Foxgloves Forever

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One of my favourite all round plants is the foxglove. Many regard the common or garden Digitalis purpurea as a weed and a bit of a pest, which I find bewildering. These spires of nodding bells in pink, purple or white grow to over a metre tall, seem to grow in any conditions – damp, dry shade or full sun and will thrive in the poorest of soils. The add colour, height and depth to the garden and are terrific fillers for early summer when grown in spots where asters and other late-summer and autumn plates will take the baton when they have finished. They seed freely, some think too freely, but the seedlings are easily identifiable, easy to remove so can be moved, or potted on for the following season. Technically they are biennials, growing a rich rosette of evergreen leaves in the first year and flowering in the second, but some flower in their first year and others will flower again. If you want to grow only the white versions, check the underside of the leaves, if they have any pinkish colouring they will grow pink or purple, pure green leaves indicate a white plant. There are fancier versions of foxgloves, but inevitably they are trickier and fussier, and only a few are as jolly and full of summer as the wild version. The most attractive of these, to my mind are the ‘interspecific hybrids’ – in other words they don’t fit into any particular category, generally having hybridised themselves from mixing with purpurea. Some of these are beautifully spotted – white with deepest purple markings or polka dots of pinks and apricots. Another favourite is Digitalis grandiflora, a plant with large, yellow open bells of flowers.

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I am adding a picture of a digitalis seedling, so you will recognise it in your garden. If you grow Phlomis russelliana, the seedlings look very similar, but the Phlomis is rough to the touch, whereas foxgloves are soft and a bit fuzzy.

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Colour in the Winter Garden

January and February are the most challenging months in the garden and are the real test of a good gardener. Really, with a bit of money thrown at it, anyone’s garden can have a lively show in summer, but winter is where forward thinking and a little thought ensure that the winter garden need not be bereft of colour and interest. First published in 1957, Graham Stuart Thomas’s Colour in the Winter Garden is a classic of garden literature and still the greatest authority on creating year round interest in the garden and if you find a copy in your local library I urge you to borrow it. The winter garden is not flash or brash, rather it is subtle, relying on foliage, bark and gentle modest flowers to bring it to life. Here are some lists of plants to get you started:

Foliage:

Bergenia purpurascens: The large, waxy leaves of this great ground-cover plant turn deeper and deeper red the colder it gets.

Elaeagnus pungens ‘Dicksonii’: This evergreen shrub has lovely elliptical, shiny dark green leaves edged in yellow. Great for flower arrangements for the house.

Hedera canariensis ‘Gloire de Marengo’: really good ivy, with ripples of dark green and silver and edged with white.

Iris Foetidissima ‘Variegata’: the dreariest, stinkiest of plants has its Cinderella moment now, it has green and white variegated, strap shaped leaves and beautiful seed pods bursting with red fruits.

Arum italicum ‘Pictum’: lovely, crinkly spotted leaves make this arum a must for the winter garden, looks great with hellebores and snowdrops.

Mahonia ‘Heterophylla’: long spindly serrated leaves in russet brown – and the bonus of yellow flower spikes later on.

Berries:

For berries try holly,  Pyracantha, Skimmia japonica and any of the Cotoneasters.

Flowers:

Winter wouldn’t be complete without snowdrops, there are lots of varieties, singles, doubles, large and small flowered, from the thick grey leaved Elwesii species, to the pretty small naturalised Nivalis, all are hardy and with time and lots of lovely hummus will bulk up into significant clumps in a few years. Delicate, tiny little Cyclamen coum are perfect partners for snowdrops.

Flowering shrubs:

Most winter flowering shrubs have the most delicious scent too, the best being Viburnum x bodnantense and Daphne mezereum and Skimmia.

Bark and stems:

Don’t forget that bare branches and lovely barks come into their own now. All the dogwoods are stunning right now, from bright red to yellow the Cornus stems will lift any garden.

Acers are famous for their beautiful bark, particular good examples are davidii, laxiflorum and griseum. Also good are silver birch, the brightest whites are Betula albo-sinensis, Betula nigra and Betula pendula