May is a key month in the garden lover’s calendar, topped and tailed by two Bank Holiday weekends, with the ever popular RHS Chelsea Flower Show sitting gracefully in-between. As a consequence, garden centres are stuffed with tempting buys, offering us the chance to create our own versions of a show garden back at home.
Plants are helpfully tagged ‘Bee Friendly’ or ‘Plants for Pollinators’, as we are increasingly encouraged to attract bees and other pollinators into our gardens. However, it’s easy to get caught out by all this choice and to end up with a selection of plants that are unsuitable for your particular space, difficult to look after, or have a short-lived period of interest.
As a garden designer, the brief that clients most frequently give me, when it comes to planting schemes, is for ‘Minimum Maintenance, Maximum Impact - All Year Round’. In fairness, this is a tricky balance to get right. Most people enjoy interesting flower displays and textures, many of us would love to attract more pollinators into the garden, but how do we manage this without becoming slaves to deadheading, cutting back and watering, only to watch everything go over, flop and eventually die back as the cooler months take over?
For maximum impact, a good starting point is to choose plants that keep on giving for weeks on end. In addition to the ever-popular bee-magnet Lavender, Salvias are a designer’s favourite. Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’, will eventually die back for the winter months, returning in the spring - but with a flowering period that stretches from June to October, it can be forgiven for taking a winter break. Its prolific violet-blue flower spikes on purple-black stems are loved by bees and other pollinators, so it’s win-win, all round.
Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’
The new star, Salvia x jamensis ‘Hot Lips’ has abundant small, crimson red and white flowers on long stems and makes a real statement in a pot or sunny border. In my own garden, the flowers keep the bees visiting from June right through to September, when it can be trimmed neatly back, ready to turn heads again the following year.
Salvia x jamensis ‘Hot Lips’
Convolvulus cneorum is a small evergreen, sun-loving shrub with prolific white cup-shaped flowers and shiny, silvery foliage. It does well in containers and can look spectacular cascading over a wall. The pale yellow centres of the flowers are a target for bees, who happily forage on these plants from May through to July. Low maintenance, it only needs the lightest trim after flowering to keep in shape. Even when flowering has stopped, this plant is a star performer, with its silver leaves reflecting light in the grey winter months.
Another design tip to keep gardens looking good all year round, is to build neater mounding plants and evergreen structure into planting schemes, allowing some form to remain when showier perennials have died back for the winter. Lavender and rosemary can be kept neatly trimmed and shaped after flowers have subsided, while the versatile Hebe rakaiensis has a naturally neat hummocky form that works well amongst looser perennial flowers and grasses. With the added benefit of clusters of white bee-friendly flowers in the summer, this hard-working little shrub is an asset to any garden, whether a contemporary urban space or more traditional setting. Wonderfully low maintenance, this Hebe needs minimal pruning and can be pretty much left to its own devices.
With so much choice available to us these days, it’s easy to fall into the trap of buying too many different plants. This can result in a disjointed planting scheme with no focus or overall theme. Repetition of similar plants, colours and forms is much easier on the eye, while strategically located feature pots can be planted with seasonal arrangements to bring variety and a ‘wow factor’ to the garden.
While Chelsea gardens may look impressively mature and established, they are constructed for short-term impact, only needing to look good for the 5 days of the show week. Some don’t even last that long and look distinctly droopy and tired by the time the bell rings to announce The Great Plant Sell-Off.
Back at home, the real challenge is in selecting and combining plants to stretch out seasonal interest. With a bit of careful thought and planning it should be possible to create a relaxed and interesting garden with lasting appeal for bees and humans alike!
Pippa Martlew Garden Design, Sky Garden Kings Cross
Pippa Martlew has been designing gardens for 15 years - 9 of which she spent working for the highly regarded, multiple Chelsea Gold and Best in Show winner, Andy Sturgeon.
Pippa has been part of the team at RHS Chelsea Flower Show on 5 Gold Medal Winning Gardens, including Andy Sturgeon’s Best in Show 2010 for the Daily Telegraph.
Most recently she was part of the team on The Facebook Garden: Beyond The Screen which has been awarded a Gold Medal in the Space to Grow Garden category at the Chelsea Flower Show 2019.
She is a long standing friend of the London Honey Company, having worked with us on a number of projects.pippamartlewgardendesign.com