There are many criteria to consider when designing with plants, both practical (such as choosing plants that will thrive in the soil and conditions) and aesthetic (like combining leaf sizes and textures). Perhaps the most effective and important visual aspect is the mixture of colours. Most pleasing are combinations that harmonise, such as this pale pink tree peony in front of a ceanothus (C. ‘Puget’s Blue’)…
In a similar colour spectrum, the rich, glossy purple of this tulip (T. ‘Queen of Night’) is set off beautifully by the frothy flowers of Phlox (P. divaricata ‘Clouds of Perfume’). In their first year, the tulips featured in a potted display in my garden. When they had finished flowering I put them into the beds, where most have survived and will hopefully naturalise. The flowers of tulips treated in this way are rarely as large after the first year (depending on the variety – some naturalise very well) but it hardly matters…
‘Queen of Night’ goes almost as well with forget-me-nots, which are prevalent in the garden at the moment…
Colour doesn’t have to come from flowers – foliage can act as the perfect foil to flowers, as in this happy combination of ceanothus with a dark-leaved hazel (Corylus maxima ‘purpurea’)…
Or this row of chives with the same background…
And different coloured foliage can be used together to similar effect. This is the grass Phalaris arundinacea ‘Feesey’ (commonly known as ‘Gardener’s Garters) contrasting with the same hazel, with the mid-green of a cornus (C. kousa var. chinensis) mediating…
Of course, colour combinations don’t always have to be calming and peaceful. On a visit to the Dorothy Clive garden in Shropshire recently I came across this vibrant (I would almost call it alarming) conflict between orange and yellow varieties of azalea…
After that, you need something calming, so how about this group of Tulipa ‘Purissima’ from my own garden, set against the lush mid-green new leaves of Viburnum x. burkwoodii…
RHS Garden Bridgewater is largely designed on a variation of the prairie style, made popular by exponents such as Piet Odoulf. That means most of the interest at this time of year comes from flowing grasses, and architectural seed heads.
Bridgewater was created just a few years ago, and only opened to the public last year, but even bearing that in mind, to me it lacks colour in the form of autumn leaves. There are rumours that an arboretum is planned, which will address this in time. In the meantime, there are at least some shrubs and trees that will give autumn colour. These topiary beech columns in the paradise garden, for instance…
The low angle of the sun at this time of year creates some interesting light effects; particularly when there’s dark cloud in the background…
The narrow, silver-backed leaves of these pollarded willows give a Mediterranean (possibly even Australian) look. They haven’t started to turn yet, but when they do, and then drop, the orange-red stems will be a decorative feature until the plants are cut back to the main trunk early next spring…
There was plenty of attractive fruit, from crab apples, to rose hips, as well as all sorts of berries…
And in one corner of the Paradise garden, a Mahonia was coming into flower…
It’s easy to think there’s no point in visiting gardens at this time of year, because the show is over. But while there may not be the sheer joy, exuberance, colour and growth of summer, a well-planned garden will still have plenty of beauty and interest. RHS Bridgewater has achieved this, and it’s something we can all bring into our own gardens.
Most of us can find room for at least one winter flowering shrub; ideally one that provides interest at other times of the year – witch hazel (Hamamelis), for instance, has good autumn colour, and Mahonia keeps its spiky, structural leaves all year round. A clump of grasses such as Miscanthus or Calamagrostis (choose your favourite varieties) will have a presence in the border and look good all year round.
Many trees and shrubs have spectacular autumn colour, and bear attractive fruits that will persist well into the winter. There is a good choice of trees with attractive bark; many of which are suitable for a small garden. Try paper bark maple (Acer griseum), snake bark maple (Acer davidii), strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), one of the Himalayan birches (such as Betula utilis ‘Moonbeam’), or Prunus serrula – an ornamental cherry with shiny, mahogany bark.
Hellebores and cyclamens will provide flowers at ground level in the winter, taking you through to the early bulbs, such as snowdrops, narcissus and crocus.
All told, there’s no excuse for a garden that is dull in autumn and winter.
For some years now, gardening pundits have been telling us we may need to move towards Mediterranean climate plants in our UK gardens. But this summer has imbued that idea with a powerful sense of urgency.
Many people will have spent valuable time watering during the heatwaves, and still have lost plants. This is not sustainable. Of course, we can’t be sure that drought will be a consistent feature of the growing season in years to come, but it seems likely.
There are many techniques to counter the adverse effects of heat and drought. Installing water butts minimises the need to use mains water for irrigation. Landscaping can channel water to the plants, rather than into storm drains. Improving soil structure allows soil to hold on to water for longer, and make it available to plant roots.
Equally important will be choosing plants that can cope with the heat and lack of water. This is not quite so straightforward as it might seem, because while our summers may be becoming similar to those in a Mediterranean climate, our winters are not. Winter in the UK is still cold and damp, which doesn’t suit a lot of Mediterranean plants. We need plants that can cope with drought, and heat during summer, but also cold and wet periods.
Choosing plants for a changing climate
There are many sources of information on the conditions required for plants (such as the RHS website). But how plants grow, and what they will put up with, can vary widely from area to area (and sometimes even from garden to garden) depending on the soil and local variations in climate. You can’t beat first-hand experience on the ground.
This past season has been a lesson to me in what will flourish in the sandy, dusty soil of my North Shropshire garden. Moisture-loving perennials such as Ligularia and Rodgersia were never going to like the heat. Mine are in a bog garden, but the water level of the pond that feeds it fell so low that the boggy area dried out, and the plants wilted.
I was surprised that Echinacea and Rudbeckia, which are prairie plants, needed regular watering. The RHS claim Rudbeckia came through well in their gardens (apparently it has deep roots). Perhaps mine will be better when they are more established. They also said Eupatorium (which has, I believe, been re-classified as Eutrochium) did well, though it flowered earlier. My Eupatorium only reached 60cm, flowered late, and needed regular watering. Perhaps the difference is in the soil.
I may have despaired at the sad state of so many of the plants, but there were successes. Helenium – another prairie plant – coped well with the heatwave. Echinops, despite being big, leafy plants, were barely affected (and we had seedlings coming up all over the garden too). Verbascum and Achillea proved to be resilient, as did Verbena bonariensis. Gaura (which is now officially known as Oenothera), continued its campaign to take over the garden. Sedum (now Hylotelephium), being succulents, were able to store enough water in their leaves to get through.
Salvias, which are Mediterranean plants, were mixed. The perennial blue Salvia guaranitica ‘Blue Ensign’ would have died if I hadn’t watered it regularly, and failed to flower. But shrubby Salvia ‘Royal Bumble’ was undaunted, and has produced masses of flower from June onwards. It also survives our winters, at least so far – many salvias are not sufficiently hardy.
Iris sibirica, which is supposed to like damp soil, came through as if this year was no different to any other. It flowers early – before the heat struck – but afterwards, the leaves continued unabated. In fact, it clumped up so well I’ve recently had to divide the plants.
And last, but not least, Symphyotrichum reliably produced their tall mounds of foliage in the background, and have now erupted into bloom. They are one of my favourite perennials, and incredibly useful for a late burst of colour.
Trees and shrubs
Most of the trees in my garden are young, and while they looked stressed at times, I didn’t see much of the ‘phantom autumn’ effects other people experienced during the heatwave.
When it comes to shrubs, Viburnum plicatum ‘Mariesii’ flowered beautifully early on, but by mid-summer was all but dead. Cornus kousa, and the purple hazels (Corylus maxima ‘Purpurea’) were hardly any better. Deciduous Berberis hardly put up a fight before their leaves shrivelled and fell (the sawflies that regularly strip them must have been very disappointed).
Hydrangeas are renowned for needing a lot of moisture, so it was surprising that Hydrangea ‘Limelight’ got through unscathed, and without additional water. Although it does have some shade – only getting the sun from mid-afternoon.
Predictably, Ceanothus ‘Puget Blue’ (Californian lilac) was at home in the conditions, flowering and growing on well. Roses don’t generally like it hot and dry. Mine muddled through quite well, though they did have a long break in flowering (all except ‘Munstead Wood’, which kept on producing blooms, albeit rather slowly).
As the climate changes, our gardens need to adapt. Choosing plants that are capable not just of surviving, but thriving in the changed conditions, means we can still have beautiful, healthy gardens, without using too much of that precious resource – water.
June is perhaps the peak time for roses, and the roses in my own garden are all in full flower now.
Much as we love them, we tend to think of roses as being a bit old-fashioned. Too often in the past, roses were used in ways that were sterile and twee, with paths lined with lollipop standards, and hybrid tea rose bushes set out in isolation, often in a desert of bare soil, with heaps of farmyard manure around them.
Nowadays, the trend is for roses to be more of an integral part of the garden. Modern shrub roses, climbers and ramblers mix well with other garden plants, and can work with most garden styles, from the formal to the traditional cottage garden, and even the currently popular ‘prairie planting‘ (sometimes referred to as the ‘naturalistic’ or ‘new perennial’ style). There are roses to suit every style, and in most colours (except blue and black).
When designing my own garden I chose roses from David Austin. His roses emulate the old, romantic roses, but like all growers, he bred for vigour, attractive foliage, disease resistance, and a long flowering period. Particularly important, he didn’t neglect scent, and most of his cultivars have good fragrance. When designing a garden, this is an important consideration, because scent adds another, very delightful element to a design.
Modern shrub roses work well in a mixed border, used in much the same way as you would use any other small to medium sized shrub. This is Rosa ‘Dame Judi Dench’ in a border and surrounded with perennials…
The garden is still in its infancy, and both rose and perennials will soon expand to fill the gaps.
In the further border, beyond the grass path, are two more shrub roses; ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ (as above) and ‘Tuscany Superb’; a rich claret, with yellow stamens…
These roses are sharing the border with shrubs including Philadelphus (Mock orange) and Corylus maxima ‘purpurea’ (purple hazel); perennials including verbascums, gaura, acanthus and asters; as well as shorter-lived plants like Ammi major and foxgloves. The border is fronted by young box plants that will grow together to form a low hedge.
Roses are so familiar to us, we can easily take them for granted. But we shouldn’t overlook just how beautiful and useful they are in the garden, providing colour and scent, as well as lush foliage. There are roses for most situations, including shade, and many will flower from early June, right through the growing season. Climbers and ramblers will cover walls, fences, pergolas and arbours; or grow up into a tree. And shrub roses are perfect for the borders.
Visiting gardens open to the public is a great way to pick up ideas for your own garden. Gardens like Hodnet Hall, near Market Drayton in Shropshire. Very few of us have outdoor spaces this big to play with. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make use of some of the design techniques employed there. Here are just a few examples:
1. Contrasting colours.
The twin highlights of a red Japanese maple and an Exochorda in full bloom stand out from a mostly mid-green background. The contrast between them is stunning; the fact that it will only last for the few weeks the Exochorda is in flower only serves to make it even more special.
This rustic stone archway and metal gate were surely intended to arouse your curiosity. Who wouldn’t struggle to resist the urge to pass through it to see what lies on the other side?
Regular repetition of these cardoons (Cynara cardunculus) along the back of this herbaceous border give it cohesion and continuity. Plants with such strong architectural form are particularly good for this purpose (it helps to have such an attractive wall as a backdrop!) The silvery, grey-green foliage of this ornamental globe artichoke will be topped with striking thistle-like flowers in summer.
The spiky leaves are complemented by it’s smaller neighbours – euphorbia, grasses, melianthus – all have leaves that contrast gently, without being too different. And you may just notice flowers of Cirsium rivulare – another, smaller, thistle nestling among the euphorbia.
4. Include some small surprises.
These trilliums are less than half a metre tall, and grow in shady spots, but with both leaves and petals arranged in triplets, they are as beautiful as they are different.
Okay, so you probably don’t have room for your own lake, complete with resident swans, but water adds great interest in a garden, including sound, movement and reflection.
6. Plant at all levels.
The circle garden has rings of peonies and roses that will provide colourful blooms over a long period (here, they are yet to flower). It’s a central feature in a landscape that has plants of all heights, from low ground cover, right up to tall trees.
This technique effectively pulls a garden up from two dimensions into three, giving it much more interest. It can easily be replicated in even a small garden – you just need to choose the right plants.
It seems to me there’s always been a tension between the use of deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs in garden design. I have to say, I’ve tended to favour the former. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a time when gardens were often filled with boring, uniform conifers; from large, quick-growing hedging plants like the dreaded Leylandii, to a proliferation of ‘dwarf’ conifers (many of which turned out to be rather bigger than expected).
Of course, some plants are more exciting than others, and that goes for both evergreens and deciduous.
Defending the deciduous… People who favour evergreen plants point out that they give form, presence and greenery throughout the winter, whereas deciduous plants do their thing in the growing season, then shrink back to virtually nothing in winter, leaving the garden all but empty but for a few dead-looking sticks. It’s true that deciduous plants are much reduced. But bear in mind many of them do something like this before they drop their leaves…
Add in beautiful flowers during the growing season, and perhaps we can forgive them for being somewhat sparse in their dormant period. But actually, those dead-looking sticks are not as uninteresting as you might at first think. Denuded of leaves, woody plants display a form and structure that is architectural; sculptural, and very beautiful…
Their branches make interesting shapes. They change with the changing light. When it’s sunny, they cast bold shadows on the ground. They accumulate lichen and moss, which adds shading and texture. And in fact the idea all deciduous plants are dormant in winter isn’t correct either. Some of them flower on bare branches…
Others, particularly willow and hazel, produce attractive catkins. And once the leaves have fallen, we discover that many plants have beautiful stems and trunks…
There’s something both very spiritual, and also rather scary about plants that are dormant during the winter. They speak to us of the transient nature of life. But they also highlight the great joy of renewal in spring; something you might miss if you only have evergreens.
Evergreens – not so boring after all… While evergreen aficionados point to a lack of winter interest in deciduous plants, those in the opposing camp tend to think of evergreens as being boring. They may have presence all year round, but it never changes…
Start to think about it, and you realise that evergreens produce some of the most impressive and prolific blooms of all plants, from rhododendrons and camelias, to Olearia (daisy bush), magnolias, and ceanothus (California lilac). And far from being a uniform, dull green, they come in many shades, from dark to light, and leaves with attractive markings and patterns.
And many evergreens have something else to offer too. For as long as there have been gardens, people have indulged their creative tendencies by trimming plants into interesting shapes…
The most useful plants for topiary are evergreens such as box and yew. There is, I suppose, a contradiction here, because how often do you see box, or yew for that matter, allowed to grow naturally, without being shaped? We value these plants so highly, but also see their natural growth habits as uninteresting.
Time to put aside favouritism… The reality of course is that to maximise the impact and benefits of our gardens, we should make use of the features and advantages of both deciduous and evergreen plants.
In most circumstances the best solution will be a mix of evergreen and deciduous plants, chosen to suit the conditions and to compliment each other as part of a balanced design.
October and November are when most spring flowering bulbs become available at garden centres and nurseries. The priority for most people tend to be Daffodils (Narcissi) and Tulips (Tulipa species). The time at which they actually flower varies from one variety to another – by choosing varieties carefully you can have daffs and tulips in flower over a longer period. Daffodils will flower from Feb to April, Tulips in April and May.
Daffodils can be planted in the ground in October, but for tulips, it’s best to leave it until some time in November, particularly if your soil is heavy, as the bulbs can rot in damp soil (putting a little grit at the base of the planting hole can help to give more drainage to avoid this).
It’s not too late to plant daffodil bulbs now, or indeed many other, earlier bulbs such as snowdrops, though they may not flower quite as early as if you’d got them in the ground in October. The bad news is that retailers tend to get all their bulbs in at one time, and by now they’re running out. The good news is that they’re now heavily discounting whatever they have left. So while you may not get the full choice now, you can still create a stunning display, and at a much lower cost than if you’d been more organised and got your bulbs earlier.
Many people use bulbs to create displays in pots. When it comes to tulips, growers supply bulbs that have been grown under ideal conditions, so that they will produce a large flower. The following year, the flowers are never as big, so won’t provide such a good display. But so long as you’ve chosen varieties that will naturalise, you can plant them in the garden when they’ve finished flowering, and they’ll come back year after year.
Here are the pots that I’ve planted this year, tucked away in a sheltered position by the house over the winter, and the remaining packets of bulbs that will be planted in the garden:
I’ve put the pots on blocks to keep them off the ground (pot feet are a better option, but expensive!) and covered them with netting to stop squirrels, voles, mice etc digging them up, as they sometimes do. I’ve planted daffodils ‘Hawera’, ‘Ice Follies’, and my favourite ‘Thalia’; and tulips ‘Spring Green, Queen of Night, and ‘Ballerina’.
For a fuller display, you can mix different types of bulbs in the same pot, with tulips and daffs planted deeper, and smaller flowers such as chionodoxa, snowdrops, scilla, etc. set higher in the pot. I’ve been a bit lax on that front this year – I did throw in some chionodoxa and snowdrop bulbs I had from last year, but it’s mainly daffs and tulips.
The bulbs for the garden are fritillaria meleagris (snake’s head fritillary) and Camassia quamash for around the pond, and snowdrops and anemones for the shaded area under the lilac tree and rhododendrons.
Garden centres and nurseries are also selling summer flowering bulbs, such as lilies, which don’t need to be planted until next spring, and alliums, which should ideally be planted now (though like tulips, they prefer good drainage).
Whichever bulbs you choose to plant, from the diminutive earliest flowering snowdrops, through daffodils and tulips, to the largest, most flamboyant lilies and gladioli; bulbs will give you welcome bursts of flower to look forward to next year.
Winter tends to be thought of as a time when gardens go to sleep. Trees and shrubs lose their leaves, perennials die back to ground level, and bulbs are dormant below ground. Evergreens may keep their leaves all year round, but they don’t do anything interesting in the winter, do they? And as for flowers, you’re unlikely to see any until the snowdrops pop up in early spring. Well, actually; you might be pleasantly surprised.
Flowers in Winter With careful planning you can have plants in flower all the way through what we refer to as ‘the dormant season’. There are a range of shrubs that flower in winter, and surprisingly, many of them are deciduous. Flowers tend to be smaller and less showy than summer blooms, but they stand out more against bare branches. What’s more, winter flowers tend to be strongly scented. Witch hazel (Hamamelis), a graceful deciduous shrub, produces striking, spidery flowers in yellows, oranges or reds in January and February. Winter sweet (Chimonanthus) has fragrant yellow flowers from December to February. And winter honeysuckle (Lonicera) has highly scented white flowers from December to March.
Viburnum x bodnantense makes a large, bushy shrub with attractive mid-green leaves. It has clusters of fragrant pink flowers intermittently throughout the winter.
Winter flowering evergreen shrubs include Mahonia; the bright yellow flowers of which are followed by dark berries, daphne and sweet box. All are high scented.
The cherry tree, Prunus x subhirtella, will provide beautiful blossom during mild spells throughout the winter. And while we’re on the subject of trees…
The appeal of bark & stems Trees with decorative bark make striking features in the winter, when their colours and textures are more visible.
Many varieties of Dogwoods (Cornus) have richly coloured stems in yellow, orange, red or black. In the summer, these are hidden, but when the leaves drop off, they shine out and make a striking feature in the garden. Many willows (Salix) also have brightly coloured stems (willows are known as large trees, but there are varieties that are much smaller). For both willows and dogwoods, cutting some, or all of the stems back to ground level in spring enhances the effect (it’s the new growth that carries the colour).
And then there are trees and shrubs that produce attractive berries, many of which last well into the winter.
In winter, the bare branches of trees and shrubs make for interesting structures in their own right, even without attractive flowers, berries or bark. Evergreens have a more solid presence, and those that have been shaped into topiary decorate the winter garden with their architectural shapes.
Autumn is the perfect time to plant new shrubs and trees, because the soil is moist, and still warm enough to allow roots to establish. What’s more, many are available ‘bare-rooted’ – at a much lower price than potted specimens. And if you’re not able to plant just yet, deciduous bare-rooted trees and shrubs can be planted any time throughout the autumn and winter.
At ground level, flowers are scarce in the winter, and those plants that do produce them, such as hellebores, reticulata irises and cyclamen, are valuable.
Winters in the UK are long, wet and cold, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy your garden. And it won’t be long before bulbs come into flower, starting early on with snowdrops and crocus, then the various types of daffodil, and on to the tulips, when we’ll know that summer is almost here.
Now that the weather is turning colder, and the days becoming shorter, many of the plants we rely on for summer colour have finished flowering. But there are many perennials that flower late, allowing us to extend the season well into autumn. Asters, for instance, will have been inconspicuous in the borders as steadily growing clumps of dark green foliage, but now, they are bursting into bloom…
Most of the asters we grow in our gardens were recently renamed by botanists as Symphyotrichum (I’m sure they don’t deliberately make our lives more difficult!) Another familiar garden plant that was renamed recently, and which flowers at this time of year, is sedum (now Hylotelephium)…
This is a dark-leaved variety called ‘Xenox’. Being relatively low growing, sedums (sorry; Hylotelephiums!) work well towards the front of the border. They are succulents, so quite drought-resistant, and the small, pink flowers are a magnet for bees (though not when I took this photo!)
At around eight or nine feet tall (depending on the variety) a plant you wouldn’t put at the front of the border is perennial sunflower…
While the annual sunflowers that children delight in growing from seed (especially the really tall varieties) will for the most part have finished now, perennial sunflowers are only just starting. Their blooms are smaller and less showy than their annual cousins (both are varieties of Helianthus), but they are a welcome ray of sunshine on a dull autumn day. And the flowers look great, and are long-lasting, in a vase.
There are many more perennials that provide a splash of colour at this time of year. Rudbeckia, for instance (this is Rudbeckia fulgida var. ‘Goldsturm’)…
Japanese anemones, or windflowers (in this case Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’)…
Hesperanthacoccinea (another recent name change – I won’t bore you with the details)…
And this is Actaea simplex ‘Brunette’. The flowers are pretty, if a lot more restrained than some of the previous examples, and have a very sweet fragrance. It’s a useful plant, because it’s happy in some shade…
And the list goes on! The message is that with a little thought, it’s possible to design a garden that will give you flowers and scent, and provide for wildlife, all year round.
…or more accurately; those with Colour Vision Deficiency (CVD)
This is not something you might automatically think about, but it’s an example of a specific requirement clients may have, and which garden designers will need to consider.
The organisation Colour Blind Awareness say the most common form of CVD is red-green, where sufferers have difficulty distinguishing between reds, oranges, yellows, greens and browns, which all appear dull. This will obviously have an impact on the plants chosen for a client. I have a close family member with what appears to be red-green CVD. Contrary to the description above, he sees yellow clearly (and as yellow is his favourite colour, plants with yellow flowers are an absolute banker).
Reds and greens are a definite problem though, highlighted very well when recently he was bemoaning the lack of blooms on a rose bush given to him by a friend. The plant was, in fact, covered in what appeared to the rest of us as very vibrant, orange/red roses that stood out clearly from the green foliage.
There are other forms of colour blindness, and because people see colours differently, when choosing plants the best approach is to test which colours show up best for the client. A garden designer will always ask for colour preferences in the initial consultation, but for a client with CVD, it makes sense to show them examples, rather than rely on words to describe colours.
In the case of my family member, I was quite surprised to discover that the colour which shows up most brightly is a mid-pale pink, specifically in the form of a geranium – Geranium x oxonianum ‘Wargrave Pink’.
Of course, when designing a garden for more than one person, where one of them has CVD, there may be a conflict in colour preferences (though there are often conflicts even where there is no CVD!) In this case, I would say choosing colours that stand out for the client with CVD should be the priority – the colours you choose for them may not be favourites of other garden users, but at least everyone will be able to see them! And there should still be room in the design for a few specimens in the favourite colours of the client that isn’t colour-blind, even if they don’t stand out for the client who is.