Easter is the time when Londoners run to the garden centre and buy everything in sight, but what should we be buying and what should we be bypassing?
© Gap photos/Friedrich Strauss
Those serried rows of perfectly clipped box balls look inviting, but box blight is a problem that shows no sign of waning. Take the risk, or take an alternative, such as Ilex crenata, the box-leaved holly that the Japanese favour for cloud pruning, or consider the tight-leaved shrubby honeysuckle, Lonicera nitida, that clips like a dream.
Hebes are hugely underrated: choose the right variety, such as glossy-leaved Sapphire or Margret, and you can have a shapely evergreen that, even in shade, will produce fuzzy mauve flower spikes for months that are a magnet for bees and butterflies.
Spring is the shady border’s finest moment, so make the most of it. Buy several evergreen ferns, such as Polypodium vulgare, and intersperse them with half a dozen light-flowered pulmonaria such as variety Opal, that has the palest blue opalescent flowers and characteristic white-splashed pale green foliage. Add a trio of Dicentra spectabilis Alba, with sprays of hanging white locket flowers, shoehorn in several creamy primroses and the transformation from neglected shade to woodland glade is complete.
Easter is the perfect time to plant a herb patch, and the best time of year to find the cream of herb plants at garden centres. Settled into well-drained soil — add grit to the planting hole if necessary — herbs will grow fast and furiously at this time of year.
Instead of splashing out on large and pricey potfuls, snap up three inexpensive 9cm pots, plant several inches apart in a triangle, and come summer, they will have clumped into one generous mound. Specials at garden centres include the thymes Tabor, a mauve-flowered, green trailer that will spill becomingly over the edge of a raised bed, and foxy Foxley, with the prettiest pink-splashed cream and green leaves.
Handsome lavender Grosso, a fabulous taller, looser variety than compact, ubiquitous Hidcote, and previously only available through specialist nurseries, is now widely available, and so is charming white-flowered hyssop. Buy mints, too, now for the best selection, and grow them separately in pails or pots so that they don’t run riot in the borders: eau-de-cologne mint, grapefruit and furry apple are all on my shopping list. Clematis are compulsory for the town garden, delivering masses of blooms for most months of the year.
© Gap Photos/Dave Zubraski
Start with a spring flourish by planting a macropetala, and revel in those delectable, four-petalled nodding flowers that appear until late spring: Blue Bird is a truly heavenly blue. While you’re in buying mode, snap up a clematis that will take the baton, producing blooms from late spring to late summer. Cezanne, one of the Boulevard — compact patio — varieties from clematis king Raymond Evison, will flower even in part shade. It’s worth an obelisk all of its own: look for Gardman’s prettily curled steel versions, at most garden centres, for a perfect partnership. You may need two, so you can also display Clematis tangutica, with its extraordinary lemon-peel flowers and silken seedheads, to follow in the autumn.
Flowering acacia trees are a big draw at Easter — those acid-yellow bobble flowers, that seductive South of France scent — but beware: they need a sheltered, sunny location, a warm, south-facing wall or, better yet, a conservatory to keep them happy. Fulfil your desire for a magnolia in full fling by buying a Magnolia stellata, ideal for containers or as a highlight in a spring border. Those fluttery white flowers, currently in furry grey bud, are the ultimate spring heartbreakers.
However, if you have a balcony with room for just one pot, take heart. Just one sugar-pink azalea, displaying its butterfly blooms in a half-tub, will spell spring as much as any flowery border.