Date: 3 June 2002
Originally published in: Prima (UK)
Written by: Kim Wilde
Problem areas in your garden, such as damp patches or awkward shapes, are often overlooked as prime planting ground. In fact, there are a wide number of plants that thrive in challenging places. Here’s my guide to perfect planting for difficult areas.
Planting opportunities under trees often get ignored, as it’s wrongly assumed that nothing will grow in such dry, shady conditions – but geraniums can flourish here. Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Ingwersen’s Variety’ effectively smothers weeds, and produces clear pink flowers from late spring to early summer. The broad, lobed leaves are strongly aromatic, and you can soon establish a large area of them.
Geranium phaeum is also tolerant of dry shade, and gives dark purple flowers from late spring into autumn, and broad, evergreen leaves. G phaeum album has pure white flowers with golden anthers.
One of my favourite plants for underplanting trees is Euphorbia robbiae, which gives lime-green flowers from spring to early summer. It can become invasive, so plant it where you can’t get anything else going.
Ferns make a beautiful contrast to other foliage and seem particularly appropriate in shade. Most require free-draining soil with lots of organic matter, although some tolerate dry shade. Dryopteris filix-mas is not truly evergreen, but lasts into winter, reaching 120 cm. Asplenium scolopendrium (Hart’s tongue fern) is evergreen, its strap-like fronds reach up to 55cm.
Other plants suitable for dry shade include pulmonaria, polygonatum (Solomon’s seal), Iris foetidissima and vinca.
Most ferns prefer cool, damp and sheltered conditions, and are a superb choice for damp shade. Some ferns are lacy and intricate, such as Matteuccia struthiopteris, which has rich green fronds reaching 1.5m high. Small plants for damp shade include Tellima grandiflora, a hardy herbaceous perrennial with light green hairy leaves and upright stems, dotted with bell-shaped flowers. This compact, clump-forming plant can be massed to create good ground cover. Tiarella cordifolia produces a similar effect, with spires of white frothy flowers 23cm high.
Larger plants could include Rheum palmatum, with a huge mound of apple green leaves, which can reach 1m across in rich, damp soil. Tall sprays of tiny flowers appear in early and mid summer, up to 2.5m high. Gunnera manicata can become a giant, with leaves that can be over 1.8m wide and high. Choose where you place this plant carefully, as its coarse, hairy leaves are likely to take over in grand style!
Plants for awkward places
Slopes: Cotoneaster dammeri is ideal. This prostate, ground-hugging shrub (only 7cm tall) will take root wherever the stems touch the soil, and is evergreen. The deciduous C horizontalis is valuable for clothing unsightly banks, as well as north-facing walls. Its glossy green leaves turn red in autumn, when thick clusters of berries appear.
Few plants are as accommodating in so many unpromising places as Hypericum calycinum (Rose of Sharon), which will form dense ground cover, especially if the plant is cut back hard every few years. Hypericums are fast growing, and will display bright yellow flowers from early summer to early autumn.
For a glossy evergreen-leaved plant, with a tolerance for difficult conditions, x Fatshedera lizei is an exotic-looking, sprawling shrub, which can be grown as a climber if given some sort of support. This plant is a hybrid, resulting from the union of Fatsia japonica ‘Moseri’ and Hedera helix subsp. hibernica.
Planting in clay soils
Heavy clay soils are sticky when wet and often impenetrable when dry. Yet clay soils are rich soils, and if you’re prepared to dig in plenty of organic matter, such as manure, leaf mould and grit to open it out, then plants will flourish.
There are wide ranges of plants that are prepared to tolerate a soil that is heavy and drains slowly. The elegant summer-flowering bubl carnassia seems to prefr quite heavy soils, and flowers in blue, violet and white. C leichtlinii sends up 1m spikes from late spring, and will naturalise well in grass if left undisturbed. The brilliantly coloured, exotic flowers of hemerocallis produce a profusion of new blooms, day after day, during the summer, and will tolerate windy sites, making it suitable for growing in coastal gardens. This herbaceous, semi-evergreen – or evergreen – clump-forming plant is easy to grow, and comes in every shade from white to deepest red-black.
Other plants that will tolerate a clay soil include chaenomeles, mahonia and narcissus, as well as the brilliantly coloured flowers of Crocosmia latifolia ‘Lucifer’.
Plants for hot spots
The native plants of the Mediterranean are equipped by nature to cope without water for long periods. Herbs such as fennel, rosemary, sage and thyme all thrive, so long as the soil is free draining. Euphorbia is an extremely diverse group of plants, from the ground-hugging E myrsinites, with its yellowy green bracts, to E characias subsp. wulfenii, which makes a handsome clump of blue green foliage, 2m high, with stiff sterns carrying great heads of lime green flowers in spring.
The evergreen foliage of cistus bears flowers of cerise to white from early to mid summer.
These are excellent plants for a sunny position in light, poor soil. Cistus ladanifer has beautiful, large white flowers with bright yellow stamens, surrounded by blotches of plum red, which look like dabs from a watercolour brush.
Linaria purpurea is a semi-evergeen perennia, with purple flowers on slender spikes up to 1m high, flowering over a long period, from summer to early autumn. L pururea ‘Conan J Went’ has pink flowers, and L pururea ‘Springside White’ has white. They look really beautiful planted together, for a soft, cottage garden feel. The thistle-like flower heads of eryngium contrast with other softer foliage plants, such as santolina, which flowers from mid summer and attracts bees and butterflies. The sprawling stems and blue cone flowersd of Eryngium maritimum, and the giant E pandanifolium, also provide dramatic contrast to such areas. All erynguims do well on a sunny, well-drained site.
Kim’s choice for other tricky spots
Plants for walls…
North and east-facing: North-facing walls tend to be dry and shady. East-facing walls are sunnier, so plants can be easily damaged if the sun heats them after frost.
For north-facing, try Camellia x williamsii ‘Golden spangles’, for spring pink flowers.
Plant Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ if you’re after winter fragrance.
For east-facing, Jasminum humile is a bushy grower. It flowers well on a sunny spot.
Rosa ‘Danse du Feu’ is a pretty shrub that tolerates shade, but prospers in sunlight.
South and west-facing
Many fragrant plants, be they wall shrubs or climbers, adore a warm sunny site and thrive.
Magnolia grandiflora ‘Goliath’ is a scented evergreen tree, ideal for a south- or west-facing spot.
Buddleia crispa is a vigorous variety that attracts butterflies and bees. It thrives on south- or west-facing aspects.
Cut and dried
If the idea of growing flowers that last and last appeals, try growing these gorgeous ‘everlasting’ varieties, which will give you years of pleasure when dried.
Limonium sinuatum ‘Fortress Series’: Very pretty, frost-hardy annual, with attractive wavy leaves. It bears clusters of bright flowers (pink, white or blue) in summer and early autumn.
Astrantia major ‘Hadspen Blood’: The blood-red flower heads of this variety look superb when dried. For dramatic effect, try displaying in a glass-fronted frame. Flowers bloom from May to July. Prefers soil which doesn’t get very dry.
Helichrysum milfordiae: Bears daisy-like white flower heads, set off by white bracts with a deep red black. Flowers in spring.
Achillea ‘Fanal’: This lovely plant puts on a flush of red flower heads, with yellow florets in the centre, which fade with age. It makes a great winter dried display.
Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’: The fountain grass looks wonderful when dried. Its feathery, green-white flower heads turn grey when mature, and the dark leaves turn yellow in autumn.
Q: A leylandii hedge has been planted next door, and the prospect of it growing out of control is worrying me. Do you have any advice on how to get rid of it?
A: This hedge can block out light and the roots can damage drains. However, some people see hedges as valuable screens and a haven for wildlife – they don’t necessarily have to be cut down. Perhaps you could come to a compromise about the height – for example, 3m at the back and 2m at the front. If it’s a problem, contact your local authority, or Hedgeline (02476 3888822), a support group.
What’s in bloom
- Clarkia amoena: Try this beauty if you have poor soil. Its fluted, satin-like flowers in pink or lilac are really pretty.
- Nicotiana sylvestris: This tall, elegant variety produces a heady, pungent smell of tobacco from its white, trumpet-shaped flowers. Great for a mixed border.
- Hebe ‘Great Orme’: The dense, pink and spiky flowers are the star attraction of this shrub – they fade to white over time.
Things to do in July
- Trim privet hedges;
- Mow and trim the edges of lawns weekly;
- Remove weeds as soon as they appear;
- Prune off faded flowers on perennials, such as delphiniums and lupins;
- Start to pick off diseased apples from trees;
- Sow winter spinach from seed;
- Sow biennials, such as foxgloves and forget-me-nots.