from The Weatherstaff PlantingPlanner – intelligent garden design software
Alkaline-tolerant Shrubs for Chalk and Limestone Conditions

If you garden on chalk or limestone, you probably already know that acid-loving plants, like rhododendrons and heathers will not be happy in your soil. Your plants will need to be able to cope with alkaline conditions and frequently dry and nutrient-poor conditions.

Here is a selection of shrubs which should feel right at home in your garden.


Weigela ‘Florida Variegata’ has been awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit (AGM). It is a bushy, deciduous shrub with arching stems, growing to 2.5 metre in height. The grey-green leaves, margined creamy-white, are useful for providing foliage in cut flower displays.

Variegated Weigela florida Variegata
Weigela florida Variegata

Attractive, funnel-shaped, pale rose-pink flowers, loved by bees, appear in profusion from late spring to early summer. A reliable garden shrub, it grows well in either sun or partial shade.

Weigela Bristol Ruby - useful shrub for chalk soil
Weigela Bristol Ruby

Weigela ‘Bristol Ruby’ has dark green foliage and pretty, bell-shaped, deep red flowers. Weigela ‘Ebony and Ivory’ is a low-growing weigela (0.5m high x 0.8m spread). It has elegant white flowers and dark green foliage, which takes on plum tones as the season progresses.

Black leaves and flowers of Sambucus Eva
Sambucus nigra f. porphyrophylla ‘Eva’

Sambucus nigra f. porphyrophylla ‘Eva’ (syn. Sambucus Black Lace) is a beautiful black elder, which has been awarded the prestigious AGM. It grows to 6m high but can be coppiced regularly if needed. The deeply dissected, purple-black leaves turn rich red in autumn.

Coloured leaves do better in full sun or light shade. Regular cutting back also results in darker leaves. In early summer, flattened heads of scented, pale pink flowers are produced. These are followed by glossy purple-black berries. Though all parts are poisonous when eaten, the fruits are edible when cooked or can be used to make elderberry liqueur. The pretty scented flowers can be used to make elderflower cordial.

Black elder 'Gerda' - shrub for chalk soil
Sambucus nigra f. porphyrophylla ‘Gerda’

Sambucus nigra f. porphyrophylla ‘Gerda’ (syn. Sambucus Black Beauty) also has an AGM. Leaves are dark purple-black and its early summer flowers are pale pink. It grows to 4m in both height and spread.

Sambucus nigra ‘Golden Tower’ has an upright habit, growing to an eventual height of 3 metres x 1 metre spread. It has yellow-green deeply dissected foliage and clusters of white flowers.


Olearia × haastii is a dense, bushy evergreen shrub growing to 2m height x 3m spread. The glossy, olive green leaves have pale, felted undersides. Clusters of daisy-like, white flowers with yellow centres are carried profusely in mid- to late summer, giving it the common name of Daisy Bush.

White flowers of Olearia x haastii
Olearia x haastii

Olearia phlogopappa ‘Spring Bling’ is slightly smaller at 1.5m height and spread. The narrow, wavy-edged, aromatic leaves are grey-green, felted underneath. The shrub is highly floriferous and is covered in  daisy-like flowers in late spring and early summer. It needs a sunny, sheltered spot in colder areas.

Olearia copes well with salt-laden winds, so is great for coastal gardens. It can be pruned regularly to make an informal, flowering hedge. The shrub is particularly attractive to bees and butterflies.


Ceanothus ‘Autumnal Blue’ (AGM) is a fast growing, evergreen shrub, it will eventually reach 3m in height. It has glossy, dark green leaves and trusses of tiny mid-blue flowers from late summer and into autumn. It can be grown in a shrub border or trained against a sunny wall.

Ceanothus Autumnal Blue - shrub for chalk
Ceanothus Autumnal Blue
Ceanothus Puget Blue - shrub for chalk gardens
Ceanothus Puget Blue

Ceanothus impressus ‘Puget Blue’ is another AGM plant, growing to 3m tall.

From mid- to late spring, the entire bush is covered by a profuse display of tiny, dark blue flowers, loved by bees. Its dark green leaves are small and prominently veined. Puget Blue’ is not fully hardy, so grow in a sunny, sheltered spot and give winter protection while the plant is young.

Though lime tolerant, Ceanothus may suffer chlorosis on very chalky soil, causing leaves to yellow. Applying sequestered iron may be helpful. Sprinkle fertiliser around the plant in early spring to boost its nutrient levels. The shrub is attractive to bees and other beneficial insects.


Philadelphus (or Mock Orange) is an easy-going shrub – happy in well-drained soil in full sun or part shade. It is also tolerant of air pollution and coastal conditions. Philadelphus likes moisture so, on fast-draining chalk soils, it may require regular watering.

Philadelphus - for chalk soil
Philadelphus Belle Etoile

Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’ (AGM) is a neat shrub (1.2m height x 2.5m spread), with highly fragrant flowers, white, with a purple splash at the base. The flowers are borne in profusion in late spring and early summer. Arching stems carry mid-green, deciduous foliage.

Double white flowers of Philadelphus 'Virginal'
Philadelphus ‘Virginal’

Philadelphus ‘Snowbelle’ is a more compact mock orange (1.2m x 1.2m). It carries an abundance of citrus-scented, double white flowers in late spring and into summer.

Virginal is also double-flowered and more vigorous, growing to 3m in height.

Close-up of Syringa vulgaris Andenken an Ludwig Späth for chalky gardens
Syringa vulgaris Andenken an Ludwig Späth

The sweetly-perfumed lilacs are well-suited to chalk soils. Syringa vulgaris is the common lilac and many of these superb plants have been awarded AGM status. They include ‘Katherine Havemeyer’ (double, lavender-blue flowers), ‘Andenken an Ludwig Späth’ (single red-purple flowers) and ‘Charles Joly’ (double dark purple-red flowers).

6 Shrubs for Chalky Soil - from Weatherstaff garden design software
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from The Weatherstaff PlantingPlanner – intelligent garden design software

Need a Planting Plan for a Chalky Garden? Click here

Some plants are particularly versatile and unfussy, making themselves at home and seeming to thrive wherever they come to rest. Most plants however have a preference for a particular set of growing conditions or cannot cope if the temperature gets too high or the water supply too low. Keen gardeners may relish the challenge of coaxing a particular favourite plant to prosper, but if you don’t have the time to lovingly cosset your choice specimens, getting the plants in the right place to start with is the way to go.

Plants for Chalky Soil
Path with chalky soil
Chalk pathway

If your garden has chalky soil, your plants need to be able to cope with its very free-draining, nutrient-poor, alkaline conditions. (Soils rich in limestone share the same characteristics.) Chalk formed at the bottom of shallow seas 60 million or more years ago from seashells and skeletons of sea creatures. These were mainly tiny plankton but you may be lucky enough to find the odd ammonite fossil lurking in a lump of chalk when digging up your garden beds.

How do you know if you have chalky soil?

Chalky soil is usually whitish in colour. You may even see lumps of chalky, white stones in your garden beds and sometimes sharp flints embedded in the chalk.

Close-up of flint in chalk
Flint embedded in chalk path

Chalky soils are very alkaline and have a pH of 7.1 or above. You can use a soil-testing kit, bought from garden centres or online, to check the pH level of your soil. You could also try putting a spoonful of soil in a jam jar of vinegar. Chalk is made of calcium carbonate and will cause the vinegar to froth up.

Acid-loving plants like rhododendrons, camellias and blueberries, will not grow in these conditions. If you are keen to grow these, you’ll need to buy bags of ericaceous soil and plant them up in pots.

Rainwater in metal bucket
Collect rainwater for acid-loving plants

Tap water in chalky areas is usually alkaline too, so it’s best to collect rainwater to water acid-loving plants.

How deep is the topsoil in your garden?

Not all chalky soils are alike.

The depth of soil above the chalk layer varies. Deeper soils can hold more water and, if your soil also contains clay, nutrient levels will be higher. Shallow soils are particularly free-draining and will be low in nutrients. If you have very little planting depth before your spade hits solid chalk, it’s best to increase the depth if you can by adding more topsoil.

Wildflowers bordering a chalk path
Wildflowers bordering a chalky pathway

The chalk Downland tracks of southeast England are bordered by swathes of grasses and wildflowers – resilient plants well-suited to the tough conditions on the chalk grassland. If your topsoil is particularly shallow, look to the wildflowers growing naturally around you for inspiration.

Choosing plants

For garden beds, it is best to choose plants which are going to thrive in the conditions you have and fortunately there are lots of plants to choose from.

Mediterranean plants, including lavender and rosemary, love sunny gardens and can cope well with little rain, so they are a good choice for freely-draining chalk soils.

Pink echinacea with geranium Rozanne
Echinacea ‘Butterfly Kisses’ with Geranium ‘Rozanne’

Plants from the American prairies such as Rudbeckia and Echinacea also do well.

Finally, look around at the wild-flowers growing in your area. Wildflowers, such as achillea, centaurea, scabiosa and red campion, thrive even on very thin layers of soil over chalk so are guaranteed to succeed in your garden.

A wide range of plants are lime-tolerant i.e. they can cope well with alkaline conditions. For very free-draining soil, it’s best to choose plants which are drought tolerant as well, if you don’t want to become a slave to the watering can.

Tips for growing on chalky soil

  • Mulch plants with organic matter when planting and then annually to help conserve moisture and provide nutrients for your plants.
  • Water plants regularly until they are well-established. Even drought-tolerant plants need to get settled in well before being left to fend for themselves.
  • Start with smaller plants if possible which will have a lower demand for water and nutrients than larger ones.
Finding the Perfect Plant for Chalk - - from Weatherstaff garden design software
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Perfect Woodland Shrubs

from The Weatherstaff PlantingPlanner – intelligent garden design software

Woodland gardens invoke all our senses at once. Sun dappling through leaves, a shady respite on a hot summer’s day, birdsong, damp earth, rustling leaves.

Acer palmatum Ornatum in woodland
Acer palmatum ‘Ornatum’ in a woodland setting

Perfect Shrubs for a Woodland Garden

Getting the structure right is essential for any planting plan. During the winter months particularly, when perennials have collapsed into a soggy state of despair and bulbs have long since fled, a backbone of trees and shrubs provides form and interest.

If your garden is too small for a variety of trees or you are planting up just a corner in a woodland style, then you might choose to use large shrubs instead of trees to provide the top layer of planting. Prune to create several main stems, removing the lower branches so that you can plant the next layer of perennials and bulbs beneath. Good choices for this treatment are Magnolia, Philadelphus and Lilac.

Pink flower of Magnolia x loebneri 'Leonard Messel'
Magnolia x loebneri ‘Leonard Messel’

Magnolia x loebneri ‘Leonard Messel’ is a large deciduous shrub (or small tree), eventually reaching 8m by 6m. Starry, delicately scented, pale lilac-pink flowers are produced in profusion in mid-spring. In milder springs, the colouring is more intense. It has been awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit (AGM). Magnolias usually prefer slightly acidic soil but ‘Leonard Messel’ is happy in most soils, including chalk.

Flower of Magnolia Susan
Magnolia ‘Susan’

Magnolia Susan (AGM, 4m high) has slender, goblet-shaped flowers from mid spring through to midsummer. The slightly twisted petals are purple-red on the outside, pale inside, and open from darker buds.

Magnolia x soulangiana Alba Superba in woodland
Magnolia x soulangiana ‘Alba Superba’

Magnolia x soulangeana ‘Alba Superba’ grows to 7m x 5m. It has beautiful, white goblet-shaped flowers, flushed pink-purple at the base, in mid- to late spring.
Magnolia liliiflora ‘Nigra’ is smaller, growing to 3m. It has a stunning display of pink/ purple-red flowers in early summer, continuing intermittently through the summer and into autumn. It has an Award of Garden Merit.
Magnolias are happy in full sun or part shade, but need protection from cold winds. They like moist, well-drained soil.

Double white flower of Philadelphus 'Virginal'
Philadelphus ‘Virginal’

Philadelphus, or Mock Orange, has wonderful, orange-blossom-scented flowers. Philadelphus ‘Virginal’ is a vigorous, upright shrub, growing to 3m high. It has dark green foliage and clusters of 5-9 double, pure white flowers in early to mid-summer.

Philadelphus Belle Etoile from Weatherstaff
Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’

Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’ is a compact, neat shrub (AGM, 1.2m in height), with arching stems. The cup-shaped flowers are white, with a purple splash at the base of the petals. Carried singly or in clusters of 3-5, the flowers are borne in profusion in late spring and early summer.

Philadelphus coronarius 'Aureus'
Philadelphus coronarius ‘Aureus’

Philadelphus coronarius ‘Aureus’ (AGM, 2.5m x 1.5m) is an upright shrub, with clusters of fragrant cream-white, cup-shaped flowers in early summer. The toothed leaves open yellow, fading to yellow-green by late summer. Philadelphus is happy in well-drained soil in full sun or part shade. However, yellow-leaved varieties may do better in light shade as they suffer leaf scorch. It is an easy-going shrub, tolerant of air pollution and coastal conditions.


The sweetly scented lilacs are a garden classic. Flowers in shades of pinks, purples and white appear in late spring or early summer.

Syringa vulgaris is the common lilac, a large deciduous shrub with heart-shaped leaves and long panicles of small, highly fragrant flowers. Syringa prefers neutral to alkaline soil in full sun. It is well suited to chalk, though grows well in most well-drained soils.

Bicolour flowers of Syringa vulgaris 'Sensation'
Syringa vulgaris ‘Sensation’

Syringa vulgaris ‘Sensation’ (AGM, 4m x 4m) has stunning bicolour flowers, purple-red, highlighted with white margins.

Close-up of Syringa vulgaris ‘Andenken an Ludwig Späth’
Syringa vulgaris ‘Andenken an Ludwig Späth’

Syringa vulgaris ‘Andenken an Ludwig Späth’ (AGM, 4m x 4m) has long, slim panicles of red-purple flowers, which appear in late spring and early summer.

Pale blue flowers of Syringa vulgaris 'Firmament'
Syringa vulgaris ‘Firmament’

Syringa vulgaris ‘Firmament’ has pale blue flowers, opening from lilac-pink buds. It, too, has received an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

Syringa pubescens subsp. microphylla ‘Superba’
Syringa pubescens subsp. microphylla ‘Superba’

Syringa pubescens subsp. microphylla ‘Superba’ is another AGM winner and smaller at 2.5m in height. Loose clusters of highly fragrant, long-tubed, pale pink flowers, opening from darker buds, appear in late spring and then intermittently through to autumn.

Feathery panicles of Smoke Bush

A large, bushy, deciduous shrub with attractive autumn colours. Feathery panicles appear in summer, resembling a cloud of smoke and giving the shrub its common name of ‘Smoke Bush’. The flowers are followed by tiny drupes.

Red-purple foliage of Cotinus Royal Purple
Cotinus ‘Royal Purple’

The spring and summer foliage of Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ (AGM) is deep red-purple, becoming scarlet in autumn. Panicles are warm pink, followed by purple drupes. The shrub grows to 5m. ‘Ruby Glow’ has deep reddish-pink flowers and spectacular autumn colours. It is a more compact shrub, growing to 1.8m. ‘Candy Floss’ has green foliage and soft pink flowers. It grows to 4m high.


The Japanese Maples are slow-growing shrubs or small trees, grown for their beautiful foliage and wonderful autumn colours. Acers like moist, well-drained soil in sun or partial shade. Protect from cold winds and late frosts if possible. Autumn leaf colour is usually best in partial shade.

Acer palmatum 'Atropurpureum'
Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpureum’

Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpureum’ (up to 6m in height) has deeply lobed, dark red leaves, which turn a brilliant red in autumn.

Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum Seiryu’
Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum Seiryu’

Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum Seiryu’ (AGM, to 4m) is an attractive, deciduous, miniature tree. Leaves are deeply dissected to give a wonderful feathery appearance. Bright green foliage, tipped red in spring, becomes golden in autumn. While most of the Dissectum maples have a weeping habit, ‘Seiryu’, unusually, has an elegant upright shape.

Foliage of Acer palmatum ‘Chiyo-hime’
Acer palmatum ‘Chiyo-hime’

Acer palmatum ‘Chiyo-hime’ is a pretty, dwarf Japanese Maple, growing up to 2m in time. Red-tinged green leaves open in spring, becoming bright green in summer, before taking on yellow, orange and red autumn tints.

More Woodlanders

Rhododendrons and camellias are classic woodlanders, lovers of acidic soil and with flamboyant colourful flowers.

Rhododendron fulvum
Rhododendron fulvum (AGM)

There are Rhododendrons to suit every colour preference and, depending on the variety you choose, they could flower any time between February and August.


Camellias are elegant shrubs with glossy leaves and exquisite flowers. They flower prodigiously so can easily spare a bloom or two to float in a glass bowl as a table centrepiece.

Hamamelis Intermedia Diane winter flower border design
Hamamelis Intermedia ‘Diane’

Rich autumn colours and winter flowers make Hamamelis (witch hazel) an excellent choice for woodland gardens too. The spice-scented flowers have ribboned petals in yellows, oranges or reds. Hamamelis Intermedia ‘Diane’ (AGM) has beautiful copper-red flowers.

Related post:

Shrubs - Woodland Gardens Part 3 - from Weatherstaff garden design software
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from The Weatherstaff PlantingPlanner – intelligent garden design software

Petals of Rosa Generous Gardener

The eagerly-awaited Weatherstaff PlantingPlanner Pro is finally here.

One month FREE trial with no commitment

When we first launched the PlantingPlanner, our aim was to produce a program primarily for home gardeners. The filter tools help gardeners find plants which thrive in their garden’s conditions. And the generator produces a border plan with your choice of colour and style. Click for more information on the Home Version.

Laptop in garden PlantingPlanner Pro

However, we found more and more garden professionals were using the program and so the Weatherstaff PlantingPlanner Pro was created. The new version provides more flexibility for garden designers to use their own flair and expertise when generating planting plans.

PlantingPlanner Pro Logo

The intelligent Plan Generator

After drawing out the border and entering the garden’s growing conditions, the intelligent Plant Generator gets to work! It chooses plants which suit the garden’s conditions and also filters for style and colour.

Plan by Weatherstaff PlantingPlanner

Its intelligent design logic works to select plants for all year interest and takes account of structure and boundaries when placing plants.

As a gardening professional, you remain in control of the plan and can tweak it to a greater or lesser degree. If you want to do the whole plan yourself, without using the generator, that’s possible too.

On the left hand side of the plan, you can view colour photographs, plant descriptions and full maintenance advice.

The interactive Design Functions

These are the editing tools, which give you full control of the design. You can filter plants by name or attribute or enter your own favourites.

Screenshot showing design functions of the Weatherstaff PlantingPlanner

The program is horticulturally-based, with the plants themselves taking centre stage.

The drag-and-drop feature allows you to place named plants into your design – there is no amorphous ‘purple shrub’ or ‘large tree’ option. You place the specific plant you want into the border plan.

Plants can be moved, cloned, deleted and replaced. They can be selected from the built-in encyclopaedia or you can add your own.

All of these tools are available both before and after using the Generator.

Maintenance Calendar

For each completed plan, a Maintenance Calendar is displayed, tailored specifically to the planting plan.

Screenshot of the Weatherstaff PlantingPlanner Maintenance Calendar
Maintenance tasks on the calendar screen

The Maintenance Calendar collects together in one place all the maintenance tasks and information for every plant in the planting plan. The tasks can be sorted by task-type (pruning, feeding, etc), season or level of importance.

For more information, watch the video below:

Visit the Weatherstaff PlantingPlanner Pro page to find out more. Looking forward to welcoming you onboard.

One month FREE trial with no commitment
PP Pro is here - from Weatherstaff garden design software
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from The Weatherstaff PlantingPlanner – intelligent garden design software

A fence zigzags along the Ridgeway

To walk along the Ridgeway is to share a route travelled for more than 5,000 years. Once a series of tracks over the chalk downs in southern central England, the ancient Ridgeway eventually became a National Trail in 1972.

Wooden signpost with wildflowers
A wooden signpost in a sea of wildflowers

The trail is 87 miles in length, travelling from Overton Hill, near Avebury in Wiltshire, to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire. Ancient sites such as Avebury Stone Circle, the White Horse at Uffington and Waylands Smithy, a chieftain’s burial tomb, as well as numerous hill forts are found along the Ridgeway’s length.

Chalk outline of the Uffington White Horse
Part of the chalk outline of the Uffington White Horse

The Uffington White Horse is a Bronze Age hill figure, cut up to a metre deep into the hill and filled with crushed white chalk. Along with other ancient remains on White Horse Hill, it is managed by the National Trust.

A countryside view with sheep in the foreground
The view from the White Horse of Uffington

High up on the hills, there are far-reaching views from the Ridgeway’s commanding position. The view from White Horse Hill encompasses six counties.

Purple wildflowers on the Ridgeway
Wildflowers on the Ridgeway

The Downland tracks are bordered by swathes of grasses and wildflowers – resilient plants well-suited to the tough conditions on the chalk grassland.

Wildflowers are the ancestors of our cultivated garden flowers, finding their way in some form or other into our garden borders. Chalk and limestone soil support a great range of flower species, and many of the flowers spotted on the Ridgeway could have been equally at home in a garden border.

Purple scabious and white yarrow
Purple scabious and white yarrow
White common yarrow on the Ridgeway
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Achillea millefolium (yarrow) is a graceful, upright perennial, with flat-topped flowerheads from early to late summer. The grey-green leaves are deeply divided, giving a feathery texture.

A close-up of the flowerhead of Achillea millefolium Cassis
Achillea millefolium Cassis

Many cultivated varieties are available, in colours ranging from muted terracottas to deep wine. They are attractive to bees and butterflies and make great structural plants for garden borders and containers.

Centaurea nigra is a grassland perennial, with thistle-like flowers from early summer to early autumn. Commonly known as black knapweed or common knapweed, it has a host of other common names in different regions of the country, from the charming ‘tassel’ and ‘Spanish buttons’ through to the less appealing ‘loggerheads’, ‘iron hard’ or ‘club weed’.

Centaurea nigra flower
Centaurea nigra
Bee on centaurea nigra
Centaurea nigra with bee

Centaurea nigra is perfect for wildlife gardens. Rich in nectar, the flowers are loved by bees and butterflies. When the flowers fade, the seedheads are enjoyed by birds.

Scabiosa flower for wildlife gardening
Distinctive scabious flowerheads

Both field scabious (Knautia arvensis) and small scabious (Scabiosa columbaria) are found on the Ridgeway. They are perennial plants, each with pale mauve pincushion flowers, on slender stems. Field scabious is taller, hairier and has four petal-lobes on each individual flower – small scabious has five. Scabious flowers are pollinated by bumblebees and butterflies.

Rose-pink flowers of Silene dioica
Red campion

Silene dioica (red campion) is a short-lived – but long-flowering – perennial, with flower stems up to 1m tall. The pretty, notched rose-pink flower heads are also attractive to pollinators, including long-tongued bumblebees, butterflies and hoverflies. Named varieties include ‘Firefly’, up to 60cm tall with double flowers, and ‘Rollie’s Favorite’, growing to 45cm in height.

Blue-violet flowers of Geranium pratense
Geranium pratense

Geranium pratense (meadow cranesbill) is a clump-forming perennial, with deeply divided leaves. Its violet-blue flowers appear in summer, followed by pointed ‘bill’-like seed pods. The nectar-rich flowers are adored by many species of bees.

Close-up of Geranium pratense Striatum
Geranium pratense Striatum

A native plant of verges, grasslands and hay meadows, meadow cranesbill is also a beautiful and reliable garden plant, with many cultivated varieties available, including Geranium pratense ‘Mrs Kendall Clark’ and Geranium pratense ‘Striatum’.

Small wildflowers and grasses
Centaurea and grasses

Though the wildflowers of the Ridgeway cope well with the fast-draining, alkaline conditions of the chalky grasslands, they are also very tolerant of other soil types, apart from water-logged clay. Look out for these wildflowers (or some of their cultivated cousins) in your local garden centre. They are perfect for creating a wildflower meadow or wildlife-friendly haven in your own backyard.

Wildflowers on the Ridgeway - from Weatherstaff garden design software
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12 Stunning Woodland Trees

from The Weatherstaff PlantingPlanner – intelligent garden design software

Woodland gardens invoke all our senses at once. Sun dappling through leaves, a shady respite on a hot summer’s day, birdsong, damp earth, rustling leaves.

Autumn leaves against a blue sky - Weatherstaff Blog

12 Stunning Trees for a Woodland Garden

The key to planting up a woodland garden is to get the layers right – trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs. Unless you have acres to play with, choose trees which won’t grow too tall or spread too wide for your garden.

Autumn leaves on the ground
A carpet of fallen leaves in autumn

Deciduous trees are a good choice because they allow for a wonderful display of spring bulbs and early perennials before the canopy leafs up. You will also have a ready supply of fallen leaves in autumn to make leaf mould. Gather up the leaves into bin bags, pierce the bags to ventilate them and leave them to compost. A year later, you should have a good supply of leaf mould, for mulching your garden borders.

Plant 3 or 4 trees closely together and underplant with shade-loving shrubs, perennials and bulbs. In a small garden, you can achieve the same effect on a smaller scale by planting just one multi-stemmed tree. Create your own multi-stemmed tree by pruning the trunk back to just above ground level. This forces new shoots to break from the stump.

Your woodland garden should provide some respite from the hot summer sun, not constant deep dark shade. The plan is to create a canopy of leaves which will allow some sunlight through to dapple the understorey planning below. Be ready to prune congested branches if they are blocking out too much light. A useful technique is to remove lower branches of the trees – lifting the crowns will allow more sunlight through.

Robin on tree branch
All trees support wildlife

All trees are great for encouraging wildlife into the garden. They will provide nesting sites for birds, shelter for small animals and attract bats and pollinating insects. The silver birch is recorded as supporting up to 229 different insect species and its seeds are loved by greenfinches, goldfinches, siskins and redpolls.

Here’s a selection of stunning trees suitable for a woodland garden.

Silver birch

Silver birches are perfect for small woodland gardens.

Betula pendula 'Fastigiata'
Betula pendula ‘Fastigiata’

Betula pendula ‘Fastigiata’ is a narrowly columnar, deciduous tree, with upright branches. The white, peeling bark eventually becomes dark and more rugged at the base with age. Diamond-shaped leaves, sharply toothed, are mid-green, turning yellow in autumn. Yellowish-brown catkins appear in spring. It prefers moist, well-drained soil in sun or light shade. It grows to 10m in height.

Betula pendula ‘Fastigiata Joes’ has an even narrower shape and whiter bark than Betula pendula ‘Fastigiata’. It was shortlisted for Plant of the Year at Chelsea 2017. Eventual height and spread 5m x 2m.

Betula utilis var. jacquemontii
Betula utilis var. jacquemontii

Betula utilis var. jacquemontii is slender, with an elegant, open habit. It grows to 18m in height. The oval, dark green leaves take on golden yellow autumn hues and its white, peeling bark is a particularly attractive feature, especially in winter. The white bark develops fully by the time the tree is 8 years old.

Betula utilis var. jacquemontii ‘Grayswood Ghost’ has the RHS Award of Garden Merit. It is one of the best white-barked birches, with a smooth, pure white trunk.

Crab Apples
Flowering crab apple tree
Spring blossom

Crab apples are tough, very hardy plants and can tolerate most soils and conditions, apart from extremes of water-logging or drought. As a bonus, the apples can be harvested in autumn and cooked to make jellies and jams.

Apples on Malus John Downie
Malus John Downie

Malus ‘John Downie’ is an attractive small tree with bright green, deciduous foliage and several seasons of interest in the garden. Pale pink buds open to a profusion of 5-petalled, white flowers in late spring. Slightly elongated red fruits, flushed orange and yellow appear in autumn.

Malus Royal Beauty
Malus Royal Beauty

Malus ‘Royal Beauty’ is a small, weeping tree. The deciduous foliage is red-purple when young, becoming dark green with purple undersides later. Flowers are deep red-purple with small, dark red fruits appearing in autumn. Both John Downey and Royal Beauty have gained the RHS AGM.

Ornamental cherries
Prunus subhirtella 'Autumnalis Rosea' cherry blossom
Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’

Prunus × subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’ is a delightful, flowering cherry, which blooms intermittently through the winter months. This small, deciduous tree has an elegant spreading habit and orange and red autumn hues. Delicate, semi-double, pink flowers appear in mild spells between autumn and spring. It grows to about 8m.

Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’
Cornus controversa Variegata
Cornus controversa Variegata

The wedding cake tree has distinctive spreading, tiered branches and grows to 8m. Its leaves are dark green, with cream-white margins, becoming yellow in autumn. Large, flat heads of small, creamy-white, star-shaped flowers are carried in early summer, followed by blue-black berries.

Amelanchier canadensis
Amelanchier canadensis

Amelanchier canadensis is an upright shrub or small tree growing to 6m. It really pulls its weight in a small garden as it blossoms profusely in spring and has stunning autumn foliage. The starry spring flowers are followed by blue-black berries in early summer, which can be used in jams and pies.

Purple-red catkins of Corylus maxima Purpurea
Red-purple catkins of Corylus maxima Purpurea

Corylus avellana is a large, bushy, deciduous shrub or small tree (5m tall), producing edible nuts. It has yellow autumn leaves and showy yellow catkins in late winter and early spring. The edible hazelnuts ripen by autumn.

Corylus maxima ‘Purpurea’ has heart-shaped, deep purple leaves and purple-red catkins.

Magnolia stellata
Starry flowers of Magnolia stellata
Magnolia stellata

If you want something compact for a small area, Magnolia stellata might fit the bill. It is a 3m high deciduous shrub, with a beautiful display of delicately-scented spring flowers, opening from soft, downy buds. The mid-green foliage appears after the flowers.

In a small garden, every plant must earn its place. The best choice for a small woodland garden are trees which have more than one season of interest – spring blossom, summer foliage, fruit, autumn colours, winter structure. If you are lucky, you may be able to ‘borrow’ trees from over the garden fence – a neighbour’s tree might provide all the shade you need for the top layer of planting in your woodland garden.

Woodland Gardens Part 2 - from Weatherstaff garden design software
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from The Weatherstaff PlantingPlanner – intelligent garden design software

It all started with a malfunctioning clutch, a breakdown truck and a disused railway line. When my car was towed away out of sight, I decided to enjoy the late afternoon sunshine and walk home along the old railway line.

Image of a punus spinosa bush with sloes
A bumper harvest of sloes

And that’s when I saw them – the blackthorn bushes either side of the track, dripping with sloes. Ripe and plump and ready to pick. A bumper harvest of blue-black, powdery drupes, just waiting there patiently, ready for their turn in the gin-bottling limelight.

Containers full of harvested sloes
Gathering sloes

The next day, I was back and ready for a spot of foraging. Rule number 1 for foraging: make sure you know what you are picking! Rule number 2 – leave behind enough for wildlife and other foragers. That was easy this time. There were far more sloes here than I could possibly need.

Assembling the ingredients for sloe gin
Frozen sloes, sugar and gin

Back home, I washed the sloes and weighed them, to give an estimate of how many bottles of gin I would need. Quite a few! The first time I made sloe gin, I diligently pricked each little berry individually. Since then, I’ve found out that freezing the sloes for at least 24 hours very efficiently replaces the role of pricking. The point of pricking is to break the skin to allow the flavours to seep out into the gin. Freezing does this job perfectly and with much less hassle and fewer purplish fingers. It also gave me time to get the car back on the road and pick up my bottles of gin.

Kilner jar containing sloes and sugar
Adding sloes and sugar to the kilner jar

The rest of the process is amazingly simple. Throw the sloes, sugar and gin in a kilner jar or the gin bottle itself. Seal and shake. Leave it for 2-3 months, shaking or turning the jars regularly. Strain the sloe gin through a muslin-lined funnel and pour it into fresh bottles. Drink!

Close up of sloes, gin and sugar in a kilner jar
Sloes nestling in their kilner jars

Some recipes recommend you leave out the sugar at the beginning of the process and add it at the end instead, so that you can adjust the sweetness to your taste. The easiest way to do this is to make a simple syrup by dissolving sugar in warm water (use equal quantities of sugar and water). Add the syrup to the sloe gin in small amounts until you get the perfect sweetness.

Kilner jar lids for making sloe gin
Sealed kilner jars, ready and waiting for Christmas
Sloe Gin Time Again - from Weatherstaff garden design software
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from The Weatherstaff PlantingPlanner – intelligent garden design software

Woodland gardens invoke all our senses at once. Sun dappling through leaves, a shady respite on a hot summer’s day, birdsong, damp earth, rustling leaves. Spending time here can help us relax, slow down and breathe more deeply. It’s good for our souls.


If you have trees and shrubs casting shade in your garden, then you already have the makings of a woodland garden. And if not, then there’s nothing to stop you creating a woodland garden from scratch. Create a little copse of trees, by planting 2 or 3 suitable specimens close together, and underplant with shade-loving perennials and bulbs. For an instant impact, you can buy semi-mature trees which will provide immediate height and structure.

Cornus florida Cherokee Chief in a woodland garden Weatherstaff blog
Cornus florida Cherokee Chief in our woodland garden

Trees which won’t grow too large or which have a narrow form are perfect for gardens. Columnar Betula pendula ‘Fastigiata’ or Cornus florida (flowering dogwood) are good choices.

Woodland plants around a single tree
Woodland planting beneath Cornus florida Cherokee Chief.

Woodland gardens are suitable for every size of garden. In small gardens, one flowerbed around a single tree (or even a large shrub) can be planted up in the woodland style. Crocosmia tolerates dappled shade and, here, it adds a splash of colour amongst ferns and a miniature pieris.

In an attempt to cut back on lawn-mowing, we sectioned off the narrowing, top part of our garden and made a little woodland area. We planted two silver birches, chosen for their narrow growth and fairy-tale white trunks, laid a sinuous path of stepping stones and planted up the area with a collection of ferns and shade-loving shrubs and perennials. The sun-dappled woodland garden is a picture in spring and a cool, shady retreat in summer.

Stepping stone path through woodland area
A woodland garden

Spring bulbs and self-seeding columbines, forget-me-nots and candelabra primula created an enchanting, secret garden early in the year. Geraniums, skimmia japonica and pieris provided structure for the rest of the year.

Geranium phaeum Lily Lovell in shady woodland garden
Shade-loving Geranium phaeum Lily Lovell

Geranium phaeum – also known as dusky crane’s-bill or mourning widow – is a tall clump-forming perennial, which grows well in both sun and shade. Its pretty, slightly reflexed flowers appear in late spring and early summer. ‘Lily Lovell’ has dusky purple flowers. ‘Samobor’ has purple-black flowers.

Galium odoratum for woodland garden groundcover
Galium odoratum

Groundcover plants filled up the borders quickly and helped to smother any opportunistic weeds. The delicious, scented Galium odoratum – sweet woodruff – has starry white flower in late spring to mid summer.

Hosta leaves unfurling in woodland garden Weatherstaff Blog
Hosta leaves unfurling

Hostas are a perfect plant for woodland areas, though you will have to set up a slug patrol. Their large, architectural leaves come in a range of yellows, blues and greens and they are often bi-coloured. The national collection of hostas, held at Mickfield Hostas in Suffolk, contains over 2,000 varieties of hostas. Their leaves are their main feature, with the flowers putting on a secondary show. However some hostas have fragrant flowers, so it’s worth planting those near a sitting area or a pathway. The scent is particularly noticeable on warm, summer evenings. Look out for Fragrant Bouquet, Honeybells and Cathedral Windows.

Digitalis purpurea wild foxgloves from the Weatherstaff Blog
Foxgloves and bluebells

Many native wildflowers are naturally suited to woodland habitats. Foxgloves, primroses and bluebells are beautiful woodlanders. If you have the space, let them self-seed. It’s worth checking that you have native English bluebells as the Spanish variety can be invasive.

Woodland gardens are a four-season wonder! The first bulbs appear under leafless trees in winter, building up to a crescendo of colour in spring. As the canopy closes over in summer, the trees provide a shady bower and welcome relief from the midday sun. The changing colours of autumn and the rustling leaves underfoot lend a magical atmosphere to the closing of the year.

Hyacinthoides non-scripta or bluebells in a woodland garden Weatherstaff Blog
Bluebells flourish in deciduous woodlands

If your woodland area is big enough, include a path to wander along using bark or stepping stones. A seating areas to sit and appreciate nature is essential. Rustic benches look great, but contemporary sculptures and seating can also sit well with your design.

The key to a successful woodland garden is choosing plants which thrive in low light levels. Make sure they are watered in well in their first growing season to settle them in well.

Woodland Gardens Part 1 - from Weatherstaff garden design software
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Trailing ivy - a spiller plant for containers
Trailing ivy

The Thrillers are the architectural plants, usually the tallest plants in the display. They provide the structure for your planting combination.

Next come the Fillers, the second layer of planting in the container. They add mass to the planting, as well as providing a contrast in shape and texture.

Finally, there is the third layer of plants, the Spillers. These are the trailing plants which, when squeezed in around the edge of the planting, will tumble over the sides and soften the boundaries. Where the filler can contrast with the thriller, the spiller can unify the display by echoing elements of the other two layers – picking out a secondary colour, for example. Plants with good spiller qualities are often the same ones as those chosen for ground cover in the border – easy-going plants which creep and spread, filling bare patches with colour. Here are my choices for fantastic spiller plants.

Close up of blue Vinca minor flower
Vinca minor

Vinca minor

Vinca minor (lesser periwinkle) provides low-spreading, flowering ground cover in the garden. Smaller and less vigorous than vinca major, it grows to 15cm in height so is perfect for container-planting. Pretty, violet-blue flowers are produced from mid-spring through to autumn.

There are a number of attractive varieties to choose from.

Plum-purple flowers of Vinca minor Atropurpurea
Vinca minor Atropurpurea

Vinca minor Atropurpurea has rich wine-purple flowers and glossy dark green leaves. It has been awarded the Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit (AGM). Vinca minor Illumination has variegated leaves – yellow with dark green margins – and soft blue flowers.

White flowers of Vinca minor f. alba ‘Alba variegata’
Vinca minor Alba Variegata

For white flowered varieties, try Vinca minor f. alba ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ or Vinca minor f. alba ‘Alba variegata’, which has dark green leaves with yellow borders.


Campanula flowers
Long-flowering Campanula poscharskyana

The trailing bellflower, Campanula poscharskyana, is a cheerful, long-flowering perennial. Masses of light purple-blue, star-shaped flowers appear from late spring and keep going right through to early autumn. Its small leaves are semi-evergreen, forming a low mound with spreading stems.

The cultivar ‘Stella’, with starry violet-blue flowers, has been awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s AGM.

Lysimachia nummularia

Lysimachia nummularia - Weatherstaff PlantingPlanner blog
Yellow cup-shaped flowers of Lysimachia nummularia

Lysimachia nummularia is a mat-forming, fast-growing perennial. In summer, bright yellow, cup-shaped flowers open amongst the small, rounded leaves. Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ (Golden creeping Jenny) has attractive golden-yellow foliage and has gained the RHS Award of Garden Merit.

Lysimachia nummularia in pot - Weatherstaff PlantingPlanner
Trailing stems of Lysimachia nummularia

Lysimachia nummularia is very vigorous and can become invasive. Restrained in a garden container, it can happily spill over edges without danger of romping away.


Common ivy, Hedera helix, is a self-clinging climber, but also provides useful ground cover and its trailing habit makes it a good choice for spilling over the edge of containers. There are a huge number of variegated forms.

Variegated leaves of Hedera helix 'Goldchild'
Hedera helix ‘Goldchild’

Hedera helix ‘Goldchild’, has grey-green leaves, margined yellow. ‘Glacier’ has small, grey-green leaves with silver green variegation and creamy margins. Both have earned the AGM.

Sometimes, variegated cultivars will revert to green. If this happens, just remove any shoots which are reverted.

Creeping Thyme

Thyme is an aromatic, evergreen herb. It is an excellent plant, both for groundcover and in containers. If you choose thyme as the third, ‘spiller’, layer in your container plantings, you will have a ready supply of sprigs to flavour your casseroles and add to stuffing mixes. And the bees and butterflies in your neighbourhood will love you.

The more upright or mound-forming thymes are useful as fillers – the second layer of planting. Choose the creeping thymes for a lower, trailing effect.

Flowers of Thymus 'Bressingham'
Thymus ‘Bressingham’

Thymus ‘Bressingham’ has a mat-forming habit, with grey-green leaves and tiny pink-purple flowers in summer. The creeping thyme, Thymus serpyllum ‘Snowdrift’, has small white flowers which smother its mid-green foliage in summer.

Magenta flowers of Thymus Coccineus Group
Thymus Coccineus Group

Thymus Coccineus Group, or Creeping Red Thyme, has bright magenta flowers in late spring or summer and small dark green leaves. (AGM).

Creeping or Moss Phlox

Low-growing phlox is perfect for spilling over stone walls, rock gardens and, of course, container edges. They are scented, easy-going and loved by pollinators.

Phlox stolonifera Blue Ridge for container planting
Phlox stolonifera Blue Ridge

Phlox stolonifera ‘Blue Ridge’ (creeping phlox) has soft lilac-blue flowers, with prettily contrasting orange stamens. Provide a good mulch of well-rotted garden compost early in the year and you will be rewarded with masses of flowers in mid to late spring. Deadhead to keep the flowers coming.

Phlox subulata 'Purple Beauty' - moss phlox for containers
Phlox subulata ‘Purple Beauty’

Phlox subulata, the moss phlox, is shorter, typically growing to just 10-15 cm. It is a sun worshipper but tolerates light shade. A mound of narrow dark green leaves is blanketed in late spring and early summer by a dazzling display of colourful flowers. Phlox subulata ‘Purple Beauty’ produces pale mauve flowers, with a darker eye. ‘McDaniel’s Cushion’ has large rose-pink flowers, while the flowers of ‘Scarlet Flame’ are flamboyantly red-pink.

Phlox subulata 'Emerald Cushion Blue' - a spiller plant for garden pots
Phlox subulata ‘Emerald Cushion Blue’

For subtler colours, try ‘Emerald Cushion Blue’ which has pale lavender-blue flowers, with a dark purple eye. ‘Bavaria’ is white, with an enchanting purple eye.

6 Spiller Plants for Containers - from Weatherstaff garden design software
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from The Weatherstaff PlantingPlanner – intelligent garden design software
Mass planting of daffodils and muscari
A sea of daffodils and grape hyacinths

Yellow is the colour that brings optimism into early spring gardens. It’s the gardener’s cheer-upper after months of slate grey and mud-brown. But yellow is not the only colour for early spring!

In my last blog post, I looked at the yellow flowers that bloom in late winter / early spring and bring a ray of sunshine to drab winter gardens. But, even as I was writing it, I noticed that Yellow often comes hand-in-hand with its partner in crime, Blue. Daffodils look enchanting with a skirt of muscari. The watery sunlight colour of native primroses is enhanced by bright blue scillas.

Native primroses with scilla
Primula vulgaris and Scilla siberica in early spring

Blue is the colour of the sea and sky. It is the colour of peace. It calms and refreshes.

Yellow sunflower head against a blue sky
Sunflower against a clear blue sky

What is it about yellow and blue together that raises the spirits so beautifully?

All those blue flowers with little yellow centres are like miniature suns set in a sweep of blue sky.

  • Cluster of forget me not flowers
  • Blue aster
  • Waterlily with yellow centre

If you add to the yellow/ blue combination, a dash of spring-fresh green, you’re on to a winner.

Green sits between yellow and blue on the colour wheel. It is the harmonious, balancing link between warm and cool colours. Green combines the relaxing attributes of blue with the energising influence of yellow. It also represents new life. New shoots springing up in garden beds and hedges.

So, to complement those yellow spring flowers, here are 5 of the best blue flowers to bring a sprinkle of serenity to your garden borders.

Scilla siberica

Scilla siberica (Siberian squill) is a dainty perennial, pushing up each year in early and mid-spring to 20cm in height.

Blue Scilla Siberica
Scilla Siberica

Little, bright blue flowers nod above narrow, mid-green leaves. Plant the bulbs in autumn, then leave them undisturbed to naturalise. They like both sun and partial shade.

Muscari armeniacum

Muscari armeniacum or the Grape Hyacinth is a vigorous, little bulbous perennial, about 20cm tall. Clusters of tubular, deep blue flowers, with white rims, appear in the spring, though the linear, mid-green leaves emerge in autumn.

Grape hyacinths
Muscari armeniacum

Plant bulbs in autumn in moist, well-drained soil in full sun. Allow the plant to set seed for an even more impressive show the following year.

You could also try Muscari latifolium, a quirky two-tone grape hyacinth, with blue-black flowers on the bottom of the flower spike and a mop of bright blue flowers on the top.

Scilla luciliae

Scilla luciliae

Scilla luciliae (previously known as Chionodoxa) carries sprays of starry blue flowers, with white centres. Its common name is Glory-of-the-snow, a reference to its early flowering period in late winter and early spring.

Each bulb produces a pair of linear, mid-green leaves and grows to 15cm in height. Ideally, plant in drifts in full sun in well-drained soil, where they will set seed and naturalise.

Iris reticulata

This is an early spring flowering iris, growing from a bulb and flowering in late winter and early spring. After a period of summer dormancy, linear, green leaves emerge from the soil, reaching up to 10cm long at flowering time but elongating after flowering to about 30cm. 1 or sometimes 2 flowers are carried on each stem.

The beautiful iris flowers are very distinctive. The 3 outer petal-like sepals are called the falls – they often droop or arch downwards. The 3 inner petals, usually upright, are known as the standards.

Pale blue iris Cantab
Iris ‘Cantab’

Iris reticulata ‘Cantab’ has pale blue standards. The falls are deep blue with pretty yellow-orange and white markings.

Purple-blue Iris reticulata 'Harmony'
Iris reticulata ‘Harmony’

Iris ‘Harmony’ has soft purple-blue flowers, with pretty yellow and white markings. Iris ‘Clairette’ has pale blue standards. The falls are deep violet with white markings.

Plant bulbs in late summer. Grow in full sun and well-drained soil. Bulbous irises need moisture from autumn to spring and hot summers to perform well.

Anemone blanda

Anemone blanda, the winter windflower, is a cheerful, little tuberous perennial. Pretty, daisy-like flowers in violet-blue appear in spring. ‘Blue Star’ has pale blue flowers. The flowers of ‘Atrocaerulea’ are deep blue.

Anemone blanda
Anemone blanda

Anemone blanda likes moist or well-drained soil in sun or part shade. Growing to 15cm in height, it will quickly spread to form a large clump.

Try some blue/ yellow combinations in your garden containers and borders for an early taste of summer skies!

5 Blue Flowers for Early Spring - from Weatherstaff garden design software
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