have both a beautiful and productive garden. Focus on crops that are attractive, expensive to buy and those which taste best when super fresh.
 

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Get savvy with salvage

Salvaged or reclaimed materials add texture, interest and personality to your garden.

By Fiona Cumberpatch
 
An old chimney pot planted with trailing pelargoniums, or deep purple petunias tumbling out of a battered copper cooking pot are good examples of using reclaimed or upcycled items to create a characterful outside space. Incorporating old artefacts and ingeniously repurposing them prevents new gardens from looking bland, and will create quirky features and talking points in established plots.
Secondhand doesn’t necessarily mean cheap, though it’s still perfectly possible to spot a bargain at a car boot sale. Set your alarm and get there early, because anything old or antique is usually snapped up first. Antiques fairs are more expensive, but you’ll find a wide selection of gardenalia and you can barter. A specialist salvage yard will offer a huge choice, and items are generally sorted by type, such as reclaimed stone, paving slabs, edging etc. These reclamation yards factor in labour and transportation costs, so their prices might be a little higher.
EBay is still worth trying, though you need to add in the costs of a courier or self collection, as salvaged items are usually too heavy to post. For local bargains, head to selling site Gumtree (www.gumtree.com), or pop into your local auction house on viewing day. If you can’t attend the auction, leave a fixed bid (the highest amount you’re prepared to pay).
For savvy salvage, choose materials that won’t rot or rust. Galvanised steel animal troughs make long-lasting planters, while zinc dolly tubs and old baths are rust-resistant. Vintage ceramic sinks are virtually indestructible and copper pots gain an attractive verdigris patina as they age. Rubber tyres, free from many garages, make long-lasting planters that can be stacked for effect. Anything made from wood or iron will only last a couple of seasons outside at most.  
 
Where to hunt for gardenalia
 
1.     The Decorative Salvage and Vintage Fair (29-30 July), Knebworth House, Herts SG1 2AX. www.bentleysfairs.co.uk
2.     Gallops Architectural Salvage, Ty-r-ash, Brecon Rd, Crickhowell, Powys NP8 1SF. www.gallopsltd.co.uk
3.     The Decorative Home and Salvage Show (4-6 August), Cheshire Showground, nr Knutsford WA16 0HJ. www.asfairs.com
4.     Toby’s Reclamation, Station Rd, Exminster EX6 8DZ.  www.tobyreclamation.com
5.     Steptoe’s Yard, Nether Warburton Farm, St Cyrus, Montrose, Scotland DD10 0AQ. www.steptoesyard.co.uk

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Show garden shopping

WE'VE TRACKED DOWN some of the 'must-have' pieces that will create the luxury look at home. Choose from corten steel water features, fabulous fire bowls and ever-so-chic seating

Where to buy...

Blomus fire pit £95 Black by Design 01889 502716; www.black-by-design.co.uk
Exo easy chair £149.99 MY Furniture 0800 092 1636; www.my-furniture.co.uk
Monaco deck chair £130 Oli & Grace 0330 223 3057; www.oliandgrace.co.uk
Corten steel round water feature £1,159 The Pot Co. See www.thepotco.com for stockists
Rusted metal sphere £75 Moore Designs 01403 865950; www.mooredesigns.co.uk
Galvanised landscaping cube £10.43 Tool Station 0808 100 7211; www.toolstation.com
Milan sun lounger £275 Mode Living 0800 999 3830; www.modeliving.co.uk
Helichrysum cushion from £49.50 Botanical Cushions www.botanicalcushions.com
Fitzroy cafe lights £28.99 Lights 4 Fun 012423 816040; www.lights4fun.co.uk
Mini flames fire pit £54.95 London Garden Trading 0800 699 0868; www.longardentrading.com

Perfect plants for small gardens

Plants have to work extra hard to earn their keep in a small garden. Where space is limited, it’s important to think about what they contribute to the overall design – hopefully colour, structure and a long season of interest. 

Don’t fall into the trap of buying a range of dwarf plants, or you’ll end up recreating Lilliput, with the garden flowering gaily around your ankles! Although it’s important to bear in mind a plant’s eventual height and spread, you can always keep their size in check by annual pruning. Instead, choose a range of palnts that will create layers of interest, with tall shrubs and climbers to make the most of the vertical space, and smaller plants that will flower for ages, in shade where required.  

Our top 10 plants

 

1. Hydrangea quercifolia

2. Erysimum cheiri

3. Clematis ‘Picardy’

4. Euphorbia amygdaloides 

5. Trachylospermum jasminoides

6. Geranium ‘Rozanne’

7. Lamium maculatum

8. Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’

9. Liriope muscari

10. Lamprocapnos spectabilis

 

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Make a rustic brick planting circle

A brick circle set into a lawn makes an ideal space for growing herbs, small annuals and perennials. Here, reclaimed bricks have been used to give a cottage-garden look that’s more forgiving if your geometry goes a bit awry. Choose bricks in a variety of hues and colours, then
mix them around to avoid placing similar-looking bricks together. Choose a sunny spot with well-drained soil. Mark out the circle and central planting hole before excavating the soil to the required depth. Add a layer of sharp sand to help get a level finish and lay the bricks on top. Then plant up.  

HOW TO BUILD THE CIRCLE

1. Position the bricks This will help you work out the overall size and radius of your circle, and confirm you’ve ordered enough bricks before starting. Use a stick, garden fork or sturdy parasol base as the circle’s centre point.

2. Mark the line in paint Attach a length of string, cut slightly longer than the circle’s radius, to the centre point. Use it to mark out the circle’s circumference with white lawn paint or a trickle of sharp sand poured from a plastic bottle.

3. Dig out the turf Make your turf recess just deeper than brick height: 10-15cm (4-6in) deep. This picture shows the circle with the central parasol base removed. The central lawn circle will be removed once all the bricks are laid.

4. Check it’s level Cut a plank of wood the same width as your bricks to the radius of the circle. Lay a spirit level on top to check the entire circle is level. Then add a layer of sand to help settle the bricks and adjust them easily.

5. Use half bricks first Start by laying half-bricks around the central circle. These prevent large gaps from occurring between each brick, giving a more uniform appearance. Use string to check each row is centred neatly. 

6. Remove some of the bricks This will create neat areas for compost and planting. Dig out the turf from the centre to avoid a tiny circle of lawn in the middle. Either plant it up or infill with paving or tiles.

• This is an extract from The Upcycled Garden by Steven Wooster and Susan Berry (£15.99 Berry & Co). To buy a copy at the special Garden Answers reader discount of £12 please buy the May issue for details.

 

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Make the most of a small garden

Gardens today are smaller than ever. It’s no secret that urban developers, in a bid to solve our housing crisis, have been squeezing new homes into the smallest of brownfield sites. So it’s lucky that even the tiniest gardens can be among the most visually exciting. Think of the Chelsea show gardens – all designed to fit on a tiny template but packing in masses of perennials, shrubs, trees, water features and seating areas. None of those designers ever skimped on style or colour; they set out to get maximum impact and atmosphere, without overcrowding the space – something that’s critical to making any small garden look appealing and cohesive.

The interplay between hard and soft landscape can make or break a small plot. This is where good planning comes in – drawing shapes on paper to visualise how areas of paving, lawn, gravel and planting might slot together. Go for clean geometrical shapes and outlines; ‘wibbly’ indecisive lines lack the sense of purpose that a sweeping curve can impose.

In a small space you have essentially one view to play with, so make it spectacular for as much of the year as possible. Create an eye-catching seating area so you can sit out in summer, and surround it with fabulous plant combinations offering interest at every level – tall shrubs or small trees with spring blossom and autumn colour interest, flowering climbers to cloak the fences, attractive evergreen foliage for winter structure, and long-lasting perennials for summer colour. Plant drifts of spring bulbs under a deciduous shrub and you’re pretty much covered.

However, it’s all too easy to get a ‘bitty’ piecemeal look and for the garden to look bare in winter. Here we’ve asked three gardeners for their hard-won advice.

5 Top tips

1 Make a plan on paper. This will help you organise your ideas and give you a fixed template to work to. Include the plants you’d like to use, then edit down according to space and budget.

2 Hide the garden’s boundaries. Use climbers to conceal fence panels and plant tall shrubs so they make a visual break across the fence line.

3 Create an exciting journey. Lay a path between planting areas or features so visitors can enjoy exploring. Have it lead to a sunny seating area. 

4 Don’t forget to add height. Taller plants, obelisks and pergolas prevent the garden becoming too flat.

5 Keep the colour schemes simple. Make your plant list with a colour scheme in mind for best cohesion.

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Create a little tulip wow!

By Louise Curley

Nothing can beat tulips for creating a riot of spring colour. Their sheer diversity offers gardeners a painter’s palette of colour, whether it’s the palest pastels or the richest jewel-like hues. Then there’s the type of flower, from the simple beauty of single goblet-shaped blooms to flamboyant parrot varieties, softly-romantic peony-like doubles or elegant lily-flowered tulips. With so many options tulips are perfect for creating a whole host of different styles in your garden borders and containers.

To create the biggest impact plant tulips in groups rather than dotting them about here and there, and in any one area focus on a limited palette of three or four colours which work well together to give your planting scheme coherence. If you’re daunted by the sheer choice then choose failsafe colour combinations such as the darkest of purples with pure whites or clashing orange tones. If you fancy something more subtle, go for viridifloras with their petals flashed with green mixed with ivories and whites.

Tulips also make perfect partners for other spring performers such as other bulbs, the flowers of biennials, spring-blooming perennials and newly-emerging foliage. Or, use the wafty foliage of grasses and dependable evergreens alongside tulips. The key is to choose partner plants that will perform at the same time, then sit back and enjoy a truly exuberant April garden.

Guide to shapes

Single – Can flower early or late season. Distinctive traditional cupped shape with six overlapping curving petals, strong stems and many colour choices. H20-50cm (8-20in) S10cm (4in)

Double – Can flower early or late season. More than six petals arranged in two or more whorls. Shorter stems than singles and fewer colour choices, but flowers can open to 10cm (4in). H20-40cm (8-16in)

Lily – Long petals are reflexed (bend backwards) to create elegant urn shape. Slender stem. Late season, flowering in May. H23-80cm (9-32in)

Peony – Large, double tulips flowering in late April or May. Petals are ruffled and stems usually robust.  H45-60cm (17-24in) S10cm (4in)

Parrot – Petals are ruffled, twisted and sometimes crimped or waved. Flowers mid season April and May in various colours. H30-70cm (12-28in) S10cm (4in)

Fringed – Frayed petals for attractive, ‘ripped fabric’ effect. Flowers late season in May; long-lasting blooms on strong stems. H20-75cm (8-30in)

 

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Rediscover the rockery!

Alpine gardens have been stuck in a time warp since the 1970s… but not any more! Joseph Tychonievich explores the new styles and how to make a new one

Rock gardening – the art of growing small plants in the company of rocks to create the look of a rugged mountaintop – has been surging in popularity. There are many reasons for this: gardeners today generally have less time and space to garden than their parents did, while rock gardening allows an urban gardener with a balcony or tiny plot to grow a bewildering diversity of different plants in a small space. Maintenance takes a fraction of the time required to deal with a similar number of plants in a large perennial border. In addition, many rock garden plants are notably tolerant of, or even fond of, dry conditions, making them the perfect answer to chronic summer drought.

Aesthetics is driving people to rock gardening as well. The spare, architectural forms and dramatic flowers of alpines are in stark contrast to, and a welcome change from, the lush containers of annuals and thickly planted perennial beds that have dominated gardening for so long. Add to that the fad for ‘fairy gardening’ (which makes use of tiny plants and miniature props) and you’ve got a perfect storm.

Rockery aesthetics

Rock gardening starts with that image of beauty among rocks. Whether it’s a ridge, a cliff face, crevice or big boulder with plants tucked down into the soil behind, the visual effect of a delicate flower set against the harsh austerity of stone provides dramatic contrast. There’s something magical about a seemingly fragile columbine managing to thrive in what appears to be a hostile, lifeless situation.

Exposed to harsh winds, limited water and fierce sun, these plants tend to stay small and compact, forming tight mounds that can withstand the brutality of the climate. At the same time these harsh conditions mean that pollinating insects are few and far between, so when it’s time to reproduce these plants go all out producing disproportionately large flowers to make sure they draw in every pollinator in the area.

In recent years traditional rock gardening has evolved to include plants native to dry desert areas, too. These plants are just as happy in well-drained gardens as alpines are, and look just as lovely growing against rock. So, in the American Midwest, you’re just as likely to find cacti and agaves in a rock garden as you are alpine dianthus and saxifrage. 

Soils and drainage

Most plants growing in a rock garden are native to mountaintops and have adapted to a lack of soil. Drainage is the most important factor in creating good growing conditions for them; whatever soil you use it needs to allow water to drain quickly and easily so the plant doesn’t stay waterlogged. Most critically, water needs to move away quickly from the crown of the plant.

When creating your own soil mix for rockery plants there are three factors to bear in mind.

1. Create a mix of pore sizes. ‘Pores’ are the spaces between soil particles and it’s these that affect the direction and speed of water travel in soil. Smaller pores (eg found in clay soil) hold water better than larger pores (eg in sandy/gritty soil). Because of its surface tension, water passes from materials with larger pores into those with smaller pores – a good reason not to put gravel in the bottom of containers as it will only trap the water rather than help it drain. Porous terracotta crocs, made of clay, are much better at absorbing any surplus water.

So, when building your rock garden, mix the grit and compost together thoroughly so water can drain smoothly through pores of all the same size. It’s usually recommended to combine one-third soil, one-third sand and one-third grit or gravel. The larger pores will ensure good drainage and oxygenation of the roots; small ones will hold a little more water for dry times.  

2. Create a fast-draining surface. Always top your compost mix with gravel or coarse grit so the water will drain quickly from the surface into the soil mix, and away from the plants’ crowns.

3. Choose a deep container. Deeper containers provide quicker drainage at the soil surface than a shallower container holding the same amount of soil. Although shallow containers have a broader surface area, which is better for surface water to evaporate, deeper containers will hold onto a reserve of water deeper down, where the plant roots can reach it.

4. Give the water somewhere to go. Whatever soil mix you use, you need a way for the water to drain out. Raised beds, containers or planting on a rock-terraced slope are all ways of keeping your soil from becoming waterlogged. Elevating your rock garden is also useful from an aesthetic viewpoint: the tiny plants are easier to see when you don’t have to bend down and a lot of flat little plants in a flat little garden can be, frankly, a bit boring. *

PLANTS TO USE

 

Opuntia
Extremely drought tolerant; deer and rabbit proof. Brilliant coloured flowers. Don’t water them when dormant and plant in a pot with sharp drainage or move to a sheltered spot for winter and spring. C humifusa is a clump former with low spreading habit H and S10-50cm (4-19in) 

Campanula
C. portenschlagiana H15cm (6in) and S5cm (2in)is an iconic rock garden plant. Loaded with small blue star shaped flowers that obscure the rest of the plant. Dwarf species C carpatica is widely available, with a top-notch floral display. H20cm (8in) S60cm (24in)

Cyclamen
Tuberous perennials with swept back flowers in white pink and purple, choose from C coum and C hederifolium (both dormant in summer and need to be kept dry) and C. purpurascens which flowers in summer. H and S10cm (4in)

Daphnes
Compact daphnes such as D cneorum H15cm (6in) S2m (6ft) will make small, dense, flower-laden plants. Creeping D jasminea will develop a dense gnarled trunk like a miniature bonsai that won’t outgrow its space H and S20cm (8in)

Dianthus
Massive genus of which D. alpinus has glaucus foliage and intricately patterned blooms. H and S10cm (4in) D. deltoides forms a soft creeping mat of lush green stems and is more tolerant of poor drainage. H10cm (4in) S30cm (12in)

Gentians
G. acaulis has tight mounds of glossy dark foliage and massive saturated-blue flowers. Must have good drainage; plants dislike hot summer nights. H2cm (1in) S10cm (4in)

Lewisia cotyledon
Strikingly beautiful evergreen plant with intricately detailed flowers. Thick fleshy succulent leaves and many species go dormant during summer heat to conserve water. H and S50cm (19in)

Saxifrages
Diverse group with exceptional foliage. Choose from silver saxes, dwarf cushion saxes and mossy saxes. Dwarf cushion saxes are most numerous, many with enormous flowers – S. urbium (London Pride) is widely available H15-30cm (6-12in) S1m (3ft 3in)

Sempervivums
Hard-to-harm plants that grow from offset rosettes. Easy and adaptable, drought tolerant, evergreen. Will become more red in cool, sunny conditions. Leaves plump up in damper conditions. H and S10-30cm (4-12in)

Pasque flower
Silvery-leaved Pulsatilla vulgaris produces large, anemone-like rich purple flowers that develop into attractive silky seedbeds. H and S10-50cm (4-20in)

 

READER OFFER
This is an edited extract from Rock Gardening by Joseph Tychonievich (£25 Timber Press). To buy the book at a special reader discount of just £23 contact EFC bookshop on 01872 562327 or visit www.efcbookshop.com before 4 April 2017.

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Help - I loathe orange!

Kendra Wilson solves this age-old dilemma

When people claim to loathe orange (before adding red and yellow to the list), it’s possible that a fear of bad taste is blinding them to the bigger picture. A denial of yellow is to dismiss cowslips and so many other spring flowers that sparkle in the early sunshine. The decadence of late summer would be sadly diminished without dahlias in every shade of velvety red. And orange itself does not have to be neon: pale orange, as seen on crocosmia ‘George Davison’ is positively delicate, peering over a mass of strap-shaped leaves in fresh green.

All sunset colours go well with green, and foliage, according plantswoman Beth Chatto, is even more important than flowers. With their emphasis on form, texture and movement through the garden, flowers take a decided second place, whatever colour they are.

Some richly coloured dahlias, such as the classic ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ and relations, are handsomely offset by their dark, almost black, leaves. Flower colour is just one consideration in a border like the one shown here. In a quest for simplification, it’s worth noting that reds, yellows and oranges all go well together. There is harmony in a controlled palette like this. Add a strong contrast, like cobalt blue, and the sunny colours will begin to jar again.

THIS EXTRACT is from Kendra Wilson’s My Garden is a Car Park and Other Design Dilemmas (£12.99, Laurence King) and available at www.laurenceking.com. To enjoy a 35% discount, enter code GARDEN35 at the checkout on the Laurence King website before 31 March 2017

 

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Take a bee's eye view of blossom

These nectar-rich flowers will brighten up the garden and draw in the pollinators. Val Bourne picks her top 10 trees and shrubs for spring 

Gardeners can get carried with away with perennials and bulbs when it comes to spring flowers. Yet trees and shrubs offer far more flowers for the nectar-hungry bee. They’re enormously important for scale, shelter and perspective too. Without them, your carpet of spring-flowering plants wouldn’t look half as good! Here we’ve picked trees and shrubs for a modest-sized garden – mostly early flowerers that will give you a head start on blooms.

VAL'S TOP 10

1 Prunus ‘Chocolate Ice’ (Apr-May)

2 Prunus cerasifera ‘Nigra’ (Mar-Apr)

3 Malus – ‘Harry Baker’ (May)

4 Prunus mume ‘Ben-Chidori’ (Feb-March)

5 Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ (Oct-April)

6 Chaeonomeles superba ‘Crimson & Gold’ (Mar)

7 Cercis chinensis (Mar-April)

8 Stachyurus praecox (Feb-April)

9 Forsythia intermedia (Mar-April)

10 Magnolia stellata (Mar-April)

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