Mix and match

Berberis attracts birds.
Berberis attracts birds.

I’M all for adding a spot of seasonal colour to the garden with spring and autumn bedding plants but they are only part of the overall attraction, for at the heart of it all are sustainable plantings. In modern parlance, they carry the torch 24 x 7 x 365 or as this year falls – 366.

Wallflowers, polyanthus and a wide range of bulbs are offering such cheerful displays right now, summer bedding will follow, but they are only encouraged to be stars-of- the-moment by the colourful back-up that other permanent plants provide.

Polyanthus.

Polyanthus.

For example, the patch of red and gold wallflowers either side of a flight of steps stands out because it is surrounded by a yellow winter jasmine, white viburnum and dwarf golden conifer.

Similarly, a large patch of blue grape hyacinth benefits from being planted under the red-stemmed willow which is covered in catkins with golden stamens. When planted in a solitary group, seasonal bedding flowers do not have the same impact for me.

Evergreen shrubs are the key to it all in my garden because they add structure, are visually attractive and encourage bird-life.

Ligustrum ovalifolium (common green privet) exists in the form of a hedge but the golden leaved Aurea, planted as a stand-alone shrub, is much more eye-catching.

Ribes (flowering currant).

Ribes (flowering currant).

Several variations of euonymus can also be found here from silver, through gold and green. It’s a similar story with elaeagnus, which is also planted in its greyish-green leaved form. Skimmia in its male form Rubella has brilliant red buds at present but if you yearn for abundant fruits go for the female form Rogersii.

The common name ‘barberry’ covers shrubs of the berberis family – some deciduous, others evergreen. Star for me is the species darwinii, named after Charles Darwin. It springs up as a seedling all over the garden simply because the birds love its purple fruits which appear in late summer. It reproduces true to type so you can collect seedlings and acquire a handsome intruder-proof hedge or screen in next to no time. Apart from the orange flowers and later fruits, it offers an absolute fortress for nesting birds and is a particular favourite of the song-thrush.

Viburnum tinus, Lonicera nitida Baggesen’s Gold and Osmanthus burkwoodii are three of our bankers in terms of dense evergreens that the birds enjoy. The viburnum is covered with unscented white flowers from November to April then we have six months of glossy green leaves that mask any bird presence within. There are three specimens throughout the garden and the blackbird or thrush tend to select a favourite in which to nest.

Lonicera is equally dense in terms of growth and the only clue we ever have that there’s a nest inside is when the dunnock is seen carrying building material or food.

Skimmia rubella.

Skimmia rubella.

Nesting site apart, the shrub is very attractive, changing from dull to glistening gold as new spring growth appears.

You can buy a bushy form of Osmanthus burwoodii, which is a relatively slow-growing shrub, and clip it into a ball or dome-shape over time. But the three we have are standards and they form an arc across the garden. They were raised from soft summer growth as stem cuttings a few years ago and are now maturing nicely.

Once rooted, the cuttings were transferred to pots and offered a supporting cane. The growing tips were encouraged to head skyward and all side shoots removed, just as you would when training a standard fuchsia, geranium, etc.

When all three were introduced to the garden stronger support stakes were put in place until the desired eye-level height was reached. Then all tips were pruned out and subsequent shoots pinched after four leaves had formed to encourage the present lollipop shape.

As the end of March approaches each one is absolutely covered in small flower bud clusters and full of potential. When they open, the fragrance is almost overpowering. You’d think this would be reason enough to praise these valuable shrubs but no, the icing on this cake is a daily visit from the resident wren which considers each one its private food domain.

Several slow-growing and dwarf conifers, in a variety of forms and colours, add to the year-round visual attraction, and then there are the deciduous flowering shrubs. Spiraea, forsythia, weigela, escallonia and buddleja are represented by several cultivars, each playing its part in attracting insect life, and pleasing the eye of the beholder.

Perennial sub-shrubby plant species such as cotton lavender, English and French lavender also make a strong contribution to our garden.

Some herbs come under the same category. I would hate to be without the waist-high rosemary plants that punctuate pathways. A severe frost can blacken the tips occasionally but a few snips to remove the damaged tissue restores equilibrium. Then after the early summer flowering, which attracts so many bees, brave pruning helps keep the plant full of vigour.

Assorted heathers play an important role in my sustainable planting set-up because they are such good value on several fronts: long-lasting colour, ground-covering weed suppressors, a magnet for diverse bee species, low maintenance, and a sheer delight to grow. A mere handful of cultivars, planted in small groups, will provide year-round colour.

Introducing perennial (sustainable) plants to any ornamental gardening display is a shrewd move and one that Northumbria in Bloom judges love to see on their travels. It is both practical and cost-saving in the long run but not quite maintenance-free.

Shrubs have a finite shelf-life that varies with type, and most need a little pruning annually even if it`s only to remove dead, diseased or damaged branches. As a general rule those that flower on new summer growth (buddleja, lavatera, leycesteria and fuchsia) are pruned severely in late winter. The last call is just about now.

Winter and spring flowering shrubs should be pruned immediately after the blooms fade. The viburnums farreri, bodnantense and tinus will accept severe pruning in their stride, new shoots appearing almost instantly. In the case of yellow forsythia, remove stems that have flowered to encourage young growths that will produce next spring’s bloom. When the willow catkins have faded we will cut all the tall stems down to knee height. At the same time, pale green and red-stemmed dogwoods are pruned even more severely, chopping them back almost to soil level. They respond with strong new shoots that will provide bark colour in winter.

Don’t forget the ornamental tree element. My favourite type is deciduous because there is an obvious gradual change with the seasons through bud, leaf and flower. And it must respond to the wind creating movement rather than stand rigidly to attention. If it also attracts birds in search of insects and their eggs, that is a bonus.

The birch (betula) is typical of this. The tit nesting box has recently been taken over by squatters in the form of tree sparrows so we now have a property dispute on site. No sooner do the tits move their furniture in, than the sparrows throw it out and install their own. This could end up on the ombudsman’s desk!

Footnote: When Alnwick Garden Club meets next Tuesday 27th at 7.30 in the Town Hall, Jim Givens will be joining the regular team for a topical update on his garden. All are welcome.