from The Weatherstaff PlantingPlanner – intelligent garden design software
Spring flowers at Mount Grace Priory
Chartreuse-yellow Euphorbia characias mingles with Brunnera macrophylla and bluebells at Mount Grace Priory

Mount Grace Priory in North Yorkshire is the best preserved of the nine medieval Carthusian monasteries in England. Now owned by the National Trust and operated by English Heritage, it’s a fascinating place to visit for both historians and plant-lovers.

Ruined priory buildings

The Carthusians are an order of the Catholic Church, founded in 1084 by Bruno of Cologne. The first Carthusian monastery was set up in the Chartreuse Mountains in south-eastern France. The mountains gave their name to the monastery – Grande Chartreuse. Later, the name was also shared with the greeenish-yellow liqueur the monks made there from the 18th century onwards, with its secret recipe of 130 herbs and flowers. The English word Charterhouse, which refers to Carthusian monasteries, has the same roots too.

Brunnera macrophylla at Mount Grace Priory
Brunnera macrophylla has large heart-shaped leaves and sprays of blue flowers in spring.

The strict life of solitude and contemplation drew others to the monastery and other priories were set up, including a number in England. Amongst them was Mount Grace Priory, founded in 1398 and suppressed, with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, in the 1530s. It was later rebuilt as a mansion and restored in the early 20th century in the Arts and Craft style by Lowthian Bell. More recently, in 2018, its 13 acres of gardens were redesigned by Chris Beardshaw, incorporating 7,500 herbaceous plants and 27,000 bulbs.

House and terraces
The wide stone terraces descend to the lawned area.

The Arts and Craft garden style is one of exuberant planting, flowing over a more formal architectural structure, usually constructed from local natural materials. At Mount Grace Priory, the stone terraces, close to the house, are richly planted with herbaceous and alpine plants.

Gardens at Mount Grace Priory
View of the gardens from the house.

Further away from the house, the garden leads down to a more wooded and naturalistic area near the ponds. Typical Arts and Crafts plants included roses, peonies and irises and all of these can be found at Mount Grace. In May, the last of the daffodils are fading, but the fruit trees are in blossom and bluebells carpet the ground.

Bluebells in a wild area
English bluebells – Hyacinthoides non-scripta
Euphorbia and brunnera at the base of the walls.
Euphorbia characias subsp wulfenii edges the stone walls

Billows of euphorbia hug the stone walls, along with drifts of Brunnera macrophylla. Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii (Mediterranean spurge) is an attractive evergreen shrub, creating a long season of interest and winter structure in the garden. Its upright stems have narrow, blue-green leaves and carry large cylindrical flowerheads from early spring to early summer. The chartreuse bracts, cupping the tiny flowers, provide the display. It grows to 1.2m high.

Euphorbia characias ‘Black Pearl’ is shorter, growing to 75cm, but has an enchanting dark eye to each flower.

Clusters of Euphorbia characias 'Black Pearl'
Euphorbia characias ‘Black Pearl’

Bees are at work, busy visiting the dusky pink flowers of Lamium orvala. An enchanting perennial, it forms a clump of dark green leaves often edged with purple. The two-lipped flowers, the bottom lip attractively marked and mottled, are borne from late spring into summer and are a good source of nectar for bees.

A bee on Lamium orvala
A bee buzzes around Lamium orvala
Willow garden support
Woven willow and hazel structures will provide support later in the season.

Though the ferns are still unfurling and the irises and peonies have yet to flower, willow and hazel supports give structure to the beds.

Ground cover plants cover the terrace borders.
Ground cover plants provide bursts of colour in the terrace border.

There is plenty of colour though. Mossy saxifrage edges the weathered paving stones, while aubrieta and phlox tumble from the terrace edges.

Fuchsia-like flowers of the flowering gooseberry shrub
Ribes speciosum – flowering gooseberry

An interesting fuchsia-lookalike turns out to be the fuchsia-flowered gooseberry, Ribes speciosum, which has an Award of Garden Merit. The shrub has bristly stems and grows to about 2m in height. Its long stamens protrude well below the deep red flower in mid to late spring.

The reconstructed monk’s cell provides a fascinating glimpse into the silent, meditative lives of the Carthusian monks. Behind each cell lie the individual gardens, where the monks would have grown herbs for medicinal and aromatic uses, as well as fruits and vegetables and probably flowers just for their beauty.

The monks' gardens
Monks’ garden with box-edged flower beds.

The box-edged flower beds today contain mandrake, henbane and salad burnet. Climbing plants clamber up the fan-shaped trellis on the stone walls and the plump peony buds hold the promise of delights to come.

Mount Grace Priory - from Weatherstaff garden design software
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from The Weatherstaff PlantingPlanner – intelligent garden design software

Let’s talk about daffodils. I love them all – except, sorry, not the pink ones. Why would daffodils even think of being pink? – but I’m skewed towards the miniature ones. The big ones, dotted along banks and road verges or popping up in wild hedges, are fabulous. They catch your breath, confirm the coming of spring, bring pools of gold to the greens and browns of passing winter. But in my garden, and especially in a container, the little ones reign supreme.

Wild daffodil flowers
Wild daffodils
A swathe of daffodils along a bank
Our neighbours’ daffodils

The taller daffodils are regal. They cluster together. They hunt in packs. There’s a swathe of them all along the bank in front of our row of cottages and they look fantastic.

Single daffodil on bank
Our daffodils

Apart from the ones opposite our house, sadly, where they struggle up in ones and twos. They look a sorry sight compared with the voluptuous flowering a few metres down. We’ve recently moved in and it seems the previous occupant was a fiend with the lawn mower and favoured a crewcut approach to both his lawn and the bank opposite. So that would explain it. Daffodils need to be left until their leaves yellow and wither before mowing to give them time to store up energy for next year’s blooms. We’ll try a bit of tender neglect this year and see if normal flowering eventually resumes.

I’ll be more than happy to enjoy the spring display. But in the tamer confines of the garden, I find the miniature daffodils friendlier. They are content to jostle with spring irises and pale primroses, with colourful pansies and red-purple fritillaries. They have their own smaller kingdom.

Narcissus Tete-a-tete in a pot
Narcissus Tête-à-tête and companions

  • Narcissus Rip van Winkle - double flowerhead
    Narcissus Rip van Winkle
  • Pale yellow flowers of Narcissus Hawera
    Narcissus Hawera
  • Miniature daffodils Narcissus Jetfire
    Narcissus Jetfire

In my last garden, I had several smaller daffodils – Rip Van Winkle in green-yellow ragged flounces, delicately coloured Hawera and Jetfire with orange cups and swept back yellow petals – but the tiny queen is Narcissus ‘Tête-à-tête’, named for its tendency to have more than one flower, nodding companionably, on each stalk.

Tete-a-tete and primula in a pot
Narcissus Tête-à-tête and Primula Gold-Laced

So, here they are again, in my new garden – the first flowers we bought here. We’d just discovered our nearest garden centre and plundered their benches for some spring treasure. The pots outside the kitchen window have been flowering cheerfully ever since. The yellow narcissus has kept going, producing more new buds to open into little golden stars bobbing on slender stems.

A fritillary emerging in a spring container
Fritillaries uncurling in my spring container

The reticulata irises – pale Clairette and red-purple J. S. Dijt – have come and gone – and the chequered fritillaries are pushing up to take their place, straightening their shoulders and uncurling as they emerge. And still, ‘Tête-à-tête’ shows no sign of stopping. It is one of the most popular miniature daffodils and it’s clear to see why.

Miniature daffodils in a spring pot
A spring pot

The lady-in-waiting of the container, a constant and supportive companion, is the exquisite gold-rimmed and centred red-black flowers of Primula Gold-Laced. And round the edge of the pots are the cheerful little ruffled pansies – the knights in Tête-à-tête’s realm. I’m still deciding what to do with the rest of the garden – with its uneven lurches, its downward keel and the septic tank right in the centre of the lawn. But these little pots of colour have kept me going and there will always be space to squeeze some more dwarf daffodils in my plot.

Daffodils - from Weatherstaff garden design software
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from The Weatherstaff PlantingPlanner – intelligent garden design software

Some plants make perfect bedfellows. Here are some of my favourite plant combinations.

Sometimes, the perfect combination happens almost by accident. The mauve flowers of Erysimum ‘Bowles’ Mauve’ are echoed by the starry globe of Allium cristophii, opening in the background and the bracts of Acanthus mollis. The fresh green of the miscanthus grounds the group, while the soft petals of the poppies dance above, bringing a lighter focal point to the display. How perfect is that?

Planting combination of poppies, wallflower and alliums
Acanthus, Erysimum, Miscanthus, Allium and Papaver

Allium cristophii

In my photo, Allium cristophii is peeping shyly from behind a mound of foliage. But it is no shrinking violet. It is one of several in the border and they make a spectacular display. The grey-green, strap-shaped basal leaves wither before the flowers appear in early summer. The flowers themselves are fabulous – huge spheres of many star-shaped, metallic flowers.

Flowerheads of Allium cristophii or Star of Persia
Metallic globes of Allium cristophii

Some of the big alliums have very dense flowerheads, like rounded lollipops, but I love this one for its more open, ethereal look. Each star has room to spread out and be admired. Allium cristophii  has gained the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) and grows to 50cm in height. It likes well-drained soil in full sun and is a source of nectar for bees.

Seedheads of Allium christophii in autumn
Seedheads of Allium cristophii

The flowers fade to large, attractive seedheads which persist into winter. These can be enjoyed as they are or sprayed silver for winter decorations.

Acanthus mollis

Acanthus mollis, charmingly known as bear’s breeches, is a clump-forming, semi-evergreen perennial with bold, deeply-divided leaves and handsome, vertical flower spikes.  In summer, many spires of white flowers, protected by mauve or mauve-green bracts, tower up from the foliage.

Spikes of Acanthus mollis
Acanthus mollis

A striking architectural plant, Acanthus needs space to spread out (1.5m tall by 0.9m spread) but is easy to grow in fertile, well-drained soil. Acanthus mollis thrives in sun or light shade, enjoying woodland conditions probably more than other variety of acanthus. Its long roots make the plant difficult to eradicate if moving to a different position in the garden. Remove as much of the root as possible as any piece of root left will develop into a new plant.

Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’

An attractive, long-flowering, evergreen perennial, its narrow grey-green leaves form a dense mound of foliage. Long racemes of mauve flowers appear from late winter and right through the summer. Erysimum likes well-drained, neutral to alkaline soil in full sun. Though short-lived, the plant can easily be replaced with cuttings.

 A border of the perennial wallflower Erysimum Bowles' Mauve
Erysimum ‘Bowles’ Mauve’

Deadheading will keep the flowers coming. Erysimum is a good early source of nectar for bees and butterflies, but it may need winter protection where frosts are severe. It has an AGM and grows to 75cm by 60cm.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Nippon’

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Nippon’ is a very elegant, ornamental, perennial grass. Its deciduous, mid-green leaves, with narrow white midribs, arch gracefully. In late summer,  feathery, reddish flowerheads appear, becoming silvery-beige as they fade to plumy seedheads. These persist through the winter, creating an attractive winter feature. Flower and seedheads are particularly effective when back-lit by the sun. The seedheads provide food for birds.

A clump of ornamental grass Miscanthus sinensis Nippon
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Nippon’

Though miscanthus prefers full sun and moist conditions with good drainage, it will tolerate any reasonable garden soil, provided it does not become water-logged in winter.

Russet autumn leaves of Miscanthus sinensis
Fiery autumn foliage of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Nippon’

In autumn, the foliage takes on russet tones before fading to buff. Like other ornamental grasses, Miscanthus sinensis is easy to care for. Simply cut back old stems to ground level in early spring before new growth starts.

Papaver ‘Coral Reef’

The poppy I originally planted in my garden was ‘Coral Reef’, which has ruffled, papery, coral-pink petals, with purple-black blotches at the petal bases, surrounding a circlet of dark stamens. Oriental poppies are sun-loving, herbaceous perennial, which appreciate support early in the growing season to keep them from flopping. Oriental poppy flowers appear from late spring to mid-summer and are followed by enchanting seed pods, coveted for adding to bowls of pot-pourri for winter displays. The foliage will die back after flowering and needs to be cut back almost to ground level at this stage. However, many will start to grow again by autumn and may provide a second flush of flowers later in the summer.

Close-up of the oriental poppy 'Coral Reef'
Papaver orientale ‘Coral Reef’

Poppies will spread by self-seeding but their seeds are unlikely to come true. You can always divide the original plant or take root cuttings if you want to make sure you have more of the same.

Pale pink oriental poppy
Pale pink oriental poppy

The poppy in my photo is probably a lighter coloured seedling of the original, and serendipitously turned out to be a perfect highlight for the border plants.

Winning Combinations 2 - from Weatherstaff garden design software
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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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