Whether you own an urban courtyard or a country cottage, use this expert beginners’ guide to choosing the right plants for a stunning garden display.
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Define your garden
With so many plants available in garden centres and online nurseries, where do you start? The key is to reduce the possibilities by answering some basic questions.
First, what are the characteristics of the areas to be planted? Are they sunny or shady? Wet or dry? Sheltered or exposed? Chances are, you’ll find one corner of a garden differs from another – it pays to look carefully at the entire space and note down your findings so you don’t forget.
Next, choose a style or theme. Do you want an oriental look, a packed cottage garden border, or something simple and modern? Then think about colour. What are your favourites – hot reds, oranges and yellows, or calming blues, soft pinks and mauves? If you’ve not planned or planted a border before, my advice is keep it simple and either use one colour, or three similar ones such as crimson, cerise and pink. That way, it is so much easier to put together the combinations that will work.
The space itself provides clues as to what is appropriate to plant – a damp, shady basement-level area is a ferny paradise. Large trees casting dappled shade will tell you that a woodland border is best. A sunny spot and free-draining sandy soil is perfect for fragrant Mediterranean herbs such as lavender, lemon balm, thyme and rosemary.
Working with, rather than against, the characteristics of your garden is by far the best way to go. If you ignore those elements, the plants won’t survive or work visually – have you ever seen a large cactus growing by a shady pond?
If you’re not sure what type of soil is in your garden, take a bagful along to a local garden centre with a few photos of your space for advice.
Choose the right plants
Once you’ve answered those questions, draw up a plant shortlist. The Royal Horticultural Society publishes its RHS Plant Finder book annually, listing 70,000 plants and 560 nurseries for £15.99. Or you can visit Findmeplants.co.uk, which has an online survey to assess your garden type and the plants to consider. As you compile your shortlist, think about the size of each plant and how far it will spread when fully grown, plus how long it will take to reach that size.
Look in books and magazines for ideas and combinations you like – if the growing Above Use different tones of the same colour for a simple but attractive planting combination conditions are the same as yours, copy them. Labelled displays in public gardens, or even a look over your neighbour’s fence, are useful starting points too.
Aim for beds and borders that look good all year round, especially those close to your house. For this reason, mixed plantings are best, because you can make use of all the plant groups for interest – from attractive tree bark and scented winter shrubs, through to bulbs in spring and tropical perennials for late summer colour.
Evergreen shrubs are useful for year-round interest and, as they’re reliable structural plants, they add lots of body too. They’re beautiful in their own right, and many have architectural qualities. I love the thin spires of pencil junipers and New Zealand flax, claw-shaped Fatsia japonica leaves, and the giant blue-green brushes of Euphorbia – dramatic whatever the season. Not all evergreens are green. There are ‘ever-golds’ like Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’, ever-greys and even ever-purples.
I like to think of evergreens as big, solid and reliable anchors in the garden. As a guide, most mixed plantings should feature at least 40 per cent of evergreens spaced evenly throughout the display.
If you want flowers all year round, make sure there is at least one type of plant in flower each month. Include those with a long flowering season to cover gaps – Verbena bonariensis and Japanese anemones do this job well. Spring and autumn bulbs are a brilliant choice as they can be grown through frothy summer perennials, providing two colour bursts from the same place, ideal where space is tight.
Consider their upkeep
Ask yourself how much time you’ll have to dedicate to your garden. Winter and summer bedding, bush roses and cottage garden perennials such as peonies create more work for time-strapped gardeners. Choose hardy shrubs, conifers, free-growing climbers such as Boston ivy and climbing hydrangeas, ornamental grasses and tough-but-colourful ground cover perennials like geraniums and elephant’s ears. Once they’re established, they need little TLC and suffer less from diseases and pests. Most garden centres arrange their plants under similar headings, such as climbers and evergreens, so it isn’t difficult to find them.
Consider your size of borders
Beds and borders need to be as big as you can realistically make them. Thin strips are a waste of time because you can’t achieve that lush full look, unless there’s depth to group plants together. What’s more, a narrow bed will look out of proportion with individual plants and the garden as a whole. Consider whether you can sacrifice a little of your lawn and extend outwards. Larger beds and borders will cut down on mowing too – but keep the shape simple as intricate curves look fussy.