Plants and planning a perfect garden

Posted on: 12 November 2010 by Maxine Farmer

Maxine Farmer picks her favourite fillers when planning a garden makeover.

MahoniaThe big difference between decorating a house and a garden is time.  With the help of some paint, wallpaper and furniture, a home can be transformed in just a few weeks, even days.  Mother Nature has a more leisurely view on life: no flat-packed IKEA equivalent for her. Or is there?  Well, not quite – and I’m not talking about the Ground Force approach, whereby a commando-style raid is conducted on a plot over the weekend – but there are some plants that will reward their owners with some rapid growth.

Now, a word of caution here: you have to balance the end-game against instant impact.  If you plant fast-growing specimens together to hide bare soil, then they may need moving within a couple of years (or less, in some cases). However, I’m not one of those puritanical garden designers who think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I treat my own garden like my house, where I’m always moving the ornaments around, albeit while administering lots of TLC and there are some plants I would not dare uproot.

So, warning aside, what would I recommend?  Let’s start with shrubs, which after all, form the backbone in most gardens.  Shrub willows are a wonderful and under-used plant family that has the added advantage of not minding some severe hacking to keep them within bounds.  Salix Purpurea ‘Nana’ is an elegant bush that can grow 4-5 feet high and wide.  Salix ‘Sekka’ can be a bit of a beast, but is great for filling up a chunk of land 6 feet square and as its branches are bare in winter and spring, is ideal for under-planting with early bulbs.

Dogwoods are also deciduous, but depending on the variety, have the advantage of beautifully coloured stems in winter.  A personal favourite is Cornus Sibirica ‘Elegantissima’, which has the bonus of elegant, pale green and white variegated leaves in summer, then vivid red stems in winter. Make sure you prune it hard each year, as the colour of the old wood dulls with age, so you want to encourage new growth.

Cultivated varieties of the common elder, sambucus nigra often have dramatic foliage ranging from almost black, to purple, to light green I planted a sambucus nigra ‘Aurea’, which has leaves that are a lovely golden colour, about ten years ago. Within a few years it had reached the intended height of ten feet high and kept on growing!

Evergreens are by their very nature much more slow growing than deciduous shrubs and trees, though there are a couple of exceptions. I’ve waxed lyrical about both mahonias and lonicera pileata before and  make no apology, because they tick so many boxes:  they need very little attention, will withstand sun and shade, relatively dry soil but don’t mind the occasional bout of winter wet, and look great all year round.

Mahonia media ‘Charity’ is a statuesque shrub that can grow to ten feet or more, but has the advantage of being easily pruned and tends to keep a relatively narrow shape, so it is ideal for filling narrow spaces where some height is needed.  There is a smaller version, mahonia aquifolium, which I use for putting in front of low walls.  

Lonicera pileata will quickly make a dense carpet of evergreen foliage, roughly 18-30 inches high.  The plain dark green varieties are in my experience the most vigorous, but there are some different colour options too.

Grasses can be useful for creating a quick visual statement and there is no need to go for the more aggressive bamboos or pampas grass.  I particularly like miscanthus sacchariflorus, which is very good in damp soil but I have also found it fairs pretty well on clay that is rarely watered.  Fargesia murielae is an unusually slow growing bamboo, so if you buy a four or five foot specimen, it will look good from day one without taking over the garden.

Akebia Quinata is better known as the Chocolate Vine, a fast growing climber with the added bonus of purple flowers.  Indeed, most vines are fast growing, including the Golden Hop (humulus lupus) and wine grapevines (Brandt is a reliable choice).    Just don’t plant a Russian Vine (Fallopia baldschuanica however tempting it may be, because not only does its growth seem never-ending and frighteningly rapid, it strangles just about everything in its way.

Vigorous ground-coverers are always high on the wish list of gardeners with lots of bare soil.  Personal favourites are pachysandra terminalis (although it needs a neutral or slightly acid soil to survive), which has neat rosettes of leaves.  I also like sweet woodruff, which is not dissimilar in form, but has wonderful starry flowers in spring and is superb under trees.  Deadnettle performs well in sun or light shade, with my personal recommendation being ‘White Nancy’.  More thuggish is Creeping Jenny, lysimachia nummularia, though I’ve never found it that difficult to contain, as long as you don’t mind pulling out its stray offspring throughout the growing season.

Perennials can make great space fillers and some are more vigorous than others.  Hardy geraniums are perfect in shade or semi-shade, while heleniums, solidago and asters will rapidly colonise a border.  While waiting for the flower garden to mature, try some chunky annuals like chleome and cosmos.  Both can be grown from seed with some bottom heat and a little experience, though plug plants are also available.  

I said I wasn’t recommending the Ground Force approach to gardening, but it’s worth pointing out that there are some very good nurseries specialising in large plants.  As I’m based in the South of England I can only recommend the ones I know and use – such as The Big Plant Nursery (Twyford, Berkshire), Pantiles (near Woking), Architectural Plants (near Chichester) and Tendercare (Uxbridge).  But I’m sure there are other equivalents in other parts of the country (and if so, I’d be interested to hear about them please!

So, there is plenty that can be done to make sure that the task of achieving a gorgeous garden is shortened, just a little bit.  A garden may be a thing of joy forever, but it’s nice not to have to wait too long.

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