Sunday 21 December 2014

Fifty shades of winter

Marie Staunton

Published 04/11/2012 | 06:00

Marie Staunton finds plants to give gardens a final burst of colour

When we think of colour in the garden at this time of the year, we tend to look to trees to provide the last hurrah before winter sets in.

However, if you are looking for something a little different in the herbaceous department, consider the very elegant Verbena bonariensis to add a flourish of colour to a late autumn border.

Planted en masse, the effect is stunning, and the beauty of this particular plant is that it seeds freely, so expect to see lots more little verbena around the garden in the years following the initial planting.

These are tall plants, but they won't take away from other plants in the borders because they are delicate in nature and their clustered little flower heads seem almost to float above the other more robust asters and salvias that are also providing much-loved colour right now.

I don't blame you if this isn't your favourite time of the year in the garden, but, over the past number of years, October and November have had their complement of clear blue skies -- albeit every second day, making it very difficult to plan a few jobs to be done in the garden.

Just get out when you can and do a bit, and if the weather turns nasty then that's your excuse to put your feet up and have a nice cuppa -- it will all get done in the end.

I mentioned nerines last week as a great bulb to invest in; they give a much-needed injection of colour into an autumn garden, in particular the lovely pink Nerine bowdenii -- the hardy one which does well in Ireland.

If white is your preference, then look out for Nerine 'Stephanie', with its creamy white flowers tinged with a bit of pink, as an alternative.

These aren't difficult to get going in the garden: plant the bulbs in late summer/early autumn, close together and not too deep. They also like full sun.

In years to come you can divide them by taking away half the clump of bulbs and replanting them in another part of the garden.

They are hardy, and came through the couple of bad winters that we had, but if you are still worried then you can mulch them with a bit of straw or old dry compost as an insurance policy.

If a friend is offering you some from their garden, don't be tempted to split them up into single bulbs -- they like a bit of company, a bit like ourselves really, so tease out some, keeping five or more bulbs together, and replant.

Sedums are like old friends -- you might neglect them over the years, but they won't fall out with you about that. They potter along providing consistent colour for the last weeks of autumn, when all around is putting to bed for the winter, so make a little room for a very loyal and wonderfully versatile group of plants in your little patch.

Try stonecrop, as it is commonly referred to (because of its ability to grow on inhospitable stony ground). The smaller varieties, such as Sedum hispanicum, are ideally suited to an alpine rockery, and for a herbaceous border Sedum 'Autumn Joy' will give you a bit of height and that lovely old rose colour that fades to copper come November.

They are such easy plants to propagate -- just break a bit off the established plant and stick it in the ground and ignore it for a while until it roots itself.

Sedums and hydrangeas are a good combination as both plants hold their flowers well into early winter. Lobelia cardinalis is a vibrant, flashy sort of plant; not one to fade into the background. The strong red colour is exactly what the doctor ordered as the light starts to fade earlier and earlier.

They are tall plants, getting to around 90cm, and all they need is a nice moist, fertile soil in full sun. They will manage well enough in partial shade -- just cut them back after the flowers fade.

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