Jo Arnell edits down a selection of her favourite reliable plants to see you through the whole season
‘That can’t be your favourite plant, surely?’ People are too polite to say this to me out loud, but they may well be thinking it when I point to a quiet evergreen in my border. The truth is that I have many favourites – I love salvias, adore pittosporums, daphnes, tulips, hebes, hydrangeas – but, frustratingly, I can’t always rely on them. The changing climate, with long periods of dry, wet or freezing weather, is making it challenging for every plant (and gardener). This is exactly the time when we need good doers that won’t let us down, that we can trust to carry us through the seasons while our fair-weather flowers come and (mainly) go. Who wants a fussy princess when we’re despairing or in a crisis? What we need are stalwart friends.
Long periods of drought in the growing season are making the establishment of trees harder. It takes two years for a newly planted tree or large shrub to settle into its new home. This means watering deeply at least once a week, more if it’s hot and dry, mulching and keeping the area around the roots free from competition and regularly checking for signs of stress. Ornamental attributes are important when choosing what to plant, but increasingly, resistance to pests and diseases and the ability to withstand difficult conditions is key.
Amelanchier has to be the best one to choose for a small garden. It has three seasons of interest, is good for wildlife, and grows in most conditions, though the best autumn colour comes if it’s in a sunny spot.
Crataegus (Hawthorn) is another. There are lots of varieties around, not just the native hedgerow one. Most have good autumn foliage and berries.
Gingko biloba is an ancient tree with attractive leaves and good autumn colour. It’s also mainly pest and disease free.
Weeping pear (Pyrus salicifolia) has lovely silvery foliage, small blossoms and inedible fruit. Low maintenance, it has good drought resistance and is susceptible to few pests and diseases.
Shrubs are suffering the effects of our erratic weather patterns too, and as they form the backbone of our gardens, it pays to have some that are reliable and uncomplaining. We tend to take some of these workaday plants for granted, but like our oldest and best friends they hang on in there with us, through thick and thin.
Architectural Cotoneaster horizontalis has blossom that hums with bees in spring, then red berries and matching autumn leaves.
Spiraea ‘Goldflame’ has beautiful spring foliage – shades of orange tinged with lime green, which turn a deep maroon-red in autumn. It should consult a stylist about its Germolene coloured flowers though.
Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ doesn’t have the bright winter stems of some varieties, but it has pretty leaves – soft sage with cream edges that turn butter yellow in autumn.
I am a latecomer to roses, but have really started to appreciate them in the last few years, because they are performing really well under the pressure of droughts and floods. They seem to put up with most soils and the modern cultivars are far more disease resistant. I particularly love robust species like Rosa rugosa, which makes a wonderful three season hedge with flowers, hips and autumn colour, or the fabulous purple-tinged foliage of Rosa glauca. Species roses will only flower once, so you don’t dead-head them, but the hips are as good as the flowers and great for wildlife.
Our native trees and shrubs are mainly deciduous, dropping their leaves in autumn and going into a period of dormancy over the winter. Surprisingly there are only five native evergreens in the UK – Scot’s pine, Juniper, Yew, Holly and Ivy. All the rest have been introduced – box was brought in by the Romans and many of the others that we take for granted in our gardens these days have been escorted here by intrepid Victorian plant hunters.
A plant from a warm place will keep its leaves on, it knows nothing about how hard our winters can be, so it’s not really surprising that some of them freeze to death. Free-draining soil and a sheltered micro-climate will help them to get through, as it is often cold wind, combined with waterlogged or frozen soil that does for them. The great thing about an evergreen – or ever-yellow, -red or even -purple – is that they provide year round interest and there are some that, like those who take ice baths, seem not to mind the cold.
Abelia grandiflora has long lasting pink autumn flowers/bracts.
Elaeagnus is a workaday shrub, but has gorgeous (almost invisible) scented flowers in autumn.
Euonymus – the deciduous ones, related to our native spindle, have lovely autumn foliage, others are evergreen, and are very unfussy and easy to grow.
Viburnum davidii is a handsome evergreen with large, glossy dark brown leaves.
Osmanthus is a small leaved (a little like box leaves) evergreen with scented flowers in spring.
Trachelospermum jasminoides is a wonderful, well behaved evergreen climber that will be at its best in a west or south facing situation.
The name ‘perennial’ does suggest that the plant will be with you for more than a season and most hardy herbaceous perennials, although they disappear in the winter, will cheerfully – sometimes over-enthusiastically – re-emerge each year to do their thing. The key word here is ‘hardy’, some of my favourites – penstemons and salvias – teeter on the edge of hardiness, coming through mild winters with no problem, but felled in a harsh one. Those in free-draining, sheltered situations fare the best.
It’s a comfort to know that there are lots of really hardy perennials, but that also means we should be choosing the best of them to bolster our borders. Look for those that flower endlessly, have good foliage too, or an elegant overall shape – so often the leaves of perennials are scruffy, or collapse in bad weather.
There are too many good ones to mention here, but three loyal border companions – for me at least, I do know that some people either can’t grow, or have too much Verbena bonariensis. I like it because it flowers for such a long time and is great for wildlife. Geranium ‘Rozanne’ will also flower from June until the frosts – if it sprawls about too much, just chop it back and it will amend its ways – a bit. Sedum (now called Hylotelephium) spectabile is such a good doer that most of us take it for granted. Despite its succulent type leaves, it grows in a surprising range of conditions, looks good in bud, flowers late and is a bee magnet.
We can include some grasses here too – Calamagrostis ‘Karl Forester’ is a non-spreading, tall, upright grass, Mollinia ‘Transparent’ spreads a little, but not invasively. Both make winter statements – Calamagrostis stands like a golden pillar and the Mollinia gently explodes in a bronzy fountain.
Use short-lived plants for masses of flowers all summer – fill gaps in the borders, plant them in pots, or grow in among edibles in the veg patch to bring in pollinators and pest controllers.
They often self-seed, and the self-sown plants will be stronger than the ones we deliberately plant.
Cosmos are not frost hardy, but planted out once the danger of frost is past, they will flower their socks off until the weather cools in the autumn. Collect seed then to sow again next year.
Antirrhinums will give any perennial ‘spire’ a run for its money and are almost perennial, surviving mild winters and self-sowing if they are happy. Try a tall variety called ‘Rocket White’ with a contrasting sultry deep maroon called ‘Indian Prince’.
Poppies need to be sown directly, either in autumn or spring, as they don’t like being transplanted. Leave the pretty seed-heads for an added attraction, but keep in mind they can be prolific self-seeders.
Foxgloves are great for shadier areas and will also self-sow, although the pretty pale salmon-coloured cultivars are almost sterile.
Honesty is a biennial that has pretty purple or white flowers in mid spring, followed by beautiful flat full moons of papery white.
I think I like bulbs because they are such good value, unfurling into loveliness and then disappearing to make way for other plants. Some are more reliable than others, it’s true – never trust a tulip to return a favour (unless it’s that annoying big red one called ‘Appledorn’). Some have giant floppy leaves that will swamp and smother delicate plants that are trying to emerge from beneath them and others, like the grape hyacinth (muscari), will multiply to nuisance proportions.
Alliums will come back year after year and will often self-sow, although the dark ‘Purple Sensation’ gradually fades in colour as it loses sight of its parentage.
Narcissi naturalise well and unless they are the dainty little ones, this is the best place for them, as the giant leaves of some of the bigger varieties will flop over the borders (tying them in knots does not improve things).
Camassias are also good at naturalising and will reliably appear and increase year after year.
I know that you will be familiar with nearly all of the plants I’ve mentioned this month, but in this time of unpredictable weather events – drought, flood, storms and arctic blasts (a plague of frogs would be more welcome – at least they’d eat the slugs) it’s good to know that we still have some stalwart and reliable old friends out there. Lest Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot.
Join Jo for her new Garden Design course in Woodchurch, Kent. Starting in April. Find out more and book at hornbrookmanor.co.uk or 07923 969634
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