Fairytale Foxgloves

Blurry close up of foxgloves in golden sunset lighting

Image: Canva

There has long been an association between fairies and foxgloves. Folklore says that fairies gave the flowers to foxes to wear on their paws so they could tread silently when hunting. There is certainly something magical about their slender spires and they make excellent border plants, lending both romance and an airy architecture to gardens as well as providing ample food for bees. Seed sown in May/June will provide foxglove flowers next year. Or buy established plants now for instant impact this season. 

Foxgloves in the Wild

A colony of purple coloured wild foxgloves with farmland and hills in distance

Wild foxgloves are ‘edge’ plants growing in hedgerows, woodland edges and glades
Image: Canva

The wild foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, is instantly recognisable and probably one of the first flowers we learn in childhood. It has been christened with a variety of playful names: witches’ gloves, bee catchers, dead men’s thimbles, floppy dock, tod-tails and fairy bells. Although fairies are associated with woodland, foxgloves are inhabitants of woodland edges, heaths and hedgerows, preferring dappled light to deep shade. However, they will grow in full sun, providing the soil is moist and humus-rich. They naturally thrive in acid soils but will tolerate a wide pH range.

Biennial or Short-lived perennial

Digitalis purpurea is a biennial or occasionally a short-lived perennial, producing a rosette of downy leaves in its first year and then a flower spike in the following one. Foxglove cultivars derived from the wild form are also biennial, although if the flower stem is removed before setting seed the plant may survive another season. It will also produce secondary, smaller flower spikes.

There are a number of less common non-native foxglove species which are technically perennial plants but they are still short-lived, surviving for 2-3 years.

Foxgloves in the border

Why grow foxgloves? Foxgloves are nostalgic plants which instantly create a relaxed, cottage garden mood. They associate beautifully with other cottage garden plants such as ferns, campanulas, geraniums and roses. Most perennials are mound-forming, so foxgloves are one of those useful plants which create vertical accents and break up monotony. Their airy spires add a lightness of touch to the heavier, solid forms of background shrubs. Light coloured varieties are also excellent for illuminating shady spots. They are best placed in the middle or back of borders and look particularly stunning when planted in groups.

Quick guide to growing foxgloves

  • Longevity: Most are biennial (occasionally short-lived). A few species of foxgloves are short-lived perennials.
  • Hardiness: Biennial species are fully hardy.
  • Soil: Unfussy but ideally free draining soil which is moisture retentive and rich in organic matter. Particularly thrive in acidic soils but will grow in a wide pH.
  • Flowering time: May to September with peak in June.
  • Water: Enjoy plenty of moisture. Plants grown in very dry positions may end up stunted. Water well after planting until established.
  • Sun: Dappled shade, although will grow in full sun if the soil is moist.
  • Aftercare: After flowering, if seed isn’t required, cut back the main flower spike right down to the base. This will promote flowering side shoots and encourage normally biennial species to survive another year.
  • Problems: Protect small seedlings from slugs and snails. Mature plants can be affected by powdery mildew after flowering but will normally recover on their own.
  • Toxicity: Highly toxic

 

Best Foxglove cultivars

Foxglove ‘Dalmatian Mixed’

Close up of deep pink and light pink flowers of Foxglove Dalmatian Series

Foxglove Dalmatian Series
Image: Dreamstime

Unlike other cultivars, the Dalmatian series will typically bloom in its first year. They make quite compact, well branching plants about 50-75cm tall Their short stature makes them more suitable for containers.

They come in a wide, mixed colour range and single coloured varieties are also available: Dalmatian WhiteDalmatian Peach’, ‘Dalmatian Cream’ and ‘Dalmatian.

Candy Series

Foxglove ‘Candy Mountain’
Image: Sahin

Raised by Thompson and Morgan, the Candy series are particularly showy foxgloves and distinguished by their upward facing flowers which are densely arranged around the stem. Up to 140cm high, they are tall plants for the back of the border.

Camelot Series

Foxglove ‘Camelot Rose’
Image: Goldsmith

This is another tall foxglove, reaching up to 150cm with colours ranging from lavender, cream, rose and white.

Foxglove ‘Alba’

Foxglove ‘Alba’
Image: Thompson & Morgan

These tall, pure white foxgloves were popularised by Gertrude Jekyll who advised using them to lighten shady corners. Bees cannot see white flowers and therefore they are less frequently pollinated.

White flowered foxgloves can be distinguished from coloured ones by examining the midrib on the underside of the leaf. In white forms the midrib is green, in coloured ones it is purple.

‘Pam’s choice’ and ‘Pam’s Split’

Close up of white foxglove flowers with maroon markings. In Pam's Split the tube or corolla is split.

‘Pam’s Choice’ left and ‘Pam’s Split’ right.
Image: Sahin

This rogue seedling was found on a compost heap! It’s an eye-catching specimen with tall spires of large white flowers distinguished by their dark maroon throats. ‘Pam’s Split’ is another sport with very unusual split petals.

Foxglove Illumination Series

Foxglove ‘Illumination Flame’
Image: Thompson & Morgan

The Illumination series has transformed this cottage garden staple into something distinctly more exotic. Bred by Thompson and Morgan they are a cross between the Canary Island foxglove, Digitalis canariensis (formerly Isoplexis canariensis) and our native foxglove. The resulting plants have inherited the vibrant deep pinks and apricots of their Canary Island relatives. They are striking plants which due to their sterile flowers will flower continuously for several months. They do need a sheltered well-drained position to survive the winter as they are half-hardy.

How to grow foxgloves

Established plants – Will flower this year and then die. Allowing some to go to seed will provide future flowers in their second year.

Plug Plants – Will flower in their second year. Saves on the effort of seed sowing. Plant them out for 2 years running to ensure continuous flowers every year from self-seeded plants.

Growing foxgloves from seed

When to sow: May-June

This will produce seedlings which are mature enough to get through their first winter.

Some varieties, some as ‘Dalmatian Series’, will flower in their first year and therefore it is advisable to sow them earlier in March/April. Perennial foxgloves can also be sown at this time.

How to sow foxglove seed

  • Unless you have an acre of garden or thousands of friends, stick to half or mini seed trays. This will provide you with plenty of seedlings.
  • Foxglove seed is tiny. Use a fine seed compost – sieving it if necessary.
  • Try to get the surface as flat as possible. A tamper is an invaluable tool for this.
  • Either water the compost before sowing or use a fine rose on your watering can – otherwise your seeds will get washed away.
  • Don’t use the whole packet of seed! Try to sow sparingly and evenly so the seedlings won’t be jammed together.
  • Don’t cover the seed. It is tiny and it needs light to germinate.
  • Create a humid environment – place the tray inside a clear plastic bag or cover with a piece of glass/clear plastic.
  • Place the seed trays in bright light somewhere warm but not hot.
  • Don’t let them dry out!
  • Once seedlings are large enough, prick them out into 9cm pots or modules.
  • Plant out into their final positions in the autumn.

Direct Sowing

Foxgloves can also be sown direct into an area of cleared ground which has been raked to a fine tilth. Scatter the seed over the surface, lightly rake and water in afterwards using a fine rose. Progressively thin seedlings to eventual spacing of 45-60cm

Self-seeding

Tray of foxglove seedlings

Learn to recognise foxglove seedlings
Image: Corinne Brown

Foxgloves are prolific self-seeders – the dried-out flower spike is flexible and light and easily blown about, launching millions of tiny seeds to be carried in the wind. Allowing at least some of your plants to go to seed ensures a continuity of display for minimal effort. If you are sowing foxglove seeds or planting plugs for the first time, remember that as they are biennial you will need to plant them for two consecutive years to get  self-sown flowers every year without a gap in blooming.

If you want to collect your seeds and sow them indoors you can do this as soon as they are ripe in August. However, this may result in seedlings which are too small to plant out in autumn and therefore they will need to be overwintered in a frost free place. Alternatively, wait until the spring.

Learn to recognise self-sown seedlings and in the spring carefully transplant them into ideal positions. They have fragile, fibrous root systems which like to grow sideways rather than downwards in order to support their vertical flower stems. Once disturbed they are prone to toppling over and drying out. Transplant them in cool, shady weather and if possible, lift them with a substantial amount of soil attached to the root. Water them well both before and after transplanting and firm them in gently but firmly. Continue to water them each week until they are established.

Bear in mind that small foxglove seedlings will grow into substantial rosettes so allow 45cm-60cm between them.

Foxgloves and Bees

Close up of bumble bee approaching foxglove flower

Bumblebees often approach foxgloves flowers with their long tongues hanging out
Image: Canva

“Foxglove, Foxglove,
What do you see?”
The cool green woodland,
The fat velvet bee;
Hey, Mr Bumble,
I’ve honey here for thee!

by Cicely Mary Barker

Watching bees disappear into foxglove flowers and bumble about noisily is an additional joy to growing foxgloves and they make excellent wildlife plants.

Foxgloves have numerous adaptations to ensure pollination. The violet colours of foxglove flowers are especially visible to bees. Often growing in colonies and with multiple flowers on a stem, a stand of foxgloves forms a purple haze which can’t be missed by passing bees. Moreover, their tall flower spikes poke above surrounding vegetation so they can be easily spotted.

close up of mouth of foxglove flower showing small white guard hairs at entrance

Guard hairs at the entrance of the flower
Image: Canva

They have evolved to be pollinated by long-tongued bees – the petals are fused into a long tunnel with its nectar reward hard to reach at the base of the flower. Guided into the flower by its spots, the large lower lip provides a convenient landing pad and the wide mouth a welcoming entrance. Guard hairs at the entrance give the bee a firm foothold as it squeezes down the narrowing tunnel, closing its wings and pressing its body against the reproductive parts on the roof, where it both picks up pollen from the male anthers and brushes pollen from other flowers onto the female stigma. The same guard hairs deter smaller insects which could raid the nectar without brushing against the reproductive parts. To prevent self-pollination, the male anthers open first releasing pollen and are exhausted by the time the female parts become receptive.

The flowers open from the bottom up, the top of the flower spike continuing to produce flowers over numerous weeks until it is exhausted. This lengthy flowering period maximises opportunities for pollination and acts as an insurance against spells of bad weather when insects aren’t flying.

Foxgloves:  poison and cure

Eighteenth century engraving of William Withering seated holding a foxglove flower

William Withering clutching a foxglove flower
After Carl Frederik von Breda, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

All parts of the foxglove are poisonous and can cause abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhoea, vomiting and ultimately death from heart attack. For centuries, it was widely used as a herbal cure against dropsy (the build-up of fluid in body tissue), although often with fatal results. In the eighteenth century a botanist and physician called William Withering discovered that foxgloves could be used as a treatment for heart failure and his insistence on accurate and disciplined dosing pioneered the development of modern pharmacology from herbal medicine.

Critical shortages of drugs during the second world war led to the establishment of County Herb Committee, a medicinal plant collecting scheme set up by the British Ministry of Health. Tonnes of foxglove leaves were collected and dried for the war effort, as Lesley Gare records:

I was eleven when the war broke out in September 1939, and was at school in a village called Ingatestone in Essex…… The grounds of the school contained large numbers of foxglove (Digitalis) plants and we were given the use of an old stable to dry the leaves before they could be sent to a drug manufacturer. We used to string the leaves using a bodkin to thread the leaves onto the pieces of string, which were hung the length of the stable to dry in the air. 

The active ingredient in Foxglove continues to be used in modern medicine as a heart stimulant.

We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about foxgloves – have a look at our full selection here.

 

The Best Plants for May

Close up of apricot coloured lupin flower spikes with the spherical purple heads of alliums in the background

Lupins and alliums are classic cottage garden plants for May – their contrasting shapes work beautifully together
Image: Shutterstock

May is a fabulous time in the garden – fresh spring foliage is injected with colour from early herbaceous perennials, tulips give way to alliums and iris, whilst numerous flowering shrubs such as rhododendrons, viburnum and weigela launch into bloom and the air is perfumed with lilacs. At the end of the month the world’s greatest flower show returns at Chelsea, inspiring gardeners for another busy season.

To keep up with your garden tasks, turn to my jobs to do in May blog . But before you roll you sleeves up and get stuck in, let’s have a look at some of this month’s best plants!

Lilac ‘Palibin’ (Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’)

Close up of soft mauve panicles of Lilac 'Palibin' composed of clusters of small tubular flowers

Lilac ‘Palibin’
Image: Canva

This dwarf lilac is an old cultivar dating from around the early 1900s where it was already a popular garden plant in China before its discovery by Western collectors. ‘Palibin’ is quite different from the large and domineering common lilac. Slow growing, it will take up to 10 years to reach its maximum height and spread of 1.5 metres but will flower in abundance at an early age, making a perfect specimen for a container or small border. It lends itself to growing as a standard or bush form.  Unlike the large, heart-shaped leaves of common lilacs, ‘Palibin’ has small, delicate, slightly leathery oval leaves which give it added value throughout the season. In spring, deep purple buds open to lavender-pinkish airy panicles. The individual flowers are small but numerous and intensely scented.

Clematis macropetala

Close up of pale violet semi-double flowers of Clematis macropetala

Clematis macropetala
Image: Canva

It’s easy to be seduced by the large, showy flowers of later clematis, but the early varieties have exquisitely delicate blooms, are a valuable source of nectar for pollinating insects emerging from hibernation and don’t require any routine pruning. The nodding, semi-double blooms of Clematis macropetala are borne in abundance and make an exceptionally dainty feature scrambling up a wall or trellis.

Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’

Close up of flower of Geum 'Totally Tangerine' a five-petalled apricot coloured flower with scalloped edges to the petals

Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’
Image: Thompson & Morgan

Geums are valuable perennials for their early flowering and I love the way their ruffled flowers hover on long stems, dancing in the breeze. ‘Totally Tangerine’ wins my vote for the best variety. It is extremely long flowering and after its main May/June performance it continues to produce more flower buds below the earlier spent flowers. The flowers are sterile and so they don’t waste energy on seeding or demand dead-heading. The blooms are not a brash orange but a soft-apricot with subtle variations in tone. This means that they are easily combined with absolutely any colour – although they look especially stunning with purple alliums.

 

Aquilegia ‘Nora Barlow,

Aquilegia ‘Nora Barlow’
Shutterstock

Aquilegias are one of those happy plants which look incredibly delicate but are as tough as old boots, growing in sun or shade and in any soil type. Their nodding flowers are held on long, graceful stems above a mound of feathery foliage. They don’t take up too much space and can be easily dotted in between other perennials to fill gaps. ‘Nora Barlow’ is an old variety with fully double flowers flushed red, pink and white. If allowed, it will throw up seedlings which will generally come true.

Astrantia major ‘Moulin Rouge’

Close up of maroon, pin cushion flowers of Astrantia 'Moulin Rouge'

Astrantia ‘Moulin Rouge’
Image: Sempra

A perfect partner for aquilegias, and equally well-behaved, are astrantias. If you haven’t grown astrantias before then you are missing out. The flowers of Astrantia ‘Moulin Rouge’ are distinctive from other flowering perennials. This is not plant which shouts for attention, but deserves close appreciation of its intricately detailed flowerheads, with maroon papery bracts surrounding a central pincushion. The deeply lobed leaves are also a handsome feature. Prefers a rich, moist soil.

Rhododendron ‘Blue Tit’

Close up of abundant trumpet-shaped pale blue flowers of Rhododendron 'Blue Tit'

Rhododendron ‘Blue Tit’
Image: Morley Nurseries

May is the time to visit woodland gardens when showy rhododendrons are out in force. These large specimens may be beyond the scope of most of us, but we can still enjoy the dwarf varieties. Rhododendron ‘Blue Tit’ is smothered in masses of clear, violet-blue flowers and is perfect for acid borders in sun or partial shade or as a feature in spring containers. Its dark, evergreen leaves provide useful background foliage for the rest of the season.

For more plants which are looking fabulous this month, see Looking Good on The Nursery.

 

 

Zany Zinnias!

View of a group of zinnia flowers in fruity colours of deep pink, pale pink, yellow and orange

Zinnia varieties come in deliciously fruity shades
Image: Canva

 

I’m an unabashed lover of zinnias. There is something about the luminosity of their colours and their unique shape – a ruff of stiff petals surrounding a central cone which is crowned with star-shaped golden florets – which I find irresistible. But when I mention zinnias so many people shake their heads and say they have no end of trouble growing them from seed. But they’re actually easy. All you need to do is observe one simple rule!

How to grow zinnias

Close up of a magenta coloured Zinnia 'Purple Prince' showing the central cone with a perimeter of star-shaped stigmas

Zinnias like this ‘Purple Prince’ are members of the daisy family. The centre of the flower is composed of hundreds of tiny, golden, star-shaped florets. These tiny flowers open from the outside towards the centre, forming a raised central cone encircled by stiff petals.
Image: Canva

Zinnias come from Mexico. They are hot season plants which loathe chilly days and nights as well as fluctuations in temperature between the two. As they are half-hardy annuals, many people sow them in February or March, thinking that they need a long growing season and that they will get ahead by sowing them early. What actually results is sad-looking seedlings which just sit and sulk. Before long their leaves curl up in disgust and go brown with botrytis (grey mould) infection.

Ipomea (Morning Glory) are similar in this regard. They resent fluctuations in day and night time temperatures and like it warm throughout the day and night. Expose them to cool nights and they soon develop sickly white patches on their leaves.

 

Close up of flower of Zinnia 'Cinderella Peach'. Peachy pink flower with prominent centre of peachy yellow stigmas surrounded by small pale peach ray florets

Not all zinnias are jazzy, they also come in delicate pink and peach shades such as this charming ‘Zinderella Peach’ which features a large ruffled centre.
Image: Thompson & Morgan

 

To grow zinnias successfully from seed, always delay sowing until the end of April or first half of May. It may seem late but the seedlings will germinate very quickly – within one to two weeks – and will grow on strongly. Seeds sown earlier will still be flailing whilst later ones rapidly catch up and overtake them.

Sow one or two seeds into separate modules filled with free-draining seed compost. They resent root disturbance and so modules are the best method. You can sow them direct outdoors but I find indoor sowing more successful as slugs love the seedlings. If you sow 2 seeds per plug and both come up then carefully remove the weaker seedling whilst holding the other good seedling in place by pressing your finger alongside it.

Once the roots of your zinnia seedlings have filled their plugs, pot them on into larger pots – I use 9cm ones. Don’t bury the stem deeper in its new pot – this reduces the chances of stem rot. The timing of potting up is crucial. Too early and the plugs won’t drop neatly out of their modules. This will disturb the roots and put a check on their growth. Too late and your seedlings will become pot bound. Pot bound seedlings fail to recover, remaining permanently stunted for the rest of the growing season.

When your seedlings are a few inches tall, pinch out the growing tips to encourage bushy plants. As soon as the root system has comfortably filled up the pot and is just beginning to poke out of the drainage holes, they are ready to plant out. Again – don’t leave it until they are pot-bound! If you sow them late April to early May, then they’ll be ready to plant out in June by which time all risk of frost will have passed. Plant them into freely-draining soil in a sunny position about 23-30cm apart. Water them well afterwards. The large-flowered varieties may require staking.

 

Zinnias as cut flowers

Several vases containing cut zinnia flowers in red, pink and yellow

Zinnias make long lasting cut flowers
Image: Shutterstock

Zinnias make fabulous cut flowers. They have long, sturdy stems and long-lasting blooms. The single coloured varieties make excellent matches for the jewelled hues of snapdragons (antirrhinums), salvias, dahlias and salpiglossis.

 

Zinnias in the veg garden

Close up of part of an allotment plot with large leafy cabbages alongside patch of deep magenta zinnias

Image: Canva

Zinnias look at home in the veg garden, providing welcome pops of colour amongst leafy vegetables and associating well with other potager annuals such as sunflowers. The single flowered varieties are also attractive to beneficial insects such as hoverflies.

Close up of honey bees on central cones of orange zinnia flower

Single varieties of zinnia attract plenty of pollinators
Image: Shutterstock

Zinnias in borders and containers

Close up of red, finely petalled flower of Zinnia 'Red Spider'

Zinnia ‘Red Spider’ has smaller, finer flowers
Image: Shutterstock

Zinnias bring intense colour in late summer and autumn and are good for filling gaps in borders or extending displays after most perennials have finished. They also lend themselves to hot-themed tropical borders alongside the luxurious purple leaves of the castor oil plant (Ricinus communis), dahlias and cannas.

Compact varieties such as ‘Red Spider’ are also available. These have smaller, more delicate flowers which are good candidates for edging borders and associate well with ornamental grasses. Zinnias also perform well in container displays alongside other summer bedding.

 

Two glass jars featuring a bright mixture of annuals in magenta, orange, yellow and mauve

Combine zinnias with other hardy and half hardy annuals to make gorgeous vase displays. Here they are displayed with Antirrhinums (Snapdragon), marigolds, Celosia cristata, Rudbeckia and Ageratum
Image: Shutterstock

Problems

Zinnias like it hot and dry and will succumb to grey mould if it is wet and humid. There isn’t much to be done about this except keep your fingers crossed and hope for a good summer!

 

Take a look at our selection of zinnia seeds and get sowing now. They will hold their dazzling flowers through summer and autumn, providing zingy colour when everything else looks drab. Keep dead-heading them and you will get armfuls of colourful blooms for indoor displays too. 

 

 

Jobs to do in the garden in May

Close up of an early summer border with alliums, poppies, geraniums and cosmos

Image: Canva

The garden is really racing ahead and it’s a job to keep up with it. Getting on with tasks now will enhance your summer displays, but don’t forget to give yourself some time to relax outside and just enjoy it! 

Bedding

Close up of woman putting out pink petunias ready to plant them

Summer bedding is perfect for plugging gaps in borders
Image: Shutterstock

Spring bedding will be fading and it’s time to switch to summer varieties. If you live in cold parts of the UK and you don’t have a greenhouse or cold frame then you will need to resist the temptation to buy these frost-tender plants too early. Tender bedding plants need to be gradually acclimatised to outdoor conditions after purchase, but you can save yourself the hassle with our Garden Ready plants which have already been hardened off for you. Our pre-planted hanging baskets are also great time-savers.

Greenhouse

Greenhouse in a garden with doors and vents open

Open up the doors and vents in your greenhouse as much as possible
Image: Canva

It can get really hot in the greenhouse so ventilate it as much as possible. Invest in a maximum /minimum thermometer and keep an eye on temperatures. Ideally, you don’t want them to climb above 80 °F or 26 °C. When a greenhouse gets too hot plants stop growing, become stressed and succumb to pests and disease. Aphids, whiteflies and red spider mite will quickly take hold and multiple rapidly in these high temperatures.

In an overheated greenhouse small seedlings can be frazzled incredibly quickly. Seedlings which have just been pricked out are especially vulnerable and it’s important to have a cool, shady spot for them somewhere. Cool down your greenhouse and protect your seedlings by painting some greenhouse shading on the glass. I tend to paint shading onto one side of my greenhouse, which I use for seedlings, but leave the other side for my sun-loving succulents. The other way to cool an over-heating greenhouse is by ‘damping down.’ This simply means flooding the floor with water which will cool the greenhouse quickly by evaporation.

Feeding

Close up of person putting granular fertiliser around a young tree

New trees and shrubs will appreciate a spring feed with granular fertiliser
Image: Shutterstock

Container plants

At this time of the year winter rains have washed a lot of nitrogen out of the soil and plants may start to look hungry and exhibit yellow leaves. Specimens which have been permanently growing in containers will have used up all the nutrients in their compost and can struggle to put on new, leafy growth. Top dress them with a balanced fertiliser which includes trace elements such as Vitax Q4.

Bedding

When potting up seasonal containers and hanging baskets, professional gardeners always incorporate slow-release fertilisers into the compost. This saves an enormous amount of time on applying liquid fertilisers. Liquid feeds can be useful as a top up but are more wasteful as much of the feed simply drains out of the pot. They also tend to result in inconsistent feeding, promoting surges of soft, sappy growth. Try using a controlled release product such as Incredibloom instead – it will continue to feed your plants for about 7 months.

Roses

Feed hungry roses with a proprietary rose feed now. These contain high levels of potassium to promote flowering.

Pelargoniums (Geranium)

Pelargoniums will also benefit from a flower-boosting high potash feed. Avoid giving them nitrogenous feeds, which will encourage the production of leaves over flowers and create soft growth which is more vulnerable to fungal diseases.

Plant supports & ties

Close up of lilac delphiniums inside rusted metal plant support ring

Tall plants like Delphiniums are best supported early on
Shutterstock

Herbaceous borders

Plants are growing rapidly and it’s important to get them supported as quickly as you can. If you are like me, you probably tell yourself this every year, promise to do it next weekend, and then, before you know it, the plants have shot up, the first rain storm hits and everything falls over into a mess! It’s a wise idea to purchase some supports early on so you can avoid getting yourself into this pickle.

Climbers

All your other climbers, such as climbing roses and clematis, will need regular tying in. Sweet peas left to trail along the ground not only grow poorly but are targets for slugs and snails so tie them onto their canes or obelisks early on. I prefer natural jute twine as it’s biodegradable and blends in unobtrusively. Tie the twine in a figure of 8 allowing room for the plant stems to expand. I like to put the string around the plant stem first and then wind it around the support twice. That way you can hide your knots on the back of the support and the tie won’t slide up and down.

Watering

Close up of person pouring bucket of water around root ball of newly planted tree

New trees and shrubs should be ‘puddled in’ on planting and watered frequently during dry weather
Shutterstock

Springs have become increasingly dry and the recent weather has been warm but windy. This combination of high aerial temperatures and wind really licks the moisture out of plants and can quickly desiccate them.

Before you plant new plants, soak the root ball by plunging them into a bucket of water. After planting, water them regularly in dry weather. It is best to give plants a generous soak at longer intervals rather than frequent but sparse watering which only encourages surface rooting. Once the root balls of containerised plants have dried out underground they tend to repel water and can remain surprisingly dry after watering attempts, so aim to keep them moist.

Pruning

Close up of gardener sawing off a thick, low stem from a Ribes (flowering currant)

Cut out a proportion of the old stems from early spring flowering shrubs such as this Ribes (flowering currant)
Image: Annelise Brilli

Early spring-flowering shrubs

Prune established spring- flowering shrubs such as forsythia, Ribes (flowering currant), Spiraea ‘Arguta’ (bridal wreath), Exochorda (pearl bush) and Kerria japonica. These shrubs flower on growth produced in the previous year and so they need to pruned immediately after flowering.

You can take out up to one third of the oldest stems, cutting them back to a shoot/bud near the base. Pruning out the oldest stems will encourage the formation of new ones so that the wood is continually renewed. With Kerria japonica you can cut back all the previously flowered stems.

You can also trim back the top of stems to keep them tidy but bear in mind that these shrubs have an arching habit which you don’t want to ruin. Always try to prune them back to a convenient shoot lower down rather than leaving stubs.

Japanese Quince

Chaenomeles (Japanese quince) has a twiggy rather than arching habit. Shorten the new growths to encourage the formation of lots of short, flowering spurs.

Evergreen shrubs

Inspect evergreen shrubs and prune out any frost damage.

Pyracantha

Wall trained pyracanthas can be pruned back now, reducing outward-facing shoots to a few inches and removing completely any shoots growing into the wall. This will inevitably remove some flowers but it will promote the formation of short spurs which will become crowded with future flower buds and berries.

Dahlias, cannas and other tender perennials

Close up of dahlia tuber with lots of soft new shoots

Dahlia tubers should be shooting well by now
Image: Shutterstock

Harden off your tender plants which you have been overwintering in a frost-free place. Plant them out when all danger of frost has passed. This is always a gamble but generally you should be safe by the end of the month.

If you don’t see signs of growth on your tender perennials don’t give up on them too soon -they are slow into growth. All the top growth of tender Salvias may completely die off but don’t throw them away in haste – many varieties will re-sprout from the base.

Chelsea Chop

Crowds at the Chelsea Flower Show which takes place in May

The Chelsea Flower Show is a reminder to do the ‘Chelsea Chop’
Image: Shutterstock

Enjoy the Chelsea Flower Show which runs from 24-28th May this year, and use it as a reminder to try out a pruning technique called ‘The Chelsea Chop’.

If you want to keep your herbaceous perennials shorter, sturdier and more compact, you can chop them back by up to a half in late May or early June. This pruning technique will produce plants with shorter, self-supporting stems and more (but usually smaller) flowers. Not all perennials will respond to this treatment but those which do include: Asters, Echinacea (coneflower), Helianthus x laetiflorus (perennial sunflower), Hylotelephium (Sedum), Monarda (Bergamot), Nepeta (Catmint), phlox and rudbeckia.

Seed sowing

Close up of hand sowing seeds into seed drills in soil

Sow flowering annuals in rows the same way as you would with vegetables
Image: Canva

  • The soil is lovely and warm now and hardy annuals can be sown directly into the ground. Rake the soil well to make a fine tilth and sow them in rows. Sowing in rows makes it much easier to distinguish between your flower seedlings and weed seedlings. Once the seedlings have grown and you have thinned them out, you won’t notice that you originally sowed them in straight lines.
  • Thin out/pot on any annuals sown earlier.
  • It’s a bit late now to sow most tender annuals – best to buy them as ready-grown plugs.

 

Close up of deep red flower of Erysimum 'Scarlet Bedder'

Biennials such as Wallflower ‘Scarlet Bedder’ can be sown this month
Image: Canva

Don’t forget to sow biennials for next years bedding plants. Wallflowers like the sumptuous ‘Scarlet Bedder’ and dainty forget-me-nots will make fabulous partners for next year’s tulips. Pansies sown now will provide vibrant colour in the winter, whilst Bellis perennis ‘Pomponette’ will grace window boxes and border edges with bright pom poms next spring. For cut flowers, you can’t beat clove-scented Sweet Williams (Dianthus barbatus).

Close up of a pale pink foxglove flower spike

Foxgloves are cottage garden staples and great for bees
Image: Canva

If you are looking for some flowers for the wildlife garden, foxgloves will provide plenty of food for foraging bees. They should be sown now on the surface of trays of fine compost or in a patch of spare ground. The tiny seeds are like dust and shouldn’t be covered – they won’t come up if you do! Sweet Rocket (Hesperis matronalis) will also attract pollinating insects with its sweetly fragrant blooms.

Lawns

Close up of a drop spreader on a lawn

A drop spreader is a useful tool for fertilising large lawns
Image: Shutterstock

Fertilise

Apply spring fertiliser to lawns. If you only have a small to medium family lawn ecofective Lawn Feed is an organic treatment which will treat up to 150 square metres and is safe for pets and children.  For large lawns, Sportsmaster Spring & Summer is a high nitrogen, slow-release formula which you can use all growing season.

Try to keep your use of weedkillers to a minimum. Remove deep weeds by hand or spot treat them. If you are going to resort to chemicals, it is much more effective to use a separate fertiliser followed by a weedkiller product, such as Weedol, rather than a combined treatment. Fertilising first boosts the grass in its competition with the weeds, enabling it to quickly grow into gaps after treatment. Meanwhile the weeds will put out more leafy growth, which will absorb more weedkiller.

Mow

Keep mowing your grass every week, gradually reducing the height of cut as the weather gets warmer. Better still – stop mowing and weedkilling altogether! And join in with No Mow May – see below.

Pest control

Close up of a ladybird larva on a stem. The six-legged larva is pale grey with yellow spots.

Avoid using chemical pesticides which are not only harmful to your enemies but also your garden allies such as this aphid-munching ladybird larva
Image: Canva

  • All this warm weather means that pests are rapidly multiplying. Use environmentally friendly sprays such as ecofective Bug & Mildew Control to keep on top of aphids, black fly and red spider mite.
  • Order biological nematodes to control a range of pests which rapidly emerge in spring including slugs and vine weevil.
  • Whitefly in greenhouses can quickly become a real problem, so introduce the parasitic wasp, Encarsia formosa, before pest populations build up.
  • Treat roses with a preventative anti-fungicidal spray before blackspot, rust and mildew take hold.

Clematis

Close up of gardener using plastic coated twine to tie in clematis stems

Keep tying in clematis but use natural twine, which biodegrades, rather than this plastic coated wire.
Image: Shutterstock

  • Regularly tie in clematis to its support.
  • Clematis montana does not need regular pruning but if it’s getting out of hand in a confined space you can trim it back now and remove any dead or diseased growth.

Plant propagation

Close up of persons hand with pair of secateurs cutting a soft stem tip

Softwood cuttings should be about 3-5 inches (7.5-12.5cm) long
Image: Canva

  • Take softwood cuttings from hardy perennials, shrubs and tender perennials such as pelargoniums and osteospermums. Although softwood cuttings should be pliable, the very softest growth will often wilt quickly and is less successful. Wait until the material has firmed up slightly and gives a little snap when you bend it.
  • Once they have finished flowering, cut back and divide spring flowering perennials such as Pulmonaria (lungwort), Doronicum (leopard’s bane), Brunnera (Siberian bugloss) and primulas.

Rock plants

Close up of mauve and magenta aubretia plants cascading over a border edge

If you don’t prune aubretia after flowering it will become straggly and bare at the base
Image: Shutterstock

Spring flowering rock plants such as alyssum, arabis and aubretia should be cut back hard now to keep them trim and tidy.

 

Early spring bulbs & flowers

Close up of person's hand about to snap off immature seed pod of tulip

Dead head tulips and daffodils so that they don’t waste energy on developing seed.
Image: Annelise Brilli

  • Continue dead-heading daffodils and tulips but leave the foliage intact for at least 6 weeks after flowering. It is not worth doing this to ‘bedding’ tulips, which decline after the first year, but some tulips, such as Darwin hybrids, are reliably perennial and will continue to flower again next year.
  • Once the foliage is yellow, lift congested daffodils which didn’t flower well this year and replant them.
  • Fading spring bulbs which you want to keep for next season can be lifted and transplanted elsewhere to make space for summer bedding. Feed all your spring bulbs now, preferably with a low nitrogen, high potash feed.
  • Pulmonaria (lungwort) and Brunnera (Siberian bugloss) invariably get mildew at this time of the year. Simply cut all the foliage off and give them a good water and they will reward you with healthy new foliage.

 

Wildlife Gardening

Close up of a golden yellow pot marigold flower with a bee in the centre

Plants such as this Calendula (pot marigold) are important sources of food for foraging insects
Canva

  • Buy or sow insect attracting summer plants such as Nicotiana, (tobacco plant), Calendula (pot marigold), cosmos, sunflowers, salvias, heliotrope, Agastache (giant hyssop), wallflowers, Lobularia maritima (alysum).
  • Gently clear the pond of pond weed leaving the debris on the side so pond creatures can easily crawl back in.
  • “Join legions of gardeners and say “no” to the mow this May to help our bees, butterflies, wildlife and us!” says Plantlife. You don’t have to do much. Nothing in fact. Just relax in a garden armchair and let the wild flowers in your garden provide a feast for hungry pollinators. You might be amazed at what pops up in your lawn when you stop mowing. Instead of telling yourself that there’s nothing you can do to help the planet, do just this one simple thing and help to reverse the drastic decline in our insect populations.

 

 

The 10 Best Plants for April

Close up of pink cupped shaped flowers of Chaenomeles x superba ‘Pink Lady’ borne on bare stems

Chaenomeles x superba ‘Pink Lady’
Image: Canva

April is an exciting time and there is plenty to do in borders:

  • As perennials emerge, look out for losses and gaps and plan how you are going to fill them. Get new perennials in as soon as you can and sow drifts of hardy annuals into warm soil.
  • Hoick out any weed seedlings whilst they are still small but keep a careful eye out for those self-sown seedlings which you want to keep such as foxgloves. You can move these seedlings into the best positions, watering them well after transplanting them.
  • Lightly trim Mediterranean shrubs such as lavender, phlomis, santolina and Helichrysum (curry plant), nipping them back by 2.5cm-5cm to remove any frost damaged growth and keep them compact.
  • Plant up all summer flowering bulbs by the end of the month including gladioli, Anemone coronaria and lilies.
  • Once early flowering shrubs are over you can prune them if needed, this includes forsythia, Chaenomeles (Japanese quince) and Ribes (flowering currant).

1. Lamprocapnos spectabilis (Dicentra spectabilis)

Close up of Dicentra spectabilis flowers - pink heart shaped flowers hanging off horizontal stem

Lamprocapnos spectabilis (formerly Dicentra spectabilis)
Image: Canva

If you don’t yet have a corner of your garden dedicated to the spring, then now is the perfect time to plan and plant one. Whatever space you have, it’s so important to squeeze out every season of interest and Dicentra spectabilis is the perfect place to start as it’s a model spring beauty. Its only drawback is that the plant boffins have changed its name, so I now have to remember to call it by its clumsy new moniker of Lamprocapnos spectabilis. Also known as Bleeding Hearts, this plant is a real heart warmer as it is one of the first perennials to emerge, synchronising with spring tulips and providing an opening act before the main summer performance. Its fresh green, lacy foliage is beautiful in itself, and goes well with the unfurling fronds of other ferns.

The heart-shaped flowers dangle on arching racemes and their unusual shape has also earned it the nickname of ‘Lady in the bath.’ Peel back the outer petals of the flower to reveal the naked lady within! I love the plain pink form, but there are also the cherry red hearts of ‘Valentine’, whilst the simple white of ‘Alba’ will lift a dark, shady corner.

Although Lamprocapnos spectabilis is reported to need reliably moist soil, I have successfully grown it in dry silt. A native to China, Korea and Japan, its natural habitat is in rock crevices and it copes in drier soils provided it is given a shady spot. Once flowering is over, cut the whole plant down to the ground and it will remain dormant over summer, happily giving up space to summer flowering perennials and not caring if it is completely swamped by them. Lamprocapnos spectabilis doesn’t develop a woody crown so it can be left in situ for years, quickly bulking up into impressive specimens.

2. Epimedium ‘Frohnleiten’

Close up showing raceme of bright yellow, four-petalled epimedium flowers

Epimedium ‘Frohnleiten’
Image: Canva

You will want to reserve the sunniest south and west facing parts of your garden for the main summer display, but East and North East facing borders which receive sun for some but not all of the day are perfect for spring plants, as are dry spots beneath trees and shrubs. Epimedium provide excellent ground cover in these conditions, quickly forming spreading colonies. Epimedium ‘Frohnleiten’ is a lovely form. The flowers are tiny, and in other cultivars can disappear, but with ‘Frohnleiten’ they are a bright sulphurous yellow and stand out beautifully against the foliage. The foliage is evergreen but will be looking tatty by early spring. Cut it all off in March and you will be rewarded with new heart-shaped leaves decorated with fine green veining against a rusty red background.

Close up of heart-shaped foliage of Epimedium 'Frohnleiten' with rusty red colouring and acid green veining

The foliage of Epimedium ‘Frohnleiten’ offers equal interest to its flowers
Image: Canva

 

3. Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’

Close up of lime green flower bracts with red eyes of Euphorbia x martinii 'Ascot Rainbow'

Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’
Image: Thompson & Morgan

Euphorbias or spurge are such valuable plants. Their chartreuse coloured flower bracts last for many weeks and they have the ability to really make other colours sing. Many are also evergreen, providing all year colour and structure. Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’ is a real stunner, and makes a striking combination with brightly coloured tulips. Its evergreen leaves are beautifully variegated with gold edges and develop pink tinges during cold weather. The lime-green flower bracts are splashed with darker green patterning and have a dark red eye.

 

4. Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’

Close up of deep purple 4-petalled flowers of Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve'

Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’
Image: Canva

The upright, lime green flowers of Euphorbias really make other colours pop. Combine Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’ with the phenomenally long-flowering Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’.  This ‘perennial’ wallflower will survive the winter but it becomes horribly woody. However, cuttings strike with such ease and it is so floriferous that it’s definitely worth putting up with this drawback.

5. Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’

Close up of the tiny, pale blue, forget-me-not flowers of Brunnera macrophylla

Brunnera macrophylla bears airy sprays of pale blue forget-me-not flowers
Image: Canva

The pretty blue forget-me-not flowers of Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ associate well with the sulphur yellow of Epimedium ‘Frohnleiten’ and its silver patterned leaves continue to provide interest long after the flowers have finished. You could even pair its silvery tones with a dark purple heuchera, such as ‘Plum Pudding.’

Close up of heart-shaped leaves of Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost' showing green leaves with silvery white colouring between leaf veins

Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ has handsome foliage
Image: Canva

6. Pulmonaria ‘Raspberry Splash’

Close up of Mauve and raspberry flowers and silver spotted lanceolate foliage

Pulmonaria ‘Raspberry Splash’
Image: Terra Nova Nurseries

Pulmonarias produce early flowers which provide an important source of food for hungry bees awakening from hibernation. Pulmonaria ‘Raspberry Splash’ bears clusters of tubular, mauve to raspberry pink flowers on long stems above rosettes of silver-spotted leaves. As with all Pulmonarias, after flowering the leaves often get mildew but this is easily remedied by simply cutting them down to the ground. Water well and the plant will quickly bounce back with a fresh crop of lovely new leaves.

7. Ribes sanguineum ‘King Edward VII’ 

Close up of dark pink pendulous flower clusters of Ribes sanguineum 'King Edward VII'

Ribes sanguineum ‘King Edward VII’
Image: Dreamstime

The two shrubs which I enjoy most at this time of the year are the flowering quince, chaenomeles, and the flowering currant, ribes. I am constantly popping out to admire my Ribes sanguineum ‘King Edward VII’ which is covered in pendulous raspberry-red blooms that never fail to impress me. The bees love it too. If you fancy something a little different, plump for Ribes x gordonianum. The flowers are bi-coloured a subtle pink and creamy yellow which is exquisite.

8. Chaenomeles x superba ‘Pink Lady’

Close up of cup-shaped pink flowers of Chaenomeles x superba ‘Pink Lady'

Chaenomeles x superba ‘Pink Lady’
Image: Canva

Striking an oriental note is Chaenomeles x superba ‘Pink Lady’ with its gorgeous candy-pink blooms set off with golden anthers. With bold, cup shaped flowers adorning dark, twiggy stems, Chaenomeles are bursting with spring impact. They offer a palette which includes reds and pinks at a time when the garden is often dominated by blues and yellows. Chaenomeles look wonderful trained onto walls or trellis which shows off their blooms, but they can also be grown as free standing shrubs or even used as flowering hedges.

9. Exochorda x macrantha ‘Niagara’

Exochorda x macrantha 'Niagara' shrub covered with abundant pure white flowers

Exochorda x macrantha ‘Niagara’
Image: Van Son & Koot

Meanwhile, just around the corner, I’ve been coveting my neighbours Exochorda x macrantha ‘Niagara’ which is already smothered in masses of white blooms. ‘Niagara’ is a much improved version of the old cultivar, ‘The Bride’ with more compact and manageable growth which is perfectly suited to smaller gardens.

10. Viburnum ‘Kilimanjaro Sunrise’

Close up of white lace-cap flowers of Viburnum 'Kilimanjaro Sunrise'

Viburnum ‘Kilimanjaro Sunrise’
Image: Van Son & Koot

The viburnums are also just starting to unfold their buds including one of the best selections, Viburnum ‘Kilimanjaro Sunrise’. Other forms of Viburnum plicatum have a very broad habit which is hard to accommodate in smaller gardens, but this one grows neatly upright, its tiered branches clothed in abundant lace-cap flowers which are prettily blushed with pink. This is a hard-working shrub which really earns its place, as in the autumn it rewards again with fiery red and orange tinted foliage. For the same qualities but in an even smaller package, plump for Viburnum plicatum ‘Watanabe’, which will happily grow in a pot or narrow border.

Given some sun, all three of these shrubs are easy-care plants and will even tolerate heavy clay. Like all early flowering spring shrubs and climbers, they are able to flower so early because their flowering wood grew last year. For this reason, any pruning should be carried out directly after flowering.

I shall definitely be treating my spring garden to an Exochorda x macrantha this year –  which April flowers will you be plumping for? Whatever you choose, after planting keep an eye on the watering – our springs are becoming increasingly warm and dry. Give your new plants a good soaking every one or two weeks until they become established.

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