Roses, part 2. Versatile and low maintenance

A lot of my clients want low-maintenance gardens and get worried if I suggest roses. Roses have a bad rep; greenfly, blackspot, mildew.

But actually a bit of effort when planting (at the right depth, and throw in a handful of micorrhizal fungae) careful choice of varieties, proper pruning and a minimum of one feed a season see off most problems.

I never spray with insecticide; I don’t like using chemicals, and of course, prevention is generally better than cure.

Rose – Munstead WoodRoses are more versatile that their cottagey image suggests. Some, such as the compact, deep crimson-red ‘Munstead Wood’, with its delicious fragrance, look fantastic with tall grasses, and a climber such as ‘Iceberg’ makes a crisp backdrop to an otherwise modern perennial border. And anyway, it’s good to stray from tradition and mix things up a bit.

Their only real downside is that most roses are not particularly widllife friendly; tightly scrolled petals and flower structure is too complex for bees and other pollenating insects to find their way in.

I make up for this by making sure there are plenty of nectar-rich plants in the planting design to attract them. The exception is the Rosa rugosa species, with its single, open flowers which I use in wildlife gardens or more informal planting schemes. They don’t repeat flower, but develop fat, scarlet hips in the autumn.

Roses. Part 1. Deadheading

This week I’ve been deadheading roses. Here in London, the first flush of flowers is coming to an end, and now’s the time to be decisive and take out the whole truss to an outward-facing leaf node. Rosa 'Lady of Shallot'

I quite often use this time as an opportunity to reshape the shrub a bit, too, particularly with varieties that put on a lot of growth in one season.

One of these, and one of my favourites, is ‘Lady of Shallot’, a unusual pale sunset orange, very free flowering and fragrant, but it is pretty vigourous and shoots off in all directions, so it benefits from a bit of taming by deadheading by half a metre or so.

A feed with a high potash fertiliser (tomato feed will do just as well as specialist rose food) and water after doing this alleviates shock to the plant, which pays you back with banks of flowers later in the season.

How gardeners can help bees

Bees are in trouble. Echinacea flower with beeSince the EU-wide ban on harmful neocotinoids – the pesticides widely believed to be the cause of colony collapse disorder – which came into effect last year, there has been growing pressure to find replacements.

But some of these come with health warnings of their own for our vital pollinators. And Brexit of course, could change everything, making the lives of bees even more precarious.

While politicians and vested interests argue the toss, gardeners and garden designers can dig in and do their bit to help bees to thrive.

It’s all in the planting. Purists argue that planting native species is best for biodiversity and wildlife. But many of our native species don’t flower much beyond July. Which is bad news for hungry bees and not great if you want a garden that looks good all year round. Anyway, who wants nettles colonising their precious outdoor space?

When I’m designing a garden I always think about extending the season at both ends with plants that flower long and reliably, or come into their own in late summer and autumn and provide valuable nectar for bees.

Spring flowers that bees love — hellebores, pansies, muscaris – have been held back this year. I revisited a garden I designed last week, and the bees were gorging on the pulmonaria.

At the tail end of summer, sedums, salvias (rigourously deadheaded), echinacea, nepeta are some of the perennials that have both a distinctive form, which we designers covet, and will get your garden buzzing.

And when you choose plants, stick to single flowers, not blowsy doubles. Get the right things in and the bees will follow.

But not if you let them be killed off first.

A very easy clematis

PeopleClematis 'Constance' with dusky pink flowers Clematis macropetala with nodding flowers are funny about clematis. I have clients who won’t have them in their gardens, believing that they are fussy and capricious – feet in the shade, heads in the sun, greedy, drought-shy, needy, needy, needy. There’s some truth in that.

But Clematis macropetala (above) is a star. It’s normally at its best in April, but this year, like everything else, it’s been held back by the late spring. So right now, here in London, it’s smothered in nodding, double flowers the colour of bluebells that open from buds of deep purple and will last for weeks.

Clematis macropetala will cope with a bit of shade. It can handle dryish soil once established, and it belongs to the group that doesn’t need pruning, except when it outgrows the space you want it to fill, which it does only occasionally, being a moderate grower.

The leaves are pretty; delicately serrated and soft apple green, so it’s useful scrambling up to hide an unsightly corner.

And the cultivars are as good. My favourites are ‘Constance’, (pictured above) which has dusky, rose-pink flowers, and ‘Purple Spider’, with finer petals drenched inky purple.

Sometimes Clematis macropetala come back for a second show later in the summer, too. And when they’re finished, each flower turns into a silky seedhead that lasts most of the winter. Just about perfect, really.

Dali’s garden in Cadaques

Visiting Cadaques, Salvador Dali’s home in northern Cataluyna in springtime you can see straight away where he got his inspiration.

First there are the crazy cloud formations, apparently strays from the trumontana winds that gust through here at this time of year. Then the trees — all sculpted and pollarded, to provide maximum shade – umbrella-pruned citrus trees, the giant, sinewy feet of Figus microphylla fromm which the tree gets its common name — elephant tree- topped with knobbly fists from which the leaves are just starting to burst.

Then there are the mulberries, pollarded to within an inch of their lives. This is to restrain them and to restrict the growth of fruit. They have a strange beauty, like gnarly trees in a fairytale forest.

Go to Dali’s garden, and you can see these ideas from nature played out everywhere. In one courtyard, a giant, white-painted pot contains an olive tree and spills over with white geraniums. The pot seems to grow at a skewed angle out of the crazy paving. The craziness of the shapes in the paving themselves are highlighted with thick, fat lines of white paint.

Turn a corner, and there’s a garden bench that looks like its been hewn haphazardly out of the rock. The fun continues with a white plaster Michelin man soaking up the shade by the pool in a white chair under the spines of a tamarisk tree.

But Dali loved the natural world too. On the green terraces that overlook the sea, wild flowers cluster everywhere. Red corydalis, Lupins, Orchids, Lavender and Rosemary.

Wonders of trees in winter

Now that springWinter Tree seems finally to have sprung out of the shadows of winter, and buds are fattening fast, I wanted to sing the praises of bare trees and their importance in parks and garden design.

Here in London, the Acacia dealbata (Mimosa) trees are ablaze with sulphur-yellow pom-poms, and the winter cherry, Prunus x subhirtella are showing off their delicate, snowflake blossoms.

A sunny walk on Hampstead Heath made me appreciate again the particular beauty of bare branches etched against the sky. The crooked skeleton of our native birch tree, Betula pendula, with its delicate linework of drooping twigs; the burnished red of limes, set against ochre willows; the patterns of lichen on the bark of the elder trees and the patchwork camouflage of planes. This long, hard winter, it’s been so easy to overlook them, heads down, braced against the cold, just longing for it to end.

Planning a winter garden

T S Eliot was wrong. April is not the cruellest month. That’s January. Gales and rain, doomy skies and the apparently interminable trudge towards spring. Hardly the time to be thinking about your garden, much less for venturing out there. But a bit of planning can change all that.

It’s now that the layout of the garden is exposed and if the design on the ground is weak, it will be a sludgy mess of broken stems and slimy green paths.

Your voluptuous English herbaceous border, so graceful and blowsy and oozing gorgeousness in summer, will look as crushed as a damsel with an empty dancecard.

The great English gardens have Helen Birch on Winter Gardenscrisp walls of yew to frame them and cones, pyramids and balls of box and laurel that act as living sculpture when everything else has retreated from the cold.

On a grand scale that seems easy to achieve, but even in smaller gardens it’s possible to include enticements outdoors as well as something to admire through the window. Winter in the garden is about form and structure – and fragrance.

So it’s the time to celebrate evergreens and winter plants that pack a powerful, perfumed punch, along with straw-coloured grasses that still stand tall and seem to filter the hazy winter sun and perennials whose seedheads strike a pose against skies stripped of colour.

Like so many plants that are at their best now, Sarcoccoca confusa, or winter box, has shy little flowers that send out a heady scent. It’s evergreen, too and loves shade. Ideal for cramped urban gardens overhung by trees or a difficult, north-facing site. Go for large specimens or plant a few smaller ones in groups, as they are slow to take off.

The spidery ochre flowers of the witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ remind me of warming licks of fire and their scent is divine.  And the large, upright Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ produces densely packed, pale pink heads on bare branches that pump out fragrance.

Underplant these shrubs with the Harvington varieties of the lenten rose, Helleborus x hybridus, whose colours range from white to yellow through pink to deepest burgundy and come in single or double forms. Handsome as the leaves are, the experts cut them off now so that the clusters of long-lasting, nodding flowers can really sing. Turn them up to face you and they are a thing of wonder.

Grasses will lift the spirits of that crushed damsel-in-the-herbaceous-border. Every garden should have some, because for ten months of the year they earn their place. In summer and autumn they lend height and airiness and act as a foil for flowering perennials.

In winter, the tall, sun-loving varieties, such as Miscanthus (there are loads of cultivars, but my favourites are M. sinensis ‘Kleine Silberspinne’ and M. malepartus) and the stiff, architectural grass, Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ give the garden backbone. In the low-slung winter sun their faded tips glow palest gold. Cut them down in late February and they’ll be back in April with fresh, young growth.

It used to be the thing to cut all perennials down in the autumn, but some should be left alone. The sea holly, Eryngium giganteum, for example, with its prominent, bud-like seedheads, together with the tight little pompoms of Turkish sage, Phlomis russelliana, provide textural contrast to the grasses and food for the birds. They do self-seed everywhere though.

For inspiration, if you live in the south-east, visit Anglesey Abbey, which has a wonderful, dedicated winter garden and steep banks scattered with all the different kinds of snowdrop. Then dream of next January.

Six best trees for small gardens

At this time of year, it’s the glitz and sparkle of Christmas trees that hustle for attention.  But spare a thought for the trees in the garden. Plant a new tree now, and it will spend the cold, wet winter months quietly building a strong root system while you put your feet up.

November to February Helen Birch on Treesis the bare-root season, when trees are dug up from the fields where they’ve been grown and can be replanted straight into the ground, rather than potted into containers, when they need to be fed and watered and generally fussed over.

Once a bare root tree is in situ, it can simply be watered occasionally and left to strut its wonderful stuff in spring.

In smaller gardens a tree needs to earn its place, with at least two seasons of interest. Blossom in spring, a light canopy for summer, a colourful autumn show, a filigree of branches in winter, or an eye-catching bark. Here are six of the best:

  1. Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’  (Eastern redbud). In April a scattering of dark rose- pink, pea-like flowers burst from bare branches, followed by heart-shaped, burgundy-purple leaves. The leaves are the star. A sunny spot brings out their best colour, creating a summer tapestry of all the vibrant shades of red wine before turning fiery red in autumn.  Forest Pansy copes with most soils, except heavy clay. 8mhx8mw.
  2. Amelanchier lamarckii (Snowy mespilus/Juneberry). New leaves start out pinky-bronze, followed by a cloud of delicate, star-shaped white blossom in April. The Juneberry’s light canopy provides dappled shade for summer perennials, before it goes out in a blaze of red and orange glory in autumn. A multi-stemmed specimen will make a bold, winter sculpture, too. The Juneberry is tough, copes with sun or shade and most soils.
  3. Sorbus vilmorinii (Vilmorin’s rowan) A distant relative of the European mountain ash, this tree is native to China and is about as low-maintenance and unfussy as you can get. Its dark green leaves are divided into pretty leaflets that flutter in the breeze, and sprays of  creamy-white blossoms in late spring give way to deep red berries. But the best thing about this tree is its extended finale. As the leaves stage their autumn show of red and purple and drop, the berries fade to first to pink, then to white and cling for most of the winter.  A stunner. 5mx5m.
  4. Cornus kousa var. chinensis (Strawberry dogwood). Variants of this tree from China were all over the place at the Chelsea Flower Show this year. And no wonder. It has a strong, conical shape,  and in early summer, the branches are smothered in long-lasting, showy white bracts which look like handkerchiefs of snow, before fading to lovely shades of pink. Come autumn, the leaves burn fiery red and orange, and mature trees sometimes have bright red, strawberry-like fruits as well. This dogwood likes fertile soil, including acid, but won’t flourish on shallow chalky ground.  A showstopper. 7mx5m.
  5. Betula utilis var. jacquemontii (Himalayan birch). It’s the bark that takes the breath away. Pure white trunks and branches look ethereal etched against pale wintry skies. In summer, draped in yellow catkins under the lightest of canopies, or glowing brilliant yellow in autumn, this birch has an elegance all of its own. It copes with any soil, with sun or shade and will grow quickly and gain stature. A multistemmed one will be more restrained.
  6. Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’ (Coral bark Japanese maple.) . Not the showiest of the Japanese maples, but a tree with more subtle virtues through the year. Young branches glow coral-pink in winter, and the new, palm-shaped leaves are edged with pink. As they mature, they turn bright green for the summer and soft, butter-yellow in autumn. It likes sun or partial shade and will cope with most soils and most conditions, including, unusually, for acers, drought.

Originally published in Meze magazine

A great plant for a woodland garden

Euonymus europeaus ‘Red Cascade’.
I saw this hiding in a hedge on Hampstead Euonymus europaeus 'Red Cascade'. Crimson fruits with orange centres. Best in NovemberHeath. A plant I had forgotten about, since it’s usually to be found on the edge of a woodland garden, and there aren’t many of those in London. The species, the spindle tree, comes from Asia, but all the cultivars look perfectly at home with native plantings. They don’t like dry soil, but will grow in sun or shade. Shy and inconspicuous in summer, ‘Red Cascade’ really struts its stuff in autumn, when the leaves burn scarlet and fall, and the fruits, like crimson jewels, burst open to reveal orange centres. Sometimes, in nature it’s all in the detail.

Great Dixter’s autumn plant fair

To Great Dixter, the garden designed by Lutyens, revolutionised by the late, great writer and horticulturalist, Christopher Lloyd, and which is forging into the future under its present custodian and Lloyd disciple, Fergus Garrett.

Great Dixter autumn plant fair
Four years ago, Garrett decided to hold a plant fair, inviting hand-picked nursery folk from all over Europe to come and sell the plants they raise as quietly and painstakingly as children. Since then it’s become an annual event.
Autumn FlowerpotsI love few things more than pottering around a specialist nursery. Not a garden centre mind, a nursery, where staff know how to grow their stuff and can identify those oddball cultivars. So this, my first visit to Dixter’s fair, was heaven. Here were some of the champions of the horticultural world; those men and women who patiently propagate their own plants, develop new cultivars and talk about them with passion and knowledge. They came from France, Holland and Germany, Sussex and Kent, Essex and Wiltshire, selling (and selling out) of asters and salvias, grasses, hydrangeas and proteas from South Africa.
Of course you get to wander round Dixter’s gardens too, which always make me smile. This autumn, Garrett has replanted Lutyens’ famous circular stone steps with exotic aeoliums and succulents, and just as audaciously, flanked an old brick barn with bold rows of saucer-sized, flouncy pink dahlias two metres high.


It’s already in next year’s diary.