Wednesday 16 January 2019

Diarmuid Gavin: Recipe for success

Cook up a raft of colour with the hardy perennials that are the key ingredients of any garden

Aquilegia - lso known as columbines
Aquilegia - lso known as columbines

Diarmuid Gavin

Spring is in full swing with trees and shrubs bursting to life. In the orchards, the apples, pears and cherries are covered in white blossom and the suburbs are lighting up with pink ornamental cherries. Whitebeams (Sorbus aria 'Lutescens') unfold their pleated silvery green leaves and the first of the birch leaves are starting to emerge. It's time to dream about the summer ahead and what we'd like our gardens to be.

The life and soul of a garden is colour. We marvel at it wherever we see it. The art involved in renowned colourful gardens is about the combination of plants - how they move together and react with each other through seasons. But there's no great mystery to achieving a wonderful display, and there are a group of dependable herbaceous perennials that like our island and thrive through the gardening months.

If you like colour, here's my list of fail-safe hardy perennials - they are, in effect, my garden storecupboard essentials!


A really old-fashioned plant in my eyes and utterly reliable. The florets of achillea look a little bit like the flattened head of a cauliflower. They are long-flowering; choose from zingy yellow 'Moonshine' or rosy pink 'Lilac Beauty'. They can be lifted and divided in spring so if you buy one in a pot now, you could divide it up into smaller plants. Best in full sunshine.


One of the plants that defines a cottage garden. Also known as lady's mantle, they flop about with bright green leaves and sulphur flowers seeding themselves in every crevice. They frame the rest of the planting beautifully and their texture is so furry that, after rain, or even a heavy dew, droplets form like glass beads on the foliage.


Also known as columbines (pictured main), these add a touch of cottage- garden colour and informality, with pretty foliage and even prettier colourful bonnets. To bring a Smarties-like mix to your plantations, add in a variety of cultivars.

Hardy Geraniums

HR geranium.jpg

Possibly the handiest of all the perennials, these geraniums creep along the ground, will do well in open sun or dappled shade and don't seem to mind if the soil gets a bit dry. They produce a carpet of foliage and wonderful long-lasting flowers that can be small and dainty or full of drama. In no time, they'll do the job of suppressing weeds while providing enjoyment for you.


I was never wholly convinced by penstemon: I like them in beautiful flower gardens but I have childhood memories of having to weed a rockery packed solely with this species. Then I used Penstemon 'Garnet' in my garden at the Chelsea Flower Show a few years ago and I was hooked. Lots of foxglove-like flowers that keep going until autumn. Leave foliage on over winter to protect in colder areas.


HR rudbeckia.jpg

These flowers like to stand up tall and be seen, so they are the perfect perennial to attract attention from any distance. Rudbeckias are a striking plant - dark centres framed by ruffles of yellow petals. These delightful coneflowers will provide interest towards the end of the summer and into autumn.

Salvia Nemorosa

This is a wonderful plant which gives so much. If you've a sunny place and even just okay soil, drifts of salvia throughout your planting scheme will have the same effect as Elizabeth Taylor's eyes did on her male admirers. The pools of blue flowers atop aromatic foliage are so deep that they have an intoxicating beauty. To keep the show going, dead-head spikes of flowers as they go over.


HR sedum.jpg

Great plants because they refresh your garden at the end of the summer when things are looking a bit worn-out. In late summer these exotic plants all of a sudden begin to colour up, and in no time butterflies are dancing along their bright tapestry of flowers.


Every so often this common, easy-to-grow perennial becomes the star plant at flower shows. Drifts of it with its mauve flowers set on elongated stems dance with perennials and grasses. It looks exotic but will self-seed happily in the most unpromising of soils. What's more, it's not only dramatic in borders but as a specimen in a pot it's hard to beat.

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