Tulips

These award-winning varieties will bring springtime zing to your garden.

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Tulips are one of the iconic blooms of the spring garden. It’s now the right time to plant them, but as there are 15 different categories of tulips, spanning thousands of varieties it’s very easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer range of types, shapes and colours available. Thankfully the RHS has given its coveted Award of Garden Merit (AGM) to a number of them so you can be assured they will not only look good, but will perform to their best. They’re ideal for use in bedding schemes, in vacant ground between shrubs and roses and among emerging perennials. Select types that are tall enough for the purpose, rather than being hidden or swamped by other plants. All taller varieties make excellent cut flowers.

Tulips need an open position, sheltered from strong wind, which will damage the display. Almost all tulips prefer fertile, and moist, but well-drained soil in full sun. They prefer neutral to slightly chalky soil, rather than acid, but overall won’t tolerate wet conditions. They are also excellent in pots, but add grit or Perlite to the potting compost for drainage.

Tulips are easy to grow and look for top size bulbs for added vigour and reliability, avoiding any with traces of blue mould on them. Remove the papery skin before planting if this is present. Simply dig a hole 2-3 times the height of the bulb and the same distance apart. Position all the bulbs first to gauge the overall effect before planting.

Most bedding tulips are best re-planted in autumn after being lifted and dried over summer, but some such as those derived from T. kaufmanniana, T. fosteriana and T. griegii are more reliable and will flower again in successive years without lifting. To lift remove the spent flower heads and allow the foliage to die back, usually around two months after flowering. Lift the bulbs, keep the best, remove soil, clean and place on a tray to dry or store in hessian bags in a well-ventilated place, at a temperature of around 18C (64F). Replant the bulbs again in mid to late autumn, replenishing with additional new bulbs as required.

Sorbus

Look out for the smaller varieties of this valuable autumn tree.

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Berries are such a visual treat in autumn, with many ornamental trees and shrubs laden with colourful fruit. While gardeners are spoilt for choice, if you’re looking for a specimen tree to make a statement then the smaller, more compact rowan or sorbus species and varieties are really worth considering. Their long-lasting displays of berries, which hang on the tree for weeks, if not months, are unsurpassed, nestled among a backdrop of scarlet, orange and yellow-tinted foliage.

Berries vary in tone from red, yellow, orange, apricot to pink and white, many of the latter often possessing a deeper pink eye. Their elegant foliage is composed of rounded leaflets spaced like the rungs of a ladder, while the flattened heads of white flowers in spring is attractive to both gardeners and insects alike. Once fully grown, they also cast a light shadow meaning that you can plant beneath with smaller shrubs, perennials and bulbs.  

Rowans come from the cooler, more mountainous parts of the northern hemisphere, from the USA and Europe, via the Himalaya and into China and Japan. They are tolerant of most soils, doing best on moist, well-drained loams. They are also very hardy, preferring full sun and thriving in more exposed, windy conditions than many other tree species, but won’t thrive in constantly wet soils.

While most are readily available grown in containers which can be planted at any time, you can also purchase them bare root, planting these from November to early March.

Rowans are susceptible to the disease fire-blight, which causes new growth to look scorched and die back. It attacks many trees and shrubs in the rose family, such as pyracantha. Unfortunately, there is no cure, so if you already have other woody plants already infected by fireblight, it’s best to err on the side of caution and choose something else instead.

Allium

Now is the best time to plant these stars of spring and early summer.

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Alliums, or ornamental onions have come a long way since the deservedly popular variety ‘Purple Sensation’ became the darling of garden designers and gardeners.

Recent breeding has brought a swathe of new varieties large and small, which now take their place alongside firm favourites which have stood the test of time. The result is a rich and astonishing diversity of bloom that brings a little floral pizzazz to early summer borders and beyond. Most also perform equally well in potted displays, ideal if you don’t have space for the larger types.

Ornamental onions will grow in most well-drained soils as long as they are not constantly wet or droughted when in active growth in spring. Planting them now enables them to produce roots and become established before flowering. They prefer full sun, successively dwindling away in gloomier conditions, or if swamped by expanding perennials. Plant bulbs as deep as they are high, especially important with the larger flowered types to ensure they are well anchored. Choose an open patch among perennials to enable the leaves to emerge and expand.

Species vary with respect to how long the foliage persists, some withering away before the flowers mature, others such as A. karataviense lasting much longer, adding the display. Alternatively, smaller varieties can be started in pots, planted out in late winter. You will need to control slugs and snails as they soon tatter the leaves, and also annoyingly strip flower stems so the blooms fail or collapse.

The bulbs of many larger varieties also split after flowering, so the display in the second year is often smaller until they build up strength again, or you continue to replant fresh stock.

Narcissus for pots

Durable varieties that will make even your smallest spaces shine

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We all like our spirits lifted when feeling low, and a few pots of dainty daffodils in full blossom are guaranteed to do just that. Planted now until well into October they perform with a minimum of fuss or effort. Positioned besides a doorway or on a patio or windowsill they are unsurpassed, bringing a smile at the dawn of another gardening year.

Not all narcissus are ideal for growing in pots, many are either too tall and leafy or the large blooms out of scale. For smaller pots about 6-12in in diameter choose those which are shorter and more compact, with flowers in proportion to their size.

Plant in pots of John Innes No 2 or blends of peat-free and loam-based composts, with additional grit or perlite added for drainage. There is also new bulb compost from Dalefoot made from composted sheep’s wool, which contains enough nutrients to keep bulbs happy for a couple of years.  

Plant the bulbs upright about 10cm (4in) deep, and about the same distance apart and water in. Place in a cool position, keeping compost moist, but not waterlogged. Cover the pots with mesh to prevent mice ravaging bulbs. Once shoot tips have appeared move pots into a brighter position. This may be more difficult in window boxes, so just plant the bulbs where they are to flower.

In mixed winter plantings grow the bulbs in a 10cm (4in) pot, and leave a space by submerging a pot of the same size in the display pot, substituting the blossoming pot when growth is well advanced.

By growing a succession of varieties flowering at different times you can keep replacing pots when the latest variety fades. Keep bulbs growing providing a monthly feed until the foliage fades in June, when they can either be retained in the pots for the next season, with compost refreshed or planted out in the garden.

Saxifraga fortunei

These shade-lovers form a jewel box of sparkly late flowers and foliage.

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While asters and other blowsy blossoms, such as dahlias and chrysanthemums dominate the early days of autumn other, less well-known perennials can also help enliven the garden by flowering in September, October and sometimes beyond.

Saxifraga fortunei is an herbaceous perennial from Asia up to 40cm (15in) high producing clusters of rosettes clothed in rounded fleshy leaves, variously lobed and scalloped and often attractively patterned, textured and variously tinted.

If that wasn’t enough, airy flower heads, with narrow-petalled flowers of cruciform shape in white and shades of red and pink produce a miniature cloud or froth of long-lasting bloom.

They’re valuable plants too, as they prefer growing in sheltered, shady areas, in damp, but not waterlogged soil, with some of the more vigorous varieties tolerating drier conditions once established, making them ideal for north or east facing locations and beneath the canopies of trees, but they won’t thrive in poor, root-infested conditions.

They prefer soils containing plenty of organic matter, which also helps hold moisture if your soil is free draining. Avoid frost pockets, where early frosts can damage the flower display. They also do well in pots of multi-purpose compost, where less vigorous varieties can be allowed to develop. Do take precautions against vine weevil grubs which will undermine the plants, like they do with heuchera.

You won’t find them in every garden centre, but once you start growing them you’ll soon be searching out others to start your own distinctive collection.

Colchicum

These flamboyant bulbs herald the approach of autumn.

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Colchicums are the harbingers of change in the gardening calendar, erupting into life from late summer with clusters of vibrant pink or white blooms. The fact they flower from bare earth at this time without a leaf in sight has given rise to their common name of autumn crocus or naked ladies. But they are not related to crocus at all, in fact in different families. Our native autumn crocus C. autumnale, the only species native to Britain, has long been cultivated in British gardens. The other 150 species come from the Mediterranean, Asia, India and even South Africa, from which around 30 are more easily grown, with about 10 reliable varieties proving really popular.

Colchicims produce corms, rather than bulbs, much larger than those of crocus. They can be planted right up to the point buds appear as they will flower irrespective of whether they are in the ground or not, as many will have experienced after placing a corm on a windowsill as a child. All parts of the plant are poisonous, so handle them with care and wash your hands after handling the corms.

After their spectacular flowers have faded colchicums produce a rosette of surprisingly large glossy spear-shaped leaves in spring, lasting until early summer before dying down for the summer, before flowering again in early autumn. So take care where you place them as while they might look great in autumn, they might create a problem after leaves appear. Colchicum will grow in most moist, well-drained soil, but especially those which are chalky. They thrive in sun or dappled shade and are ideal for naturalising in short rough grassland around trees and shrubs. They also create seasonal impact in pots of loam-based compost. Plant the dry corms in summer when available, with the nose planted around 7.5cm (3in) deep and 15cm (6in) apart. If planted in grassland avoid mowing the area until June, when the foliage starts to fade. Slugs and snail can damage the blooms, so take precautions.

Hypericum

Useful shrubs with bright berries and foliage as well as flowers.

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Once the darling of 1970s low-maintenance gardens the appeal of shrubby hypericum or St John’s Wort has perhaps been unjustly eclipsed in an era where perennial is king. But things are starting to change and it’s all due to developments in one species, H. inodorum, a three-foot high and wide bushy, deciduous shrubby perennial. The plant is a naturally occurring semi-evergreen hybrid between H. androsaemum and H. hircinum inhabiting open areas from Spain, Southern France through to Italy. While the small yellow starry flowers are produced into late summer, it’s the clusters of long-lasting oval fruits that have been boosted to prolong the season of interest as a cut flower crop. From previously being just red, they now come in a range of tones from white, cream, yellow, green, salmon, pink and red shades. The plants have also been selected to be resistant to the rust disease that blights many other hypericum species and varieties, another reason why hypericum has fallen out of favour.

There are a number of different types on sale, namely the Magical, Miracle and Mystical series, but with more slated to appear in the next year or so. All are easy to grow, and will do well in most moist, well-drained soils in sun or semi-shade. They don’t need staking but to keep them compact simply cut them down in late winter when new shoots start to appearing from the base. They associate will with other shrubs and low perennials in mixed borders, patio pots as well as being grown specifically for cut flowers.

Late plums

Delicious varieties to keep you in succulent fruit into autumn.

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Nothing beats picking a juicy, ripe, sun-warmed plum straight from the tree. The rich flavour and melt-in-the-mouth flesh is an experience to be treasured. The range of plum varieties sold in supermarkets is limited as they’re easily damaged, with a very short shelf life. So to get the total plum experience you need to grow your own. While the main plum season runs from late July and peaks in August, the varieties profiled below are mostly self-fertile, so don’t need a pollinating partner, and fruit into September and October. Prune, damson and greengage varieties are god pollinating partners. In plums there are dessert varieties suitable for eating fresh, and culinary varieties for cooking, while most of those identified below can be used for both purposes.

It’s important to select the right kind of rootstock for your plum variety and to suit your location and purpose, as they will determine how much growth they make each year, how large the trees ultimately grow and, to a degree, influence fruit production and quality. If you want a dwarf tree around 2.5m-3m (8-10ft) tall, ideal for a bush or fan, select a Pixy root stock, but thin out fruit to avoid trees over producing smaller fruit. Krymsk1/VVA-1 rootstock has the same characteristics as Pixie. Being slower growing trees on these stocks will need staking for support until they establish. The most popular and widely-used stock is St Julian A which is ideal for most purposes, either free-standing trees to 3-3.5m (10-12ft) or fans. Brompton stock is the most vigorous, producing trees over 4.5m (15ft). Trees on rootstocks will take 3-5 years for the trees to start fruiting. Roots stocks will sucker and you will need to pull out sucker shoots at the base as they appear.

Plums generally need an open, sunny site, or if being trained as a fan or pyramid on a south or west-facing wall. Avoid exposed sites and frost pockets. A moist, well-drained neutral or slightly acidic fertile soil is ideal. Trees can be planted container grown or bare root from November.

Prune from late spring and summer, (April to August) rather than winter, when dormant to avoid infection.

Salvias

These stalwart perennials will provide flowers to summer's end.

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Salvias are a diverse group of herbaceous and shrubby perennials, with various species and varieties flowering from summer through to the first frost. Those species flowering later in the season are perhaps the most diverse group of all, with everything from foot high shrublets to towering eight-foot giant perennials. Many come from the warmer drier climes of southern USA, Mexico and South America, rendering them a little vulnerable in the winter-hardiness stakes, but they are so endearing and of such value in terms of delivering late colour they are always worth the risk.

The shrubbier kinds are largely derived from S. greggii, S. microphylla and the hybrid between them S. jamensis. They are of rounded habit, producing thin shoots, with neat aromatic leaves and a succession of small large-lipped flowers in shades of blue, red, white, pink and purple. Many of the taller forms are derived from the anise-scented or hummingbird sage S. guaranitica from South America. It’s a leafy, upright, highly aromatic perennial producing 1.5m (5ft) stems topped with slender spikes of blue or purple flowers with black calyces. Being weak jointed it may need additional support, but once happy will produce stout clumps. Warmer winters is encouraging more of the later and more tender types to be tried in cultivation. One of the prime movers is William Dyson who also runs Great Comp Garden, near Sevenoaks, Kent. His website profiles and illustrates a wide range of varieties and is well worth looking at, and although there is no mail order, the nursery and garden also demands a visit (www.dysonsalvias.com).

While the larger forms are best grown in a warm, sheltered border, those achieving around 3ft or less are ideal for pots. Use John Innes No 2, with additional grit or Perlite added for drainage, particularly if you plan to keep the plants for more than a season. Plants grown commercially tend to be grown in peat or peat-free composts, encouraging fast growth, but risking becoming soggy in winter.

Salvias prefer full sun, and moist, but well-drained soil, particularly if they are to survive the winter. Well-drained sandy or chalky soil is ideal, while heavier, clay soil needs grit to improve drainage. Avoid rich soil or overdosing with fertiliser as this may cause lush, brittle growth prone to winter rot. It’s best to treat them on the mean side!

Salvias are best propagated from cuttings. The taller types take softwood or basal cuttings of new growth in spring, while the shrubbier kinds take soft wood or semi-ripe cuttings in summer or autumn.

 

Hylotelephium

These hardy succulents look as good in bud as they do in brilliant bloom.

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Most people know them as sedum, while botanical name-changers decreed the upright larger leaved varieties should be hylotelephium, but whatever you prefer to call them these deciduous hardy perennials are some of the most durable and impressive late summer performers. They will endure hot, dry conditions and poor soils, producing steadily expanding mounds of shapely rounded slightly toothed succulent foliage that has architectural appeal. By mid-summer clusters of buds appear which slowly expand further adding to the drama until finally opening into flat heads of small, starry flowers in shades of red, pink to rustic tones, and of course white, which provides a welcome cool tone among late summer colour. Now laden with nectar the flowerheads are magnets for bees and butterflies who frantically drink in all that’s placed on offer. Spent heads offer further use as decorative features in the autumn and winter garden.

There are two main species which have created the main roster of varieties, namely H. spectabile from China and Korea and the more widespread orpine, H. telephium from Asia, which has a number of distinct wild forms. These species were crossed to produce the well-known hybrid ‘Autumn Joy’ or ‘Herbstfreude’, but others in the 30 or so species that make up the group were involved in creating the spate of hybrids.

Hylotelephium prefer moist, well-drained soil, that’s not too rich in full sun, but once established will endure dry conditions. Over-rich conditions will cause taller varieties to flop when in blossom. Their distinctive appearance makes the ideal for use in borders and gravel gardens in both traditional and modern styles, blending well with silvery foliage and other coloured low-growing and groundcover plants. They also look good in pots, especially those with strongly coloured or variegated foliage and it doesn’t matter if you pots inadvertently dry out on occasion either.

Agapanthus

The Nile lily is a real joy that looks super-stylish in the summer garden.

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Agapanthus are currently riding a tidal wave of horticultural popularity and rightly so as they are one of the star performers of summer borders and containers. Agapanthus hail from South Africa, and grown in UK gardens since A. praecox was introduced in 1687. The last 20 years there has seen an incredible array of new varieties, particularly from British breeder Dick Fulcher, among others.

Agapanthus are fleshy-rooted clump-forming perennials. From a gardener’s perspective agapanthus are divided into two groups, deciduous types, which lose their leaves in winter and which are the hardiest and the semi-evergreen to evergreen types, which retain leaves, and are more tender, and best given a protective mulch in winter, especially in cold gardens. Habits vary immensely from short miniatures with fine leaves, just 12-18in high, to 7ft giants, with strap-like foliage. The main flowering period is July and August, but later, often larger varieties can flower into September and October. Flowers, which appear in loose umbels, vary in colour from near black, a current focus of breeding, through purple, grey-blue, Royal blue to white. Some are bicoloured or have a median blue line down each petal. Some recent introductions also sport pink tinges to petals, and we can expect to see more of this trait. Flowers are usually flared trumpets or pendant tubes as in the distinctive A. inapertus pendulus.

Agapanthus make great container plants, but to flower reliably they need growing in isolation, rather than in mixed plantings. They also need to settle and form sizeable clumps, eventually allowed to become pot-bound. Newly potted plants usually produce foliage at the expense of flowers. The same goes for plants in borders. They need space, light and air to develop, rather than being over-topped or shaded by other perennials, when they will remain leafy, with few blooms. They will grow in most moist, well-drained soils, requiring sun or light shade, again flowering reduced the shadier it is. They like a dressing of compost working into the soil and a spring dressing of a balanced high-potash fertiliser.

Agapanthus can be grown from seed, but varieties won’t be true to type. Division of the clump is the best method, lifting in spring or early summer or early autumn after flowering, separating the clump into rooted sections with 2-3 growth points.

Alstroemeria

Peruvian lilies will keep you supplied with exotic blooms throughout summer.

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Alstroemeria brings a touch of the exotic to the summer garden. In years gone by the choice of suitable varieties was very limited to the invasive, but boldly coloured  Alstroemeria aurea, to the subtle pastel jazziness of the Ligtu hybrids, which often were annoyingly cut back by late frosts, or the green and red flowered species A. psittacina, aptly known as the parrot lily, which is still worth growing, as it is quite distinct from other types.

Alstroemeria are herbaceous perennials from South America producing fleshy, fragile roots and slender fleshy white tubers, which enables them to endure periodic drought once established. The past couple of decades has seen an astonishing spate of new introductions in almost every colour and colour combination conceivable, except pure blue. The throat is often streaked or striped with lines or dots. Flowering often starts in June and, with modern forms maintained to first frost. Many varieties are a bi-product of the cut-flower industry, particularly the taller types, which others were specifically bred for more general garden use and for growing in containers. The Princess series from the Netherlands, Planet series from France and the Parigo range from the UK have all added to the rich variety of more compact forms now available.

Alstroemeria are best established from pot-grown plants, than dry tubers, which take much longer to establish and can fail. They prefer moist, well-drained soil in sun or light shade. Plant them 10-15cm (4-6in) deep, and mulch them over winter to protect them from frost. In mild winters they should be fine, but it’s always best to err on the side of caution. When in growth apply a general fertiliser and/or liquid feed with a high potash fertiliser when flower buds are showing. Grow more compact varieties in pots of john Innes No3 or multi-purpose with added John Innes, with grit or perlite added for drainage.

 

Clematis viticella

Colorful climbers that will lend height and vibrance to any plot.

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Although not as large-flowered or individually flamboyant as earlier flowering clematis the smaller-blooming Viticella varieties are the real champions of summer climbers, reliably flowering from July into September and often beyond. The original species comes from Southern Europe and Western Asia. With demure nodding purple and white-centred flowers it was the first clematis introduced into British gardens in the 16th century. A swathe of hybridisation with other varieties has resulted in a wide range of flower forms from the typical wild bell-shapes, through hanging parasols, doubles or semi-doubles to open single flowers composed of four petals, or ‘tepals’. Colours vary from purples, blues, mauves, reds, pinks and whites, often bicoloured, or with a white centre or contrasting colour picotee.

While the individual blossoms may not have impact from a distance when massed together they create quite a show or backdrop, ideal or growing on fences, walls or draping over larger shrubs. Smaller-growing varieties can be grown in pots and containers, ideal for placing beside doors or siting on paving. They are adaptable, growing in sun or semi-shade in a wide range of soils, preferring moist, well-drained ones to dry. Like Clematis alpina they will also tolerate north-facing sites and being wind-tolerant are good for coastal sites. They are also

C. viticella varieties flower on growth made in the same season, so can be cut back to just above ground level in autumn or late winter as new growth starts to appear. This means that varieties can be easily partnered to bloom together, then mutually cropped to start the cycle again. 

Achillea

These perennial bring a palette of pastel tones to the summer garden.

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Yarrow, or achillea is one of the most colourful perennials we can grow in summer borders. Right now these upright herbaceous perennials with their flat-topped flower heads are able to infuse plantings with a wide array of vibrant and pastel tones. What our native white and pale pink hued species Achillea millefolium might lack in this department the array of vibrant garden forms certainly makes up for in diversity of colour. Deep reds and crimsons, pinks, lilacs, yellows are expanded by a range of more subtle tones, including reddy-brown, biscuit, salmon and peachy tones. What makes them even more attractive is the central boss of flowers (disc florets) are in a different tone, often yellowish to the outer petals (ray florets). Flowers in some varieties attractively fade as they age, creating heads of blossom in multiple tones, and some gardeners keep the spent stems over winter for decoration. Those used for border plantings predominantly grow to around 60cm (2ft) or more tall, clothed in feathery aromatic foliage, spanning deep green, through grey-green to bright silver in some yellow flowered forms, making a lovely contrast.

Achillea prefer moisture retentive, but well-drained soil until they establish, when they become more drought tolerant. Although they will tolerate most soils as long as not constantly wet or droughted they grow best on neutral to chalky ones, than acid. Soil should also be not too rich or over fertilised as this will encourage them to overgrow and flop, also shortening their lifespan, which is around four years. They prefer full sun to do well and keep growth tight. They also need good air-flow to prevent mildew from forming, and so are not good in crowded leafy plantings. Shoots develop from a loose clump of basal buds, which are best lifted and divided every 2-3 years to keep them vigorous. Plants should be cut down to ground level in late winter when new shoots appear.    

Penstemon

These gorgeous border perennials will bring summer zing to your garden.

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For sheer flower power and a sensational palette of colour, penstemon have it all. These long-flowered shrubby perennials will enliven and add quality to any planting, whether it’s cottage or country in style. They’re also attractive to bees so include a few in plantings for pollinators.

There are different types of penstemon from desert or alpine evergreen shrublets to the larger border types, producing upright stems, clothed in deciduous to semi-evergreen leaves from a woody rootstock. From summer through to autumn the stems are clothed in unscented, tubular flowers, often widely flared at the mouth and in every shade, except yellow. Originating from Mexico and central America, mainly from species such as P. hartwegii, P. gentianoides and P. campanulatus those we use in gardens are complex hybrids of these and other species, which rarely grown today. Concerted breeding over the last few years has raised the bar on the range and calibre of varieties. The 50-strong Pensham series from the late Edward Wilson who lived in Pensham, near Pershore, Worcestershire and newly released ‘Purple Perfection’ from Peter Moore from Hampshire. Others, such as ‘Hidcote Pink’ are well-tried and trusted introductions of many years, which can still compete with today’s best.

Border penstemons prefer moist, but well-drained soil in a sunny position, preferring it slightly damp to give their best. After stems have bloomed cut them out to encourage more to develop. Some varieties are hardier than others, but much depends on how well-drained the soil is and the severity of winter weather. In autumn leave spent stems and add a mulch to protect the rootstock. In late winter trim back stems to 10cm (4in) when new shoots start to appear. Take softwood cuttings from the base of the plant, or unflowered shoots in July and August.

Anthemis

These daisies are at the heart of an English summer garden.

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There are some summer daisies that have become classics of cottage and country-style gardens. Anthemis, or Dyers camomile is one of them, with the best species and varieties, such as ‘Susanna Mitchell’ and ‘E. C. Buxton’ almost prerequisite. Anthemis are a group of around 100 or more aromatic plants from the Mediterranean and into Africa, spanning clump-forming perennials, often short-lived, and tussock or mat-forming woody shrublets.  A handful of the clump-forming species have become favourite border plants, with one species A. tinctoria spawning more than 10 varieties, and an important parent in other hybrids. Their cheery, long-stalked, gold-centred flowers appear in June through to high summer over dissected, aromatic bright to grey-green foliage. Blossoms come in a range of orange and yellow tones, through pale primrose to white, the paler kinds possessing peerless poise and elegance. They also effortlessly combine with rich blues and stronger yellows.

All anthemis enjoy sun and well-drained soil and if they get this are easy to grow. They also need good air, becoming mildewed in dank, wet conditions. They also tend to flop in heavy rain or if they over-grow in too rich soil, so be ready with support. After flowering chop  down spent shoots to encourage fresh new growth. Being short-lived you will need to divide plants in spring or replace them every few years. Anthemis can be grown from seed sown in early spring. More perennial kinds can also be raised from shoots removed from the base of plants in summer. 

Thalictrum

Fall in love with these elegant beauties with their airy sprays of blossom.

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There are few plants that provide a seasonal haze of colour better than thalictrum. At their best their airy sprays or blobs of fluffy blossom on erect stems hang in the air like delicate pastel-coloured clouds. Generally known as meadow-rue, thalictrum are herbaceous perennials and a rather surprising member of the buttercup family Ranunculaceae.

While individual flowers are small, and either petal-less, or with petal-like sepals, it is the fluffy mass of male stamens that enchant us in tones of white, through cream to yellow, or from pale to deep purple-pink. Stems vary in length from 60-275cm (2-9ft) in the tallest varieties.

The attractive foliage is variously divided into rounded leaflets, often delicate in appearance in smaller species and varieties and varying in tone from bright green to glaucous blue.

All thalictrums are hardy as they mainly come from temperate parts of the world, including northern USA, Europe, including the UK into China and Japan. They prefer damp, but well-drained soils in dappled light or shaded situations, although blue-leaved forms such as T. flavum glaucum will tolerate drier soil and sun as long as they get moisture in spring when starting into growth. While the latter types are fairly quick to establish, others take more time to develop sufficient rootstock to create the airy displays we all crave, especially if the soil dries in summer. Ensuring the soil is rich in organic matter will certainly help. Once in flower thin-stemmed types may need staking to help hold them in position. They are quite at home in cottage garden plantings and associate well with airy-flowered ornamental grasses.

 

Early-summer kniphofia

These early-season pokers will bring drama and impact to your garden.

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There’s now far more to red-hot pokers if your only experience to date has been over-used varieties such as ‘Atlanta’. Across the spectrum of the 200 or so species and hybrids, kniphofia flower from spring through to late autumn, with many blooming over weeks. The torch-like flower heads of tubular flowers in red, yellow, orange, apricot and cream tones, often bicoloured as they age, provide a distinctive character not possessed by other plants. If the smaller varieties are used convincingly in drifts, or rhythmically repeated rather than as single specimens they will always impart drama and impact, looking particularly good in relaxed schemes involving ornamental grasses, and summer perennials such as helenium and salvia. They are also good for growing in pots.

Kniphofias come from the periodically damp grasslands of Africa, particularly South Africa, producing rosettes of fleshy three-angled leaves of various thicknesses and lengths over a fleshy-rooted rootstock that gradually produces a cluster of shoots. Some species have narrow grassy deciduous leaves, while others are thicker and generally evergreen. While the leaves of some have visual appeal, others are apt to become untidy and best hidden from view by surrounding plants, so you can just enjoy the flowers.

Although kniphophia are easy to grow, with few pest and disease problems, many take time to establish, even the smaller ones and build up the energy to flower consistently, particularly the case if you purchase small plug plants rather than larger pot-grown specimens. In terms of likes and dislikes they hate hot, droughted positions or constantly damp soils, preferring moist, but well-drained conditions in sun or light shade. Remove spent flower stems once displays are over and tidy away decaying leaves in early spring before new growth starts to neaten their appearance, when they can also be lifted and divided.

Gaillardia

Blanket flowers reward with bright daisies throughout summer

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The blanket flower or gaillardia is one of those perennials that loves to please. Once established this valuable garden assets will produce a succession of cheerful daisies in warm yellow, apricot or zingy red tones from early summer into autumn. These fast growing, easy to please eye-catching plants variously come from prairie regions of northern USA and southern Canada. They like moist, but well drained conditions in full sun, but will endure drier conditions once established. They are generally short-lived, perhaps for two to three years in the case of G. aristata or annuals, such as G. pulchella. A hybrid between the two G. grandiflora, which is a short-lived perennial, forms the basis of the 25 or so varieties found in gardens. You can encourage the more perennial varieties to survive the winter by removing spent flower-heads in late summer. Also avoiding wet or over-rich soil, or shaded positions will also help. Taller forms are prone to flop when in flower, so growing them in more Spartan conditions will also help. They are useful for filling gaps or planting in clumps with other summer perennials such as monarda, helenium or anthemis.

Gaillardia is easily grown from seed, even the perennial types quickly forming plants that are highly likely to flower the same year if sown early enough, or the following year if sown later. They can also be bought as plugs or established plants, when they can be planted at any time.  

Geraniums

The versatile and useful perennials no gardener should be without!

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Some plants just get on with the job of decorating the garden without fuss, supressing weeds, while blossoming their hearts out. Geraniums are part of this versatile and essential clan that few gardeners could be without. These herbaceous or semi-evergreen perennials are often early into growth and the more spreading kinds will soon help cover the ground, suppressing annual weeds. Closely planted clump-formers such as G. pratense will also do the same job. Growth habits vary enormously, with some low and carpet like, others spread and weave through surrounding plants, while others produce stout clumps or mounds. The attractive leaves are also variable, dissected and blotched with maroon markings to varying degrees, with many also aromatic.

Geraniums are adaptable and can be cut back after they have flowered or become too large, soon rejuvenating themselves with fresh growth, and in some varieties a new flush of flowers. Most single-flowered varieties will generate self-sown seedlings, while double flowered forms like ‘Laura’ don’t. This is a further reason to trim back the plants after the initial flush of flowers is over. Geraniums will grow in most moist, well-drained soils in sun or semi-shade, while some will endure full or even dry shade. Most don’t do well in hot, dry situations or in soils that are constantly wet.

Single-flowered geraniums are easy to grow from seed, especially if fresh. You can use self-sown seedlings, but due to cross-pollination they probably won’t be true to type especially if varieties are intermixed. In this case lift and divide the clumps into plantlets as they die down in autumn or in late winter before growth starts.