Friday, 25 January 2008

Planting Design for a twilight garden

Integrate light blooms in your planting, and see the twilight garden come alive.

It’s frustrating for many of us that we only return from work as the light is fading or almost gone, aware of all the perfect garden moments that have slipped by while we were stuck at the office. However, with a little planning, it is possible to create a garden that is at its peak at dusk – welcoming us in a cloud of fragrance as we open the back door.

White, grey and silver are colours that appear to glow at dusk: an optical effect that results from the ability of these colours to bend invisible ultraviolet and infrared light into the visible spectrum. In giving back more light than they receive, white, grey and silver plants appear to effloresce.

White and pale-coloured plants also tend to be the most fragrant, and it is always worth including a selection of these night-scented treats in your garden. Jasmines such as J. officinale and J. polyanthum are best grown against a house wall where they will benefit from the retained heat of the bricks, oozing a rich heady scent in the evenings. This provision of scent close to the house can be continued throughout the year, perhaps with a winter flowering honeysuckle and pots of lily of the valley, hyacinth and tobacco plants. By integrating fragrant white blooms and silver-leafed aromatics throughout the planting scheme, you can create a scented garden all year round.

The delicate, aromatic foliage of grey and silver-leafed plants such as lavender and artemisia provide the backbone of the planting and can be complimented by more structural forms, perhaps Melianthus major or the biennial sea holly Eryngium maritimum ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’. Other silver plants include the non-flowering lamb’s ears Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’ or the wonderful, silvery Convolvulus cneorum.

Concentrated daubs of white can be used to draw the eye and as a striking focal point. You can achieve this effect by grouping together plants with large, white flowers such as Lavatera trimestris ‘Mont Blanc’ or Hibiscus syriacus ‘Diana’, whose flowers stay open at night.

White flowers with an airy texture work in a different way, creating a misty, romantic feel when dusted by frost and dew. Cleome, Gaura lindheimeri and gypsophila work effectively as a subtle introduction to larger white blooms. The best effect is gained by sparing use of white within a matrix of grey and green foliage. The darker greens, greys and silvers of the foliage form a strong background against which the white can shine, as well as serving to separate the multitude of white shades that appear in nature.

It is worth avoiding plants with white blooms, whose dead petals cling to the plant, such as roses and the white form of lilac. Superior choices include spring-flowering snowdrops, the white flowering bleeding heart Dicentra spectabilis ‘Alba’ and tulip ‘White Triumphator’. These could be followed in summer with Geranium ‘Kashmir White’, white foxgloves and the fluffy clouds of Crambe maritima, plus the sweet scents of the tobacco plant Nicotiana sylvestris and a mock orange Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’. A wilder autumnal aspect could come from the translucent grass-like molinia and the pale spires of Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Album’, before rambling into the ghostly elegant bramble Rubus thibetanus and a sweetly scented virburnum at the year’s end.

With so many plants to choose from and so few precious daylight hours in the garden, a moonlit garden never seemed more appealing.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Gardening is like matchmaking: some plants just go together

The essential beauty of the snowdrop lies in the linear perfection of the single bell. Classically, they are planted in sweeping drifts beneath deciduous trees, demonstrating the awesome power of repetition. But they can also be used in stunning modern combinations. Of the 500 varieties of snowdrop (yes, really), Galanthus nivalis and Galanthus elwesii are the most common. They'll go with anything. Those with double bells need a bit more thought.

1 With Black Lilyturf: Galanthus gracilis, Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens'

This contemporary design classic of pure white flowers emerging from matt black strappy foliage exploits the drama of tonal extremes. The slender, linear thrust of Galanthus gracilis punctuates the black grass and lifts an otherwise dark, flat scheme. You could also use Galanthus ikariae (which is more suitable for drier situations) or my favourite, Galanthus 'S. Arnott', which flowers freely and increases easily. In the autumn, it's worth planting some tulips — I like the maroon Tulipa 'Recreado', which creates a suspended sea of colour against the black, once the snowdrops are over.

2 With red-stemmed dogwood: Galanthus 'Atkinsii' with Arum italicum 'Marmoratum' and Cornus alba 'Sibirica'

A haze of bare red stems draws the eye from a distance, but close up the combination of red Cornus against green foliage can appear brutal. Snowdrops — in this case Galanthus 'Atkinsii' — break up the harsh contrast. Plant a milk-white Narcissus ­ triandrus 'Thalia' — for later.

3 With an architectural grass: Galanthus 'Atkinsii' and Stipa tenuissima

The bright dots of 'Atkinsii' bells appear to hover above Stipa tenuissima, as their stems disappear into the coat of grass. Catching the breeze, the Stipa shifts between an opaque mass and a transparent screen, peppered by the white points of the snowdrops. A smaller variety could get lost, but Galanthus 'Atkinsii' is a relative giant at 20cm tall. Try a burnt-orange foxglove — Digilatis parviflora — for later colour.

How to grow

Snowdrops can take a while to establish as dry bulbs, so are best planted "in the green" (that is just after flowering, while still in full leaf). Persuade a friend to let you divide a clump, or buy them mail-order from a specialist nursery.

Replant at the same depth — up to the white stem — with some sharp sand for drainage.

Suppliers: The Snowdrop Company (01993 842177); Cambo Snowdrops (; 01333 450054); Avon Bulbs (; 01460 242177).

Spectacular in its transformation, Miscanthus will anchor a scheme throughout the winter with its distinctive skeleton.

Usually found towering at the back of the border, Miscanthus really comes into its own in the autumn, when its feathery silver panicles unwind from its upright foliage. In shades of claret, red, purple and brown, the bold arching flowers fade through pink to silver, becoming fluffy with age. The tight clumps of narrow foliage also change colour in winter, turning orange, copper, rust and cinnamon. Spectacular in its transformation, Miscanthus will anchor a scheme throughout the winter with its distinctive skeleton.

With Dogwood: Miscanthus sinensis ‘Flamingo’ with Cornus florida ‘Rainbow’

Leaning into the russet arms of the cornus, Miscanthus adds a bit of architectural weight to the planting scheme. In late summer, you get wonderful claret-red flowers that look like wet mops (but more elegant). These Miscanthus flowers cascade from the plant, leading the eye to the dogwood below.

As the autumn colours of the dogwood intensify, the flowers of the Miscanthus fade through pink to a silvery white. The winter silhouette of the grass will remain strong throughout the winter, so combine it with spring-flowering bulbs for extended interest. Try Eranthis hyemalis, Narcissus cyclamineus and the dwarf species tulip ‘Fusilier’, all of which can be planted this autumn.

How to grow

Miscanthus grows well in any soil and autumn is one of the best times to plant them. Try to position flowering varieties so they catch the afternoon sun, and leave the flowerheads on throughout the winter so they shimmer in the low light.

Cut down to the base in late January. Miscanthus bulks up steadily, so it will need dividing every five to seven years. Divide in spring, but always take care when handling the foliage, as it is sharp and can cut your hands.

- Suppliers: Miscanthus is available nationwide in garden centres or by mail order from or