These sun-loving, aromatic perennials come in a range of tones
Bring sparkle to dark winter days
It’s hard to imagine an iris flowering in the depths of winter, but the Algerian iris, Iris unguicularis, does just that! Although it’s a plant from Mediterranean shores, it’s far hardier than you might think, but it still needs a sheltered, well-drained spot, such as at the base of a south or west-facing wall, to do well.
A sunny spot by a front door, where its flowers can be admired, is ideal. The flowers are produced intermittently during breaks in the weather, and can also be taken indoors, where their beautiful markings, and honey-scent of varieties such as ‘Walter Butt’, can be fully appreciated. While the straight species is attractive, over the years a number of forms have been introduced from the wild, or selected from seed.
Previously known as I. stylosa, the iris is a clump-forming, evergreen perennial, spreading by means of congested rhizomes, clothed in narrow, upright or arching leaves. The flowers, produced from late autumn through to early spring, are produced from a succession of buds in shades of lilac through to blue-purple, often marked in the centre and honey-scented, with some varieties being far better perfumed than others.
They all prefer a poor soil that’s well drained, but not waterlogged. They need an open position, without competition from other plants. New plantings will take a year or two to settle in, so water in pot-grown plants two or three times if conditions are dry. Remove hidden snails before flowering. Clip off or pull away old foliage after flowering to tidy up the plants.
Want winter colour and scent?
Viburnum are one of those undersung, but extremely useful groups of shrubs, that have representatives performing at almost every time of year whether through flowers, foliage or fruit.
The winter flowering varieties are especially welcome when little else is around. They can be deciduous or evergreen, with flowers produced in dense clusters, studding bare branches, or in flat heads among leaves, often sweetly scented.
Although Viburnum botnatense 'Dawn' is the most familiar, its worth looking out for 'Charles Lamont', which has stronger pink tones. The diminutive 'Nanum' form of the normally tall V.Farreri is a useful spreading shrub for the smallest borders. All the deciduous forms lend themselves to be under planted or associated with early bulbs and perennials, such as hellebores and associated with other winter-flowering shrubs, such as mahonia.
Most viburnums are indifferent to soil as long as it's not soggy or too chalky. They will grow in sun or shade, but will flower better in sunlight. Most need little of no pruning save to keep them in shape. Do this just after flowering.
Enjoy bright berries and colourful foliage
Everyone recognises a holly bush, dressed in spiny leaves and studded with blood-red berries. But although our native Ilex aquifolium is the best-known, there are 600 species in the world and not all are evergreen or hardy. Because it’s so common, our native holly has mutated, or been bred by gardeners, to create dozens of kinds with different looks to suit every taste, smaller habits and with variegated and oddly shaped leaves and even yellow berries. Among the other species, the smaller, Asian Ilex crenata is useful because of its small leaves and dense growth, making it a good substitute for box.
Some hollies drop their leaves in autumn, so the scarlet berries stand out brightly and Ilex verticillata, although not a common garden plant, can be particularly spectacular in the winter landscape. Being tolerant of a wide range of soils and conditions, the common holly can be planted in any garden as long as the soil isn’t waterlogged. All are tolerant of pruning and they can be used as a hedge. Pruning in late summer will remove young growth and reveal the ripening berries. Although they’re tolerant of shade, growing in a brighter place will result in better flowering and more berries. Most hollies produce either male or female flowers so you need to plant a male near (but not next to) a female (or many females) to get berries. Remove any green stems on variegated plants as soon as you see them.
Vibrant foliage and bright berries make a dramatic autumn effect
Hardy and easy to grow, the larger euonymus are very different to the commoner evergreen species, such as E. fortunei, grown for ground cover. Their beauty is really revealed at this time of year, when most have striking autumn colour usually accompanied by curious angular fruit capsules that split to reveal brightly-coloured seeds. Few of the 130 species are commonly available and the most common is the European native spindle tree, E. europaeus. While other species also come from the Northern Hemisphere, the most ornamental species are from China.
Most are attractive at the back of large borders, with solidago, rudbeckias or Japanese anemones or dahlias in front, or they make attractive specimen plants in grass or at the front of shrub borders. All are hardy and not fussy about soils: most will grow even in difficult chalky soils. To obtain the best fruit production and autumn colour, plant in full sun. Most species have a dense, twiggy habit, but some of the slender growers may need help forming a strong leader if you want to train them as small trees.
Delicate, fragrant flowers to brighten up the darker months
The Japanese Camellia sasanqua is often overlooked but is a charming and robust species that has the unusual qualities of having small, fragrant flowers that open in late autumn, usually in October and November. Like all camellias, they’re ideal for growing in pots but their small leaves and bushy habit make them suitable as garden shrubs and even hedges. Many have attractive, bronzed young foliage and the flowers open over several months. Their glossy leaves make them attractive plants for borders throughout the year. These camellias prefer a sheltered spot and may struggle in very cold, exposed areas but usually thrive in urban gardens. But, unlike most camellias, they prefer a sunny site and are the best camellias for patio pots. They’re also less fussy about very acid soils and will succeed in neutral soils. Most are upright at first and light pruning or pinching out the shoot tips in early spring will keep the plants neat and compact. Give plants in the border a mulch in spring and a dressing of fertiliser suitable for azaleas and rhododendron, and feed potted plants with a soluble acid plant food once a week from April to September.
FACT: Leaves of Camellia sasanqua can be used for making tea and its seeds produce an oil used in hair tonics and for lighting.
Lovely and easy to grow, they provide astonishing autumn colour
Viburnums are shrubs from the Northern Hemisphere, grown for their attractive leaves, often scented flowers and showy berries. Few of the 150 species are grown in our gardens, but they do include some of our commonest shrubs such as evergreen V. tinus and the winter-flowering V. bodnantense ‘Dawn’. Most are hardy and can be used as specimen shrubs or screens.
The berries will attract fruit-eating birds and bring life to your garden. The evergreens are useful in shade and the deciduous kinds can give your garden rich autumn tones before the leaves drop. Plant the berried kinds with silver-barked birch and red-stemmed cornus. For a complete autumn display, grow a late clematis such as C. orientalis up them for extra colour and contrasting fluffy seed heads.
Viburnums are tolerant of a wide range of soil types, though chalky soils do not suit V. betulifolium. A bright spot is best for good berry production, especially of the deciduous types. Pruning is not necessary. Light pruning can be done in spring, though it may reduce flowering and berry production. For lots of berries, it’s best to plant more than one plant of each type to ensure pollination.
These hardy bulbs produce jewel-like blooms in early spring
Few gardeners plant many of the 75 species of the wild dwarf tulip, yet they make charming plants for pots, fronts of borders and rock gardens, where they usually form clumps and sometimes even seed themselves. Some of these diminutive tulips, which hail from the Mediterranean region and east into Asia, have been developed by nurseries to yield selected forms and hybrids. Most are small and dainty, with starry flowers in bold and bright colours, opening in warm weather to greet the sun. Plant them with other small bulbs such as chionodoxa and scillas to grow through aubrieta, arabis, campanulas and other low plants that will help protect petals from mud splashes. Put bulbs in a sunny, welldrained area in clumps of five or more for the best effect, some 8cm (3in) apart and 10cm (4in) deep. In heavy, clay soils, fork in some grit to improve drainage and use your favourite slugcontrol method to prevent flowers being nibbled in spring. There’s no need to lift bulbs every summer, just leave them to increase naturally until they get too crowded. A little high-potash fertiliser in spring will boost growth, then let them die down naturally after flowering.
Better known as red hot pokers, kniphofias are familiar to all gardeners with their clumps of narrow leaves and tall spikes of tubular flowers in firey shades. All are native to Africa, but in the wild they grow in cool, moist areas so are well suited to our gardens. Kniphobias flower from late spring right through to autumn and these later kinds are invaluable at this time of year, contrasting in shape and from from the clouds of asters and daisy flowers of rudbeckias and perennial sunflowers. The late varieties include the common red and orange colours and also some subtle tones that are useful to add late season zing. Most kniphofias are tough and easy to grow but do best in soils that are moist and well drained so they may struggle in very dry soils or wet clay. A sunny spot will encourage the best flowers but most will also grow in a partly shade spot, but flowering may not be quite as profuse. Cut off dead flower stems once blooms have faded to keep the plants neat and prevent unwanted seed formation. Most red hot pokers are hardy but in cold winters the evergreen types may benefit from a covering with fleece.
FACT: There are 7 species of Kniphofias in the wild and most are evergreen and there have been hundred of hybrids that have been raised, mostly to create easy-to-grow, long flowering plants.
These easy-care spreaders give a profusion of bright blooms
Relatives of persicarias include some nasty weeds, such as the infamous Japanese knotweed.
But this large group of mostly herbaceous plants from Europe and Asia also includes really
useful garden plants, tolerant of moist and heavy soils, which bring attractive foliage and a
profusion of flowers to the garden during summer and autumn.
The most eye-catching can be mixed in herbaceous borders with day lilies, phlox and late-flowering asters, while the toughest, such as ‘Superba’, make ideal ground cover. They have
suffered from name changes and are often listed as polygonums.
Rich, moist soil will help you get the best from persicarias. Most will bloom best if they get sun
for at least half the day, though a few, especially P. campanulata, survive in tough, dry areas. A few are invasive but the most popular form neat clumps that can be divided in autumn or spring when dormant. They rarely need deadheading or staking, and are free from pests and diseases, although mildew can attack plants grown in dry soils.
Beautiful, long-lasting flowers offer a splash of fresh colour this autumn.
Hesperantha, also known as schizostylis and kaffir lilies, are like a cross between a gladiolus and crocus with their clumps of grassy leaves and slender stems of starry flowers. In fact, they’re distantly related to both and come from South Africa, the original home of most gladioli.
The plants have a creeping rootstock and form dense clumps of foliage that is more or less evergreen, but Hesperantha are valued most for their beautiful flowers that open over many weeks and that are a splash of fresh colour in the autumn. Once planted they can be left alone for many years. They make perfect cut flowers for the house too!
Keeping Hesperanthas happy
- Use moist soil and plant in a sunny spot to grow Hesperantha
- If you have dry soil grow them on the patio in a pot.
- If they become crowded in the border, split them and then replant in spring.
FACT: The original name of schizostylis came from the split style in the centre of the flower, which looks like three threads of cotton.
Find out the six best Hesperantha in our latest issue of Garden News, 17th of September, in stores now!
They’ll give you a profusion of small flowers late in the season...
What makes abelia's such valuable shrubs is that their small, but profuse, flowers are produced in late summer, long after most other shrubs have stopped blooming.
There are about 30 species of pretty summer and autumn-flowering abelia, native to Asia and Mexico. They can be evergreen or deciduous, but the evergreens tend to be rather tender. All have clusters of small, tubular, pastel-coloured flowers that are often fragrant. These blooms have large, showy sepals that are usually red or bronze. The most popular is A. grandiflora, a hybrid which, usefully, combines the hardiness of the deciduous Chinese A. chinensis and the rather tender but evergreen Mexican A. floribunda.
Abelias flower and grow best in well-drained soils, in full sun. Although A. grandiflora is hardy in most areas and is a good choice for coastal gardens, it’s worth planting it in sheltered places in colder areas. It makes a fine wall shrub and the mass of small, fragrant flowers attract bees and butterflies.
The smaller and less vigorous variegated forms are ideal for pots on the patio and can be planted at the front of borders. Plants can be lightly pruned after flowering, although this will remove the colourful sepals so it’s best to wait until spring to cut out a few of the older stems and tidy up the shrub. If they get very overgrown, they can be pruned hard in spring, but this will reduce flowering for a year.
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Showy flower heads on tall stems will make an impact in your garden!
Eupatoriums are big, bold, leafy plants that make an impact in the garden with their tall stems, coarse leaves and showy heads of tiny flowers, usually in shades of pink and white. The most popular are now often called eutrochium. They are found throughout North America and Europe. Their flat heads of small flowers are popular with butterflies and bees and they bloom in late summer, sitting at the sides and backs of borders, framing its shorter bedfellows. Some, such as E. sordidum, make useful cut flowers.
Keep them happy!
Eupatoriums are best planted in rich, moist soils and the biggest and most robust are suitable for boggy or wild areas. They can be late to shoot in spring and can be divided then, though the crowns are rather woody and difficult to prise apart. Give them plenty of room to grow because they become large and may swamp smaller plants.
They combine well with other late summer plants such as miscanthus, tall asters, helianthus and heleniums. In autumn, leave the stems for birds to feast on the seeds and cut the dead stems down in winter or early spring.
Its common name, boneset, derives from the plant’s traditional use to treat dengue fever, or ‘breakbone fever’.
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With tiny flowers in pastel shades, these long-flowering plants are irresistible to butterflies.
Verbenas are best known as showy and easy-care bedding plants that are popular in pots and baskets. However, there are some less well-known hardy types that will bring your garden alive with colour and butterflies in summer and right into autumn. Most of the 200 verbena species are native to South America but a few come from Europe including the common vervain (V. officinalis). They are slightly shrubby or woody-based herbaceous plants with pairs of leaves along the stem and clusters of tubular, five-petalled flowers. Although the blooms are not usually very large, they are produced in compressed clusters so they can be quite showy. The bedding types are suitable for the front of the border but the hardier types are generally upright plants that add interest to the garden because their habit contrasts with other plants. The stiff stems are generally self-supporting and they can vary from about 45cm high in Verbena rigida to more than 150cm in the now very popular cottage garden plant V. bonariensis.
KEEP THEM HAPPY: Some verbenas are hardy in light and well-drained soil but they are so easily raised from seed, and will flower the first year, that they can be treated as annuals. In addition to good drainage, they also prefer full sun. Most are best planted in clumps of at least five. Sow the seeds in February or March, keep the seedlings free from frost and then plant out in May or June. They should be deadheaded after flowering and cut down in spring, when you can check if they have survived the cold. Some will self seed if they are happy. Although the bedding types can be attacked by mildew, this is rarely a problem with the other kinds and the foliage is so fine that you probably won’t notice it if it does strike.
FACT: Vervain has many traditional, herbal uses and was, according to legend, used to staunch the wounds of Jesus on the cross. It was a sacred herb to ancient Egyptians, the people of northern Europe and Iran.