The 50 Best: The easy way to a blooming future

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The Independent Culture
Now is the time to think about cheering up your garden for the season ahead. So, this week, Ursula Buchan and her team of experts unearth the simplest and best ways to transform your patch, with quick design fixes and tried and tested plant combinations. And with our experts letting you in on their favourite insider's tips, how can your garden fail to grow?







Kathy Brown has written extensively on container gardening. Peter Clarke is a Regional Horticultural Officer for English Heritage. Alan Gear is Chief Executive of the Henry Doubleday Research Association. Roger Grounds helps run Apple Court, a specialist nursery in Hants. Bunny Guinness is an award-winning garden designer whose Garden Transformations is published in May. Kim Hurst runs The Cottage Herbery, an organic nursery in Worcs. Mary Keen is a renowned garden consultant and author. Anna Pavord is Gardening Correspondent for The Independent and author of The Tulip. David Stevens is Professor of Garden Design at Middlesex University. Alan Titchmarsh is Britain's best-known gardener; Ground Force, a book based on his TV series, has just been published. Nicholas Warliker is a Senior Plantaria Assistant at Podington Garden Centre, nr Wellingborough. David Watkins broadcasts on gardening, and markets Chempak plant foods. Ursula Buchan's latest book, Plants for All Seasons, is published by Mitchell Beazley (pounds 16.99).

NB: Plant prices vary according to outlet; those given are intended only as a guide.



Camellias do well in town gardens because they tolerate shade, and their late-winter flowers are less likely to be damaged by frost. "Anticipation" has glossy evergreen leaves, and produces wonderful semi-double, bright, rosy-red flowers in February and March. Camellias do not care for very limey soils. This plant can also be grown in a large pot, using ericaceous compost. Where: garden centres.

How much: pounds 9.95 for a 2-litre pot.



The Cape Figwort is a free-flowering suckering shrub from South Africa, which usually produces coral-red or creamy-yellow sprays of tubular flowers. "Sensation", new this year, is rose-pink, with dark-green leaves, and grows to about 80cm high and across. It will need some winter-frost protection, especially in country gardens, and a moist, but not heavy, soil. Where: garden centres from late spring.

How much: pounds 5.99 for a 3-litre pot.



There are few simpler but more effective winter combinations than snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) and aconites (Eranthis hyemalis). They come up, and increase, every year without fail, and die down before spring is over, so that something else can take their place. And, joy of joys, for any gardener incapable of looking too far ahead, they can be lifted, moved and divided as they go over, before they disappear from sight. Best bought in pots in growth now, rather than as dry bulbs in autumn. Where: garden centres. How much: around 99p for a small pot of snowdrops, pounds 1.29 for 10 aconite bulbs.



The house is usually the dominant feature in gardens, believes Bunny Guinness, but "the garden design can cure or mask many unappetising architectural features: flat roofs, bland elevations, ugly extensions." Tricks include using chunky trellis screens to mask a new extension, or painting windows the colour of stone, so that they recede. Where: various types of trellis are available from garden centres and DIY stores. How much: around pounds 3.99 for a 6ft x 1ft expanding hardwood trellis.



"At this time of year, visitors to the garden are always impressed by the hellebores," says Mary Keen. "I put their success down to a heavy mulch in October, to rigorous removal of all leaves in November, and to dead-heading the flowers - stalks and all - in May. Hellebores seem constitutionally incapable of supporting leaves and flowers at the same time without attracting botrytis, but this routine guarantees a terrific performance through four cold months."

Where: garden centres.

How much: around pounds 7.99 for a pot of three plants.



Mahonias are multi-purpose shrubs that actively enjoy being in the shade. They produce scented yellow flowers in late autumn or winter, and have what garden designers call an "architectural" habit, in this case a bold, upright figure, with tiered branches and evergreen leaves. "Lionel Fortescue" is one to look out for, with very bright-yellow flowers in upright sprays as long as 40cm in late autumn and early winter. Where: garden centres.

How much: pounds 9.25 for a 3-litre pot.



A variegated-leaf form of the ordinary mugwort, this newly available plant is very suitable for containers and pots. The leaves are green with prominent splashes of creamy yellow. Like all artemisias it thrives in sun, in well-drained soil. Where: Elm House Nursery, FREEPOST, PO Box 25, Wisbech, Cambs (01945 466808). How much: pounds 4.25 for three plantlets, plus pounds 1.95 p&p



Some of the best combinations are also the oldest and most well-known. In spring, if you want to make a splash, you can do little better than "Persian Carpet" wallflowers with "Prinses lrene" tulips, say, or blue Iris reticulata with white "Universal" pansies. In the picture, yellow and bluish-pink tulips rise up above a calm sea of blue forget-me-not (Myosotis). Where: garden centres.

How much: tulips bulbs around pounds 1.99 for 10; forget-me-nots around pounds 1.49 for five.



One instant alternative to a boring old fence, to provide shelter and privacy, is a willow-fence roll. You plant the roots of the closely-packed willow stems in a trench, and support it with posts until the plants are well rooted. The "fence" can be left to grow taller or rigorously pruned to its original height each year. Where: free brochure from English Hurdle, Curload, Stoke St Gregory, Taunton, Somerset (01823 698418).

How much: a 2m roll costs pounds 35.25, plus pounds 10 delivery.



If you don't like weeding - and who does? - Alan Titchmarsh has the following suggestion: "Plant closely in beds and borders when you are using perennials. Water them in and mulch them with a 2-inch-deep layer of well-rotted garden compost or manure. By the middle of summer, the plants will be growing away well, and will have filled the ground to allow no room for weeds."



The Japanese maples are wildly popular at the moment: partly because they stay more like shrubs than trees, so are ideal for small shady gardens; partly because many make fine, mounded shapes; and partly because they will grow in large pots. The leaves of Acer palmatum var. dissectum are so highly dissected they look like filigree, and turn terrific colours in autumn. Look out for a particularly good cultivar, "Garnet". Where: garden centres. How much: pounds 16.99 for a 3-litre pot.



The latest in the "Flower Carpet" groundcover-rose series, this one has soft pink flowers, and grows to around 50cm high by 80cm across. The bush is well clothed with brightly coloured, glossy leaves that are evergreen except in harsh winters, and, in common with other "Flower Carpet" roses, has excellent disease resistance. All roses do best in full sun but need good soil preparation before planting, and plenty of water until the roots are well established. Where: garden centres. How much: pounds 7.99 for a 3-litre pot.



Don't concentrate all your efforts on flowers: foliage is hugely important for long-term interest in a garden. Evergreens, especially as hedges, provide year-round structure, as do shrubby herbs, especially if the flowers are trimmed off. In the picture, santolina and rue mix beautifully with yew and box. Where: garden centres. How much: herbs around pounds 1.29, dwarf box pounds 1.99.



Planted or unplanted, frost-resistant terracotta storage jars make terrific focal points, for they blend sympathetically, in colour and patina, with most garden plants. Pots and Pithoi have a 230-strong range of band-made Cretan pots and storage jars (pithoi). Where: for free colour brochure, price-list and regional stockists call 01342 714793; the range can be seen at The Barns, East Street, Turners Hill, West Sussex (daily 10am-5pm).

How much: Pots and Pithoi's coveted "Koroni" pots range from pounds 330 to pounds 675.



If you have recently moved into a house, but know that you won't be there for more than two or three years, don't be anti-social and make trouble for your successors by planting rampagers like Fallopia baldshuanica ("Mile-a-minute" plant) or Leyland cypress hedging. It is better to use willow hurdles if you want a fence, and vigorous annual climbers like Cobaea scandens or Tropaeolum peregrinum (above), which will go up trellis quickly, to help hide eyesores such as garden sheds. Where: Merriments Nursery & Gardens, Hawkhurst Rd, Hurst Green, East Sussex (01580 860666). How much: C. scandens pounds 1.99 for seeds, pounds 3.95 per plant; T. peregrinum pounds 4.95 per plant.



Garrya elliptica is an evergreen shrub that will grow in partial shade. The leaves are glossy and leathery, and the flowers consist of long grey- green catkins, from January to March. Be unashamedly sexist when you buy, for females have shorter tassels than males, and the round purple berries they bear don't make up for that. This shrub grows in sun as well, and stands up to salt-laden winds. Where: garden centres. How much: pounds 11.99 for a 2-litre pot.



A very striking large shrub for a sunny wall, Fremontodendron californicurn "California Glory" has large, single, golden-yellow flowers for much of the season, especially in spring and autumn. The leaves are dark green and, like the stems, downy when young (beware that the down, composed of many hairs, may irritate the skin and eyes). This shrub is not fussy about soil, but needs a warm position. Where: garden centres. How much: pounds 12.50 for a 3-litre pot.



Dry soil in shade seems to cause the worst headaches, but here is an inspired, and simple, combination of foliage colours that works. The variegated deciduous shrub Weigela florida "Variegata" jostles companionably with Spiraea arguta and the evergreen conifer Chamaecyparis ellwoodii, behind a mass of Alchemilla mollis, the fern Dryopteris filix-mas and the variegated Euonymus "Emerald Gaiety". Where: garden centres. How much: W. florida around pounds 5.99, S. arguta pounds 5.99, C. ellwoodii from pounds 1.99 per half litre, A. mollis

pounds 5.99 for 3l, D. filix-mas pounds 6.99, and Eunymas pounds 1.49 per plant.



"Incorporate a trompe l'il," suggests Bunny Guinness, for an intriguing design feature. Examples include putting a false door at the end of the garden, implying that the plot goes on further, or using a mirror on a wall at the end of a path. Best of all, she recommends "painting some fake shutters to a window in a rendered wall, complete with shadows", or painting stonework onto a plain, rendered, north-facing wall, and then adding a trompe l'il alcove and potted plant.



Anna Pavord, rather underwhelmed by the current trend for wacky instant effects, as promoted in the BBC's Home Front in the Garden, says: "Don't let anyone fool you into thinking that gardening is just a damper, dirtier kind of interior design. Plants are not scatter cushions. Remember that their needs are rather more important than your own."



Pulmonarias, or "lungworts", are invaluable herbaceous perennials for a shady border because they flower so early, in February and March. Pulmonaria rubra "David Ward" is a choice variety, having reddish-pink flowers in spring, and cream-and-green variegated leaves. These leaves will "burn" in sun, so this plant should go in the shade of a deciduous tree or large shrub. Where: garden centres. How much: pounds 3.75 for a 1-litre pot.



One of the hardiest of the "sun roses", Cistus "Silver Pink" should be your first choice for a sunny place in poor soil. It produces enchanting single, silvery-pink flowers with yellow centres that individually only last a day, but open in succession over several weeks in summer. This shrub usually makes a dense mound of dark grey-green, lance-shaped leaves, about 75cm tall and 90cm across. Where: garden centres. How much: pounds 5.99 for a 3-litre pot.



There is no more satisfying harmony than summer blues and yellows, here provided by the large damp-loving, yellow-flowered Inula hookeri, together with a double-flowered heliopsis, aided and abetted by the ever-faithful Alchemilla mollis and Tagetes "Lemon Gem", complementing a generous mass of the deep-blue Geranium pratense "Plenum Caeruleum". Where: garden centres or from specialist nurseries; try The Mead Nursery, Brokers Wood, nr Westbury, Wiltshire (01373 859990). How much: plants from around pounds 1.49.



Compost bins are vital pieces of kit, but they are not things of beauty, and so are usually hidden away. But "beehives" are now available, which can have pride of place in the vegetable garden or flower border. Where: Bridge Road Nurseries, Sarisbury Green, Southampton, Hants (call 01489 572124 for brochure). "Beehives" come in two sizes and in three types: sawn, planed, or planed and painted white, green, brown or blue. How much: from pounds 80 (inc p&p).



David Watkins suggests that every garden should have a "nanny" trench as a way of keeping plants in pots at their best, especially when you are changing a garden's design: "Dig a transit trench in the garden. Choose a spot that is sheltered but in good light. Make it one spade deep and one spade wide at least. Lay gravel on the bottom for drainage, and then loose-fill with composted bark or compost. Simply plunge the plants, pots and all, in it."



A hosta with huge yellow-green, heart-shaped leaves and limited slug- appeal, that is happy in shade but will also grow in sun, gets my vote. This strain, "Sum and Substance", has lilac flowers in midsummer on long stems. A plant can grow to 1.2m across, especially if there is plenty of moisture in the soil, and will also grow in a large pot, if kept well watered. Where: garden centres. How much: pounds 4.99 for a 2-litre pot.



One of the few shrubs with blue flowers, ceanothus (or "Californian lilac") is ideal for a warm, sunny position against a wall. "Puget Blue" is evergreen, reasonably hardy, and has masses of deep-blue flowers in May. It will grow to about 3m tall, and likes a well-drained soil that is not chalky. Where: garden centres. How much: pounds 5.99 for a 3-litre pot



Never be afraid of strong colours, especially as there are plenty that harmonise well. Zingy red dahlias, such as the purple-leaved "Bishop of Llandaff", combine brilliantly with "Love Lies Bleeding" (Amaranthus) and Salvia microphylla above an underplanting of "in-your-face" Busy Lizzies (Impatiens). Where: garden centres. How much: Bishop of Llandaff pounds 4.99, Love Lies Bleeding pounds 4.99, S. microphylla pounds 1.29, Busy Lizzies pounds 2.49 for six.



If the thought of running electric cables through your garden for a pond pump alarms you, what about solar power? Solar Solutions Fountains sell solar-powered pumps that have a head of nearly 2 metres and a fountain spray of nearly 1 metre (provided there is some sun, of course). The "standard" solar panel is about the size of A4 paper. Where: Solar Solutions, 6 High Street, Kington, Herefordshire; call 01544 230303 for a free brochure.

How much: from pounds 249 (inc p&p).



For runner-beans that are easily accessible rather than just out of reach at the top of the pole, Nicholas Warliker suggests "regularly winding the growths closer together around the support, like a tight spring. The flowers will form much lower down as a result." By the same token, climbing roses on a pergola or pillar can be prevented from making all top and no bottom if you wind the growths round the structure rather than allowing them to grow straight up.



This is a deciduous fern for damp neutral or slightly acid soil in dappled shade under trees. Bright-green, erect, "shuttlecock" sterile fronds unfold in spring, up to a height of 1.2m, and are followed in late summer by shorter, fertile fronds that grow through the middle of the "shuttlecock". This plant will gradually spread, if allowed. Where: garden centres. How much: pounds 2.25 for a 9cm pot.



Some form of Clematis viticella is a must in the garden, because these vigorous scrambling climbers flower for months in summer and autumn, and require only to be cut right back almost to the ground in late winter each year. They will also grow in partial shade. "Abundance" has open, four-petalled, claret-red flowers, about 6cm across. "Alba luxurians" is similar, but white. Where: garden centres. How much: pounds 6.95 for a 2-litre pot.



The colours shift, in the autumnal border, to russets, yellows, browns, and warm pinks. In this damp border, created by Beth Chatto, the 2m-high Eupatorium purpureum towers over Polygonum miletii, Rudbeckia "Goldsturm" and delicate, arching grasses. The seedheads of the grasses can be left to give a ghostly colour and form in winter. Where: garden centres.

How much: E. purpureum pounds 5.99, P. miletii pounds 1.49, Rudbeckia pounds 5.99.



If you are fed up with mowing a small lawn, why not try planting low- growing coloured foliage grasses instead? You can make patterns, according to Roger Grounds, who suggests the "black"-foliaged Ophiopogon planiscapus "Nigrescens", blue Festuca glauca, yellow Hakonechloa macra "Alboaurea", red Imperata cylindrica "Rubra", yellow Alopecurus pratensis "Aureomarginata", and creamy-green Holcus mollis "Albovariegatus". For a damp spot, suitable sedges are the blue Carex panicea and C. flacca and the brown C. petriei. Where: garden centres. How much: most grasses around pounds 4.99.



Evergreen conifers have their place in the garden, but David Stevens believes that these "punctuation marks" should be used with care, as they draw the eye and will visually unsettle your garden if placed at random. "If you love them, and many people do," he says, "plant a collection so that you can appreciate the subtle differences in shape, colour and texture."



Weed-smothering groundcover that hangs on to its leaves in winter and will also tolerate shade under trees is a godsend. This partly explains the popularity of Heuchera "Palace Purple" in recent years. Its leaves are a deep red-purple when they open, and gradually turn darker with age. Choose carefully, though; there are some second-rate seed-raised plants with the same name knocking about in the trade.

Where: garden centres.

How much: pounds 4.35 for a 3-litre pot.



An excellent single subject for a large container in a sunny spot, Yucca filamentosa "Variegata" has a 75cm-long spray of rigid, pointed, lance- shaped, blue-green leaves, with white margins to them, and with thin filaments on their edges. Large bell-shaped white flowers appear in tall, vertical heads in late summer. A pair of these in identical pots, either side of a path, looks stunning.

Where: uncommon, but sometimes available from garden centres. Otherwise, try Burncoose & South Down Nurseries, Gwennap, Redruth, Cornwall (01209 861112).

How much: pounds 9.50 for a 3-litre pot.



"This is a glorious long-term planting scheme," according to Kathy Brown, "using the rose `Gertrude Jekyll', with its marvellous scent and full- bodied blooms, surrounded by the star-shaped flowers of Clematis `Nelly Moser'." If planting in a pot, a good deep container, such as a wooden half-barrel, is advisable.

Where: garden centres.

How much: pounds 7.99 each.



Decking has become hugely popular in recent years, as an alternative to paving for a patio or terrace. It is relatively easy and quick to lay down, is a sympathetic material to put alongside plants and grass, and lasts well. Osmo/Gard sell a modular system "designed to be self-constructed", called Villagio, which consists of grooved, non-slip decking tiles in ecologically-pure woods.

Where: call 01296 424070 for brochure (pounds 2.50) and distributors.

How much: Villagio top panels in pine (59cm x 118cm) cost pounds 48.57.



Alan Gear suggests that you find a corner of your garden in which to grow annual wildflowers: "As well as gaining a soft, impressionistic haze of colour for over two months of the year, you will provide a haven for beneficial insects. These will repay you by controlling garden pests."



Busy Lizzies (Impatiens) are dear to gardeners' hearts because, unlike most half-hardy annuals, they will stand shade and still flower freely. This year there is a yellow-flowered one on the market, called Impatiens "Seashells Yellow", which should set many hearts fluttering. It flowers best if only sparingly watered and fed.

Where: available only as plantlets from Elm House Nursery, FREEPOST, PO Box 25, Wisbech, Cambs (01945 466808).

How much: pounds 9.95 for six (plus pounds 1.95 p&p).



The "golden marguerites" are invaluable for the perennial border, because they flower for many weeks from May, can be cut for floral arrangements, and are evergreen. "EC Buxton" has lemon-yellow daisy flower heads, with darker disc florets. The grey-green leaves are finely dissected. Anthemis like a light soil in full sun, and need to be cut back hard when they eventually stop flowering in late summer.

Where: garden centres. How much: pounds 2.99 for six.



A combination of three "Swan River Daisies" (Brachycome iberidifolia) and three Diascia "Ruby Field" is one of Kathy Brown's favourite summer schemes. "As the summer progresses, the plants intertwine and create a wonderful mound of dainty pink and blue. If you trim the plants right back in August and give them a feed, you will have a sensational container even in September and October."

Where: garden centres.

How much: Swan River Daisies pounds 3.99, Ruby Field pounds 4.99.



If you balk at the thought of how much a clipped bay tree or spiral of box will set you back, why don't you make your own topiary? Spring is the time to take a pair of secateurs and have a go at any old evergreen shrub with dense masses of not too large leaves. Suitable cases for treatment are the humble privet, any holly (ouch!), Viburnum tinus, yew and box.



Kim Hurst's garden secret is comfrey (Symphytum officinale/S. x uplandicum), because its leaves contain calcium, potassium and phosphorus. "Grow a small patch in rough ground or by your compost bins. Cut the whole plant back, leave to wilt for 48 hours, then chop roughly with a spade. Add it to your potato trenches, dig into fresh dug soil, scatter around herbaceous plants or simply add to your compost. Stand back and watch how it gives health and vitality to your plants."

Where: garden centres.

How much: comfrey from pounds 2 per plant.



This enchanting little tuber flowers for many weeks in late winter and early spring, and is best grown in dappled shade under deciduous trees. The leaves are round, sometimes attractively marbled silver, and they appear at the same time as the flowers, which are pink or magenta. There is also a white form. It is best to buy them in a pot, in flower, to get the colour you want.

Where: garden centres

How much: pounds 2.99 for a 9cm pot.



Zinnias are half-hardy annuals that thrive in full sun and a dry soil. They flower from July to October, from a spring-sowing indoors, although they can be sown outside in May. "Allsorts" can have double or single colours, and come in myriad colours, from white to purple via green and orange, and grow about 60cm to 80cm high.

Where: Mr. Fothergill's Seeds, Kentford, Suffolk (01638 552512).

How much: pounds 1.10 for 125 seeds (plus 75p p&p).



Containers do not have to contain flowers. Here is a long-lasting arrangement for a sunny spot, which consists of the ground covering Acaena saccaticupul "Blue Haze" with the voguish red-leaved grass Imperata cylindrica "Rubra", and the contrasting arching and yellow foliage of Hakonechloa macra "Alboaurea".

Where: garden centres.

How much: from pounds 4.99.



If your garden has become a happy hunting ground for every cat in the neighbourhood, try a humane cat-scarer like Catwatch, which emits high-frequency alarms, when the passive infra-red sensor is activated. These alarms are, mercifully, inaudible to humans and apparently don't bother other wildlife. They can be either battery-

or mains-operated.

Where: call 01763 254340 for a free brochure.

How much: pounds 49.99 plus pounds 15.95 for mains adaptor kit (pounds 2 p&p).



Peter Clarke has a tip for filling sparse borders with colour in spring. "If you planned ahead, and put bulbs in pots in autumn in the cold greenhouse, you can plunge them now in any gaps there are." Plunging means digging a hole and burying the pot so that the rim is just under soil level. Alternatively, he suggests buying them from garden centres now, for the same purpose. Suitable subjects are dwarf narcissi and hyacinths (above).

Where: garden centres.

How much: dwarf narcissi pounds 1.99, hyacinths pounds 1.49.