The Right Plants for the Right Place
The art of good gardening lies in knowing what to plant where. It’s quite easy to find out what individual plants need — for example sun or shade, damp or well drained— if you buy plants from a garden centre, as you’ll find information on the back of the label. It’s harder to see the growing conditions in different parts of your garden from a plant’s point of view, so you may need to do a bit of detective work. The effort will be worth it in the long run as the plants will look after themselves, you won’t be playing ‘Musical Shrubs’ every year like some people I know, and you’ll save a lot of money, too.
People may say you need green fingers to be a gardener, but there’s no great mystery to matching the plant to the right place. It makes sense to start with easy plants and leave the trickier ones for another year, until you’ve had some practice and success, otherwise you might be put off.
The first thing to do is to assess your growing conditions, which may vary between one part of the garden and another. You need to establish your soil type and pH of the soil.
Next, the general conditions need consideration. Is the garden . . .
- Shady and damp?
- Open and dry?
- Sheltered and sunny?
- Hot and dry?
- Do you live in a mild or cold region?
- Do you live on a slope, with a frost hollow at the bottom, where frost stays on the ground most of the day in winter?
- From which direction does the garden receive most of its light?
- If on a slope, which direction does the slope face?
- How many hours of sunlight does the garden, or any part of it, receive? One to two hours? Half the day? The whole day?
- How healthy are the weeds that are growing? Weeds are a good way of telling how fertile the soil is. If you have tall strong nettles, there’s probably plenty of nitrogen. If weeds are weak and stunted, the soil is poor, and if they are big, leafy and fast growing, the soil is probably quite fertile.
Look at the colour of the soil, compared with surrounding fields etc. If the soil is darker, this shows that it has been well cultivated over the years and contains plenty of organic matter.
MAPPING THE AREA
In a large garden, you can have all of these conditions to deal with. It might help to draw a plan, mark in north and south and use colours to shade areas that are fully shaded, e.g. near buildings, dappled in shade, receiving sun for half a day, or all day. Then you can see at a glance the conditions you are dealing with, and you can take the plan with you when buying the plants and deciding what to grow.
EASY DOES IT
Most popular garden plants are very easy going and will grow in a wide range of sites and conditions, so you don’t have to worry about it in most cases, when using widely available plants. It’s only when the plants are more expensive or harder to come by that you need to be extra careful. The vast majority of perennialwill be happy in a situation where they get direct sunlight for at least half the day. Plants that enjoy similar conditions naturally look right together, which makes it much easier to plan a good-looking garden. Slightly more difficult to organise is the succession of plants which will keep your garden looking good all year round, rather than for three-or four-week bursts in spring and summer. Read on for further advice.
PLANTS WHICH ENJOY CHALKY SOIL
SHRUBS: buddleia, flowering cherry, crab apple, forsythia, hardy, phlomis, potentilla
PERENNIALS: gypsophila, pinks, scabious
SHRUBS: berberis, cornus, corylus, miscanthus,, salix, hydrangea
PERENNIALS: bluebells, celandines,, iris
LIME-FREE (ACID) SOIL
SHRUBS: camellia, rhododendron, pieris, heathers, magnolia, azalea
PLANTS FOR AN EXPOSED, WINDY GARDEN, birch, chaenomeles, cotoneaster, hawthorn, heather, mountain ash (rowan)
PLANTS FOR A WALL FACING THE SUN
CLIMBERS: campsis, passionflower, grapevine,
FRUIT, apricots, figs, nectarines, peaches (slightly tender, needing protection from frost) WALL SHRUBS: ceanothus, pineapple broom, fremontodendron
PLANTS FOR A WALL FACING AWAY FROM THE SUN
CLIMBERS: ivy, clematis ‘Nelly Moser’, climbing rose ‘Danse du Feu’
WALL SHRUBS: camellia,, , climbing hydrangea, winter jasmine.
DAMP, SHADY GARDEN FOUACE PLANTS: hosta, gunnera, hardy ferns
GARDEN WITH SUN LATER IN THE DAY CUMBERS: clematis
CONTAINERS: begonias,, petunias
SHRUBS: camellia, quince
GARDEN WITH SUN IN THE MORNING CUMBERS: late-flowering clematis, honeysuckle, jasmine
GARDEN WITH SUN ALL DAY CUMBERS: grapevine, climbing roses
HERBS: bay, lavender, rosemary, sage, thyme
PERENNIALS: acanthus, achillea, alstroemeria, artemesia, eryngium
ROCK PLANTS: sedum, sempervivium
SHRUBS: buddleia, broom,, hebe, myrtle.
IMPROVING YOUR EXISTING PLANTS AND MAKING THE MOST OF WHAT YOU’VE ALREADY GOT
Don’t assume that plants will automatically grow into an attractive shape all on their own. Left to grow naturally, some kinds often get themselves into quite a mess. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to improve on nature.
PRUNING A LOPSIDED SHRUB
Remove branches that spoil the shape, cutting them off close to the base of the plant or where they join the main stem. When new shoots start to grow, leave those that balance up the shape and are growing in the right direction and cut off any that lean the wrong way. Don’t startshrubs when there is likely to be a frost due, or the plants may not recover.
RENOVATING AN OLD SHRUB
When old shrubs become unproductive and tatty or woody, with little new growth, cut out two or three of the oldest branches as close to the ground or base of the plant as you can. Do this in spring and repeat each year with different branches until all the old ones have been replaced by vigorous new ones. Don’t cut back the whole shrub in one go as it may take the plant years to flower again and you’ll probably get fed up with waiting.
This is done to make young plants and newly potted cuttings get bushier. Nip out the growing tip of a shoot, using finger and thumbnail. This will make the plant produce several sideshoots at the end of the stem. If you want a big, bushy plant, wait until the sideshoots are 5 cm (2 in) long, then nip out their tips so that these, in turn, grow sideshoots. It took me years to have the courage to do this to plants, because it delays the flowering by several weeks each time to do it and it seemed a shame to nip off the growing tips, wasting even small parts of healthy plants. You can always try planting the nipped off shoots as cuttings. This is best done early in the season (see later tips).
CLIPPING AND TRIMMING
To maintain the shape of topiary, cloud-trimmed conifers, climbers trained over arches and pergolas you need to trim regularly. Small shears or kitchen scissors are the best tools for small plants. Slow growing plants such as box need trimming twice a year, but faster growing varieties, such as Lonicera nitida, may need tidying up every six weeks or so throughout the summer.
RIGHT PLACE, WRONG PLANT
It’s tempting to keep cutting back a fast growing shrub that blocks a path or overhangs a step, but all this does is encourage more growth, often without flowers. In this case, it’s better to remove the plant entirely and replace with something smaller that won’t become a nuisance. You could try replanting the offending shrub, if you can remove it with the roots fairly intact.
You can control the finished shape of plants by pinching out tips of shoots to make them bushier, or by removing sideshoots altogether while they are small. This is very useful for plants whose natural tendency is to grow a few long stems, such as fuchsia, when you want one to turn them into a standard. These look like lollipops.
BUYING NEW PLANTS
Before buying, give any plant a quick once-over. You will soon see that some plants in a section are better than others. In a garden centre, for instance, take a plant away from its group and stand it on the path so that you can look at the whole plant. If it is already showing signs of stress or weakness one side, try another of the batch. Check the label to see how big the plant will grow, and the soil conditions and situation preferred.
It’s quite a good idea to buy woody plants, such as trees, shrubs or climbers, when they are in flower. As well as being able to check they are really what they say they are on the label, you can make sure you have bought a free-flowering strain. Some are not as good as others. As long as they are growing in pots, you don’t disturb the roots when you plant them out and you remember to keep them well watered afterwards, they’ll be fine.
CHECK OUT THE FOLLOWING
- THE NAME
If the plant is in flower, does it look like the picture on the label? If not in flower and it looks different from the rest of the batch, it may have been wrongly labelled. Check also that it doesn’t belong in another section, and has been put back in the wrong place by another customer.
- BEST VARIETIES
If not familiar with particular plants, always choose varieties that have been given awards. Look for symbols on the label, and if in doubt, ask a salesperson.
- HEALTH AND CONDITION
Orange spots, black or brown leaves may indicate disease. Broken stems and leaves may indicate rough or careless handling, which in turn may mean that plants haven’t been well cared for. Weeds, moss or liverwort growing in the pot is a sign that the plants have been in stock a long time and may need feeding. Poor quality plants can be improved in time, but why spend good money on inferior goods, which will need more care? Choose healthy, vigorous ones that will look good from the minute you plant them.
A badly shaped plant can be improved but takes time and patient pruning. If there is no alternative but to buy a lopsided plant, or it’s such a bargain and you want a challenge, be prepared to miss a season’s flowering. I’m a sucker for bargains and plants that need a bit of TLC, but, believe me, it will be time-consuming and not always result in a rewarding shrub.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN TREES
Look for a single trunk with no branches for about 60 cm (24 in) from the ground for a bush tree, 90 cm (36 in) for a half-standard and 120 cm (48 in) for a full standard.
A young tree may have ‘feathers’ growing out from the trunk. Cut these off, leaving a straight stem up to the crown, where the branches spread out. Look for five or more strong stems branching out evenly all round. A tree with only a few branches on one side will always look lopsided.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN SHRUBS
Choose shrubs with five or more shoots growing out evenly from the base. Poorly shaped shrubs are much easier to correct than trees, but you will still lose a season’s growth. Avoid shrubs where there seem to be two different types of shoots growing from the same plant, as these will be grafted plants where some suckers are growing from the rootstock. Unless regularly removed, suckers will take over from the plant you really wanted. Roses are a good example of this. Check also that the variety you have chosen is the right size for the space you have. I can think of several examples of friends and family who have unwittingly bought original varieties of plants instead of dwarf varieties.
It doesn’t take long to plant things properly and it’s worth doing as it plays such an important part in getting new plants off to a good start. Hurried planting or inadequate soil preparation can mean that plants don’t grow well and stay small for years in a sort of suspended animation. It’s not unknown for people to leave the pots on the plants when they put them in the ground!