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Many of the shrubs that flower in winter and early spring have strongly-scented flowers, so they can attract any lone bee that is out there this time of year. And their scent also draws me outside to appreciate these hardy plants. I’ve planted 3 winter-flowering shrubs together near the house, together with a seat, so I can sit and breathe in the scent. 

The wintersweet, or chimonanthus praecox ‘Grandiflora’, is a big, rather messy shrub that I have to hack back in the summer to tidy.  But it’s worth growing for the delicate waxy yellow flowers appearing on the bare branches in January.  It took a few years to get going properly, but now it flowers in abundance and smells wonderful.

I have just read in a good article by Ursula Buchan that this is a dome-shaped shrub – so now I know what shape to cut it in this summer!  NB Don’t prune it until it is a few years old, or you will delay its flowering even later.  You can also train it against a wall.  A warm, sheltered position is best, both for flowering and for ensuring it makes it through the winter (it’s frost resistant down to 14F/-10C).

Below this is sweet box or sarcococca confusa, a neater evergreen with small dark green shiny leaves, which now is sporting rows of little white trumpet-shaped flowers with long stamens – and another scent to enjoy.

Beside this is a wildly sprouting winter honeysuckle Lonicera fragrantissima, with small white honey-scented flowers along long branches. It flowers better against a warm wall.  Mine faces south-west, so despite a little shade in the morning, it fits the bill.  I may move this so I can appreciate winter scent somewhere else, but for now I just stand and sniff each plant in turn.  The wintersweet’s perfume is strongest but each is good.

There is also a deep purple-pink hellebore, offspring of one bought in Coton Manor Garden, below all this.

(NB: Coton Manor is open 16th Feb-3rd March 2019 to view snowdrops and hellebores – it’s in Northamptonshire, worth visiting all year.)

The corner has taken a few years to develop but is well worth it now, something to appreciate and tempt me to venture into the garden when there’s little else to see.  NB: the yuccas are back in this space too.. see my previous post about this!

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In the hot days of summer, I was lucky enough to be one of 35 garden designers spending the day with Tom Stuart Smith. As a garden designer Tom has Chelsea Gold medals and Best in Show for his designs. The event was organised by Gillian Goodson in aid of Horatio’s Garden, which creates and cares for gardens at NHS spinal injury centres.

Tom spent the whole visit with us, which we weren’t expecting, so we found out a lot about how he created his garden and why he did what he did, as well as what he’d do if he were to start over again – very useful for all of us.  He also took us to his sister’s garden across the road at Serge Hill and let us use the natural swimming pond at the end of a hot day, much obliged!!

The first part we saw was where the farmyard used to be, surrounded by barns.  It was a stunning beginning, as parts of Tom’s Chelsea garden from 2005 have been transposed into the space.  It is sheltered by lovely feathery Etna Broom trees (Genista aetnensis):

The plants suit the hot and dry space here.  Euphorbia mellifera grows in some places to 2m and in others is cut back, mixing in with other plants:

Other sun-loving drought tolerant plants filled the space with the euphorbia, such as grasses and eryngium (with enthusiastic designers in the background):

The tanks of Corten steel have inky still water making the place relaxing and contemplative.

The house looks on to the main back garden, which is filled with the tall herbaceous plants that Tom loves, cut through with grass paths:

Looking back to the house:

Then there were beds of perennials punctuated by tall conifers:

A large wildflower meadow had just been cut, next to the back of the house.  We perched on straw bales to eat our lunch.

Not only is there a meadow, but a prairie, with no grasses, and many tightly packed flowering plants, some must have been 3m high:

And another meadow-like area behind it:

Beyond the meadow is a wood, and beyond that, a natural swimming pond, where we enjoyed a post-visit plunge.  Thank you, Tom!

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For any faithful followers of my blog, sorry to be away so long – I have been busy working and travelling.  I’ve just visited a great botanic garden with a fresh modern design: the ‘Australian Garden’ of the Royal Victoria Botanic Gardens, near Melbourne, Australia.  The garden manages to display plants in meaningful groups – families, or habitat, or interest – in ways that can intrigue and interest everyone, and become a great exploratory day out – as evidenced by the many families I saw there.

It’s set in a larger park of native bushland, and it’s free to enter. 

The traditional custodians of this land are the Boon Wurrung people of the Koolin Nation, and they are acknowledged as such by the Royal Botanic Gardens.

The garden is split up by expanses of water, navigated by paths of varying materials – I enjoyed my mobility scooter ride round ‘Howson Hill’  and across a wooden bridge to ‘Melaleuca Spits’,  where plants growing where rivers meet the sea are showcased in a shoreline of sweeping curves:

Nearby is another small hill with a dramatic rock face descending to the water and great slices of rock protruding at intervals.

On this is the Weird and Wonderful garden, with unusual plants such as the Queensland Bottle Tree, a baobab-like tree which stores water in its trunk, a great tactic in a dry environment:

The tree above came from a front garden, after floods caused the tree to swell so much it became too big.

The gardens could not be without the most common tree species in Australia, and there is a garden of Eucalypts.  Brits may not be familiar with the pretty flowers and cones they produce:

Grass trees can be hundreds of years old:…

Lastly, the garden’s centrepiece is the Red Sand Garden, with the vibrant deep red sand of the Australian desert, dotted with planting of acacia and spinifex, and flat curving sculpture.

If you’re in the area, I recommend this garden as a way of finding out more about Australian native plants as well as an enjoyable outing.

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People often consider shrubs as slightly dull background plants, but they can be a lot more exciting than this, and very useful too. They are generally easy to care for; they give structure and substance to a garden, and they provide colour through the year. 

I’ve just completed a planting plan for a family garden, that mostly consists of shrubs. My clients are a couple with 3 children of different ages who have visitors from their extended family, also with small children.  They have a busy life and wanted a low-maintenance garden based around shrubs, including some evergreens for winter interest. 

They also wanted a new tree to screen views of nearby houses, and wanted advice on whether to keep a large cherry tree which had not, so far, flowered.  The garden would have a simple layout of three beds, a lawn and a south-east facing patio.  The photo below shows the existing garden – the paved area on the right is to be replaced by lawn.

NB: For pictures of all the plants I describe below, go to my Pinterest board- a page of which is here below – press here for a link to this or go to www.pinterest/jhgd/tom-and-emmas-garden/

Trees

I started with the existing trees.  There was a magnolia on the left, which looked promising.  The cherry did not seem in the right place to provide privacy and screening, so I looked at other trees instead.

After some juggling of trees and shrubs, I came up with planting two multi-stem silver birches in the right hand back corner.  These will look lovely all year round, with their white peeling bark, catkins and delicate leaves and branches.

Having two trees together is not usually a good idea – things look better as singles or in threes – but these trees would be balanced by a new tree in the left-hand corner,  a cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’.  This has small purple leaves and pink spring flowers, and would both screen the view (particularly from spring to autumn) and enhance the sinuous stems of the magnolia in front of it.

The proposed trees provide dappled shade rather than a solid shade.  This is important, as the garden faces south-east, so a solid tree canopy would be excessively dark.  Here’s a scale model of the trees:

Evergreens

I included several evergreen shrubs to provide structure. A Ceanothus is in a sunny front corner on the left-hand side, providing blue flowers in summer. Near the left-hand back corner there is a Pittosporum ‘Elizabeth’, which has grey-green leaves margined white with a pink flush, that tone with the Cercis behind it. An existing pyracantha has been moved to the centre of the back fence; it bears abundant flowers and berries, feeding the wildlife and giving seasonal colour.

In the shady bed on the right there are three larger shrubs: a choisya, a mahonia the client liked, and a climbing variegated euonymus ‘Silver Queen’ in between to lighten up the shade.

I found a lovely combination of 3 smaller shrubs in a very useful book for any gardener: ‘The Creative Shrub Garden’ by Andy McIndoe. He suggests them for creating an ‘exotic’ feel; I chose them because they went with the Buddha statue and stones that my clients wanted incorporated into the design, and also because they suit the acid soil and are low-maintenance plants with year-round interest.  They are: nandina domestica, leucothoe keiskei ‘Royal Ruby’ and rhododendron ‘Blue Danube’

The first two plants tone together and have winter tints of red or purple, which is a nice contrast for the birch trunks and the Buddha/stones. The rhododendron has large purple flowers which tone nicely with the red and purple of the other two plants.

For flowering evergreen ground cover, there are creeping periwinkles (vinca minor) and bergenia ‘Bressingham Ruby’.

Deciduous shrubs and climbers

On the left hand fence, there is a climbing rose ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’, with bold red flowers.

Two clematis, macropetala ‘Lagoon’ and ‘Jackmanii’, provide flowers in spring and summer.

A dogwood, cornus alba sibirica ‘Variegata’, has green and white variegated leaves which tone with the white birch trunks; when cut back in March, the new red stems will be a lovely feature in winter.

Lastly, a purple/pink berberis thunbergii ‘Rose Glow’ on the right balances the purple cercis on the left side of the garden.

Bulbs and perennials

My clients like bold colours, so I used oranges, reds and purples. I used spring bulbs for shots of bold colour: narcissus ‘Tete a Tete’ and the orange tulip ‘Ballerina’.  An orange crocosmia, an existing red and white salvia ‘Hot Lips’ and a red daylily or hemerocallis feature in the sunny left-hand bed, while at the back there are some orange geums and long-flowering violet-blue geranium ‘Rozanne’. 

I hope to report back with some photos of the garden when this is all planted up.  In the meantime, do consider the book on shrubs to help you choose shrubs for your own garden.  Late winter is a good time to plant them…

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