In recent years the trend has been much more towards ‘naturalistic’ borders, with an emphasis on perennials and grasses mingled together in a very informal way. The contemporary style of planting above is outside the restaurant at Cambridge Botanic Gardens. Here plants are mingled together in a matrix in much the same way that they might grow together in a meadow. The Oudolf Field in Somerset, that I described in an earlier post, is another example of this with not a shrub to be seen anywhere. As beautiful and atmospheric as this style of planting is, it will not be suitable for every garden situation and works better, I think, in larger spaces.
Last autumn I attended a couple of courses held by Thornhayes Nursery deep in the lovely east Devon countryside near Cullompton. They are specialist growers of trees and shrubs and a visit to the nursery and the surrounding orchards and aboretum is a real treat. Kevin Croucher who owns the nursery and runs the courses is hugely knowledgeable and I spent my time soaking up so much useful information about establishment and formative pruning of trees and shrubs. I also discovered some gorgeous shrubs that I had not encountered before, and decided then and there we are due a revival of the mixed border. Layers of planting can be built up beneath and between deciduous and evergreen shrubs, giving interest right through the year starting with Snowdrops in January, through spring and summer perennials to lovely autumn leaf and berry colour. In winter evergreen shrubs will give interest and structure.
The following are some very special shrubs that certainly have their peak season but also keep the interest going at other times.
This is it in its full glory in April in my garden. Then juicy black berries form and we have a couple of weeks of amazing antics from the Blackbirds as they perform acrobatics, hanging on the end of the thin branches and feasting on the berries which they find irresistible. In the autumn the leaves turn fiery red and orange. It is a suckering shrub but I have not found this a problem in my garden. Seems to tolerate wet or dry soil.
SALIX PURPUREA ‘Nancy saunders’
A rare, purple-leaved form of our native blackthorn, Prunus spinosa ‘Purpurea’ has leaves which are an attractive bronze/purple-green colour. In spring these colourful leaves make an excellent backdrop for masses of pretty, small, pale pinkish-white flowers.
This striking Asian shrub was looking stunning in September with gorgeous pink/red fruits, and as they autumn progresses the leaves will take on rich autumn colours. It will grow to around 4m x 4m in 10 years so needs some space around it though can be reduced in size by pruning.
LONICERA PURPUSII x ‘WINTER BEAUTY’
In January, the first thing you will experience is the gorgeous sweet scent of this shrubby Honeysuckle. On a mild, still day it will carry far and wide. I met it for the first time in the wonderful winter garden at the University of Cambridge Botanic Garden. (The garden deserves a post all to itself!) Depending on the weather it can flower from early December to April. Best to plant it in a sheltered spot to protect the flowers and contain the scent, but does not mind a sunless aspect.