Photos by Clare
It's so important to create a good shrubby framework in your garden so that in the winter months, and in particular early spring when everything is cut back, there is some structure to hold the eye. When I planted my garden two years ago I began my planting plans with this framework. Now that the plants are filling out, I can see a pleasing rhythm beginning to emerge, with clipped mounds and strong shapes standing out when other plants begin to fade. I leave a lot of my herbaceous plants to form seed heads over winter, so oddly enough it isn't until early spring that the evergreen structure fully comes into its own. In my front garden these are the plants that give me this much-needed structure:
1. Teucrium fruticans. This is the first time I have grown this shrub, and I am absolutely in love with it. Reputedly slightly tender, it has survivied two years with me on top of a hill in Berkshire (admittedly we haven't had extremely low temperatures in that time). It provides a dense, criss-crossing network of wiry, pliable stems with small leaves, in a beautiful silvery grey-green. I clip it lightly into domes a couple of times a year as it grows fast.
2. Hebe rakaiensis. This is a good alternative to box, forming a lovely cushion about 1m wide by 50cm high, sometimes making interesting undulating mounds that look as if they've been clipped. Forming a dense, tightly knit dome, they don't need clipping at all - although sometimes I clip the white flowers off as I prefer the evergreen effect.
3. Hebe salicifolia. This was a chance find. I brought it back as a cutting from a trip to France and have been growing it ever since. In my garden in full sun it has grown remarkably quickly, forming a nice rounded shape. (In a more shady area it may get more leggy). I clip mine lightly into domes, keeping them dense and shapely - it doesn't matter if you snip some of the flowers off, it's worth it to keep the shape. I have taken cuttings from the two original plants by my front gate and now have different plants all round the garden.
Euphorbia x pasteurii
Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii
4. Euphorbia x pasteurii. This was another recent find, and I have three specimens in my garden. I think one might be a cultivar called 'Skinny Bere' and the other 'Phrampton Fattie', from Edulis Nursery and Pan Global Plants respectively. They can get absolutely huge, so I may find myself having to clip them back and reign them in. They create a dense, pleasing mound of generous, exotic-looking leaves, and then in spring and early summer produce deliciously honey-scented flowers.
5. Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae. The wood spurge is ridiculously easy to grow and in fact I have to stop it wandering around, but it is useful for shadier areas, and produces glossy, evergreen leaves and lime-green early spring flowers.
6. Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii. This is two-a-penny but I love it for its unsubtleness and year-round structure. And for its eye-popping early spring colour. As they emerge Its flowers look like little horses rearing their heads. If you want something a little smaller, the cultivar 'Black Pearl' is slightly more compact with striking reddish stems.
Back border in early spring
Euphorbia characias 'Black Pearl'
In the back border, the structural plants are still quite small. I have a couple of neglected old box balls brought from my previous garden and nursed back into health, and some new box groupings, planted as small bare root plants in stands of three. I want them to start growing into each other and I'll clip them randomly into a cloud-like shape. I also have three 'Annabelle' hydrangeas and a shrub I fell in love with in Morocco, Raphiolepis, which I have to admit is struggling in my fairly heavy soil here. The shrubby framework is supplemented by lots of grasses - Molinia 'Transparent', Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster' and Stipa gigantea - which themselves provide structure (and movement) right up until the time I cut them down at the beginning of March. Which is also the point I start thinking the border looks a bit sparse and needs more structure!