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Best of the bunch - Saxifraga

These pint-sized flowering perennials look great in rock gardens and scree beds or, in the case of several varieties, planted en masse in the front of borders to add colour in late spring and early summer, acting as valuable ground cover. They produce densely packed rosettes of spoon-shaped leaves and flower freely in shades ranging from pink and red to white, cream and yellow. Among the most popular specimens for the rockery are S. paniculata 'Rosea', a pink form whose star-shaped flowers appear in May or June, S. 'Elizabethae', which produces yellow flowers and S. 'Jenkinsae', which bears large pink blooms.

Types suitable for the front of a border include S. x urbium 'London Pride', which is more vigorous than other saxifraga species and can cope with full shade or full sun and any type of soil. Cut off the flower stems after flowering and you will be left with neat, green rosettes. All rockery types need well drained soil in a moist spot with some shade from the midday sun. Another variety, S. fortunei, has deciduous foliage that is green with red on the undersides, with white flowers that bloom from October to November.

Tulip

There are so many of these late spring stars available, ranging from dwarf and species tulips ideal for pots and rockeries, to tall, sturdy varieties for beds and borders, whether in classic red or multi-coloured, frilly and frothy.

Among favourites is Tulipa ‘Queen of Night’, whose tall, strong stems carry silky, purple-black flowers. They look fantastic in a pot or mixed with ‘Maureen’ or ‘Cheers’, against acid green foliage plants in beds and borders.

For frilly varieties, you’ll need a parrot tulip such as T. ‘Flaming Parrot’, which is among the showiest, with golden yellow petals streaked with scarlet, but if you want a touch of the exotic, try T. ‘Deirdre’, with its elegant, lily-like green and white blooms.

Tulips should be planted in late October or November with the base of the bulbs at four times their depth below the surface, adding grit to the soil to make it more free-draining. Choose a spot in full sun and avoid wet conditions.

Allium

This ornamental onion, with its eye-catching lollipop flowers most commonly available in shades of mauve, remains a popular bulb choice for gardeners, standing tall in beds and borders in early summer.

It looks great planted among ornamental grasses such as Stipa tenuissima or popping up through leafy ground cover plants like wild geraniums which will hide its strappy leaves, which die off and can become unsightly before the flowers bloom.

In big borders, larger blooming varieties such as A. 'Globemaster' and A. cristophii can be planted singly, positioned randomly through the planting, forming soft balls which seem to bounce along the border.

Smaller, more subtle varieties such as A. azureum can be planted in groups of five or seven and look great at the front of a sunny border with plants such as dianthus and helianthemum. White varieties, such as A. stipitatum 'Mount Everest', are also available.

Bulbs should be planted in autumn, three to four times their depth in the soil, in a sunny, well-drained spot. Leave them undisturbed after flowering and they should come back year after year.

Primrose

Widely available in garden centres at this time of year in a mass of colours ranging from white to deep purple, primroses add a wealth of colour to spring containers and at the front of borders.

They're from the Primula genus, which comprises about 400 types, some evergreen, enjoying sun or partial shade in deep, moist but well-drained soil, rich in organic matter.

Good varieties include Primula 'Wanda', which produces claret flowers above clumps of toothy leaves, and P. vulgaris 'Double Sulphur', a vigorous evergreen perennial with funnel-shaped double pale yellow flowers.

There are other taller types including Primula denticulata, a herbaceous perennial which grows to around 45cm (18in) and produces lollypop rosettes of flowers in shades from white to lilac.

Daisy

Anyone who thought that the humble daisy was simply a lawn weed should think again. A large number of garden varieties add a splash of colour to the front of borders and in tubs and troughs. Among the most reliable are B. perennis, which go wonderfully in pots or beds, come in single or double varieties and in shades from red to pink and white. For carpeting, edging or planting in rockeries, good varieties include ‘Rob Roy’, which is red, ‘Pomponette’, which produces pompon-like blooms, and ‘Monstrosa’, which has large double flowers in shades of white, pink or red. They grow in any reasonable soil in sun or partial shade, flowering between March and July. While they are perennial, they are usually grown as biennial.

Anemone

These clumps of saucer-shaped, brightly coloured blooms look at home in any garden. A popular variety is A. blanda, which grows to only 15cm (6in), producing a variety of different coloured flowers in spring.Try A. b. 'Charmer' if you want a deep pink colour or A. b. 'White Splendour' for its large white flowers. A. ranunculoides is similar in habit but has bright yellow single or double flowers. The flowers of A. apennina appear a little later and are ideal for growing in rockeries or as ground cover. Much more impressive are the poppy-flowered anemones in white, blue, pink, purple or red, with 2in bowl-shaped flowers. Look for A. 'de Caen' for a really impressive display. Anemone tubers should be planted in the autumn in full sun or partial shade in moist but well-drained, humus-rich soil.

Hyacinth

They are famed for their tubular bell-shaped flowers and incredible scent, planted at the front of beds and borders or in single colours in pots, preferably near your patio door, so you can appreciate the delicious fragrance when you open your doors.The cultivars of Hyacinthus orientalis come in a mass of colours, from white and soft yellow to pink, red and purple. Bulbs should be planted in autumn, 10cm (4in) deep and 8cm (3in) apart, unless you are planting them in a pot, in which case they can be placed a little closer to each other. They will grow in sunny or partially shaded sites in any moderately fertile, well-drained soil. If you're growing them in pots use a loam-based potting compost and plenty of crocks or other drainage materials at the bottom of the pot and stand the pots on feet so that the moisture doesn't come up through the pot in the winter months and rot the bulbs. Good varieties include 'City of Haarlem', which produces soft primrose-yellow flowers in late spring, and 'Delft Blue', which bears soft, violet-flushed blue flowers with a heady scent.

Magnolia

They are the absolute stars of spring, their huge cup-shaped white and pink flowers providing a dazzling display and there's none so impressive as the tree, M. grandiflora, which will reach 18m (60ft) in time. The most popular variety is M. soulangiana, a spreading bush whose goblet-shaped flowers appear in April, white and purple-tinged at the base. If space is limited, go for the compact, slow-growing deciduous M. stellata, which grows to around 3m (9ft) and hose silky buds open in mid-spring to produce star-shaped, white flowers. Magnolias like moist but well-drained, humus-rich, acid soil in sun or dappled shade. Many don't like chalk but any reasonable garden soil will do. The soil should be enriched with plenty of organic matter and the plant should be well watered until established.

Black lily grass

Commonly known as lilyturf, this striking black grass-like perennial which originates from Japan looks brilliant framing the front of a border with its curved, strap-shaped purplish-black leaves, which grow to around 35cm (14in) long. It can also look effective in clumps in rockeries, alongside yellow or acid foliage. The purplish white summer flowers are followed by fleshy blue-black berries. Grow it in full sun to maintain its colour. It contrasts well with vivid green shrubs or acts as an effective ground cover combination set against gold variegated Hakonechloa macra. In contemporary gardens, put two or three plants in a metal or granite pot for a more modern effect. Older leaves may go brown in winter, but these can be removed individually. Plants can be divided in late winter and early spring.

Helleborus

Hellebores are valued for their attractive winter flowers in shades of white and pink, through to red, purple and black, each with attractive markings. They can grow under trees, shrubs or beside walls if the ground is not too dry and look lovely interplanted with spring-flowering bulbs or hardy cyclamen, or teamed with epimediums, hardy geraniums or pulmonarias in a border. They prefer lime or chalk but are tolerant of a range of soils, although they won't survive in waterlogged conditions, and are happy in sun or shade. Lenten hellebores (H. orientalis) are good evergreen perennials for late winter to early spring interest, with large, cup-shaped flowers in shades of white, cream, pinkish red and deep purple. Try the 'Ashwood Garden Hybrids' for their range of colour. Other hellebores worth considering include H. argutifolius, a tough plant reaching 90cm x 90cm (3ft) or more, which does best in full sun and well drained soil, producing greenish flowers from January to March. The British native stinking hellebore (H. foetidus) has pale green flowers and thrives in moist soil and partial shade and is a cheery sight on dark days.

Narcissus

Their trumpet-shaped blooms hail the true start of spring, whether in dazzling in-your-face yellow or more subtle, paler hues. So, what is the difference between daffodils and narcissi? Well, all belong to the genus Narcissus but in gardens those with obvious trumpets are deemed to be daffodils, while those which are very short of split trumpets are thought of as narcissi, as are those with several heads on a stem. Good choices for beds and borders include Narcissus 'Fortune', the classic variety with a broad orange cut, and the fragrant 'Altruist', with its rounded yellow petals and deep orange-red cup. Paler varieties include N. 'High Society', with its white petals and yellow, orange-fringed cups, and 'Barrett Browning', bearing creamy petals and small orange cups. Good varieties for pots include 'Bell Song', a fragile-looking type which carries two or three delicate blooms with ivory petals and short, salmon trumpets, or 'Bridal Crown', a multi-headed double variety with ivory blooms with orange gold centres. Narcissi grow well in any type of pot and do better in cooler, shadier spots where their flowers will last longer. Plant bulbs them in autumn in gritty compost and make sure they don't dry out in winter or early spring.

Muscari

The grape hyacinth is one of the most popular and widely grown spring-flowering bulbs, creating spectacular bedding displays and providing a pint-size focal point planted in single colours in containers. Each stem carries a dense spike of small blue, white or soft yellow flowers above grass-like foliage. Bulbs should be planted in autumn 5cm below the surface and 4cm apart or less if you want to cram a pot full of them. Good varieties include M. armeniacum, which produces a fine display of deep blue flowers in mid-spring, M. macrocarpum 'Golden Fragrance', which bears soft yellow flowers and looks great in a pot in a warm, sheltered spot, and M. latifolium, which has spikes of dark blue flowers and broader leaves.

Viola

If you want some pretty, dainty plants for your spring patio pots or to put at the front of borders or to add to a courtyard setting, violas are now widely available in garden centres in a myriad of colours. They are more subtle and fragile-looking than the larger pansies which so often fill baskets at this time of year, yet they are tougher and more weather-resistant. They thrive in fertile, moist but well-drained soil in sun or partial shade. Team them in pots with small vertical evergreens, heather and dwarf narcissi for an eye-catching display. Viola can be annuals, biennials or deciduous or evergreen perennials. Good varieties include V. cornuta 'Penny', and 'Spring Sherbets'.

Hebe

These reliable evergreen shrubs are among the most popular choices for gardeners as they come in a range of shapes and sizes to suit any garden. One of my favourites of the moment is H. 'Heartbreaker', a dwarf variety ideal for containers which has cream-edged green foliage from spring to autumn, turning deep pink in winter. Spikes of mauve flowers can be produced on older plants in summer. Other colourful types include the tall-growing H. 'Autumn Glory', which reaches around 60cm (2ft) and produces violet-blue flowers from June to November, and the excellent ground cover variety H. pinguifolia 'Pagei', which grows 30cm tall x 90cm wide (1ft x 3ft), bearing white flowers in May to August. Hebes will thrive in any reasonable garden soil and do best in full sun. Many will flower all summer and autumn and they need little maintenance.

Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis)

If you want spring scent in a natural setting, colonise these sweetly scented, white-flowered beauties in a moist, shaded spot, ideally a woodland garden, or under deciduous shrubs so that their small bell-shaped flowers stand out against a background of newly opening spring leaves. Within a few years, one or two small plants will have spread to a sizeable mass, growing to around 23cm (9in) tall, their fragrant flowers appearing between dark green leaves. They make ideal ground-cover plants for shady, damp situations, spreading quickly by means of creeping roots. Good varieties include 'Albostriata', with its gold-striped leaves and 'Fortin's Giant', which is slightly taller, growing to around 30cm (1ft). Be warned, though, don't put lily-of-the-valley into tightly contained beds as they are vigorous spreaders and once you have them, it will be difficult to dig them all out. Lift some of the rhizomes and pot them in autumn for a display of fragrant flowers indoors.

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