When it comes to favourite seasons, most people I speak to pick spring. Staples like daffodils, tulips, hyacinths and peonies are on everyone's lips. But there are a host of other plants that shine in the spring garden.
How about waratahs (Telopea speciosissima). These Aussie imports look a bit like compressed banksia flower heads - those of the golden brown sort - but they are a vibrant crimson red instead. They look somewhat stately, which may have led them to become the official floral emblem of New South Wales in 1962. Even English botanist Sir James Smith waxed lyrical about them in 1793: "The most magnificent plant which the prolific soil of New Holland affords is, by common consent of Europeans and natives, the Waratah." New Holland being the historical name for Australia.
Waratahs are tall shrubs, or small trees to 3 metres high, so they're quite suited to the smaller garden. They bloom for around six weeks in the garden, from September through October, and they last a good two weeks in the vase. They don't like wet feet, but neither do they like their roots to dry out. A good mulch around the base of plants will keep the soil moist in summer. Plant in full sun or part shade; they are tolerant of moderate frosts but keep them out of strong winds.
Prune plants immediately after flowering to encourage new flowering stems the following year. About three-quarters of the plant can be removed each year.
Jerusalem sage (Phlomis russeliana) is another stately plant. It bears whorls of butter-yellow flowers on 90-centimetre-high stems from late spring right through to autumn. The flowers appear at intervals along the stem, giving it a candelabra-like effect. Not surprisingly, it's popular for its long flowering season, but come autumn, the yellow blooms turn to brown seed heads which, if left to stand, make attractive structural stems of their own throughout winter.
Jerusalem sage is a frost hardy plant. It thrives in poor, dry soil in sun or part shade. It's ideal for mixed borders or for those difficult dry spots. It's fuss-free, requiring little maintenance other than a quick cut back if its foliage becomes a little scraggly.
All in all, this is a plant that gives maximum results with little effort from you.
If you like your irises, try the peacock iris, Moraea villosa (it's not actually an iris but it belongs to the Iris family). It produces spectacularly exotic iris-like spring flowers on stems 30-50cm high. The flower colours vary from purple to blue, sometimes pink, white or cream, or even orange, with iridescent blue or green blotches at the base of each petal - or peacock eyes.
A cormous perennial from South Africa, the peacock iris is found on stony flats and slopes, hence it does best in a fast-draining sandy soil in full sun. It can be grown by seed or corms and, once established, will self-sow. The seeds germinate easily enough, but plants take between two and four years to flower if grown by seed. Seeds and corms are best planted in autumn.
Ceanothus, or California lilacs, bring us some of the most magnificent blues in the spring and summer garden, with ‘Roweanus' one of the showiest. It produces an abundance of colbalt-blue flower heads in spring and grows well as a stand-alone specimen or as a hedge when planted en masse. This variety grows 2m to 3m high and has a slightly arching habit. Plants can be trimmed after flowering to keep them bushy, or you can let them grow into small trees.
Another popular variety is ‘Yankee Point', which is lower growing at 1m high and 2m wide. It has bright blue flowers and much glossier leaves than other varieties. It's perfect for growing on banks and Mediterranean-type gardens.
For a white version, try ‘Snow Flurry', which grows 2.5m high and 3m wide.
There are other varieties available, too, but the flower clusters on these forms remind me of lilacs, which I can't grow in my area. All these ceonothus are evergreen and hardy and best grown in well-drained soil in full sun.
Camellias are in bloom, too. I'm not a huge fan of camellias but there are two that I adore. The first is Camellia japonica ‘Night Rider', which has waxy, black-red blooms from late winter through spring. Its new foliage is also dark red. It's ideal for the smaller garden or for containers, growing no more than 2.5m high.
The second is Camellia sasanqua ‘Setsugekka'. The sansanquas flower early than the japonicas, from mid-autumn into winter, and this variety is no different. It has semi-double wavy white flowers with prominent yellow stamens. Growing 3m high, it's ideal for hedging or espaliering. Or plant it as a specimen on its own.
For all camellias, apply a potash-rich fertiliser in mid-spring and midsummer as well as a mulch to keep the roots cool and the soil moist over summer - chopped pine needles are ideal.
Of course, daffodils, tulips, hyacinths and peonies make for a glorious spring garden, too. If you forgot to plant yours in autumn, you'll find potted plants in flower at your garden centre now.
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