How to choose flowers for your garden

Above all else, the garden is a place for flowers. Part of this display is provided by roses, climbers and flowering shrubs and trees – plants which produce woody stems and so form the basic upright skeleton of the garden throughout the year. But in practically every garden we ask for more. In tiny plots there is just not enough space for an adequate range of shrubs to give floral colour from early spring to late autumn. In large estates there is a need for flowers which cannot be met by woody plants alone. There are bright spring carpets to provide, beds to fill, rockeries to clothe and borders to furnish. For all these uses, from filling tiny cracks between paving stones to displaying plate-sized blooms against clipped hedges, we turn to the herbaceous group of flowering plants. These are the annuals, biennials and perennials which die down in the winter, disappearing beneath the soil outdoors or waiting indoors as plants, bulbs or seeds until the garden awakens in spring.

The traditional pattern is to use Snowdrops to herald in the New Year, followed by the yellows and blues of clumps of Daffodils and Crocuses growing in the grass or underneath trees. A little later the flower beds produce their spring livery -the biennials such as Wallflowers and Forget-me-nots and bulbs such as Tulips now burst into bloom. The rockery is also bright in April with its sheets of Aubrietia, Arabis and Alyssum saxatile.

Many gardens are aglow with flowers in spring, but early summer is sometimes a rather barren time. In midsummer we see flowers in their full glory – the border displays its perennials in tiered rows, with Delphiniums and Achillea at the back, Campanulas, Phlox and Shasta Daisies in the middle and Pinks, Catmint, Geum, etc at the front. In contrast to this informal muddle of perennials in which flowers come and go at various times, there are the summer beds now rid of their spring Tulips and Wallflowers. Here we find the fussy and formal lines or blocks of half hardy annuals which were bedded out in late May or early June. Yellow French Marigolds and multicoloured Snapdragons are used to break up the pattern of red, white and blue – Geraniums (or Salvias), Alyssum and Lobelia. Autumn is the time for Chrysanthemums, Dahlias and Michaelmas Daisies – reds, yellows and mauves before the flower garden goes to sleep.

So the traditional floral year goes round, beginning with the Snowdrops and ending with the Michaelmas Daisies. Colourful, yes, but so often commonplace. Once there was a good reason for having a garden filled with the same plants as everybody else. Before the Second World War our seeds were bought at the local garden shop where only the popular varieties were stocked, and perennials for the border were chosen from the narrow selection on offer at these shops or from the mail order companies which advertised in gardening magazines. The keen gardener sent for catalogues, but for most of us the choice was a limited one.

We now live in a completely different horticultural world. The large garden centre offers a vast range of seeds, border perennials, rockery plants and bulbs. It is notjust a matter of having more plants on display – in recent years there has been a flood of new types. Of course there are now wider colour ranges – Tagetes in every shade from palest yellow to deepest brown instead of just a few yellow and maroon varieties Day Lilies in a rainbow of colours instead of the dull oranges of yesteryear. But new varieties mean more than just new colours -many have been bred to cater for today’s smaller garden, so that sturdy dwarfs of old favourites such as Sweet Pea and Sunflower are now available.

This means that every garden can be made more interesting by introducing new varieties and uncommon plants to go alongside the established favourites. In this way the garden can be kept in bloom all year round – there are Chionodoxas and Winter Aconites as well as Snowdrops to herald in the year and there are Nerines, Colchicums and Cyclamens as well as Michaelmas Daisies to bid it goodbye.

Of course you need some spirit of adventure, but you must never be foolhardy. It is sheer folly to buy a packet of seeds or a container-grown plant just because you like the picture on the packet or label. You must first find out whether it is right for your garden. In its A-Z sections you will find the likes and dislikes of all sorts of out-of-the-way plants, together with details of uncommon varieties of popular plants.

Of course the mainstays of the traditional garden must not be forgotten. The well-loved plants of Victorian times have a place here, as they have in your garden.

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