Plan the perfect spring border


Get a head-start on April by filling borders with zingy-green perennials, tulips, flowering shrubs and leafy foliage plants. Val Bourne has some recommendations

April is a high-energy month, but its an unpredictable month as well. Its a bit of a rollercoaster and flowers can be thin on the ground once the early daffodils, hellebores and crocuses have faded into distant memory. With summer-flowering perennials just about stirring, its important to plug the gaps with some April flowers. If youre not sure what to plant, head to garden centres for inspiration, and read on...
Early April sees two of my favourite tulips looking their best. ‘Orange Emperor’ (a Fosteriana with languid soft-orange petals, shaded in pistachio-green) is lovely in pots or in the ground. Its perennial, returning year after year, so an economical one to plant. Cut back to one leaf after flowering. ‘Daydream’ (a Darwin Hybrid) is a chameleon that opens to soft-yellow and then colours up to sunset shades. In the second half of April, Triumph tulips begin to open their thick-petalled, egg-shaped flowers. The purpleNegrita’, woven among the soft-mauveShirley’, is almost a garden cliche, but it works well round roses with a splash of copper-orange to pick up new rose foliage. The lily-floweredBallerina’, although a little later, overlaps and all three return year on year.
The pink and white forms of lamprocapnos (dicentra) is wonderful with pink tulips such asBarcelona’. The white form, which is a weaker grower, could be used in shadier places with a green and white tulip such asSpring Green’.

Create a woodland glade
The sun can still reach the ground under deciduous shrubs and trees in April, so woodland and shady plantings can keep going. In shadier areas the handsome hardy male fernDryopteris filix-mas, will unfurl its impressive fiddle-back crosiers even in dry shadeTheir fronds stretch upwards just as our native English bluebells begin to turn blue. These natives hang their flowers on one side only, unlike upright Spanish bluebells, and the colour is far more intense. You can acquire Hyacinthoides non-scripta in the green from Peter Nyssen nurseries. Young ferns in smaller pots are easier to establish.

Add zingy acid greens
an electrifying touch of spring zing to your garden with Euphorbia epithymoides (formerly E. polychroma). It dies away in winter then revives in spring and produces a foot-high pouffe of acid-yellow thats perfect with all blues including scillas and blue muscari.
persist for many weeks, because their so-called flowers are tough bracts. Keep them vigorous by cutting them back to the base after flowering and, if you can, take cuttings from the young basal growth. There are evergreen euphorbias for shade and they include Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’. This has beetroot-coloured foliage and lime-green flowers. Both these plants are clump-forming but some roam and Mrs Robb's Bonnet (Euphorbia amygdaloides robbiae) has a tendency to move on.
Youll also get a bolt of golden light from a biennial called Smyrnium perfoliatum, which is an umbellifer (it has flat topped flowers). If you want to establish any biennial in your garden, plant some in three consecutive years and then leave it to self seed

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Plant a chocolate feast for Easter. We pick our top 10 dramatic plants with delicious names. By Louise Midgley

Few can resist the lure of chocolate. It’s a heavenly edible that’s a feast for all the senses, with its distinctive aroma, velvety texture and addictive flavour. This spring, indulge your sweet tooth by creating a whole border full of plants infused with the sweet scent of cocoa or bestowed with deep, richly coloured foliage and flowers. After all, a garden would be extraordinarily bland if all the foliage was the same shade of green. It’s far better to plant an appealing mix of dark and light foliage and flower colours to create some definition and contrast between plants. A spectrum of mahogany, burgundy and dark chocolate tones provides a wonderful foil against which paler coloured flowers can radiate.
Here we’ve provided a delicious mixed assortment of rich, chocolatey plants to choose from, some with perfumes reminiscent of chocolate. Position them close to your favourite seating area and sit back and indulge in their delicious scent and beauty.  

 1. Cosmos atrosanguineus Chocolate cosmos unites the colour and heady fragrance of chocolate in one delectable plant. The deep maroon, long-stemmed flowers unleash a vanilla/chocolate aroma in the heat of the day. Plant in full sun for best effect. They prefer moist, well-drained soil and perform especially well in pots and containers with good compost. The tuberous plants are only half hardy and should be lifted at the end of the season and stored in a frost-free environment. H70cm (2ft 3in) S45cm (1ft 5in)

2. Akebia quinata Make use of a vertical space – perhaps a pergola or fence beside the patio – by growing this delicious chocolate vine. Sit out in the spring sunshine and savour the exotic spicy-chocolate aroma wafting from racemes of delicate plum coloured flowers. While this climber enjoys a small footprint on the ground, it will need space to climb, although some judicious pruning of mature plants in late spring will keep it in check. An easy plant, happy to establish in most soil types and in sun or shade. H10m (33ft) S2m (6ft 6in)

3. Heuchera ‘Chocolate Ruffles’ Now available in a veritable rainbow of colours, Heucheras have fast become indispensable groundcover plants for many gardeners. ‘Chocolate Ruffles’ forms a mound of heavily crimped burgundy leaves that reveal a silky, deep-purple underside. Creamy white, miniature bell flowers appear on purple stems in summer. More drought tolerant than other cultivars, this accommodating variety is happy in sun or part shade and robust enough to thrive in some degree of dry shade. H and S30cm (12in)  

4. Aquilegia viridiflora ‘Chocolate Soldier’ This unique, dwarf columbine differs from its lofty cousins, not just in height but in its rare yet elegant colour combination. Its two-tone, chocolate brown nodding flowers are encased in green petals and topped with long graceful spurs, which emit a sweet fragrance from late spring to early summer. As with all aquilegias, it prefers deep rich, free-draining soil in full sun or dappled shade. Give this coveted little beauty a prime spot to be seen and appreciated while in flower. H30cm (12in) S25cm (10in)

5. Digitalis parviflora ‘Milk Chocolate’ Find space in sun or shade for this scrumptious perennial foxglove. It’s delightfully quirky but unlikely to be sold in your local garden centre. Seek it out from good plant sales or specialist nurseries online. Tiny, densely packed, chocolate-bronze trumpet-shaped blooms encircle a rigid spire that rises above glossy foliage and lasts from summer well into autumn. A real winner for pollinators, bees and butterflies and contented to grow in any garden soil. H60cm (24in) S30cm (12in)

6. Iris ‘Dutch Chocolate’ Luxuriate in the beauty of a flag iris in full flower. This exclusive variety flowers for longer than average and may re-flower if conditions are favourable. It boasts voluptuous blooms of ruffled petals in hues of chestnut and deep tan and is richly scented. Plant with the rhizomes slightly exposed in well-drained soil in full sun. The rhizomes need to be baked under the sun’s warmth to promote future flowers. H80cm (31in) S25cm (10in)

7. Dahlia ‘Karma Choc’ Breathe in the deliciously intense, chocolate fragrance of these summer-flowering dahlias as it floats far and wide in the breeze. Buds of these decorative dahlias open to reveal velvety flowers with deep crimson petals and an almost ebony centre. Dahlias are greedy feeders, need plenty of water and a position in full sun to continually produce new blooms from July until the first frosts. A good plant for attracting wildlife to your garden. H90cm (3ft) S45cm (18in)

8. Coleus ‘Chocolate Mint’ Coleus in their many flamboyant, colour combinations make great bedding plants or specimens for the conservatory in winter. The name of this little gem perfectly befits its cocoa-coloured foliage with mint green scalloped edges. As an ornamental member of the mint family, it will grow well in a shady or sunny, sheltered spot. Coleus grow into uniformly shaped plants, which make them ideal for edging a border or growing as stand-alone plants in containers. H35cm 14in S35cm 14in

9. Aquilegia ‘Roundway Chocolate’ Double blooms in tones of milk chocolate with a hint of ginger are highlighted above a froth of delicate grey/green ferny foliage. Flowering in late spring/early summer, aquilegias combine well with other cottage-garden plants and late-flowering spring bulbs. They relish dappled shade and nutritious soil, although will pop up in most garden environments. Remove faded flowers if you want to avoid a profusion of seedlings (which don’t always come true from seed). H60cm (24in) S30cm (12in)

10. Physocarpus ‘Diabolo Chocolate’ A striking, deciduous, ornamental shrub that thrives in the poorest of soils in sun, shade or even a tricky north-facing aspect. Its warm, mahogany foliage is greatly enhanced by a profusion of pretty white-blushed pink flowers in June and July, followed by equally attractive reddish-brown seeds. One of the easiest shrubs to grow, yet most rewarding in appearance. Should it outgrow its space, lightly prune immediately after flowering. Fully grown H2m (6ft) 6in S1.5m (5ft)

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Make a colour statement

Annuals are a cheap and easy source of glorious summer colour. Louise Midgley picks her top 10 to sow now, outdoors or undercover

Cleome hassleriana

Cleome hassleriana

Annuals are the most accommodating of plants, completing their life cycle within a year and hard-wired to flower prolifically in order to produce an abundance of seed and perpetuate their species.
A select few, taller than average varieties, have great presence in the garden and make striking stand-alone plants both in the border or in their own container. Grown in drifts or blocks of single or mixed colours, these statement annuals will provide a dramatic, long-lived display and a ready supply of cut flowers for the home.
Often hard to find in garden centres or online, most are easy to grow from seed, either sown in situ or started off in the greenhouse. Seed bought this year will last until next if stored correctly, so don’t be tempted to sow the whole packet in one go if it contains more than you need. All these lovely plnats have in common a need for a sunny position or light shade and free-draining soil.


1. Nicotiana sylvestris An elegant, flowering tobacco plant, destined to steal the limelight. Its bold architectural form would grace a traditional cottage garden as much as any modern design. A majestic tower of highly scented, white trumpet-shaped blooms emerges above plate-sized aromatic leaves. In order to attract pollinating moths, the flowers’ fragrance becomes more pronounced at dusk, so position plants somewhere they’ll be appreciated. Although officially a short-lived perennial, Nicotiana sylvestris is better treated as an annual in colder climates. H1.5m (5ft) S60cm (2ft)

2. Nicotiana mutabilis ‘Marshmallow’ One of the more unusual tobacco plants, which displays a wonderful array of tri-coloured flowers simultaneously. This exquisite variety produces its long, dainty stems in an open, light and airy formation. All are adorned with small blooms that range in colour from deep magenta to pale pink and white. The graceful movement of the almost weightless wands of flowers, as they catch the breeze, is compelling to watch. For this reason, it combines well with other plants that add a touch of lightness to the border, such as grasses and Gaura lindheimeri. H1.2m (4ft) S60cm (2ft)

3. Cleome hassleriana Also known as the spider flower plant, thanks its extraordinarily long stamens that protrude from orb-shaped blooms. The exotic-looking flowers in tones of pink, lavender, white and purple rise to the top of strong, thorny stems like giant sparklers erupting and need little support despite their lofty dimensions. A position in full sun will intensify their spicy fragrance, especially in the evening, and will prolong flowering until the first frosts. Happy in an average garden soil and fairly drought tolerant once established. H90-120cm (3-4ft) S30-60cm (1-2ft)

4. Ricinus communis ‘Impala’ Create a tropical vibe in your garden with towering castor oil plants. These fast-growing annuals develop sizeable, palmately lobed leaves in hues of purplish bronze and spikes of small yellowish flowers followed by unusual spiky, scarlet seedpods. It’s grown as a shrub in tropical regions where it reaches in excess of 8m (26ft) but ‘Impala’ is more compact and makes an attractive feature annual when grown at the back of a border or as a centrepiece in an island bed. All parts of the plant are poisonous. H1.5m (5ft) S1m (39in)

5. Tithonia rotundifolia Mexican sunflowers are invaluable annuals for injecting late summer colour and a strong vertical dimension into a planting scheme. Branching stems, which may need staking, bear vivid tangerine-coloured flowers, reminiscent of single-flowered dahlias or pot marigolds. The fact they hail from South America tells us this plant needs plenty of heat to give of its best. Partner with other lofty, late-summer flowering plants such as salvias, penstemons and Verbena bonariensis for a vibrant, jewel box of colour. H1.5-2m (5ft-6ft 6in) S30-60cm (1ft-2ft)

6. Helianthus ‘Harlequin’ F1 Hybrid As an alternative to traditional single-flowered sunflowers, multi-branching varieties provide a more floriferous display with their abundance of happy, daisy-shaped flowers in sunny hues. Harlequin sunflowers produce 15cm (6in) bi-coloured blooms in warm shades of bronze, rose pink, burnt orange and gold. Position them at the back of the border and give them enough space to spread their wings. They associate well with other architecturally striking annuals or perennials. H1.5m (5ft) S50cm (20in)

7. Papaver somniferum Grow opium poppies not just for their attractive single or double flowers but also their ornamental seed pods. These orb-shaped receptacles contain hundreds of seeds that will disperse around the garden and provide a constant source of new plants in future years. Seedlings may not always spring up where needed but are easily recognisable and can be removed. The flowers are predominantly but not exclusively in the pink, purple and red spectrum of shades and all have appealing silvery glaucous foliage. H60-90cm (2-3ft) S30cm (12in)

8. Ammi majus ‘Graceland’ This elegant umbellifer creates a froth of white lacy flowers above weightless ferny foliage. Bees and butterflies are magnetised to the open blooms and birds are later attracted to the seed heads. Weave the plants among other border specimens for support or plant in groups staked with natural looking twiggy stems. Graceland blooms from June to August but can be extended with successional sowings. Its cut flowers have a lengthy vase life and combine beautifully with any other flowers in season. H140cm (55in) S50cm (20in)

9. Nicandra physalodes A vigorous and striking annual that owes its common name shoo-fly to the fact some gardeners believe it repels white fly. For this reason, it’s often seen growing close to brassicas in allotments. Lilac/blue funnel shaped flowers with white throats open daily on wide spreading, self-supporting plants. The purple calyces that surround each flower expands after flowering to encase the seeds in rigid papery globes, much like the orange Chinese lantern plants (Physalis alkekengi) making it a great garden worthy plant. H1.2m (4ft) S1m (39in)

10. Cosmos ‘Sensation’  A traditional, stalwart of the ever-expanding cosmos family that reliably produces a mass of long-stemmed, daisy-shaped flowers from early summer until stopped in its tracks by the frost. Give these tall accent plants a strong support from the start as the weight of filigree foliage and blooms on a mature plant can cause the central stem to buckle. Sensation can be found in mixed hues of pink, magenta and white. H120cm (4ft) S60cm (2ft)

Discover the first signs of spring

Hellebores and snowdrops

Hellebores and snowdrops

As the garden begins to stir, there are plenty of sensory treats to lure you outdoors. Val Bourne describes her favourite sights, sounds and smells

There’s a wonderful moment at this time of year, when you can feel the actual warmth of the sun on your face for the very first time in months. You look around and find the garden’s beginning to burgeon into life. Before long it’s careering full tilt towards spring, having languished in the winter doldrums for months.
Bees are foraging and there’s a buzz of activity in the air. The birds have paired up and are busy nesting, exploring bird boxes or simply singing away on a branch. And you’re likely to see your first butterfly too, for hibernating peacocks and red admirals, slightly battered by winter, are on the move again.
Everywhere you look there are signs, from the plump buds on the apple tree to the daffodil poised to open its papery bud. A burst of warmth may prompt a crocus to open and show off its orange-red feather duster of pollen, or a winter aconite will unfurl and push aside those feathery protective leaves. Both will be visited by a bee desperate for sustenance.
Spring is stirring all around, on the ground and in the air. Your garden responds because this is the most exciting time of the year. The pleasure of anticipation is intense, because we’ve got it all to come – so now’s the time to spend peering and looking, willing it all to grow a little faster. 

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Give a gift they'll love...

...with our top 10 plants with romantic names

Crocus ‘Romance’ While roses may be the flower most commonly associated with Valentine’s Day, it was in fact the humble crocus dedicated to St Valentine, the Christian martyr, after whom Valentine’s Day was named. C. ‘Romance’ defies the cold and will add a ray of sunshine to the sleeping landscape with its buttery yellow, goblet shaped blooms. Plant several in alpine beds, rockeries or the lawn where they’ll naturalise if left undisturbed. At this time of year buy ready-potted crocuses and plant outside after flowering. H10cm (4in) S5cm (2in)

Clematis ‘New Love’ Unlike its climbing cousins, this herbaceous clematis needs little support and would nestle comfortably among perennials in a sunny or semi-shaded border, in a fertile, free-draining soil. This is a plant that stands out from the crowd while flowering for a long period over the summer months. Expect to see a profusion of unique, star-shaped indigo blue blooms with slender reflexed petals clustering along its strong upright stems. When grown in a container, use a loam-based compost such as John Innes No3. H90cm (35in) S50cm (20in) 

Catananche caerulea ‘Alba’ More commonly known as Cupid’s dart, this hardy perennial is a native of the Mediterranean, where its pure white flowers are still used in bouquets as a Greek symbol of love. During its flowering season from June to September, a mass of silvery buds on upright stems open into solitary, papery white flower heads with a purplish centre. This little gem dislikes heavy, water-logged soil and thrives best in gritty free-draining earth in a sunny aspect. H60cm (24in) S35cm (14in)

Rosa ‘My Valentine’ Red roses are the undisputed flower symbol of love but why buy a bunch when you can have a long-lived productive plant? This sumptuous Hybrid Tea produces recurrent flushes of classic red, velvety blooms, usually one per stem, from summer to late autumn. And unlike many of the cut flower roses available, the blooms on this bush rose are exquisitely fragranced. Plant in an open, sunny site, keep it well fed, regularly watered, pruned annually and it will live for decades. H90cm (3ft) S90cm (3ft)

Lavatera ‘Barnsley Baby’ A hard-working little shrub that embodies all that could be romantic in a plant; from its delicately shaded blush-pink blooms to its deeply lobed, heart-shaped leaves. This compact version of a classic garden favourite is no less equal in vigour to its lofty relations and flowers without pause throughout summer. It’s happiest in full sun and well-drained soil and is the perfect, trouble-free specimen for a container. H75cm (30in) S60cm (24in)

Salvia ‘Love and Wishes’ For uninterrupted colour from mid-summer to autumn, jewel-toned salvias add a splash of opulence to any border. ‘Love and Kisses’ produces luxurious magenta flowers, held by deep burgundy calyces. Although not fully hardy in all parts of the UK (down to at least -5C/xxF), cuttings strike easily and new plants mature quickly. It performs best in full sun or lightly dappled shade, where winter drainage is good. Salvias are distinguishable from other plants by their heady aromatic foliage and are great wildlife-friendly plants for bees, butterflies and moths. H80cm (32in) S50cm (20in)

Zantedeschia ‘Captain Romance’ Clumps of this sumptuous calla lily live up to their distinguished name by providing great presence in a garden setting. The rich pink, trumpet-shaped blooms stand proudly to attention, above lush green foliage. Summer-flowering calla lilies prefer humus rich, well-drained soil; heavy soil may cause the rhizomes to rot. Lift in autumn when the foliage has died back and store over winter in a frost-free environment. H65cm (28in) S40cm (16in) after 5-10 years

Potentilla fruticosa ‘Lovely Pink’ This shrubby and compact cinquefoil is worth its weight in gold for unremitting flower power over the summer months. Five-petalled, cup-shaped pink flowers, favoured by bees, engulf a neat mound of attractive green foliage. This useful plant is easy to grow in most conditions but thrives in a hot sunny aspect and once established is reasonably drought tolerant. Trim it in spring to maintain a good shape. H1m (39in) S1m (39in)

Dianthus ‘Angel of Desire’ The diminutive nature of this perky little dianthus makes it ideal for edging a border, or equally, will keep containers colourful throughout late spring and summer. ‘Angel of Desire’ is characterised by masses of single to semi-double blooms of frilly deep pink petals with light pink centres that radiate a delicious sweet yet spicy scent. Bred to repeat flower throughout the growing season, it forms an attractive, tidy mound of evergreen blue-green foliage in winter. H10-20cm (4-8in) S20-30cm (8-12in)

Lily ‘Romance’ Fall in love with the seductive scent of lilies that drifts far and wide from where they’re planted. The eclectic mix of pink and red lilies in the Romance series epitomises the colours of Valentine’s Day, each with its distinct profile; some bearing spots, others stripes and all with eight blooms per stem. Symbolising grace and purity, these exotic-looking, oriental varieties need no staking, having been bred to be compact and are therefore perfect for growing in pots positioned in sun or semi-shade. H40cm (16in) S25cm (10in)


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Create a little winter romance

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Tactile seedheads, heady scent and delicate blooms create a picturesque and atmospheric garden in winter. By Louise Curley

Romantic gardens conjure up images of voluptuous roses and exuberant herbaceous borders at their summer peak, with plants spilling out onto paths, but there’s no reason why a garden can’t be imbued with a similar sense of romance in winter.

Wintery weather provides the perfect atmospheric canvas. Misty mornings dampen sound creating a serene stillness, and frozen raindrops dangle from colourful berries yet to be eaten by birds. The weak winter sunlight highlights the intricate silhouette of contorted hazel stems and a dusting of frost draws attention to the sculptural qualities of seedheads.

Winter sharpens the senses. The garden is stripped back to its bare bones which allows tiny details to come to the fore. Shots of red and orange from the last remaining rose hips stand out strikingly against leafless stems.

Whatever the season, a romantic garden needs bewitching blooms in a colour palette of soft pastels and muted tones. In winter look to winter-flowering trees such as Prunus autumnalis, with its exquisite dainty white blossom, shrubs such as viburnums and woodland bulbs to add colour and fragrance. Use the graceful silhouettes of deciduous trees and shrubs and the skeletal structures of seedheads and grasses to add delicate beauty.


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Try our fun snowdrop quiz!

Can you match up these 12 snowdrops with their cultivar names below - going by looks alone? For all the answers click here

Special thanks to Lakeland Snowdrops for their lovely pictures!








Fill your garden with winter flowers

Brighten up the new year with a feast of flowers. Val Bourne nominates the best blooms for fragrance and colour

Fragrant Viburnum bodnantense

Fragrant Viburnum bodnantense

The spidery flowers of Hamamelis mollis (witch hazel) have a spicy scent

The spidery flowers of Hamamelis mollis (witch hazel) have a spicy scent

Winter flowers are worth their weight in gold because they really lift the gardener’s spirits, making winter more bearable and bringing spring a giant step nearer. You can either admire them in a border, in a winter container, or put a few sprigs in a tiny vase to create powerful midwinter magic inside the house.

Lonicera fragrantissima  (winter honeysuckle)

Lonicera fragrantissima
 (winter honeysuckle)

Some deciduous trees and shrubs open their buds long before the leaves appear and their flowers look surreal as they cling to the black spidery branches. Certain evergreens also flower now, while some ground-hugging plants break into precocious flower just when the earth around is largely brown and bare.

These winter jewels don’t have showy flowers because they’d get ruined by wintry weather. They tend to be small and subtle and come in gentle shades such as ivory-white, soft-pink or pallid-yellow. They lure early pollinators with their fragrance, rather than their colour, so it’s important to place them in a sheltered position so the afternoon sun makes the fragrance flow. On a mild January afternoon you’ll catch a waft or two and you’ll almost certainly see a honey bee, or a large bumblebee queen, sipping the nectar or collecting the pollen because early flowers are vital for them.

You don’t have to have a large garden to capture winter fragrance because the most powerfully scented plant of all is a small evergreen commonly called Christmas box. There are several forms of this Chinese evergreen, but the one that packs the most powerful lily-like scent of all is Sarcococca hookeriana digyna. The flowers consist of clusters of downward-facing white stamens, held in pink buds, and the lance-like foliage is olive-green. Sarcococca confusa, my personal favourite, has ivory-white flowers framed by rich-green foliage. Black berries often follow in summer. Sarcococcas can be grown in a container and even a small one packs a fragrant punch. In colder places it usually gets to a H1m (39in) in the ground, but it can get to H1.5m (5ft) in warm, moist areas of Britain. 

If you’ve space, wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) will make a large shrub and the pallid flowers, which appear on bare branches, are full of fragrance. It’s often said to need a warm wall, yet it thrives in an open spot in my cold Cotswold garden and is always full of flower. The translucent, pale-yellow flowers have a touch of wine-red in the middle and you can smell this one even on a cool day. It also cuts really well, outlasting other winter flowers. The downside of this large shrub, which can reach H4m (12ft), is the scruffy summer foliage but I think it’s worth it. The best winter honeysuckle (Lonicera purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’) also looks scruffy in summer, but this non-climbing shrub produces sweetly scented cream flowers from January onwards and again it’s good for cutting. ‘Winter Beauty’ is lovely by a gateway but it also needs space making a shoulder-high wide shrub some 2.4m (8ft) feet across. 

If you have fertile soil treat yourself to a witch hazel (Hamamelis intermedia) but do try to buy it in flower so you can see if it’s scented. The butterscotch-brown ‘Aurora’ and pale-lemon ‘Pallida’ both have a freesia scent. Witch hazels form branching shapes slowly, eventually reaching H4m (12ft). They love summer moisture, so they struggle in containers, but they’re perfect in a woodland garden above early spring bulbs. Cornus officinalis, a small shrub or tree that’s the same size as the witch hazel, has orbs of bright-yellow flowers in late-winter and mature specimens develop a rugged chocolate-coloured bark that gleams in low winter sun. And don’t dismiss the humble winter jasmine, Jasminium nudiflorum just because it’s everywhere. Give this cottage garden favourite a sunny spot and always cut it back after flowering to keep it bushy. Then, watch it produce masses of shiny olive-green stems decorated with yellow flowers.

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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


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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• 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.  


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


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)

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

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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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