Diarmuid Gavin's top 30 plants to bring your garden to life
My list of top garden plants? That changes every day! How do you pick favourites when we can cultivate so many? Well, I've narrowed it down to the ones I couldn't live without.
They range from the dramatic to the everyday, ones to show off with and species to delight in. So, from trees to shrubs, climbers to bulbs here are my Top 30 plants to bring your garden alive. The plants are available from Mr Middleton (mrmiddleton.com) at the prices listed.
TREES Choosing the right tree for your garden is important. You may be enchanted by foliage, bark or blossom but be sure to choose a species that's correct for your space and conditions.
1 Killarney Strawberry tree (Arbutus uned, €12)
An Irish native perfect for a medium-sized city garden.
This is a tree which is at once exotic and native, and one which we should see much more of in Ireland. It's evergreen, producing white flowers in November/December and its fruit can take a year to ripen and achieve that strawberry appearance. Be warned however - this strawberry is not tasty. It's tolerant of pollution so will do well in towns and cities, and will survive at temperatures as low as -16C.
2 Silver Wattle (Acacia dealbata, €19.95)
A fast growing tree, ideal for blocking something unsightly in small gardens.
This is a wonderful tree for warm gardens. Ideally grown against a wall for shelter, it can bloom from late January or in a cold year it may wait until March. The blossom is quite extraordinary - thousands of bright yellow bobbles through to white with often a sweet scent. It likes a light free draining soil, and plant as a young tree as it doesn't transplant well.
3 West Himalayan Birch (Betula utilis Jacquemontii, €30)
Great for front gardens and streets, especially in groups.
This birch grows with a rather formal upright habit, with its brilliant white stem looking great whether you plant a single specimen or use a group together. Its foliage is attractive, with rounded green leaves turning golden in the autumn. It's shallow rooting and if you plant it in a lawn its roots can cause hassle for the blades of your lawnmower.
The backbone and structure of many gardens comes from the selection of shrubs used. It's good to take a new look at everyday planting and give thanks for what they achieve.
4 'Gertrude Jekyll' Rose (Rosa, €20)
Best for brightening up borders.
If I was allowed to choose only one rose to grow, it would have to be the fragrant Gertrude. She coyly reveals her flowers which start as small sculptured scrolls, opening to lovely pink rosettes. A robust medium sized shrub, she' s a hungry feeder so prepare for her arrival with dollops of well-rotted manure dug into the ground.
5 Christmas box (Sarcococca confusa, €10)
Best for winter scent.
If you were to pass this shrub in mid winter you would hardly notice it, but you'd search for the source of the wonderful scent. It grows as a small green mound, 3ft- 4ft rounded, and likes a bit of shade and the soil to be well drained. The flowers which produce the scent are white, but fairly insignificant, and they are soon followed by black berries.
6 Winter daphne (Daphne odora, €15)
A gift of flowers in the winter months.
Daphne odora will enhance the winter interest in your garden. It's an attractive, evergreen with wonderful clusters of pink flower clusters and does well in a partly shaded situation.
7 Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis, €10)
Ideal for pots and containers.
The common bay is a king among plants, revered by ancient Romans and Greeks, evergreen, with elegant dark green aromatic leaves. It's the perfect plant for topiary shapes and for pots in a sunny, sheltered spot.
8 Japanese pittosporum (Pittosporum tobira Nunum, €10)
Best for providing groundcover.
I'm partial to many New Zealand shrubs but none beats the Pittosporum family for me. They have fun 'crinkly' leaves, depending on which one you plant they can reach for the skies and fatten out accordingly or hug the ground.
9 English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia Hidcote, €7)
Adds colour and scent in poor soil.
A Mediterranean low growing fragrant shrub with silver/grey foliage which will do well in full sun and poor soil. Hidcote will produce spikes of flowers from June onwards. Cut back hard to stop it sprawling.
From spring through autumn, bulbs can be sprinkled through lawns or meadows or planted in pots and borders to add instant impact.
10 Himalayan lily (Cardiocrinium giganteum, €15, available from November)
A showstopping giant.
The Giant Himilayan Lily is an extraordinary bulb that will prove your patience fortitude and skill as a gardener. They love a rich fertile moist soil in a shaded, edge-of-woodland type situation, but don't expect fast results as they can take up to 7 years to flower. At that stage they can have reached an astonishing 12ft in height. Their flowers are incredibly dramatic, almost surreal, trumpets.
11 'Purple Sensation' Allium (€9 per 20 bulbs, available from September)
Add fireworks to your borders.
Towards the end of May, this bulb, which is part of the onion family, shoots out of the ground on a long stem accompanied by some side energy producing leaves that soon fall back to earth exhausted. And then, like the best firework display ever, it bursts into flower, producing perfect spherical shaped purple flowers. Don't grow one, or grow them in a row. Scatter a couple of dozen and plant where they land for a dynamite display.
12 'Lucifer' Crocosmia (€6.99 per 20 corms) Adds a final dash of colour in late summer.
No late summer floral display is complete without the arched stems and red freesia-like crowns of Crocosmia Lucifer. Its startling colour, emerging from clumps of bulbs in warm moist soil, rests on top of a sea of light-green sword-like foliage. And every year more and more of these jewels appear.
Jungle-like gems with dramatic foliage that love our temperate climate.
13 Foxtail lily (Eremurus, €12 per 5 roots) For summer borders.
Also known as the Desert Candle, this deciduous perennial shoots up long flower spikes from white through to orange.
14 Umbrella tree (Schefflera taiwaniana, €30)
One for seasoned collectors.
In 2004 I was preparing to create a garden at the Chelsea Flower show and I came across this freshly introduced architectural evergreen beauty, direct from the jungles of Taiwan. It loves a semi-shaded site and will add a touch of the plant hunter to your plot.
15 Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra, €19.95)
For pots or large gardens.
The bamboo stems emerge green and can take a couple of years to darken. They will commonly reach 30ft in Ireland and are thirsty plants, loving water. With all bamboos, whatever the species, I'd recommend installing a root guard as they can become invasive. Or, if you can guarantee a steady supply of water, grow in a large pot or tub.
16 Silver spear (Astelia chathamica, €19.95)
Grows in shady spots.
Do you want some silver sword-like foliage in a shady spot? Look no further than the Astelia family. Its dramatic foliage acts as a great contrast to almost anything!
17 Japanese Angelica tree (Aralia elata, €25)
A statement piece for a large garden.
This deciduous tree/shrub makes an uncompromising statement in any garden. It needs some space to be appreciated. It could grow to 25ft, shoots out masses of architectural foliage and shows off tiny clusters of cream-colored flowers throughout the summer.
18 Windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei, €15)
A survivor in cold climates.
The Chinese windmill palm produces a stout stem from which emerge dramatic fan-shaped palm leaves and arching sprays of small light-yellow flowers.
19 Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa, €15)
An ornamental grass to add movement in the wind.
I wouldn't live without this wonderful grass! It forms perfectly shaped hummocks, has narrow flat leaves and in late summer produces needle-like flower spikes. I combine it with solid masses of shaped box to created some wavy contrast.
20 Male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas, €7)
Grows in clumps to fill shaded spaces in your border.
This is an easily grown deciduous woodland fern that forms an elegant clump. It loves to grow in a moist and shady site and its fronds once unfurled in the spring are a thing of simple beauty.
Plants that can be relied on to provide a recurring explosion of colour in borders.
21 Purple Angelica (Angelica stricta 'Purpurea', €7)
This dramatic plant will bring in butterflies. Angelica is a great dramatic addition to any border. It shoots up on a dramatic 4in stem and if you place it in a sunny spot it produces showstopper dark-purple flower heads. The old wives tale goes that if you add it to your bath it will get rid of spells or curses which have been cast on you!
22 Bear's breeches (Acanthus mollis, €7)
Best for dramatic foliage.
A herbaceous plant grown as much for its wonderfully flamboyant glossy foliage (which has inspired s culptors and painters) as the tall spikes of flowers which push up in late summer. It loves a rich well-drained soil and is great for an open sunny site.
23 Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea, €11.95 per 4 roots)
Plant in drifts for mid-summer colour.
This is a great flowering herbaceous perennial much in demand for our recent trend in prairie-style planting. Plant in drifts through flower borders, or even through ornamental grasses, and you will be rewarded from mid-summer into autumn by masses of dramatic blooms produced on stems of 2ft-3ft.
24 Johnson's Blue Geranium (€7)
Best for dry spots.
I could never produce a list of garden faves and leave off the simple foot soldier that is the geranium. It grows in clumps, is drought tolerant, will form a carpet and right from the kick-off of spring through summer is covered with delightful blue simple flowers.
25 Argentinian vervain (Verbena bonariensis, €7)
Will seed and spread.
This is a wonderful swaying, tall plant that seeds itself everywhere if it loves your garden. Its purple flowers float in the top of long stems and mix beautifully with grasses and other perennials. Flowering all summer long. It's great for attracting bees, butterflies and even goldfinches to your plot.
26 Camomile €5, plants €10)
Grows a carpet of cover.
When planted en-mass this is an easy-to-grow decorative alternative to the common lawn. It requires an open sunny position with excellent drainage, its foliage is low-growing, moss -ike, emitting a fantastic soothing scent.
A plant that will be a talking point in your garden.
27 Japanese banana (Musa Basjoo, €15) Add impact with these exotic leaves.
If you want to impress, grow a banana plant - outdoors, in Ireland! The herbaceous perennial is quite hardy. Plant in full sun, a moist soil and feed it loads. You will get dramatic new leaves every week, but it won't produce fruit.
These will race up a wall or structure in an effort to be seen.
28 Star jasmine (Trachelospernum jasminoides, €15)
Evergreen climber for sun or shade.
This is a versatile and useful flowering evergreen climber which can be neatly trained and controlled. It's covered in small white flowers through summer, and these contrast nicely with small, deep-green, attractive leaves. Best of all, it's not fussy about where it lives, sun or shade. And it will even work as a ground cover. How versatile is that?
29 'Heavenly Blue' Morning Glory (Ipomoea, 50 seeds €3.29)
Will cover a fence or wall.
This plant will undoubtedly frighten some gardeners. That's because it's a cousin of the mightily invasive bindweed, and shares the same heart-shaped leaves and trumpet-like flowers and creeping skyward habit. That's where comparisons end as Heavenly Blue is a useful annual which can be sewed directly into the soil and produces gorgeous flowers.
30 Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinesis, €19.95)
Best for your pergula.
This ugly hardy exotic looking climber grows in full sun or dappled shade, and during May and June will startle with dripping clusters of beautiful lilac flowers. Train against a wall or around a pergola and prune eight weeks after flowering.