How Does Your Garden Grow?

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Plants for the shade, plants for the winter, plants for the long haul.

I seldom love plants that just up and croak after a few years. I save my deep emotions for those that are with me for decades in some cases and, in others, will see me out. In 1986, my new garden was choked with weeds. But beneath the detritus, one plant survived the neglect to thrive ever since. It was, of course, a wonderful old peony that had been there since the house was built in 1904. Choose plants as carefully as a spouse, one who will last through the decades and plan for permanence.

What follows is a prejudiced guide to plants that, like a good wine or a splendid mate, will bring ever more pleasure as they age.

Paeonia spp

1. Paeonia spp
Yes, top of the list of plants that last forever. Itoh peonies are a cross between tree peonies and the herbaceous ones and have longer bloom times over statuesque foliage (70 cm). And it can add structural impact to the garden. A candidate for long-term love. Zone 4

Agastache ‘Black Adder’

2. Agastache ‘Black Adder’ This crazy plant is a native and this choice is a particularly dramatic cultivar (cultivated variety) because the purple/black flowers are astonishing in the summer, which could be a very blue-toned time of year. Plus, it’s a fabulous butterfly magnet (1 metre). Zone 5

3. Phlox paniculata ‘David’ doesn’t get mildewed. It will rebloom with deadheading and is a gorgeous clear white (a change from the more common boring slightly lilacy hue) and makes a really good clump (75 cm) that seldom needs dividing. Pairs with everything, particularly the asters that bloom soon after – in the late summer and early fall. Zone 4

4. Penstemon digitalis ‘Dark Towers’ Always a surprise because they look a bit like foxgloves but have a mystique of their own. Bronze-y foliage (80 cm) with nail-polish pink blooms in mid-summer. Zone 3

5. Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’ I’ve been obsessing about this plant for several years, and it never disappoints. It looks like a dead stick in spring, which needs cutting back the minute you see growth at the base. Then it leaps to 1.5 by 2 metres with glorious blue-green foliage and, in September, bursts into bloom with pink-magenta flowers along the stems. Absolutely ravishing. Leave them alone, and they will look appropriately theatrical in winter. Zone 4

6. Aster ‘Little Carlow’ is about 1.2 metres high, not so little but unbelievably floriferous in autumn. The sturdy clump doesn’t spread, the blue is pristine and if you whack it back toward the end of July, it will be a shorter, more shrubby plant. Doesn’t flop over, always amazing. Zone 5

Arum italicum

7. Arum italicum Really hard to find because it’s in dormancy just as we go out to buy plants in May. But it’s the treasure of my garden. It comes from the most brilliant red phallic-like stalk that pops up quite magically. Squirrels hate it (it’s toxic); onanistically, it spills the seed on the ground and then the leaves come forth. They are a striated white as they emerge for the winter. Zone 5 to 6 in light shade

Helleborus spp

8. Helleborus spp are magnificent. Plant lots of them in shade or sun (check the tag) or put them in raised beds or containers in colder areas. Some species (H. niger; and H. foetidus) bloom in winter; others are spring bloomers and all are evergreen. Though they start slowly and spread glacially (30 cm to 45 cm), they can provide four seasons of grandeur. Zone 4 to 5

9. Fothergilla gardenia is a perky (2 metres) shrub without a flaw. If it gets too big after about 15 years, whack it back (coppice) to within 6 cm from the ground. It will grow like a rambunctious teenager and begin life again. The bottlebrush white spring blooms have an indefinable scent; and the autumn fire of its foliage is staggering. Zone 4

Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’; Background, Athyrium X ‘Ghost’

10. Athyrium X ‘Ghost’ has grown into a great love even though it’s the last of the ferns to pop up in the shady parts of the garden. But it is breathtaking. It grows to 90 cm (18 cm wide). The pale silver grey leaves make even ratty old hostas look good. Zone 5