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
Sport
football This was Kane’s night, even if he played just a small part of it
Travel
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
News
news
News
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
media
News
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
people
Voices
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
News
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
news
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss