Monthly Archives: March 2015

Shrubs for the spring garden

While a quick thought of a shrub border may take your mind to summertime, there are many species of woody plant that flower earlier in the year, making a valuable contribution towards extending your garden’s season of interest. For wildlife gardeners, spring-flowering shrubs are also incredibly useful for emerging beneficial insects such as pollinating bees and butterflies.

Many spring-flowering shrubs are excellent candidates for woodland gardens. Naturally evolving to bloom before a thick summer canopy of forest foliage emerges, these plants like to have a cool, moist root run in a shady spot. Take Enkianthus deflexus, for example. This Himalayan deciduous shrub is perfect for a shady woodland border, where its nodding, bell-shaped flowers will peep out from the foliage. Or how about Pieris japonica, which produces clusters of tiny teardrop-shaped flowers held aloft glossy evergreen leaves. Corylopsis is also a good choice. Of course, woodland gardens just aren’t complete without rhododendrons and camellias, both of which will be a blaze of colour during spring. Happy in containers if given ericaceous compost, just ensure that the flowers aren’t positioned in early morning sunshine so that they don’t get scorched.

For more open, sunny situations why not consider forsythia, osmanthus or berberis? These three shrubs are all quite content in a sunny mixed border. The bright yellow blooms of forsythia contrast beautifully with deep pink or purple tulips, and while commonly grown as a hedging plant, allow a berberis to grow unclipped as an arching shrub to see it to best effect. The sweetly scented white tubular blooms of osmanthus will offer a treat for your nose as well as your eyes. Ribes, the flowering currant, is happy in sun or shade. Combine its hot pink flower panicles with blue scillas or muscari for a beautiful partnership. Springtime never looked so good.

If you go down to the woods today….

Undulating border in the Pond Garden contains hellebores, trilliums, ferns and sedges with hardy geraniums in the summer. York Gate Garden, Adel, Leeds, Yorkshire - © Carole Drake/GAP Photos

Undulating border in the Pond Garden contains hellebores, trilliums, ferns and sedges with hardy geraniums in the summer. York Gate Garden, Adel, Leeds, Yorkshire – © Carole Drake/GAP Photos

When people inherit shady gardens covered in dense canopies, their hearts often begin to sink. Initial discussions are based around cutting down trees and clearing scrub, but wait before you reach for the pruning saw. Do you realise you’ve just been handed a golden horticultural opportunity?

“But nothing will grow in shade!” you might protest. We beg to differ. Think about it for a while – which trees and shrubs will survive? Your standard birch, hazel, rhododendron – yes, but how about witch hazel, enkianthus and corylopsis? Then there’s the perennialsivy, geraniums and bergenias, you might say. Why not add to them erythroniums, trilliums, anemones, aconites and erythroniums? Or Lilium martagon? Ah, hang on – this woodland planting might not be as dull as you’d think.

Galanthus 'Lady Elphinstone' rising through leaf mould - © J S Sira/GAP Photos

Galanthus ‘Lady Elphinstone’ rising through leaf mould – © J S Sira/GAP Photos

Unique environment
It’s true to say that the habitat within woodlands is very specific. Winter light levels are rapidly swallowed up as leaves emerge. These stubbornly create shade right through the growing season, falling en masse to smother anything that happens to be growing below. Sounds pretty tough, but many plants have evolved to positively thrive in such conditions. That early-season light offers the perfect flowering window for a multitude of spring beauties, the dappled shade creates sheltered humidity and filtered light that won’t scorch jungle-sized foliage or dainty, tissue-paper flowers, and the falling leaves? Well, which plant doesn’t like to be tucked up for winter with a cosy organic mulch?

Create your design
Although now is an ideal time to plant, put pen to paper before fork to soil, and decide which style of woodland garden you’d like to own. Think of the backbone first – the trees and shrubs that give permanent height and structure. Japanese maples, amelanchiers and witch hazels are just a few that exhibit exciting autumn leaf tones reminiscent of New England’s national parks, and magnolias, rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias pack a floral punch in spring if you prefer to emulate Exbury gardens. Cornus, pieris, chimonanthus and osmanthus are all good choices, too, and perhaps Dicksonia if you’d like to add a touch of the Jurassic. Narrow, meandering mulched pathways lined with hosta, pulmonaria, arum, erythronium, dicentra, hellebore and polygonatum tempt you around hidden corners, and boardwalks floating above the ground are ideal for accessing more boggy areas. Here, vigorous foliage plants such as rodgersia, matteuccia and carex would all hold their own.

Species and structures
While few of us can celebrate our rolling acres with a boastful planting of Cardiocrinum giganteum, there are plenty of gems to opt for if space dictates the selection of compact species. Paris, trillium, corydalis, dodecatheon, arisaema, cypripedium, narcissi, anemonella – this tantalising list is endless. Such delicacies can occasionally demand a more sizeable price tag, so dedicated beds might be a sound investment if you get hooked (the plant lists of specialist nurseries such as Jacques Amand and Crug Farm Plants make addictive reading). Counteract a guilty spending spree by establishing economical froths of cow parsley, alkanet or red campion. Small clearings would also allow the positioning of Digitalis purpurea, Primula vulgaris and other species that like to sit on the sidelines with their faces in the light.

Mass plantings never fail to impress – who hasn’t been brought to silent admiration by a bluebell wood? Emulate this with swathes of other ground-covering flowers, such as galanthus, eranthis, Anemone nemorosa, Ranunculus ficaria, epimedium, cyclamen or convallaria. Alternatively, create a tapestry effect – heucherella, lamium and Arum italicum are just a few perennials with jaw-dropping foliage. Don’t forget structures like wood piles, stumperies and statuary, either and, if you feel so inclined, why not include a fanciful footbridge or grotto? For those of us lucky enough to have the room, there’s nothing more delightful than pushing past eye-high foliage to discover a hidden clearing, complete with simple rustic seating politely positioned to admire the view. Well, it would be rude not to…

Let spring unfurl by Natalie Ashbee

Nothing competes with Spring: not bountiful summer, hazy autumn or frosty winter. What could possibly come close to that thrilling sense of new life as buds open, shoots push skywards and blossom dances. After a winter where we have all (mostly) seen snow, marvelled at sparkling hoar frosts and bemoaned our cold fingers and toes, knowing with certainty that Spring is just around the corner pulls us through the darkest months into the light.

Prunus 'Accolade' - © Heather Edwards/GAP Photos

Prunus ‘Accolade’ – © Heather Edwards/GAP Photos

There is always a day, every year, when I wake up and say, “Spring is here”. It’s not something you can put your finger on, it’s more of a sixth sense; a mixture of sights, smells and sounds. The more obvious signs are the first plump buds of native daffodil’s – nature’s sunshine on earth – breaking open and giving us that glorious bright yellow which cannot fail to cause a smile.

Narcissus 'Mother Duck' -  © Matt Anker/GAP Photos

Narcissus ‘Mother Duck’ – © Matt Anker/GAP Photos

Mother nature wins gold for best planting designer when she puts yellow with blue to give us a contrast that makes us stand and stare: who can resist stopping to look at primroses and anemone.

Anemone blanda and Primula vulgaris - © Fiona Lea/GAP Photos

Anemone blanda and Primula vulgaris – © Fiona Lea/GAP Photos

There’s something bewitching in the way a flower bud unwraps its silky blanket as the sun warms it: the first glimpse of saturated colour enticing us.

Magnolia 'Randy' - © Dave Zubraski/GAP Photos

Magnolia ‘Randy’ – © Dave Zubraski/GAP Photos

Our senses are bombarded in spring: the pot pourri of the first blossom, the evocative scent of soil as it warms and breathes, that magical first whiff of cut grass, the first bird song. We all harbour powerful memories through our senses and springtime will always be top of my list for creating a sense of well-being, hope and anticipation; waiting with baited breath for the rest of the garden to awaken.

Blechnum tabulare - Mountain blechnum fern, Cape Town, South Africa - © Neil Overy/GAP Photos

Blechnum tabulare – Mountain blechnum fern, Cape Town, South Africa – © Neil Overy/GAP Photos

Natalie Ashbee

Natalie Ashbee

Natalie Ashbee

Natalie Ashbee is a cornish garden designer, freelance horticultural researcher for the BBC and garden writer, now living in Clifton, Bristol. Ash & Bee Garden Design was established in 2003 and grew from the maintenance of small gardens to the landscape and planting design of high-end new properties. Ash & Bee is an amalgamation of Mark Ashbee Photography and Natalie Ashbee Gardens. You can also see Mark’s photography here.

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