May 10th, 2024
Posted In: Gardening know how

If you buy your garden border plants from the people who grow them, you’ll benefit from their expert advice and knowledge.

That’s why going to a plant fair can be such a rewarding way to buy plants. The Plant Fairs Roadshow is a collective of independent plant nurseries, who organise plant fairs in beautiful gardens around South East England.

For the price of admission to the garden, you can buy from a wide selection of nurseries, each an expert in the type of plants they grow. This fair was at Ramster Hall, a 25 acre garden famous for its spring colour.

So I asked the plant growers to nominate 7 of their best garden border plants for planting in spring. They’re all plants which will fill a gap now and go on flowering for a long time.

And there are some excellent planting tips too.

Best plants to fill a gap in spring

Lamium orvala (spotted dead-nettle).

Hardy to minus 30C/minus 25F. Steve Edney of the No Name Nursery chose this plant because its attractive purple flowers are brilliant for bumblebees. And once the flowers are over, the red-tinged leaves offer summer-long interest and spread easily.

Lamium orvala (spotted deadnettle)Lamium orvala (spotted deadnettle)

The flowers are an ideal landing pad for bumblebees, says Steve. The foliage looks good all summer so the plant adds interest to the garden even when it’s not in flower. Good in partial shade.

Geum ‘Pink Petticoats’ – good for wetter soils

Hardy to minus 40C/minus 40 F. This is another of Steve’s plant choices. He loves the delicate frilling and subtle, two-tone colour. It’s not tall – around 30cm so good for the front of a border.

‘The key to growing geums,’ he says, ‘is that they don’t like to dry out.’

Geums are sun-lovers, but will tolerate part shade and if you live in a very dry area, it may be better to plant them in light shade.

‘You have to remember that the wild geum, which lots of the cultivated varieties are crossed with, grows wild in one of the wettest places on earth. So think about that – if you have a spot which is so damp that other plants rot away, then you may find that a geum will thrive in that spot.’

Geum 'Pink Petticoats'Geum 'Pink Petticoats'

If you’ve got a damp spot in the garden where nothing seems to flourish, geums are brilliant border plants. This is ‘Pink Petticoat.’

Geum Mai Tai

Annie Godfrey of Daisy Roots nursery also chose a geum, ‘Mai Tai’. It’s a delicate two-tone shade of apricot and pink. ‘Geum Mai Tai will be happy in any reasonable soil, in sun or part shade, as long as it isn’t baked dry,’ says Annie.

It’s about 30 cm tall. ‘If you dead-head, it’ll flower from April to about mid-June.’

Geum Mai TaiGeum Mai Tai

Another very pretty geum – ‘Mai Tai’. Although they look so delicate, geums are easy-grow plants which thrive in sun and partial shade as long as they don’t dry out.

Nepeta ‘Cat’s Pyjamas’ – deep blue and compact

Hardy to minus 40C/minus 40F. Annie also recommended Nepeta ‘Cat’s Pyjamas’. Nepetas can be quite sprawling plants but this is a neat mound of intense blue flowers.

It’s about 6″ high with a spread of a foot, and will be happy in any soil ‘that’s not too dry.’

Nepeta 'Cat's Pyjamas'Nepeta 'Cat's Pyjamas'

Nepeta ‘Cat’s Pyjamas’ from Daisy Roots. More compact than some nepetas, but still very long-flowering.

Geranium maculatum ‘Spring Purple’ (Spotted cranesbill) for shady ground cover

Hardy to minus 40c/minus 40F. There are hundreds of varieties of hardy geranium. They’re practical and easy border plants.

Paul Seaborne of Pelham Plants says you could probably have a geranium flowering every day of the year.

(Note that hardy geraniums are the not the same as the brightly coloured plants for pots sold as ‘geraniums’ in many garden centres. Those are, strictly speaking, ‘pelargoniums’, not geraniums.)

‘Geranium maculatum creates a dense ground cover, suppressing weeds. It’s even good in deep shade and very drought tolerant, once established,’ says Paul.

He particularly likes ‘Spring Purple’ because it’s a light, vibrant colour and really lights up a shady corner. ‘It’s very tolerant of heavy soil – it’s one of my favourite spring flowering plants. And when the flower is over, it’ll spread to create good ground cover, ready to burst into flower next spring.’

For more good ground cover plants, see 23 brilliant ground cover plants.

Geranium maculatum 'Spring Purple'Geranium maculatum 'Spring Purple'

This is an American geranium, very tolerant of shade and drought. From Pelham Plants.

Spirea ‘Pink Ice’ – ‘tough as old boots’ but delicately pretty

Hardy to minus 34C/minus 30F. Graham Blunt of the nursery Plantbase is taking a group of ‘plants for climate change to RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year. ‘They’re plants which can survive prolonged drought, prolonged flooding, very cold weather and very hot weather,’ he says. ‘It’s a very limited palette of plants!’

Spirea ‘Pink Ice’ is one such plant. ‘It’s as tough as old boots,’ he says. ‘A spirea will take shade, sun, rain – all you need to do is dig a hole and put it in the ground.’

Spirea 'Pink Ice'Spirea 'Pink Ice'

Spireas are extremely resilient plants, according to Graham Blunt of Plantbase. ‘You can dig a hole and put it in, and that’s all you need to do.’ It’ll withstand droughts and very wet weather, or unusually hot or cold temperatures.

Veronica ‘Tissington White’ – two months of white spires

Hardy to minus 34C/minus 30F. Rob Hardy of Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants recommends Veronica ‘Tissington White’.

‘It’s special to me because it was discovered by my grandfather in 1920,’ he says.

It flowers from the end of April to around mid June.

Once it’s finished flowering, cut the flower stems off and it’ll produce a nice green mat which expands to create a dense ground cover. ‘It doubles its size each year.’

veronica 'Tissington White'veronica 'Tissington White'

I remember spotting this in a show border when I first visited Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants. Ideal for the front of a border, and will easily spread, so good value for money.

What NOT to plant in spring

Miles Hayward of Miles Japanese Maples advises you NOT to plant trees, especially maples, in the spring.

If you plant trees in spring, you often get foliage spoiled by the sun and they don’t establish as well as they could.  If we have another hot, dry summer, they’ll struggle to get settled in.’

If you buy trees in spring, he advises keeping them in the container, well watered, until autumn (fall).

Don’t re-pot it into a larger container. But putting the pot and tree into an ornamental pot can be helpful because it helps shade the roots and stabilises it if there’s too much wind.

Miles grows his trees in Airpots, which prevent root spiralling.

Root spiralling is when tree roots get too big for the pot and circle round inside. It’s rare for trees to recover, even if you tease the roots out. So Miles advises that you check trees in pots to make sure that they aren’t growing too big for the pot. Read more about choosing trees for small gardens here.

Don't plant trees in spring.Don't plant trees in spring.

Don’t plant trees in spring. Miles advises that you keep the tree in its pot, well watered, and plant it in the autumn.

Brilliant expert planting tips

Add plenty of manure or compost to wet or heavy soil

This spring has been exceptionally rainy in the UK. People with heavy clay soils are particularly waterlogged.

Paul Seaborne of Pelham Plants has clay soil. ‘Water has been sitting on the soil and it has become very compressed. So I’ll need to open it up by adding plenty of organic matter.

I won’t dig very deeply, because I don’t want to bring up lots of heavy clay, but I’ll work some of my own home-made compost and leaf litter.’

How to plant on dry soil

Steve Edney of the No Name Nursery grows his plants in a dry climate. He’s based in East Kent, which is one of the driest parts of the United Kingdom.

He says that the key to planting in dry climates is to plant into a slight bowl so ‘that water runs into the crown of the plant. ‘ And at least make sure that you’re not leaving any part of the root ball above ground.

If you plant on a mound, you get water running away from the roots and the crown. Plants get even drier. Whereas if you plant into a slight bowl, the rain will be retained better.

Planting plants that have been grown in peat-free compost

Steve says that they’ve been noticing that peat-free compost breaks down in the soil more quickly than peat-based composts did. This means that you can get gaps around the roots soon after the plant is planted.

So he suggests shaking as much peat-free compost off the roots as possible, then mixing it with the garden soil.

This effectively means you’re almost planting a bare-root plant. Plant the plant as normal using the soil and compost mix.

Don’t overplant the border in spring

Dan Cooper of Dan Cooper Garden advises not over-planting your border in spring. ‘As the perennials start to push up through the earth, it can look as if you’ve got gaps. But they’ll soon fill the border, so don’t be tempted to plant too much.

He fills any gaps he does have with annuals he’s grown from seed.

Dan uses WoolPots, which he sells on Dan Cooper Garden, for seed sowing. Each wool pot is made from waste wool. It’s a little knitted pot that stretches over a terracotta pot.

‘You fill it with compost, plant your seed, and it grows in that WoolPot until you’re ready to plant it out. ‘It’s roots grow towards the air holes, so it “air prunes”‘ he says.

That means that when the roots reach the air holes, they can no longer grow, which is the equivalent of pruning them. So they branch out inside the pot, creating a denser root system.

When the plant’s ready, you simply slide the WoolPot off the terracotta pot and plant the whole seedling or plant directly into the soil, still in the WoolPot.

The wool slowly breaks down, and contributes nitrogen to the soil. ‘And the lip of the WoolPot helps deter snails,’ he says.

WoolPots from Dan Cooper GardenWoolPots from Dan Cooper Garden

These WoolPots from Dan Cooper Garden can be planted directly in the soil, where they will break down and add nutrition to the earth.

The Plant Fairs Roadshow at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2024

You can meet some of the growers featured here, and buy their plants at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2024.

Those exhibiting are: Daisy Roots, Pelham Plants, Plantbase, Swallowfields Nursery, The No Name Nursery, Miles Japanese Maples and Special Plants. There’ll be a central hub with information about plants.

They all specialise in different kinds of plants. ‘Some of us are showing drought-tolerant plants, some are doing plants for shade, some plants for clay soils – there’s something for everyone,’ says Annie.

The No Name Nursery, for example, will be showing exotic and drought-tolerant plants. Graham Blunt of Plantbase will be taking a palette of ‘plants for climate change’.

He’s kept one variety, Erica caffra or Water Heath, in a bath for a year to prove it can withstand prolonged flooding, as well as drought.

See the plant growing experts in video

You see the full video with the plant growing experts here.

8 spring border plants to plant now8 spring border plants to plant now

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Brilliant border plants plus tips from expertsBrilliant border plants plus tips from experts