When prospective clients approach me to do planting plans for their gardens it’s always because they are lacking colour and/or structure year round. Although winter colour is what you’d think most people would find difficult to achieve, a lot of people also really struggle with lack of colour in July and August when they find they have a very ‘green’ garden. So, how do you achieve a year round colourful garden with plenty of structure in the winter? There are a number of ways you can tackle this problem.
Ornamental grasses have come a long way since the 1970s Pampas grass that most people think about when you first suggest grasses. These not only add almost year round structure but can turn the most beautiful shades of purples and pinks in the autumn, like Panicum virgatum ‘Squaw’. Others like Imperata cylindrica’ Red Baron’ turn blood red as the season progresses while Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’ and Panicum vigatum ‘Heavy Metal are blue from the get go, no need to wait for any colour. If you are looking to brighten up a shady area try Carex elata ‘Bowles Golden’ which has butter yellow leaves or Hakonechloe macro. ‘Aureola’ with limey green leaves. Both will give you colour when you need it most and virtually year round structure.
Heuchera are one of my most favourite perennials because of the beautiful leaf colour it has, adding a variety of instant colour to any garden and great at the front of the border. It is a semi-evergreen and so it will give you a long season of interest. When it comes to July and August there are a plethora of options available both in the way of shrubs and herbaceous perennials. My first suggestion for those of you who currently have ‘green’ gardens at this time is to measure up the area where colour is lacking and pop along to a reputable garden centre and choose something that is flowering at that moment, that would grow in your garden conditions. Good nurseries will always give you good advice and suggestions about what to choose, so let them help!
Winter is a good time of year to take a long hard look at the garden and think about what is and isn’t working. Definitely think grasses for winter structure and often colour throughout the year along with some herbaceous perennials which do a good job then too. For example, Libertia grandiflora is a lovely evergreen perennial that has white flowers from May – July but gives great structure in the winter or one of the Euphorbia family which will give you an interesting architectural plant all winter long. You can get orange, red and yellow winter colour from the Dogwoods (Cornus) and cheerful yellow flowers from the winter flowering Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) just when we need it most in December and January.
So if you think you might be missing a trick, I hope these tips will give you a starting point from which you can try a range of new plants and ideas in the coming year.
Early in the planning of your garden you should determine how plants will fit in to the overall design. They can be used in a number of ways, for example for giving structure, adding height or even as a focal point in the garden to name but a few. Plants can also be used as barriers to define areas and create ‘rooms’ and you can highlight important points in the garden by using unique plants. Different sizes, textures, colours and contrasting shapes will help to capture your attention and direct it in a specific direction. All year round colour, structure and interest should be your aim and it will take thought, consideration and research to pull your plan together.
So where do I start?
The place to start is with the ‘ backbone’ of the garden and by that I mean the structure. You need to get that in place before you get carried away with adding in the pretty flowers! It can be hard to be firm with yourself on this but it really will pay dividends in the end. I’d recommend starting with some evergreen shrubs and also any trees you may want. In my blog next week I’ll look at a selection of ornamental trees for your garden as ideally you should try to pick ones that will give you three seasons of interest.
Look for winter flowering evergreen shrubs or one that have leaves with interesting textures. If you’re wanting fairly quick coverage then check online the growth rates of various evergreens and choose the ones that say moderate to fast growth. Shrubs like Fatsia japonica, one of my personal favourites, is a quick growing shrub with tropical looking leaves and white flowers in September and October.
I usually add in some deciduous shrubs next and one I particularly like is Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’. Although it has leaves in the summer, its particular season of interest is the winter when beautiful pink/white flowers appear on its stems. Other great winter flowering evergreens are Viburnum tinus ‘Eve Price’ with pink winter flowers, Mahonia japonica with bold foliage and scented early spring flowers and Choisya ternata with glossy foliage.
After that, I tend to look at any ornamental grasses I might want to use. Not all my clients like grasses and quite often they are banished from my planting plans, however personally I think they are a fantastic addition to most gardens for a number of reasons. They allow movement in a garden and are perfect to harness the wind we get in Edinburgh and many other areas of Scotland. We can’t change the windy conditions we have so let’s utilise it!
There are ornamental grasses available in many sizes and colours. The great thing about grasses are the sounds they create from rustling to swishing and they give structure for about 11 months of the year. Many grasses only need to be cut back in February with the exception of grasses like Phormiums which have much stiffer leaves. Some of my personal favourites are Stipa tenuissima, a fantastic and versatile grass that can be planted in amongst herbaceous perennials to great effect. When the wind catches them they swirl around and look fantastic. Some of my favourite coloured grasses are Festuca glauca which is blue, Imperata rubra ‘Red Baron’ and Panicum ‘Squaw’ which changes colour from green to pink to wine red from spring through to autumn.
There are lots to choose from often changing colour through the seasons which gives a lot of variety and interest throughout the year. Phormiums also come in a variety of colours and look great as a focal point in the garden with their stiff leaves adding great texture to the border.
Do check the height and spread of all the plants you are thinking of using and make sure that they are planted in a way that one is not obscuring another. People often forget to check the final height and spread of plants which often means that they buy far too many. The plants then just try to out compete each other with the end result being an overcrowded messy border! It is such a waste of money too so it really pays to do your research.
Last but not least are the herbaceous perennials, the fun bit that we all want to start with first but mustn’t! Unless you have a very large garden I’d recommend you go for perennials with long periods of interest. Choosing too many short flowering perennials will result in lots of green leaves and not much colour in large swathes of your garden. Try your best to pick perennials that say they last for 3-4 months, there are many that do.
Some perennials are deciduous and others are evergreen. Some good evergreens to include in your plan are the winter flowering Hellebores. They give year round evergreen structure and the prettiest flowers from February to April when we all need to see some colour in the garden. Other useful evergreens are Liriope muscari which flowers a pretty blue from August to October and Bergenia which flowers In March and April in lovely pinks and whites. Some of the Bergenia have leaves that turn coppery in winter which adds a lovely touch of colour to the borders at that time of year.
When you are choosing your perennials look for deciduous ones that will give lovely seed heads in the winter if left to dry out and not cut down and cleared away. Achillea, Monarda, Sedum and Echinops are to name but a few. You’ll find ideas of what to plant to give this effect in many books and on the internet. Using a carefully chosen selection of evergreen perennials, ornamental grasses, winter flowering shrubs, and perennials that fade to lovely seed heads you will have the palette to create year round colour, structure and interest in your garden.
Last but not least….
Remember that spring bulbs can fill in areas of the garden where you may be short of colour at the start of the year, until things get going in March/April time. I have previously blogged on bulbs so have a look at that and those spring bulbs that need to be planted between October and December will be all you need to finish off your planting design!
One of the questions I get asked a lot when people find out I’m a garden designer is what do I exactly do and how is that different from a landscape contractor or a firm that does design and build? That’s a really good question and I have to say that I would also have had to ask that question years ago. Let’s look at the differences so you can decide the right one for you and save yourself a lot of time.
Garden Designers tend to offer the following services. General advice on a consultancy basis about your garden, survey and full design of your garden, project inspection of the garden build, planting plans and supply of plants along with planting services. They make their money from their time giving advice, designing and inspecting your garden build, doing planting plans and supplying you with plants and planting them for you. They will work with several sets of good contractors who will do the actual garden build for you and will be able to get comparative quotes from them for you to choose from.
Landscape contractors tend to work in a different way. There are some who will simply build you a garden, laying lawns, building pergolas and walls, all the physical stuff! Some of these guys will ask you to get a design done by a designer before they undertake the garden build as they will work accurately to the plan and can give you a quote for the materials prior to the work commencing. They feel more comfortable sticking to what they do best which is building the garden, preferring to leave the design to someone else. They make their money from their labour and also from the mark-up on the materials they use.
Design and Build Companies
Finally, design and build companies of which there are quite a few. The ‘design and build’ companies will do a design for you and then build your garden. The standards of the design will vary as with every profession from very good to rather poor. They do not make their money on the design aspect of the job but on their labour and mark-up on materials the same as landscape contractors. The cost of the time spent doing the design is simply absorbed into the cost of the total project. These firms will often supply the plants and do the planting too.
In my blog next week, I’ll give you advice and tips on how to find the right garden designer, landscape contractor or design and build company for you and help you make the right choice.