There is no room for the five-minute flower in a small garden, where every plant is on show, nor for a shrub that is all bloom today, bare tomorrow. The simple question you need to ask before you buy a spectacular plant is: "What else does it do?"
© Graham Rice/gardenphotos.com
So says Graham Rice, member of the RHS herbaceous plants committee and author of Powerhouse Plants, which details more than 500 plants that provide different benefits through the seasons. "Choose plants that offer two or more entirely different features so that, at different times of the year, different displays are produced at the same place in the garden — from just one plant. Many will be found in your local nursery or garden centre. You only need to look."
Look no further, for example, than ground-cover Bergenia Bressingham Ruby if you want to brighten the winter landscape with large, lush, ruby-wine leaves, then boost the spring bulb show with pink flowers on long stalks. These are followed by fresh foliage that usefully smothers summer weeds.
If you're going to grow dahlias, choose the varieties that have dark foliage as well as colourful flowers, such as David Howard, with bronze foliage and coppery-orange double flowers that keep on blooming for weeks on end. When you next look for a clematis, choose one that follows its flowers with showy, silken seedheads, such as pale blue Columbine or late-flowering yellow Bill McKenzie with seedheads that, points out Rice, begin in a slinky pewter and mature to fluffy silver.
The rose show can come and go all too quickly, so buy a powerhouse rose that not only repeat blooms through summer and has a good perfume but also produces fat crimson hips, such as rugosa roses clear pink Fru Dagmar Hastrup or crimson Scabrosa.
This is where it pays to be precise about plant names. "Choosing plants with multiple seasons of interest is all about selecting exactly the right variety," points out Rice. "Not all hostas, for instance, have colourful autumn foliage." One, Devon Green, turns a luscious gold and also boasts smoky lilac flowers. Shrubby fuchsias will flower for weeks in summer, but why not choose one with handsome coppery foliage that grows richer as the seasons change? Autumnale trails attractively and has dynamic red and purple flowers.
© Judy White/gardenphotos.com
Sometimes it's a trade-off: an evergreen cotoneaster will hold its leaves through the year, which is useful if you need to cover an ugly low wall, but deciduous Cotoneaster Variegatus has the most stunning autumn foliage as well as, of course, all cotoneaster's trademark springtime blossom and autumn berries.
And deciduous doesn't have to be dull: when the leaves finally fall from Variegatus, they reveal the branches' striking herringbone pattern.
Berries and bark
Hamamelis, or witchhazels, says Rice, combine a number of valuable features, but in varying combinations: most flower well, in winter and early spring; some are scented, some have good autumn foliage. His carefully selected five that make the powerhouse grade, combining generous flowering, strong fragrance and fine autumn colours, are Arnold Promise, Aurora, Pallida, Vesna and Wisley Supreme.
Granted, few trees are neither use nor ornament, but why not plant a tree that offers both? Crab apple Malus Red Sentinel is ideally suited to a small garden, produces masses of white flowers in spring and a profusion of bright red fruits that last until late winter.
Cherry tree Prunus serrula has a flurry of white blossom in spring followed by small red cherries, great autumn foliage colour and in winter, the striking cherrywood bark shines, says Rice, like well-polished mahogany, peeling becomingly. You couldn't ask for more.
Reader offer: Powerhouse Plants (Timber Press) usually costs £16.99, but Homes & Property readers can buy the book for £13.99, which includes p&p, by calling 01206 255800 and quoting code offer PP213. Offer ends on February 28.