Plant smart

Plants are the stars of every garden
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Give your garden a professional edge
© Gap Photos/Friedrich Strauss
Give your garden a professional edge by using the plants the experts choose for their great looks and reliability
London gardeners can learn from garden designers who need to use plants that look great, are easy to maintain and have a long season. What do the pros plant over and over in London gardens? For limited spaces, they choose small trees with big impact.

Designer Charlotte Rowe loves multi-stemmed Himalayan birch, Betula utilis var jacquemontii. “With its silvery-white trunk and diaphanous upper reaches, it looks great in both summer and winter, and is perfect for small spaces, including roof terraces.” Multi-stemmed Amelanchier lamarckii is another favourite of hers. “It provides early blossom, has a great form in winter and is tough as old boots.”

Fillers such as ground cover geraniums are indispensable. “Good old Alchemilla mollis is wonderful,” says Rowe. “It mixes well with lavender, santolina and many other plants to create a frothy, lime-green background through May and June.”

Claire Mee, like every London garden designer, puts evergreen Trachelospermum jasminoides at the top of her climbers list.

“Clients don’t want plants that drop leaves or look messy, and this keeps its shape. The flowers are white, pretty and smell of jasmine. I’ve used it as ground cover, pinning it along the ground.”

Himalayan birch
© Gap Photos/Zara Napier
Many designers favour the elegant multi-stemmed Himalayan birch
She frequently plants the felty-leaved shrub Brachyglottis Sunshine. “It’s a useful evergrey with a soft, light appearance that needs clipping to keep in shape. I use olive trees a lot, too, because they have silky leaves that bring light into the garden.”

Lilies are not the only summer bulbs. “I put Gladiolus murielae in every garden I do,” says Philip Nixon. “They have a wonderful scent, are moderately tall and look beautiful planted en masse, drifting through grasses. Plant the bulbs early or start them in a greenhouse. They may not survive a damp winter but they are cheap to buy.”

Hydrangea arborescens Annabelle is a favourite of several garden designers, including Sara Jane Rothwell. “It’s the most gorgeous hydrangea, yet it is undemanding. The lime-white blooms are blowsy, beautiful and at their best in shade.” She also loves penstemons, notably Garnet, White Bedder and the pearly mauve-pink Sour Grapes.

“I use them constantly because they’re semi-evergreen and they repeat-flower if you deadhead them from summer to early autumn.”

Designer James Aldridge plants two exotics repeatedly, both of which he claims are hardy in town gardens. “Aloe striatula looks fantastic through the year, either in a container or in the ground, where it looks especially good among grasses. Astelia chathamica Silver Spear has sword-like leaves but doesn’t have the harshness of a phormium. It’s tolerant, but the silver foliage is best in semi-shade.”

Hellebore hybridus
© Gap Photos/Sharon Pearson
Hellebore hybridus are invaluable because they flower early in the year
The principal of the English Gardening School, Rosemary Alexander, loves irises. “In a sunny spot, irises provide a great vertical, spiky shape. Lavender-blue Jane Phillips has the best leaves and flower height, and flowers from late spring for quite a while.

“For shade, Hellebore hybridus are unbeatable in providing flowers early in the year and are so easy, provided you cut back the leaves in early December.”

London’s gardens need plants with good structure and scale, not fleeting flowers, says designer Declan Buckley. “Agapanthus africanus fits the bill because the foliage stays evergreen, it has good, strappy leaves and fantastic big blue flowers.”

He has traded box, which can get blight, for safer bet Euonymus japonicus Microphyllus, which has a similar leaf and can be clipped like box. “And if you leave it, it makes a nice little dome all on its own.” Pleached trees make great living screens and Buckley favours two. “You can now buy pleached holly as well as Magnifolia grandiflora, which is investment dressing but worth every penny.”

Richard Reynolds, London’s chief guerrilla gardener, depends on plants that thrive on neglect. His secret weapon: “Lavender! It ticks every box: it’s fragrant, tough, beautiful in bloom, easy to look after and looks good all year round.”

See it, buy it

Flowering barges at Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge's flowering barges are part of a river cruise garden tour
See it: London’s alternative Chelsea Flower Show
If you can’t make Chelsea this year but like to see some fabulous garden in the same week, book a ticket on a river cruise and marvel at seven floating barges, moored next to Tower Bridge, for the ultimate in container planting. You will also visit the Inner Temple Garden at the Embankment, float upstream while you lunch on board, then view several small, jewel-like gardens along the esplanade at Chiswick Mall.

The River Thames Tour, part of a number of tours organised by Gardens Etc in association with the National Gardens Scheme, is on 25 May and costs £100, but Homes & Property readers can take £10 off the price by visiting and entering NGSETC2505.

Everlast Carmine
The fully hardy gerbera, Everlast Carmine
Buy it: The two summer plant essentials
The bedding plant no London gardener should be without is pelargonium. Try a different kind, one that has fragrant foliage, too. The scented-leaved pelargonium collection offered by the RHS online plant shop comprises three plug plants of orange-scented, pale mauve Prince of Orange; spicy-scented Royal Oak, or sweet Mimosa, with sugar-pink flowers, for £6.99, or buy all nine plants for £14.97, saving £6.

The online shop is also offering hardy version of gerbera. Buy three plants of Everlast Pink, Everlast White or Everlast Carmine for £18.99, or buy all nine for £46.97, saving £10. Get 15 per cent off everything at the shop, including the two offers, by visiting, or calling 0844 557 2622, and using code 300410. Offer ends on 4 May.

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