Never grown fruit plants before? Not sure what to do with your rapidly growing berry bush? We asked experienced gardener Nic Wilson how she grows such bumper crops. Her generously shared tips make growing some of the most expensive shop-bought produce as easy as pie. Here’s what she told us…
Do your borders lack colour, height and movement throughout the year? Professional garden designer Nic Wilson of dogwooddays recently redesigned the beds in her own back garden to striking effect. Her secret weapon? Grasses.
By integrating their elegant structure and interesting foliage she’s transformed her family’s outside space. Here are Nic’s favourite grasses, where to plant them, and how to make them sing…
Are ornamental grasses easy to grow?
I particularly appreciate the versatility of grasses in a design – they can be used in so many different ways, aspects and situations. You can sow them from seed or buy them as plants for more instant results. Just choose the right grass for your border and watch them thrive.
When I changed my beds earlier this year, I decided to use grasses as the structural basis of the new design. I planted elegant Deschampsia cespitosa towards the back for height, drifts of Stipa tenuissima through the centre to create sinuous curves, and annual grasses like Briza maxima along the front.
Now it’s early September, the deschampsia has developed golden seedheads that mingle beautifully with my Verbena bonariensis, and the briza heads are gently rippling in the light autumn breeze. The yellow and oaty brown shades soften the brighter tones – a contrasting purple and orange colour scheme that includes:
- Copper Calendula ‘Sherbert Fizz’
- The subtly shifting coral, lime and claret of Rudbeckia ‘Savannah Mixed’
- Russet Helenium ‘Waltraut’
- Vivid orange Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’
- Cool purple Aster x frikartii ‘Mönch’
The best grasses for sun
Whether your garden is baked by the sun throughout the day or has shady areas under trees where little will grow, there are grasses that will cope. For sunny borders and hot, dry gravel gardens, little can beat Festuca glauca with its mound-forming blue-green spiky foliage. My festuca was grown from seed and I love to combine it with silvery lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina) and purple salvia (such as Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’) which also thrive in these baking conditions.
Carex testacea is a stalwart in my gravel garden as, unlike many varieties of carex, it prefers dry conditions and the foliage turns the brightest copper colour in full sun. It combines well with Kniphofia ‘Tawny King’ and Achillea ‘Terracotta’.
The best grasses for shade
At the other end of the spectrum, Anemanthele lessoniana prefers dry soils in sun or shade. Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ also copes with dry shade and Melica uniflora ‘Alba’ (or wood melic) thrives at the dappled edge of the woodland canopy.
Damp partial shade creates the ideal conditions for carex and acorus. I tend to favour Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’ for its golden yellow variegated leaves and Carex oshimensis ‘Everest’, whose evergreen, white and dark green, variegated foliage makes a real statement in your border.
Sowing annual grasses is an inexpensive way to add interest to beds and borders, or create attractive container displays.
I love the tactile flowerheads and deep chocolate-purple foliage of Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Majesty’ which looks splendid in autumn containers as a backdrop to dahlia and salvia. Another favourite, Briza maxima, is easily raised from seed in situ in the border. Autumn sowings work well and should grow on strongly the following spring.
Grasses for screens
Taller grasses make attractive screens to separate different parts of the garden or to hide utility areas. Try Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ which forms an informal screen up to 1.8 metres in height, with arching reddish stems fading through beige to warm browns as the season progresses. Calamagrostis looks fabulous in the winter too and can be cut to the ground in early spring before growth resumes for the next year.
Another tall specimen, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberfeder’, is topped with silver plumes of flowers in September and October which persist throughout the winter, adding texture and interest.
For slightly lower screens, I have two favourites. Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln Gold’ is a great choice with vivid yellow-gold foliage. Looking for something a little more exotic? Try the flowered plumes of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’. They grow to 1.2m in height, floating above striking bright green leaves striped with horizontal cream bands.
How to plant grasses
Perennial grasses are best planted in spring or autumn. Those that originate from warmer climates like miscanthus and pennisetum should be planted in late spring so they can come into growth before flowering in mid-summer. Deschampsia, stipa and festuca, on the other hand, originate from cooler climates and are better planted in autumn to give them the chance to become well established before beginning to grow in late winter.
As we head into autumn, September is the ideal time to plant the following grasses alongside your crocus and snowdrop bulbs:
- Tufted hair grass (Deschampsia cespitosa)
- Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima)
- Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ – perfect for winter containers
- Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’ – perfect for winter containers
Ornamental grasses add colour, structure, texture and all year round interest to beds and borders. But they really come into their own in the late autumn sun – the best time to enjoy their gently fading colours and elegant forms.
Midsummer is a time of plenty in the garden with roses blooming, sweet peas in their prime and borders a riot of colour. But as summer progresses and cottage garden stalwarts begin to fade, there are some fantastic late-flowering plants ready to carry the torch into autumn.
It’s at this time of year that North American perennials and annuals really come into their own. Unlike meadows in the UK which generally peak at midsummer, North American grassland reaches its zenith around late summer or early autumn, making prairie flower displays ideal to keep the colour in the garden going well past the summer equinox. The daisy flowers of echinacea, helenium, aster and rudbeckia are also fabulous sources of nectar for pollinating insects.
Best varieties of rudbeckia
Rudbeckia (commonly known as coneflower or black-eyed Susan) was named after Olof Rudbeck (senior), the Swedish Professor of Medicine and polymath who founded the Uppsala Botanical Garden in 1655.
All rudbeckias prefer an open sunny spot with soil that has been improved with organic matter. They can be planted in spring or autumn, or sown from seed. Charismatic Rudbeckia hirta is a valuable annual to add to container displays and to the late summer border, often flowering up until the first frosts. There are many annual cultivars to suit different colour schemes:
- R. hirta ‘Cherry Brandy’ – rich crimson flowers
- R. x hirta hybrida ‘Cherokee Sunset’ – mahogany, orange and bronze flowers
- R. hirta ‘Chim Chiminee’ – cheerful yellows, oranges and reds
One of the most popular perennial rudbeckia varieties is R. fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’ – a robust and reliable flower that likes to be kept moist in summer. The open yellow petals contrast with the dark central eye, making it a striking bloom, especially when planted in swathes through grasses or with other prairie flowers like echinacea and heleniums.
Sophisticated ‘savannah mixed’
This year I’ve planted Thompson & Morgan’s new and exclusive, half-hardy annual R. ‘Savannah Mixed’ from their own breeding programme. Beautiful colour-changing double flowers with petals in shades of yellow-green, wine-red and burnt orange, ‘Savannah Mixed’ evokes the subtle colours of the grassy African plains and brings real elegance to late summer displays. It looks best planted en masse in containers or borders, where the flowers combine to create a sophisticated scheme.
In my garden, I’m planting R. ‘Savannah Mixed’ with grasses (Briza maxima, Deschampsia cespitosa and Stipa tenuissima) and with other late-bloomers like Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’. The muted lime, burgundy and copper tones of the rudbeckia add touches of colour without disturbing the soft mood created by the grass seed heads gently swaying in the breeze. And as the flowers age the colours deepen, providing an effortless transition to autumn in your late summer borders.
You’ve invested blood, sweat and tears into your garden, so it’s perfectly natural to worry about leaving your plants while you enjoy a break from the day-to-day routine.
We asked garden designer, Nic Wilson of dogwooddays, for her professional advice on how to keep things looking their best for when you return. Here are six practical suggestions to help prepare your garden before you go on holiday:
1. General care
I’m looking forward to some time away to relax with my family this summer, but at the back of my mind I can feel a niggling anxiety – how will my plants cope while I’m away? Will the lettuces bolt and the sweet peas set seed? How will the dahlias survive if there’s a heatwave? Last year we returned to find that wasps had devoured almost every greengage. Unfortunately, the whole crop was ruined.
To keep things tidy while you’re away, take care of a few general tasks before you leave. Weed borders and paths, and cut the grass in any areas that you’re not growing long for wildlife. Make sure that any top-heavy plants are staked to avoid high winds causing damage to stems while you’re gone.
Group all your containers together in a shady spot and provide automatic watering via an irrigation system. Failing that, sit the containers in trays of water.
Take down any hanging baskets and place them with your other containers in the shade. Terracotta pots dry out more quickly than plastic ones, so make sure they’re well watered before you leave.
Ensure that your greenhouse plants have adequate shade and that the windows, vents and doors are open during the day. With a small greenhouse like mine, I leave the doors and windows open when we go away in the summer to avoid my plants overheating.
Water all your plants well and stand the pots on capillary matting so they can take up water slowly from the base reservoir. Plants can also be watered with an upside-down drink bottle with a drip end attached, or from a self-watering globe, or a mighty dripper.
4. Fruit and vegetables
Pick as much as you can before you go – our last job will be to harvest, eat and freeze our ‘Opal’ plums if they ripen in time. Ask a friend or neighbour to visit every few days to harvest crops so the plants will continue to be productive.
By thoroughly watering and mulching the beds before you leave, you can make sure that the soil stays moist for as long as possible. Protect your crops with specialist netting to avoid damage from pigeons and cabbage white butterflies.
Summer-flowering plants like dahlias, sweetpeas, osteospermum and zinnias might be covered in blooms now, but these will have faded by the time you return and the plants will be starting to set seed. Although it might seem counter-intuitive, remove open and spent flowers before you leave and feed plants to encourage a flush of new blooms upon your return.
Don’t bring back plant material back from your holidays, for the long-term health of your own garden and all plants across the UK. Diseases like Xylella have the potential to cause devastation to a huge range of cultivated and wild plants, so return with photos and memories, not with the plants themselves.
Early summer is the ideal time to sow basil seeds for late summer pizzas, salads and pasta dishes. In fact, professional garden designer Nic Wilson of dogwooddays says one of her favourite jobs of the year is collecting armfuls of basil leaves to blitz for pesto, filling her kitchen with the sweet, spicy smell of this fast-growing annual.
We asked Nic to share five of her favourite basil plants to grow from seed, along with some insider tips to guarantee success!
Five best basils to grow at home
There really is a basil to tempt every palate and suit every garden. Some of my stalwarts are chosen for colour, as well as flavour and aroma – including the sweet leaves of ‘Classico’, the dark purple foliage of ‘Crimson King’, and the liquorice aroma of ‘Siam Queen’. Here are my five all time favourites:
Although I’ve been growing basil to use in pesto for many years, this is the first year I’ve grown ‘Pesto’ itself. This variety has been especially selected to grow well in UK temperatures and has a strong flavour perfect for a peppery pasta dressing. Flushed with delicate purple, the leaves are carried on deep purple stems. The flowers are a pretty pale pink, so it makes a great ornamental choice too. Whether it’s grown in containers in a sunny spot or in the vegetable patch, basil ‘Pesto’ will add a touch of spice to any garden.
This variety is high on my list to try next year. It has a lemon sherbet flavour making it perfect for adding to fruit salads and summer drinks, as well as adding a citrus tang to savoury dishes. Not all basil varieties thrive in the changeable UK weather – but ‘Lemonade’, like ‘Pesto’ is tolerant of British summers and can be grown successfully outside once the plants are established and hardened off.
This Thai basil is a wonderful ingredient for spicy curries and soups. We grow ‘Siam Queen’ in pots in the greenhouse alongside Kaffir lime, chillies and peppers as the base for summer Thai green curries. Slightly taller than sweet basil at 45cm, ‘Siam Queen’ has larger, more elongated leaves and a spicy liquorice flavour. A little goes a long way in salads, and it’s one of the best varieties for cooking.
As soon as the tiny seedlings emerged, I fell in love with this basil. Not only does ‘Crimson King’ have a sweet flavour and softly cupped leaves, but the deep plum-coloured foliage means it’s a beautiful ornamental plant to grow. Some of my ‘Crimson King’ will stay in the greenhouse over the summer, but I’ll also dot some around the herb garden to add a splash of colour between my parsley and thyme.
Basil Christmas is a new variety – a cross between Genovese and Thai basil. It’s another great addition to both edible and ornamental gardens with glossy foliage and beautiful spikes of purple flowers that are a magnet for pollinating insects. With a spicy mulled wine flavour, ‘Christmas’ makes a delicious pesto that can be frozen and added to festive pasta to bring a taste of summer to dark winter days.
Top tips for growing basil
Sow your basil seeds on peat-free seed compost and cover lightly with vermiculite or sieved compost. Water and place in a propagator or cover with a plastic bag. Germination should take around 14-21 days. When seedlings have developed true leaves, prick out into small pots and grow on. Eventually the basil plants will need to be potted on into 20cm containers. For outdoor basil, harden plants off over a 10-14 day period and plant outside after all risk of frost has passed.
Slugs and snails love to munch on basil seedlings, so I bring mine indoors at night until they’re large enough to withstand a little nibbling. Basil dislikes drying out, but also hates wet roots, so aim to water plants in the morning. Pinch out regularly to keep your growing plants bushy and vigorous.
Read more about your favourite herbs at our herb hub page, where you’ll find helpful links to our full range of herb plants and plenty of great growers guides.