Garden designer, broadcaster and Chelsea gold medal winner Chris Beardshaw looks at the styles we are likely to see in Britain's gardens this year.
The weather is going to be the telling factor in garden design trends this year, thanks to several years of excessively wet weather and flooding. So says award-winning garden designer Chris Beardshaw, co-presenter of BBC2's Great Garden Revival, who is currently planning his forthcoming 'Healthy Cities' show garden with first-time RHS Chelsea Flower Show sponsor Morgan Stanley.
"There's a real awareness of the challenges of the weather," he says. "We've gone through that period where we thought it was going to get hotter and buying phormiums and cordylines and then finding that the winter killed them.
"People are going back to much more resilient planting types. There's a real resurgence in shrubs. The last few decades have been about herbaceous perennials and grasses and I think a lot of people are now much more interested in combinations.
"We often put shrub roses with clematis and an underscore of bulbs to give the three hits of interest. People are becoming aware that one plant doesn't necessarily cover all bases and are adopting a more refined approach to planting."
Plants such as phillyrea and deciduous rhododendrons, which provide masses of interest through a long season and little maintenance, may become more popular, he predicts, while we are moving away from 'static gardens', low-maintenance, minimalist plots which don't change through the season and are lacking in personality.
"People want the garden to respond to the seasons - and the plants have to respond to that."
"The bubble of 'grow your own' has burst," he continues. "After a couple of dodgy weather seasons, most people are now realising that growing fruit and veg is not as easy as it might seem and, as a consequence, are becoming more selective of what they grow. Rhubarb is becoming fantastically popular because it is so easy to grow, along with fruit like damsons and gages which can be planted as hedging or put in a wild area of the garden and will largely look after themselves.
"Likewise, with vegetables, we will take into account the amount of time and space our choice uses up. So things like cut-and-come-again salad leaves, which cost a lot in the shops, will continue to be popular as they are easy to grow and give great rewards."
Gardeners seem to be more savvy than previously, perhaps because of the wealth of information available on plant sites on the internet, and want more bang for their buck when buying plants, he says.
"We are keen to see plants working hard, which is perhaps a symptom of gardens getting smaller. We are looking at more high intensity planting."
Purple is likely to be the colour of choice this year, he predicts.
"The colour that everyone wants to be in their garden this year is purple. I think there's an opulence and generosity of purple, when you think of the purple bearded iris or Tulipa 'Black Knight'. But I think a garden filled only with purple would be a rather sombre place. You need a twist. With dark purple tulips, for instance, I would use scillas and white camassias underneath."
People may think that traditional bedding has gone out of fashion, yet Chris notes that according to a recent report, the number of people buying bedding plants is at an all-time high.
"However, we're not buying them in the same quantities that we were buying previously, which indicates that we are using them very advisedly in hanging baskets, containers and patio tubs, giving an instant blast of hard-working colour. What we are not doing is filling beds and borders with them in a kind of park bedding scheme way.
"We are becoming much more knowledgeable about the range of bedding plants. The bedding craze is still on but it's about getting much better value out of those plants and being advised to use them in very specific ways."
As for furniture, plastics may have come a long way with robust, stylish all-weather garden sets, along with weather-protective coatings on metal furniture, but Beardshaw says that wood will remain popular.
Gardeners are also becoming more adventurous with lighting, he observes, as more sophisticated outdoor lighting comes on the market.
"Now, lights are easy to install and the power of them is great. You can get different coloured lenses for your LED lights and also buy units that will adjust the temperature of the lens, which will change as natural light levels rise or fall."
Best of the bunch
These tough evergreen shrubs are brilliant on every level. They give you colour and texture all year round but they come into their own in winter, producing dense clusters of pink buds which open to reveal aromatic white flowers above glossy, dark green leaves. You'll need to grow male and female plants together if you want the female plants to bear red berries, but if you only have room for one, go for the hermaphrodite S. reevesiana, which will self-fertilise and produce berries. Skimmias are great for the front of large shrub borders and thrive in neutral or acid soil, growing up to 1.2m, depending on the variety. Popular females include 'Veitchii' and 'Bowles' Dwarf Female', while males to try include 'Fragrans' and 'Rubella', which carries red flower buds all winter. They will thrive in partial shade in any well-drained, non-alkaline soil.
Good Enough To Eat
If you want to get a head start with some hot favourites you can start to sow chillies now indoors in a heated propagator or on a heated mat, which should produce stronger plants by the time the flowers appear in early summer. These plants have a long growing season so can be started off on a warm windowsill, with additional heat, or in the greenhouse or conservatory. They're easy to sow - just fill a seed tray with peat-free compost and scatter the seeds thinly over the surface, placing them on a heated bench to germinate. By early summer you should have strong plants which will produce more fruits.
- Enrich soil with compost where beans are to be grown
- Continue to dig over borders and vegetable plots as conditions allow
- Take cuttings from conifers
- Order herbaceous perennials from nursery catalogues for delivery in the spring
- Dust stored dahlia tubers with sulphur powder to discourage rot
- If you have dug over a new area, cover the ground with a large sheet of polythene, weighted with bricks around the edges, to keep off the worst of the winter weather and deter any weeds
- Apply organic fertiliser such as blood, fish and bone, over beds and borders which will release their nutrients slowly over a long period
- Order summer-flowering bulbs
- As bulbs finish flowering indoors, remove the spent flowerheads and give them a dose of high-potash fertiliser before putting them in a sheltered spot outdoors