Sarah Coles

10. GARDENING FOR EVER. Shrubs and Climbers



The word Shrub comes from the Old English scrybb, related to the Low German shrubben meaning coarse, uneven.  Forget these ungracious connotations.  Shrubs make for a varied border in their own right, and can demarcate spaces, leading to places not initially seen.  All below, except the golden choisya, will grow in sun or shade, by which I mean they are best sited where in summer they get a splash of sun for an hour or more.  Shrubs make for a varied border in their own right. 

Some shrubs like weigela, lilac, deutzia and philadelphus are not listed here because their time of glory is brief and out of season they are dull.  However, one plus of town living is that glorious scents from neighbouring gardens often waft in.

Buddleia davidii frequently arrives as a stray in gardens.  Near Winchester, you drive through a canyon of chalk cliffs forming the M3, white when first cut and now its north side festooned each August with buddleia, an introduction from Asia which colonizes every crevice  it can.  In my garden I sometimes let seedlings stay, particularly in a wild area at the far end, but mostly I pull them out.

Buxus, box, the good and the bad

     Buxus sempervirens.  The perfect plant for smaller topiary.  Years ago I planted several box balls from Homebase.  I wanted  to punctuate the length of the garden, the corner angles of beds, and to give a sense of presence and pattern in winter.  They have slowly grown, and on Derby Day each year – traditional time for box clipping – or earlier I sit on a stool and trim with Bosch battery powered shears, making a gentle clatter.  It is therapeutic.   Dry days are essential for this, to avoid box blight which spreads in the damp.

     Buxus microphylla, dwarf box.  Mine used to line the path to the greenhouse and looked neat and satisfying, but after a year it became grey and leafless.  It was stricken with box blight, Volutella buxi which attacks open wounds and newly trimmed shoots, and Cylindrocladium buxicola which causes general havoc.  A man from whose nursery I had bought this box came and sprayed with a very expensive remedy, only obtainable from professionals he said, and charging me nothing, but it was useless.  I dug them all out.

Since then the blight, spread by spores, has attacked the larger box balls in patches.  Professional advice is to cut and destroy the affected parts, and feed the plants.  Oddly, a patch of dwarf box under the Griselina was unaffected.  The blight spores floating down from other gardens were averted and fell on the unaffected Griselina.  Think of all the spores, all the things we inhale every moment.

A fresh horror is the box moth, which spreading from London can completely defoliate a plant.  Where practical, remove the caterpillars by hand. You can check the numbers with a Pheromone trap obtainable from garden centres, but this pestilence from Asia has no natural European predators.  If it is busy in your area, best to grow no box at all.

 Choisya ternata Sundance.  Mexican orange blossom.  The leaves are so bright it looks like a stand of daffodils throughout the year, and thus is particularly welcome in winter.  Scented white flowers in spring.  If grown in too much shade, the leaves grow a darker green.  Being a member of the orange family, not only do the flowers smell, but the leaves too, emitting a spicy odour when crushed.

Cornus alternifolia.  Light green leaves edged with white.  This is the wedding cake tree, sending out shoots from the trunk in all directions at regular points, which gives a layered effect.

Cotinus dummeri, called the smoke bush because in spring it produces a mass of light fluffy flowers.  Purple leaves, best in the sun, which in autumn turn a deep magnificent red.  Grace is an excellent variety.

Fatsia japonica, with the long pointy fingers and shining nails of a glamorous witch.  All year perfection, and towards winter its flowers, like ivy flowers, become mini starbursts.  Good in shade.

Daphne odora aureomarginata.  Have this near a door because, ah, its scent in early spring.  All scented plants are best planted where they can be easily appreciated.

Griselinia littoralis, a bright apple green shrub, over ten feet high, which is useful for screening and contrast, and which grows well by the sea.  Good tempered, it grows in all soils.  No flowers, or so small as to be barely noticeable, and the obscure fruits only appear on female plants when there is a male growing nearby.

Hydrangea Annabelle, a low hydrangea which cannot be more highly recommended.  In my garden she lives in shade, under a birch, yet produces each summer full bouquets of white blossom, which over the weeks becomes cream then lime green and finally, by October, the colour of brown paper bags.

Laurus nobilis, bay.  The nymph Daphne turned into a bay tree to escape the clutches of the god Apollo, who adopted it as his own.  Famed for centuries and placed in wreaths on the heads of victors in the original Olympic games.  Shining evergreen, it can be shaped into a satisfying ovoid letting its herbal aroma pervade the garden.  A leaf is essential for stews.

Lavandula angustifolia, lavender, usually called English lavender despite its origin around the Mediterranean.  Hardier, more perennial and with a better scent than French lavender, Lavandula stoechas with rabbit ears and smelling of camphor.  Since my west border only has sun for half the day I grow smaller lavenders like Miss Muffet and Little Lottie, which are not tall enough to lean in their search for more light.  Lavender appreciates a severe pruning after flowering, right down to where the little white bumps of next year’s growth can be seen.

Mahonia Charity.  I was given one for my December birthday because it would always then bloom – and so it does, with fountains of gold flowers.   It flourishes in shade.  Upright, reliable, dignified and handsome, its dark leaves show well when contrasted with a plant like the golden leaved currant either side.  The only Mahonia you need grow.

Paeonia lutea ludlowii, yellow Tree Peony.  Called a tree but essentially a small to medium shrub.  Large brassy flowers and apple green cut foliage.  Easiest of the tree peonies to grow, though it may take a year or so to flower.

Peony suffruticosa, Japanese Tree Peony.  Victorian glamour with flouncy skirts.  Sun if you can manage it.

Photinia Red Robin.  Useful evergreen.  In spring it produces long glossy red leaves which slowly turn bronze then green, and sometimes little clouds of flowers.

Pittosporum tenuifolium Tom Thumb, which is not that large, only about three feet high, with evergreen leaves initially green but rapidly turning dark glistening maroon, nearly black.  It copes with shade and dryness.

Pittosporum tenuifolium Irene Patterson, similar in shape and size but pale, mottled cream and green.   Beside the dark ribbed leaves of Viburnum davidii it looks like a blonde with a dark beau.  Both these two are invaluable for leaf variety, acting as foils to other plants, and making a shrub border lively in its own right, particularly if you place undemanding flowers in front, like small daffodils for spring and hardy geraniums for summer.

Rhododendrons and Azaleas.  Bright easy colour in May.  But only grow if your soil is suitably acid, and if in doubt, buy a soil testing kit to test for a pH of below neutral. Easiest way to check, if you have just moved house, is to look at the neighbours’ gardens.  They will be growing them if they can.

Ribes sanguineum Brocklebankii, golden leaved flowering currant.  The pink flowers are sparse but the leaves lighten any darkness beside a fence or under trees.   The leaves tend to scorch in full sun.

Roses.  Historic roses may have heart stopping names and wonderful scent and look amazing but alas!  Even in ideal sunny conditions with a rich soil, many are, without specialist sprays and care, unhealthy and tired, mapped with disease from midsummer onwards.  The alba rose Celeste, and Rose de Rescht are exceptions.  Roses are best fed in the winter, and tidied up in April.  If you are planting a rose where roses have previously been grown, add mycorrizhal fungi (obtainable at garden centres) as well as compost to the soil.

The key words to spot in catalogues is Healthy and, it goes without saying, Scented.  Pococks catalogue * gives each rose a rating from one to five for garden worthiness (is it disease resistant? is it vigorous?) and likewise for scent, one (no scent), two (perceptible) five (rich and heady).  For scent, Mme Pierre Oger and Fantin la Tour are given two points here, which for all their loveliness makes them disappointing when sniffed.  Another catalogue well worth perusing is David Austin’s.*  Over the last decades of the 20th century he produced a galaxy of roses, scented and glorious.

These days I grow a few modern varieties, like the fragrant English Garden, which has the whirling flower formations of an old rose (I forgive its name of crushing banality) and Summer Fever, no scent but scarlet, which waves from the far end of the garden.  Most precious is a rose named Sarah, given by a son for my birthday, scented and healthy.  Almost anyone can acquire a specifically named rose – just try googling it.

Sambucus nigra Black Lace, a favourite shrub – dark slate black leaves, lacy, with flowers the colour of blackcurrant icecream.  You can prune it has hard as you wish.

      Sambucus racemosa aurea, Golden elder, good and tough, glorious gold feathered leaves when emerging, turning mottled green by the end of summer.

Stranvaesia davidiana, an evergreen shrub, about twenty feet high.  Ours shelters us from our neighbours the other side of the fence, but its unique plus is that every June when it bears its little dull cotoneaster-like flowers, the bees and bumblebees and other insects come, and as I write it sounds like the soft roar of a distant motorway.  Never before have I had a plant so attractive to insects.  Red berries, not prolific, in autumn, and many red leaves.

Sumach Tiger Eyes, dwarf sumach.  Feathery leaves, blazing orange in autumn.  Like the full size parent it produces suckers, but these are easily pulled out and not invasive.

Viburnum bodnantense earns its keep in winter with small but wonderfully scented  pink balls of flowers.  I grow one of its parents, Viburnum farreri because I bought it at Inglenook in North Yorkshire where the garden writer Reginald Farrer lived and I enjoy his over the top plant hunting rhapsodies in China.   In fact, V. bodnantense flowering later and longer is preferable.

     Viburnum davidii.   This looks unexciting, just a mass of dark evergreen ribbed leaves making a low mound, and bears rather dull flowers and bluish berries, but in a shrub border it provides a solidity, a contrast to golden or feathery leaves around.  Andrew McIndoe, who for decades designed Hilliers’ exhibit at Chelsea, winning a gold medal every time, always included two of these.  I planted two, and have never regretted it. 

     Viburnum tinus Eve Price, laurestinus, another good winter viburnum, evergreen and about ten feet high, with scented white flowers.  Not a hit you in the face shrub, but invaluable particularly if pruned when young to develop into a small tree.

Yucca filamentosa variegata – what they call a statement plant.  I have this yucca at one end of the garden where it gives a bright focal point to the entrance of the small vegetable patch.  It’s hardy and happy, and when the sun shines the filaments on the leaf edges can be seen curling and twisting.  Late summer, it bears spires of creamy bells.


Clematis.  Invaluable because they flower for so long, their petals in fact being tepals, which are sepals enclosing the true flower within.  (Hellebores are similar).  There are loads beyond the ones I mention, including the glamorous deep red Clematis texensis Princess of Wales, rather fussier than most.

     Clematis alpina is one of the earliest to flower, and C. alpina Blue Dancer, its petals long shapely legs, is particularly happy and vigorous.  It needs no pruning unless you feel it is getting out of hand, when it’s best cut it back after flowering.

     Clematis armandii is another early climber, evergreen with creamy flowers scented of almonds.

Perle d’Azur, blue, unfading in full sun, is one of the most reliable large and glamorous midsummer clematis.

Wisley flowers mid season with intense purple blue petals, slightly curved, in my garden peeking through the black leaves of the elder Sambucus Black Lace is another reliable midsummer clematis.  Both this and Perle d’Azur can be cut back in the autumn.

     Clematis viticella is a late summer spread.  Avoid the dreary shades of C. purpurea plena elegans, a dusty double mauve, and C. viticella Minuet, wishy washy pink and white.  Best are Tango, white and red, and Venosa Violacea, violet.  These late clematis perform best after a St Valentine’s Day massacre in February, when cut to the ground.  Come spring, they sprout again.

Plant all clematis deeply, covering the first pair of buds.  Avert clematis wilt by watering well in the first season, and during long dry spells.  The rule of pruning is: cut back after they have flowered, never before.

Hedera helix, ivy.  What can I say?  It can be a greedy thieving grasper.  But, it can stabilise earth banks.  Growing up trees and walls, it becomes a mass of high rise flats for blackbirds, robins, thrushes and more.  Its winter flowers are exploding stars and its leaves glitter like sun on water.  It provides ground cover under shrubs.  But it can get too much of a good thing, smothering trees, colonising every patch of spare land and becoming a weed.

Hedera h. Anita, a fine delicate ivy for a shady spot.

Lonicera, honeysuckle.  I prefer to smell our  native honeysuckle when wildly rambling over the hedgerows.  There are many varieties, mostly too exuberant for a smaller garden, but Lonicera etrusca is beautiful in its perfect symmetry, the neat flowers emerging from the centre of its circular leaves.  It can be trained up a wall, round the base of a bird bath or where you want.

Roses.  Climbing roses, are usually sports – chance mutations – of floribunda or tea roses, which grow to the sky with stiff upright growth and side shoots.  They are perfect covering fences and walls, and early shoots just need training to tilt in the requisite direction.

Then there are ramblers, bendy scramblers which are excellent for training over an arch or arbour.  There are so many available roses that it helps to look at the catalogue of a nursery like Pocock’s  Roses *, which comes with advice on height, health and scent, and gives each rose marks out of five for health, scent and garden worthiness.   David Austin’s catalogue * is similarly useful.  Avoid roses like  Zephirin Drouhin, which despite its entrancing name and glorious scent emanating from bright muddled pink flowers, becomes by late July sick, sick, every leaf blooming with mildew or dotted black and brown and yellow.

Cécile Brunner.  You only have to look at the gnarled ancient rootstock of this climbing rose in a long established garden to appreciate the toughie she is, yet you’d never guess it in summer when long sprays of tiny pink buds created for a doll’s house, open into a mass of ethereal scented blossom.

Mrs Herbert Stevens, an old fashioned tea rose climber, redolent of an Edwardian tea party, with fat blush buds and white flowers with a high centre, and fragrance.  Amazingly healthy.  Tea roses which decide to climb are tough and since they don’t want to curve and bend like ramblers,, any training must be done as the shoots grow, before they become set in their ways.

Pink Perpetue, a climber good for a wall, neat, well behaved, dropping its petals when finished, healthy with minimal mildew, but alas!  No scent.  Good for the front of a house.

Albéric Barbier, a wonderful rambler with glossy leaves and lemony cream petals, excellent for covering roof sheds or arches.

Rambling Rector, a white rambler, and more than happy to climb a tree, if that’s what you wish.


Trachelospermum jasminoides.  Evergreen jasmine in mid summer displaying little windmills of rich cream.   Best in sun.  Lovely scent.

Wisteria, originating from China (wisteria sinensis) or Japan (w. japonica).  Glorious scent.    As it grows it will send out a mass of whiplike shoots.  Keep two at their full length, to pin back against the wall or arch it is to adorn, and cut back the others to about three or four buds.  After a few years these should flower.  This climber will fail to flower if lacking sufficient sun though it may send out a mass of foliage.



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