garden design dorset

Tough plants for tough winters

Tough plants for tough weather

Well - what a winter we’re having! We seem to have moved inexorably from flooding to storm winds to heavy snow and then back to more storms in a matter of weeks. Winters these days have never been more challenging, especially for gardeners.

So how do you pick reliable plants that are going to last from one year to the next? Of course its always worth remembering the golden adage ‘right plant right place’ and attempting to replicate a plant’s natural habitat will always stand you in good stead. But are there any contenders for seriously tough plants that’ll do you proud no matter what? Here are a few ideas.

I think top place for me has to go to box (Buxus sempervirens). Apart from the fact it’s a native, and has therefore evolved for millennia through countless harsh winters, I’ve never seen witnessed anything quite so indestructible (with the minor caveat of box blight of course).  Some time ago I removed a fairly mature box hedge a client had inherited but no longer wanted and stored some gifted to me at home. They still had balls of soil attached to the roots but I forgot about them and there they sat out of the ground, unattended right through the winter, often with entirely frozen root balls. It was 5 months before I got round to planting them and not one of them died. Box is a great plant to fill space in winter when little else is green. It is also superb in low winter sun creating dramatic shadows on lawns and terraces.

Apart form native plants one can look to harsh conditions in other countries for a source of inspiration. Echinacea purpurea (coneflower), whose seeds have been used for medicinal purposes for years, grows wild on the huge prairies of North America which are battered by extremes of weather. But once established in a British border Echinacea can survive happily in moist, normal or even dry soil, in sun or partial shade, and it’s tough as old boots when it comes to the cold.  These days there are a wide assortment of colours to choose from based on the original dusky pink including pure white, rusty orange and creamy yellow.

Some plants have proved surprisingly tough in our climate despite their origins. One such plant is Erigeron karvinskianus which is native to Mexico hence its common name Mexican fleabane. It’s often used to fill cracks in dry-stone walls or tumble through gaps in paving, needing very little in the way of nutrients to survive. Yet it still offers evergreen foliage and hundreds of small daisy flowers from June through to November even when planted in my conditioned clay soil.  For me it looks best planted en masse and can be used as effective groundcover to create a simple base or platform beneath a structural focal point plant such as a multi-stem shrub.

Another tough ground cover plant is Campanula poscharskyana (trailing bellflower is a lot easier to say) which will grow up and into walls and crevices and will produce a profusion of small violet blow flowers for months on end without any bother. It’ll take a fairly wide of soil conditions and grow in full sun right through to fairly full on shade. But be a little careful – it can become invasive as it spreads by underground runners.

So my message today is be bold and fear not – there are plants out there tough enough to provide all of us with the welcome reassurance that winters always make way in the end to spring and summer.

campanula posch