Gardening: Spring team

This time of year brings gardeners out in a plant-buying rash, says Anna Pavord. But just as important as spring blooms are plants that will keep your garden going all summer long

Every spring, gardeners have the beguiling sensation of making a fresh start. Blinded by optimism of the most irrational kind, we start acquiring plants rather faster than plans as to what we are going to do with them. Ceanothus, chaenomeles, anemone, spurge, each becomes the centre of a new dream. The danger of this spring euphoria is that we end up with a garden crammed with plants that are at their best in April and May but have nothing to show for the rest of the year.

All gardens need an underpinning of structural plants, things that are the equivalent of the most important pieces of furniture in a room. Some of them should be evergreen, so that in winter, the garden does not entirely dissolve into a mess of rotting leaves and skeletal branches. These structural plants will hold the whole garden together between the seasons, while the tulips come and go, the roses bloom and the dahlias build up to their late summer peak.

In choosing these landmark plants, we should be looking for things that provide a long season of interest, that are architectural in form, or that have leaves as good as their flowers. Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii is an outstanding example of a plant that has presence the whole year round, not just when it is flowering. If you've got space for it, shrubby Euphorbia mellifera is equally good. So is the variegated dogwood, Cornus alba 'Elegantissima'. Through winter and early spring it's a spacy construct of bright red stems, upright when young, arching as they age. Then it leafs up and becomes an elegant beacon, the stems clothed in softly variegated leaves. I'm not generally a fan of variegated plants – they are often too fussy – but the dogwood manages the stunt beautifully.

With these big pieces of furniture in place, you can start filling up the gaps in between. It helps to think of planting as a three-tier affair. Three separate groups of plants can occupy the same piece of ground, though not all will necessarily come to a peak at the same time. High up you have trees and large shrubs, in the middle tier the herbaceous perennials, and scrabbling around underneath, low-growing ground-cover plants and bulbs. By using the space carefully, you can ensure, for instance, that a spring flowering tree has summer-flowering perennials under it, interspersed with bulbs, perhaps colchicums, that come spearing through the ground in autumn. That patch of ground will be earning its keep over a long season in the garden.

In the kind of garden most of us have, we will need more plants to fill the middle and bottom layers than the top. And in my own garden, I feel that the second half of summer is never as good as the first. So I'm trying to make one border sing particularly well from July to September; even if the rest of the garden is quiet then, I'll have one bit that is at its peak. The backdrop is made up of Irish yews, still young but already making good, strong evergreen pillars. Within the bed, the landmark plants, the permanent pieces of furniture, are spurges, the shrubby Euphorbia stygiana from the Azores – fabulous sea green foliage and lime-green flowers in May and June – and the smaller Euphorbia characias 'Portuguese Velvet' with equally good evergreen foliage. Both would be worth growing for their leaves alone.

Because one of the few rules in gardening is that you can never have too many spurges, I've also added Euphorbia palustris which comes into bloom slightly later than the others (June-July). The flowers, though an extraordinary, wild lime-green, tone well with any colour you put with them. They are elegant with white, cool with blue, stunning with pink, sophisticated with yellow. Structure is important too; the plants hold themselves well and have excellent foliage, so it's not surprising that spurges should be among your best friends when you are planning planting schemes.

There are a few grasses in the bed too, though less than I started with. Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' was a noisy disaster last summer, the flowering stems collapsing all over their neighbours before even July had finished, so I'm going to try Stipa brachytricha in its place. It's tall – 140-150cm – but I like that and perhaps it'll be able to hold itself with more grace than the much-hyped calamagrostis. I hope so, because I want it to partner the old rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' that in a good season produces its yellow daisy flowers all the way through from August to October.

Inula will do that too, though it's even taller than the rudbeckia and may turn out to be too coarse an ingredient for this particular mix. Verbascums would be safer, though the flowers start earlier and have usually shot their bolt by August. Many have yellow flowers, but Verbascum phoeniceum 'Rosetta' has spires of carmine pink flowers; 'Violetta' is slightly taller with spikes of purplish-violet. Sunflowers are another option. I tried to do them last summer in that border, but after I'd planted out more than 20 lusty young plants, lovingly raised from seed, the whole lot were eaten by slugs. Or snails. I didn't see them at it. If I had, it wouldn't have happened.

For the lowest level of planting, you can scarcely do better than herbaceous geraniums, especially if you choose the newish blue one called 'Brookside' which has an astonishingly long flowering season. 'Rozeanne' is good too, though the habit is different. It doesn't make big clumps like 'Brookside' but wanders about, like the older variety 'Buxton's Blue', throwing arms of blue flower into anything around it, friendly but not overbearing. Salvias (even the native meadow clary, S. pratensis) have never been quite as reliable or as long-lasting in our garden, but I'm thinking of having another go with the one called 'Indigo'. The flowers are carried in whorls up the lax stems, lippy, like all salvia flowers and a violet kind of blue. If the rabbits are kind and the rain not too infrequent, this collection of plants should see us through the down-time of August very nicely.

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Stiller as Derek Zoolander in the leaked trailer for Zoolander 2
film
Sport
footballArsenal take the Community Shield thanks to a sensational strike from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Arts and Entertainment
Gemma Chan as synth Anita in Humans
film
News
Keeping it friendly: Tom Cruise on ‘The Daily Show’ with Jon Stewart
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ensemble cast: Jamie McCartney with ‘The Great Wall of Vagina’
artBritish artist Jamie McCartney explains a work that is designed to put women's minds at rest
News
Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump
people
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an I...

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen