Fill your garden with easy pleasers...

Aquilegias and foxgloves create a relaxed, cottage style

Aquilegias and foxgloves create a relaxed, cottage style

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

Every experienced gardener relies on a backbone of bombproof perennials that return again and again, without becoming a nuisance. These need little maintenance, other than a yearly trim, and they don’t require regular division either. Nor are they ‘rare’ (surely another name for difficult!). They’re just good doers that perform year after year without any mollycoddling from you. 

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

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

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

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

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

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


As spring beckons, silver-leaved plants stand out against the dark earth, like melting snowflakes. The heart-shaped green-veined foliage of Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ is soon followed by sprays of dainty blue flowers. Good forms of low-growing deadnettle Lamium maculatum include ‘White Nancy’, strong pink ‘Beacon Silver’ and paler ‘Pink Pewter’. All flower in early spring, when bees are short of nectar. Pulmonarias, such as such as ‘Blake’s Silver’, ‘Diana Clare’ and dappled ‘Leopard’ also work well.

Add in stronger colours with Dicentra formosa ‘Bacchanal’, a deep-red bleeding heart with ferny green foliage, and hardy epimediums. Delighting gardeners since 1854, E. versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ has two-tone, pale yellow flowers that tremble on wiry stems, like young ballerinas on pointed toes. Its red-flushed, heart-shaped foliage emerges just afterwards.

Polemonium ‘Lambrook Mauve’ is a non-seeding Jacob’s ladder whose soft-lavender flowers have a butterscotch middle. This curtseying plant, from the 1960s, perfectly partners terracotta, lily-flowered tulip ‘Ballerina’. 

When it comes to summer, few gardeners can resist a hardy geranium. If you’ve room, opt for a sterile cultivar that will flower for months on end. Pale-blue ‘Rozanne’ sprawls over three feet of ground and blooms from May to September, although a Chelsea chop makes it later. ‘Patricia’ forms a generous roundel of black-eyed magenta flowers and both perform in light shade and in north-facing borders. The smaller ones prefer more sun and good drainage. Magenta ‘Ivan’, pale pink ‘Mavis Simpson’ and bluer pink ‘Dilys’ all make good edgers. 

Many daisies are easy, and shoulder-high sunflower, helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, lights up August with its darker centred, primrose-yellow flowers. Like all sunflowers it faces the sun. Place it next to a burgundy cloud of Eupatorium maculatum ‘Atropurpureum Group’ – a superb combination. Add in a late-summer golden-yellow daisy such as knee-high Rudbeckia fulgida deamii.

For an earlier splash of gold, try easy helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’. The dazzling orange and brown flowers shimmer in the border,  beginning in July. Blue Succisella inflexa ‘Frosted Pearls’ produces masses of grey-blue bobbles and provides the perfect contrast.

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