Monthly Masterclass: May

Do it: containers

Preparing a container display, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

You will need plenty of pots, plants, labels, grit and moss

Step 1

Now the danger of frost has passed it is time to get creative with your summer container displays. Planting in pots, troughs or hanging baskets is a great way to create a focal point or hide unsightly features. Use existing foils such as a dark evergreen hedge or a white wall to enhance the colours of plants placed in front of them. Crucially, containers work best in smaller gardens where moving pots around into different combinations can create a sense of dynamism difficult to achieve with more permanent planting in a limited space. Even in the smallest garden bigger is better. A few large pots filled with big and bold statement plants will make your garden feel more expansive than it really is whilst lots of smaller pots will simply look fussy and cramped.

Terracotta and plastic containers, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Conceal plastic pots inside terracotta ones to help reduce the burden of watering

Step 2

Matching plants to pot is important. A brightly coloured glaze will ensure the pot becomes the focus of the display but limits what can be planted without some spectacular clashes of colour. On the other hand, the neutral tones of traditional terracotta pots allow the plants to take centre stage and compliment almost anything. However, their clay sides can act like a wick and draw moisture from the compost. This is ideal for arid lovers which hate sitting in water but not so ideal for thirstier plants which prefer a moister soil. You can get the best of both worlds by slipping a plastic pot inside a slightly larger terracotta one and concealing the difference with moss or grit.

Container display, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

The Spiky Garden

Step 3

Whether planting several plants together in the same pot or individually in separate pots remember to combine different shapes, textures and colours for maximum impact. This year in the Spiky Garden we have chosen to use the dragon tree (Dracaena draco) for a centre piece and picked out the colour of the slate-blue slabs beneath with a grey-green and white century plant (Agave americana ‘Mediopicta Alba’) and steely blue fescue (Festuca glauca). For contrast we have chosen the Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’) whose flat red leaves add some heat to the cool blues which otherwise dominate. When planning your own combinations give plenty of thought to foliage plants like these which work hard in between flowering displays and provide interest over long periods of time.

Grow it: handkerchief tree

What: Davidia involucrata, or the handkerchief tree, is a medium sized deciduous tree growing up to 20 metres tall and producing clusters of insignificant flowers surrounded by pairs of spectacular white bracts in late-spring.

Where: Davidia prefer a sheltered site away from strong cold or drying winds, and scorching sun, both of which can damage their delicate floral bracts and foliage. Grow in moist fertile soils with plenty of room to allow the tree to develop an attractive open habit.

How: Seeds should be placed in small plastic bags loosely filled with damp sand and stored somewhere warm for 4 months followed by somewhere cold for 3 months before germination will take place. Alternatively, hardwood cuttings can be taken during the dormant season following leaf fall.

Davidia involucrata, photograph by Jenny Lilly, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Davidia involucrata in the Geographical Beds, photograph by Jenny Lilly

When: Plant young trees in October to April avoiding particularly cold or wet periods and stake for 1-2 years until established. Davidia usually retain a good central leader and pruning will likely ruin its natural form. However, where it is absolutely necessary pruning should take place in late-summer.

The Gardener’s Verdict:

“The Davidia is a handsomely shaped tree with gently spreading branches. With bright, light green leaves, lovely pale greyish bark and oval fruits (hanging on a long stalk, looking like Christmas baubles!) it has all round charm.

Davidia is deciduous so spring bulbs will thrive underneath it such as daffodils, bluebells or snowdrops. It has a fairly open canopy which also gives you lots of options as to what you can plant underneath it; shrubs which will cope with dappled shade and competition for water at the root. Rhododendrons and witch hazels would do well, or herbaceous plants such as geraniums, hellebores, Brunnera, and lily-of-the-valley.

They are slow to flower (they can take 15-20 years) however the cultivar Davidia involucrata ‘Sonoma’ has been bred to flower after only 2-3 years. A former colleague who had planted one told me what he thought of it: ‘It flowered in the pot and looked lovely, but hasn’t flowered since – guess I’ll have to wait 20 years!’

If it is planted in amongst other trees it will face competition and you will end up without the attractive shape that is a big part of the point of growing a handkerchief tree. Equally, if it is planted too close to a building it is likely that you will have to cut branches off, leaving the tree uneven and unattractively shaped.

Cornus ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’ would suit a smaller garden. It forms a large shrub or small tree, produces masses of white bracts in the spring and has glorious autumn colour. Like Davidia involucrata it also has an RHS Award of Garden Merit. I think it is a very lovely plant …plus you don’t have to wait 20 years for it to flower!”

Abby Gulliver, Glasshouse Area Supervisor, Winterbourne House and Garden

Read it: Monthly Masterclass: April

There are plenty of reasons to grow Bergenia besides their pretty pink and white flowers. Read last month’s Monthly Masterclass: April and find out which varieties of this elephant-eared perennial our gardeners think are the best for all-year-round colour that never disappoints.

Bergenia 'Ballawley', Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Bergenia ‘Ballawley’ in the Pink and Blue Border

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3 Thoughts on Monthly Masterclass: May

  1. Keith Bracey


    I work at the University of Birmingham and share my lunchtime picnics between the #BrumIsBrill #BarberInstitute and #WinterbourneHouseandGardens …..I love working at such a life and earth changing institution: The University of Birmingham @UniBirmingham

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