Saturday 29 September 2012

A permanent planting solution for shade

Whatever exciting colour combinations we come up with at Chelsea Flower Show, a dreamy green and white scheme is always the people’s favourite.  The light levels in the Great Floral Pavilion can be quite low, like a shady corner in the garden.  In these conditions white shines softly and reassuringly against dark green foliage. I love using green and white in gardens, particularly in those awkward shady corners, or under the dappled light from overhanging trees.
Reliable evergreens are always the basis of my planting and if I had to pick just one dwarf evergreen shrub it would always be Sarcococca confusa, the Christmas box.  This lovely little shrub forms a dense clump of suckering stems reaching 60-80cm (2 – 2.5 feet) in height.  The small, shining evergreen leaves are deep holly green and are gently waved, catching the light from all directions.
 Sarcococca confusa never gets too tall, never needs pruning (although it’s great for cutting for floral decoration). It grows on clay and chalk and is excellent in shade.  In mid to late winter tiny white flowers appear in the leaf axils, they may not be showy, but they will fill the garden with their powerful sweet fragrance. 

I like to plant sarcococca with another of my favourite evergreens: Euonymus fortunei ‘Silver Queen’.  This had deep green leaves, variegated with sage and irregularly edged with creamy white.  Where it catches direct sun the leaf margins may flush pink in winter.  It has a compact, spreading habit and makes excellent ground cover. If you plant it against a wall or fence it will make an excellent short climber, up to 3 metres (10 feet) or so.  This is another low maintenance shrub that works hard to earn its keep. 
So that’s two dwarf shrubs put together to create a wonderful planting solution, so what shall we add? You can’t go wrong with one of the hybrid hellebores.  I would choose a white form of Hillier x hybridus because I love the dark green architectural foliage.  I cut this back in mid winter to make way for the emerging flowers and new leaves. 
The flower stems quickly rise to produce elegant nodding cups of pure white, with a hint of green, clustered beneath a ruff of small green leaves.  Hellebores are long-term perennials that will delight year after year

I could enhance this combination with a couple of handfuls of flowerbulbs.  Snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis will love the shade from the trees and shrubs, and their pure white blooms will show up against the deep green foliage of the sarcococca. 
 I will also add the ice white blooms of Narcissus ‘Thalia’, my favourite narcissus.  This is a multi-headed variety with the most delicately refined of blooms which will follow on from the snowdrops and sarcocooca and extend the season of the hellebores.
For another evergreen perennial I would choose the lovely Heucherella ‘Tapestry’. This has jigsaw-like leaves veined with deep slate-brown.  As the foliage remains close to the ground it will nestle happily beneath the arching stems of the sarcococca and will contrast beautifully with the creamy-white variegation of the heucherella.
A handful of plants and bulbs, all good garden performers, nothing complicated – just a simple, stunning solution to a shady spot in your garden. Why not give it a go? Restricting to colour palette works! 

Friday 14 September 2012

Narcissi - Naturally!

Narcissus 'February Gold' - Graceful and gorgeous!
Personally I am not a great fan of large yellow daffodils. Yes, they are undoubtedly cheery, and few gardens seem to be without them, but the colour is very bold and their resistance to wind and rain can be questionable.  Dwarf daffodils and narcissi on the other hand are a different matter: bright without being brash, early flowering but weather resistant, eye catching but always graceful.  Dwarf narcissi are good in sun and shade, they cope with the heavy, wet soil that tulips hate, they are wonderful in pots and containers and some varieties lend themselves to naturalising. They will grow in grass successfully, providing you can resist mowing until after the foliage had died down.  They need those leaves to build the bulbs for the following season.

When it comes to naturalising bulbs in grass many will reach for bulk bags of mixed daffodils and narcissi.  These may work well if you plant a lot of them in big drifts. In smaller numbers the effect can be very “bitty” as different varieties bloom at different times. In any case they are hardly naturalistic, and if you want to create that meadow effect then you want varieties that look as if they belong in grass.

Narcissus ‘Thalia’ is a good example of a garden hybrid that suits a naturalistic setting. This graceful narcissus produces beautifully poised delicate white flowers on strong stems, two or three flowers appearing on each stem.  Double narcissi are best avoided however Narcissus ‘Pencrebar’ is a possible exception.  Its double egg yolk blobs are small, graceful and are carried on fine stems.  It has a lovely scent and is a long lasting flower. These cultivated bulbs only multiply by producing offsets so spread is slow and they are best focused in small areas of long grass.

The British native wild daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus subsp. lobularis is a delight once established.  It has a tiny bulb for a narcissus, more like that of a snowdrop. So buy it now plant immediately before the bulbs dry out and shrivel.  Plant in groups of 10-15 bulbs, spacing the bulbs a couple of inches apart at a depth of three times the depth of the bulb.  Do not be tempted to plant too deeply. It will establish best in thin grass under the dappled shade of trees in well drained conditions.  Do not be tempted to remove the faded flowers, instead allow the seed heads to develop and ripen.  In early summer they change to parchment, split and release black seeds.

In pots and containers Narcissus ‘Tete a Tete’ takes some beating. The bulbs are great value so you can spread them around in pots on the patio, in the front of beds and borders and plant a few in pots to bring indoors in late winter.  They respond to a little gentle forcing but are always best grown as cool as possible.  I love to see them in pots on the patio adding a little sunshine between sky blue pansies and violas and also in small pots on my kitchen windowsill.

Cheery Narcissus 'Pipit'

With larger acid yellow flowers flushed with white Narcissus ‘Pipit’ is a bright, cheerful multi-headed variety that works well planted as small groups amongst shrubs and perennials.  I like it with the lime green bracts of euphorbia and the early blue flowers of brunnera.  In pots it is a good planting partner for forget-me-nots. Pipit’s bright smiling yellow blooms are certain to bring sunshine to the dullest of spring days. 

Now I know this is really about narcissi – but I have to mention bluebells too. With the current interest in native flowers I know they will be a hot topic this autumn.   
Hyacinthoides non-scripta, our native bluebell is one of the great delights of the English spring.  Its deep sapphire blue colour makes it particularly visible under the shade of trees and it blooms before the grass grows tall enough to obscure its delicate lines.  Patient gardeners will find that they can build up large colonies of bluebells from relatively few bulbs by encouraging them to seed.  Plant the bulbs individually with a dibber 15cm apart and once the seed heads ripen in summer brush through the fading stems to scatter the seeds across the whole area.  Where bulbs are naturalised in grass under trees mow in autumn and remove the clippings and mow again on a high setting in late autumn or winter to remove fallen leaves and top the grass.  This will ensure that the blooms appear amongst fresh green grass blades the following spring.  Bulbs sold in our garden centres are from cultivated sources and are certified not wild collected. 

Monday 10 September 2012

Tulips: Tangerine Dreams

Having extolled the virtues of those dark delights in the tulip world, partnered with the soft and sophisticated in shades of mauve, purple and white, I decided to break out with a citrus fest.  Personally I just love orange tulips; they are such a loud celebration of spring, and I just adore how they scream for attention in the spring garden.  I remember a wonderful picture of Tulipa ‘General de Wet’ (burnt orange) partnered with blue forget-me-nots in a book that bleated on about the colour wheel.  Personally I think calculated combinations are too contrived – unless of course they work; which this one does! I think my love of orange may be a bit of a boy’s thing? But I’m going to share a few favorites with you and get your opinion ………..

I’ll start softly by recommending Tulip ‘Dordogne’(above), a cousin of my beloved ‘Menton’.  It has the same large, single, globular flowers but in a wonderful shade of coral-orange.  In some lights they are more pink, and sometimes more orange but always with a hint of gold towards the edge of the petals.  This tulip is just as long-lasting as ‘Menton’.

‘Daydream’ is a tulip I have grown occasionally over the years. This is a surprising character that opens clear yellow in typical Darwin tulip fashion.  Its always a bit of a shock to the system “I don’t remember planting yellow tulips!” I hear myself exclaim. Its not that I don't like yellow - I would never choose yellow tulips because there is so much yellow around from daffodils, forsythia and the like.
Last year I planted it quite by chance with a few Narcissus ‘Jetfire’, that sprightly dwarf daffodil with reflexed golden petals and a bright orange trumpet.  This was a happy co-incidence as after a few days of yellow elegance the flower form softens and opens and the blooms change to soft orange. I positioned it against a blue grey pot with a yellow-striped yucca but I think it would have worked just as well with any golden variegated evergreen in the border.

You can buy ‘Menton’, ‘Dordogne’ and ‘Daydream’, and other great varieties as super-sized 14+ bulbs online

Don't leave it too long - they are selling fast!

Tulipa ‘Sensual Touch’ was another real surprise. So many double tulips and daffodils fall apart when wind and rain hits them. This one was strong, weather resistant and extremely long lasting. The double, fringed, soft orange flowers were beautiful as they opened, and ravishing when fully expanded. Layers and layers of silky petals punctuated with dark stamens were reminiscent of a can-can dancer’s skirt.  This tulip changed my opinion of double tulips – I will definitely grow it again.

Tulipa ‘Ballerina’ is one of my all-time favourites. Delicious glowing orange blooms with sleek pointed petals on strong 50cm stems. I love it rising out of a cloud of blue forget-me-nots or towering above a ruff of dark purple heucheras.  Last year I grew it in simple terracotta pots with just a few Tulipa ‘Queen of Night’ thrown in for drama. Against the cream rendered wall of the house it was heart-stoppingly stunning; especially when the sun made it cast bold shadows across the wall.  It reminded me that often the simplest combinations work the best. There is no need to get too clever with great planting partnerships.