Not everyone who has a garden enjoys gardening; Garden designer, Susan Begg, recommends ten plants every budding gardener should grow.
For many, the onset of spring in their patch of green sparks not joy but a vague dread as they peer out at the tufty new growth on the lawn, contemplating another season of mowing. Or looking at the neglected flower beds and desperately wondering What’s to be done?
Most often – and I know this because it’s exactly what I did when I started gardening – this interlude prompts a trip to the garden centre to buy a polystyrene tray of bedding plants that will last a single season before dying off and presenting the same problem next year.
If you’re happy with this solution, that’s grand. But if you have any interest at all in accumulating joy, and plants, annually at no extra cost with similar, possibly less maintenance then you’re in the right place.
Each of the plants that appear in the list below will more than earn its keep – probably in its first season, before going on to get better and better each year, for many years to come.
Every single one is easy to grow and robust enough to grow in all but the most inhospitable parts of the UK. They all flower prolifically and each has a special attribute that singles it out from the many thousands of plants in cultivation.
Plant any of them and you will be rewarded with beautiful blooms, scent, structure and height.
Seasonally in order of appearance:
Narcissus Actaea AGM
A handsome heritage narcissus with expansive pure white petals and a small yolky cup, fringed with a ring of burnt orange. Unlike many daffs, it has a delicious scent that you will come to associate with spring. Will naturalise (multiply) over the years. Flowers: April. Height 40-45cm.
A New Zealand native, also going by the name of Libertia grandiflora, this is a plant with strong architectural presence. The evergreen sword-like foliage fans out from the centre in a dense, upright arc of lush, healthy green. From May – July, ladders of delicate white flowers appear on tall stems. Flowers: May-July. Height 70-90cm.
Geranium ‘Rozanne’ AGM
When compiling lists its tempting to fill them with plants no one has heard of. But the point of this list is to highlight fool proof plants that will stand the test of time. In this respect, it would be unforgivable to exclude Geranium ‘Rozanne.’ This hardy geranium was voted Plant of the Centenary at the 100th Anniversary of RHS Chelsea. Hard to argue with that – and why would you want to when you can have armfuls of violet-blue flowers held above mounds of pretty, deep green foliage spilling out between the gaps of higher growing plants from May – October. Flowers: May-Oct. Cut back in mid-summer to encourage a second later bloom. Height: 50cm.
Allium ‘Purple Rain’
‘Purple Rain’ is a cross between the hugely popular, tall Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ and the stumpier, A. ‘Cristophi’ with its huge sparkle bomb flowerheads. It combines the best of both parents baring big, generous flowers on tall, slender stems. Despite its lofty supermodel looks it can withstand the bashing of British weather. It also holds its colour really well and is slower to fade than the other alliums. Flowers: June. 90-120cm.
Salvia nemerosa ‘Caradonna’ AGM
I’ve been elbow deep in garden dirt too long to know if this is the sort of plant that holds immediate appeal for the uninitiated but I can tell you that if you plant a few of these in your garden you will not be sorry. Your garden will be thigh deep in spires of sumptuous, regal purple for months and months on end. Flowers: June-October. Height; 50cm.
Potentilla ‘Gibson’s Scarlet’
Potentilla ‘Gibson’s Scarlet’ is a close relation of the strawberry and the resemblance is evident in the leaves and dainty, pillar box red flowers that bloom on long stems that wend whimsically round the ankles of other plants. Quite unlike the shrubby potentillas, it is a joyful filler for the front of the border where it will blur the gaps between other plants and flower abundantly all summer long. Flowers: June – August. Height: 45cm.
Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’
Every garden should have some spires to tease the eye skywards and give your borders height and stature. There are many out there but veronicastrum is hard to beat. Its candelabra form has simplicity and symmetry, whilst the dusky lilac plumes can often take on slight twists and kinks that add to the plant’s quirky appeal. Don’t be tempted to cut back in the autumn as the seedheads give much-needed structure to the winter garden. Flowers: June – August. Height: 100-150cm.
Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ AGM
Describing Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ as a stalwart simply doesn’t do it justice. It infers that its popularity is down to its reliability and perhaps that those who plant it lack imagination when the simple truth is there is barely a garden that isn’t enhanced by the ample structural appeal and the dizzying globes of pure white bracts. It trucks on into winter holding those same globes, now radiating skeletons that catch the winter light. It can be pruned annually to keep it within bounds or allowed to romp away. Flowers: July – September. Height: 2.5m.
Clematis ‘Rubromarginata’ AGM
This clematis deserves to be much more widely planted. Taylor’s describe it as ‘the most heavily scented clematis in existence’ and they’re right, masses of sweet almond-scented flowers twist and splay forth from the twining growth from July – September. It is vigorous and tough, coping well in shady dry spots, even I’m told at the base of conifers. Flowers: July – September. Height: 2.5 – 4m.
Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’
In early October last year I hosted an event with East Lothian nursery Macplants. It was attended mostly by other gardening professionals, people who know their plants. As we all walked together up and down the rows and rows of plants, there was one plant that stopped everybody in their tracks. Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen.’ It is such a glorious blast of tall, soft, sunflower yellow, so informal and captivating. It is also well-behaved and reliable. If you want to squeeze every drop of sunshine and charm out of summer and autumn, then grow this. Flowers: Jul-September. Height: 1.8m.
Tips for planting.
Keep in mind that a single plant on its own makes little impact regardless of how hard it works. Instead of buying one each of several different plants, buy 3 or 5 of a single plant. Group them together, planted at the recommended planting distance and you will achieve a much stronger effect.
When it comes to bulbs the rule of thumb is – the more the merrier. So plant as many as space and funds will allow. Planted in the right place both alliums and narcissus will gradually multiply over the years.
Susan Begg is one half of Semple Begg, a garden and landscape design studio working out of the UK and Switzerland, that brings together the combined talents of Nicola Semple and Susan Begg.
Macplants is Scotland’s largest growers of herbaceous perennials, alpines, ferns and ornamental grasses and the plant centre in East Lothian is open to the public and plants are also available online. You will find a much larger selections of plants than you would in any garden centre, along with expert advice.
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