Andrew Fisher Tomlin FSGD suggests using more unusual plants to improve your planting schemes
Over the past decade, planting design for gardens has generally become stuck in a constant repetition of the same shortlist of plants chosen solely for aesthetic pleasure, and designers are increasingly talking about their ‘go to’ plants. Why, if we want a multi-stem, do we always use Betula or Amelanchier, when we could choose an Acer griseum or Stachyurus praecox? If you want spring and winter colour usually offered by something like Parrotia, why not consider wattles?
There are important reasons to start using more exciting and unusual plants. If we use only a narrow range of plants, then nurseries, out of understandable business motives, will grow to that range and there will be less choice available. For me, pioneering nurseries are the heroes of the ornamental plant world. Because of their enthusiasm and curiosity, I am able to find the plants I love and thought lost, but I’m also discovering new plants to use.
These new plants are often practical in their use. They are mostly grown by the nursery, not just bought into stock, because the grower has found them more suitable to the weather and climates we have today. In choosing these plants, we both expand our palettes and help support small businesses in the UK.
In 2013, I was commissioned to design a garden in Sydney on the basis that it would only use native plants. I discovered a rich range of wattles that I could use back in the UK including the Cape Leeuwin Wattle, Paraserianthis lophantha, and Acacia pravissima, a delicate evergreen shrub or small tree. Its form is relaxed and it’s great when used as a multi-stem, but easier to keep to a smaller size. With crowded, triangular leaf-like phyllodes and small yellow flowers in late winter and early spring, it provides interest when our gardens most need it. Like Acacia melanoxylon, which has a beautiful buttery yellow flower, it is hardy in coastal and relatively mild parts of the UK.
Cool & shady plants
Part of the joy of designing with more unusual plants is in finding species and varieties that were introduced to the UK as long ago as the 18th century, but have been confined to the larger botanical gardens. Such a plant is Roscoea, a member of the ginger family of which we tend to think of more exotic places. Named after the founder of Liverpool Botanic Garden, William Roscoe, the delicate appearance of their almost orchid-like flowers suggest that they might be difficult to grow, but I’ve found them particularly hardy in semi-shaded areas if planted deeply and mulched. My favourite is Roscoea x beesiana ‘Monique’, but John at Tropical Britain loves Roscoea alpina. I’ve seen them continue flowering for as long as 10 weeks in very shaded conditions.
Another woodland plant that I’ve only just recently discovered but was introduced early in the 19th century is Blechnum chilense, the Chilean Hard Fern. This is a tough evergreen fern that I’ve found to establish quickly and send up fronds to 1m high. It’s relatively easily to source because it has the RHS Award of Garden Merit and looks great with our more typical shady flora.
Hot & sunny plants
Garden designers often look for plants that will give more than a seasonal climax, and any plant that can offer a great backdrop for others is a winner. Plectranthus argentatus is one such plant. A spreading evergreen sub-shrub, it has silvery stems and silver grey leaves that combine well with all those Mediterranean aromatics, it blooms with small tubular bluish-white flowers through summer, but its appeal for me is much more in the foliage and it being hardy, certainly in urban gardens and in a sunny country garden.
Showstoppers & substitutes
Part of the joy of exotics is that they can steal the show. Occasionally though, you’ll need to grow them yourself to use in your gardens. Cardiocrinum giganteum, the Giant Himalayan Lily that grows to 2m with large trumpet-shaped flower heads similar to lilies, could be more widely used, but unfortunately they are monocarpic and die after flowering. We’re now finding them easier to source, but to be sure, last year we planted them up in pots before transferring them into a garden.
I wouldn’t dare tell anyone to abandon large perennial plantings, but think about substituting grasses to avoid that over-used Stipa/Verbena combination. In particular I’d recommend exploring the Restionaceae family. Baloskion tetraphyllum is a rushlike plant which forms a tight clump and continues to give pleasure through summer. It’s another southern hemisphere plant that can be a weed there, but over here it seldom self-seeds. Similarly Elegia equisetacea is a clumpforming evergreen restio up to 1.5m that always draws attention. It’s fast growing and a great alternative to taller grasses like Miscanthus.