When spring fever hits we all rush off to the garden centre to grab everything in blossom and bloom. What are the best buys, though, that offer real investments rather than flash-in-the-pan flowers?
Photinia fraseri Red Robin is a great buy, even though the flowers come second to the foliage. Although this handsome evergreen shrub produces flat, white flowerheads in spring, the point is the new russet-red glossy foliage, at its most vibrant when the plant is sited in a sunny spot. If space is limited, buy photinia clear-stemmed, as a small tree that is as content in a tub as it is in the border.
Magnolia stellata will give you your magnolia flower fix even if you can only offer it a container. The crumpled, star-like white flowers that open from strokable, silken buds are very different from the more familiar goblet blooms, but just as beautiful. This is the finest magnolia for a small garden.
Let delectable dwarf weeping willow, Salix caprea Kilmarnock, transform a lacklustre shady bed. Plant primroses and pulmonarias, with their blue, lavender or brick-pink funnel flowers and marbled foliage, beneath the catkin-laden stems and, after mulching the ground with bark chippings, rejoice in your instant woodland glade.
Summer’s soup-plate clematis might be the glamour girls of the family, but the lesser-grown, shorter, spring-flowering clematis — the alpinas and macropetalas — have their own charm. Dainty, nodding flowers in shades of deep pink and stunning lavender blues are followed by silvery seedheads that last through summer. As a bonus, they thrive in light shade. It’s worth buying a support such as Gardman’s twisted willow obelisk cone, nearly 5ft tall, at many garden centres, to create a stand-alone display.
Buy bags of bulbs, corms and rhizomes to plant in pots that you can sink into the border or drop into containers this summer. Oriental lilies, agapanthus and begonias all provide great value. If you didn’t plant allium bulbs last autumn, buy potted alliums now in leaf and bud. They will cost more, but the investment will pay off with mauve and purple drumstick heads brightening the border in a month or two. Another high-riser you can find now, and that will multiply over the years, is luscious strawberry foxglove, Digitalis mertonensis.
Dressing the patio in spring finery is simple, given the bouquets of paintbox primulas and cheery-faced violas currently on show, but leave some space for edibles and aromatics. A generous potful of lavender within arm’s length of a seat is essential. Half a dozen French lavender plants, with their decorative tufted heads, will deliver that pine-infused fragrance redolent of Provençal hillsides and, when the flowers fade, the foliage smells just as wonderful.
PRETTY AND PRODUCTIVE
Build up your potted herb garden with, say, a strawberry pot planted with trailing rosemaries as well as low, wide containers of sharp-scented lemon thyme and spicy, felty-leaved oregano. It’s a dilemma whether to keep snipping them for the kitchen or to hold off until they are smothered with blue, lilac or pink flowers that bees and butterflies adore.
There is a great choice right now of young strawberry plants for sale, such as weather-resistant Fenella. Three planted up in a hanging basket or deep metal colander, sited in a sheltered spot until May, will deliver a succession of berries this summer.
It’s too early for tomatoes and fruiting vegetables, but you can buy young plants of baby lettuces, rocket, radishes and carrots. Abandon the plastic pots, paint a wine box or three in Farrow & Ball’s delicious soft green Arsenic, Exterior Eggshell grade, line with perforated plastic before filling with multi-purpose compost, and have yourself an instant, small-scale kitchen garden that will prove as pretty as it is productive.