A wealth of gardening riches

Andrew Collyer - Practical Gardening

Published 14/04/2015 | 00:00

TOP: Magnolia x soulangeana. ABOVE LEFT: Flower of Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium'. ABOVE RIGHT: Plant of the week- Sophora 'Sun King'
TOP: Magnolia x soulangeana. ABOVE LEFT: Flower of Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium'. ABOVE RIGHT: Plant of the week- Sophora 'Sun King'
TOP: Magnolia x soulangeana. ABOVE LEFT: Flower of Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium'. ABOVE RIGHT: Plant of the week- Sophora 'Sun King'

At this stage I consider myself a bit of a gnarled old gardener with a slightly hoary old attitude. But come this time of year particularly when the weather has been so fine I become a wide eyed child in a sweet shop again. The wealth of gardening riches on display at present truly is a source of wonderment.

Magnolias, cherries, Camellias, Pieris, Sophora, Acacia and the new fresh leaves appearing on Japanese maples can all be jaw dropping right now. And that's before you even note the Forsythias, flowering currants and Berberis on display.

Many of these plants are what are termed structural plants when you are looking to develop a planting plan for a garden. They are the keystones from which you build the rest of your planting design off. Inevitably they tend to be ultimately large plants that are long lived. This allows them to provide a permanent backbone to your garden even while the transient planting of perennials and lesser shrubs might change over the years.

For this reason it is important to get these plants right and make even more effort in planting them into good growing conditions. You should plan for these plants to be there as long as the garden is and probably as log as yourself.

This brings me back to my wide eyed wonderment because at this time of year, even for a hardened gardener like myself, I want everything. Such is the beauty on display it is very easy to get carried away buying the unsuitable or crowding plants closely together. These structure plants deserve to be left unpruned and be allowed the the space they need to make up their natural shape. There is nothing worse than seeing a lovely Magnolia or Japanese maple unsympathetically pruned just to squeeze it into a border.

This all means selecting your plants carefully and allowing for its growth for the next 10 years. This doesn't mean you can't plant around your structure plant. Groundcover and low planting can be grown very successful without inhibiting the growth of your star plant and with care can enhance its impact. As an example grow Vinca minor under a Magnolia x soulangiana both in flower now. Or Euphorbia amygdaloides 'Purpurea' planted under an Acer palmatum 'Sango Kaku'. If your structure plant is at the back of a deep border you can plant in front of it masking off any vacant space around it. Camellia 'Colonial Lady' with Skimmia 'Rubella' in front would work with both plants happy in a little shade. Sophora 'Sun King' fronted with Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve' in a sunny spot.

This rule for pruning generally works best with all structural plants not just now but right through the flowering seasons. Flowering dogwoods [Cornus], witch hazels [Hamamelis], Killarney Strawberry tree [Arbutus] and myrtles [Myrtus] are plants that spring to mind that are much better when left to create their own magnificence.

So if you're in the garden centre this week and are in the market for for a structural plant spend a little time researching once you have found something you like the look of. Asking staff is a great starting point but do some follow up study if you have time.These plants are often expensive. The Hilliers manual of trees and shrubs if a great source of information on all woody plants. Online check in with the Royal Horticultural Society web site, type in RHS with your plant name search. With structural plants follow the mantra 'this plant is for life not just for Christmas' therefore it is worth a little forethought.

There are literally hundreds of different species and varieties of the plants mentioned at the beginning of the article but here are a few to look out for.

Magnolia x soulangiana is possibly the plant most frequently requested in my garden designs. This is the Magnolia with the candle flame shaped flower buds opening white , pink, purple or mixes of all. Magnolia stellata and its cultivars are equally impressive and easily grown. These have star shaped flowers. Some species of Magnolia don't flower as young plants at times taking up to 15 years to bloom so be aware there are many types of Magnolia and some are for the enthusiast only.

Camellia 'Donation' is a pink with yellow stamens and is extremely tough and is great for a novice gardener. C. 'Lady Campbell' is a reliable red.

Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium' is a lovely maple that has the added bonus of beautiful pendant red flowers at this time of year just before the delicate leaves emerge. Acer palmatum make up the vast majority of Japanese maples with many cultivars. A. 'Orange Dream' and A. 'Katsura' both have lovely colour when the leaves first open as well as in the autumn. A 'Seiryu' is unusual as it has the leaf of a dwarf dissectum variety with the upright habit of a palmatum variety. Beautiful autumn colour.

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