Clumber Gardener: Planting for those shady cold winter spots

Chris Margrave, head gardener at Clumber Park
Chris Margrave, head gardener at Clumber Park

In Clumber’s walled kitchen garden we’re planting up a substantial bed with low-maintenance herbaceous perennials, which, once established, will need little looking after, other than mulching, an annual feed and cutting back the top growth in the winter.

The walls certainly produce a favoured micro-climate as they provide shelter and act as sun traps.

But, given the slope of the site, the lower part of the garden, especially the north border, is by far the dankest area.

It’s especially noticeable this time of year, after over-night frost, which will linger in this border all day, whilst areas receiving winter sun will have thawed.

Our choice of plants for this bed reflects this.

In addition to being low maintenance, all are fully hardy and will tolerate partial shade.

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria), with it’s white flowers, makes trouble-free ground cover and will spread quickly when suited.

There are also varieties with pink flowers and variegated foliage.

Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum) is equally happy in shade and their hanging, white flowers are also delicately scented.

Hardy ferns will bring interest to cool, shady areas.

Many forms of lady fern, male fern and hart’s tongue fern have attractively crested and tasselled fronds.

Some are evergreen and all are easy to grow.

Ferns offer great variety, both through the variations in the shapes of their fronds and, not often realised, in their frond colour.

Noteworthy coloured lady ferns are the aptly named, silvery-grey Ghost and red-stemmed Lady In Red.

Another good work horse is bergenia, commonly known as elephant’s ears.

They have very attractive, succulent-like leaves and make highly effective groundcover.

Many varieties colour deep red as winter temperatures drop and especially fine are Eric Smith, Bressingham Ruby and Intermarchen.

A bonus is their flowers, mostly in pinks, are produced in spring.

We’re also aiming to plant the willow gentian, Gentiana asclepiadea.

This produces elegant, arching stems which end in striking deep blue trumpet-shaped flowers, which are produced in late summer and early autumn.

There is also a white flowered form.

For late colour, the Japanese toad lily, tricyrtis, is worth considering and deserves to be more widely grown.

Varieties flower in September and October and distinctive freckled and spotted flowers are often described as exotic or orchid-like.

Most varieties, such as Dark Beauty and Miyazaki, have mauve and pink flowers.

The blooms of Tricyrtis latifolia are yellow with purple spots.

Equally important is that this choice of hardy and shade tolerant plants will also provide interest across the seasons.

February is often the coldest month of the year, so check that any frost protection you have provided for your plants is still in place.

If the soil isn’t waterlogged or frozen, continue preparing for new plantings by digging and adding organic matter such as manure, leaf mould or home-made compost.

Bare root trees, fruit trees, ornamental shrubs and hedging plants are usually cheaper to buy than container-grown plants and can be planted into prepared ground.

It’s worth growing a few early potatoes such as Maris Bard or Duke of York to lift as ‘new’ potatoes in June.

Tubers are on sale now and are best “chitted” to produce early crops.

This process involves placing them in seed trays in good light in a frost-free place to encourage tubers to produce short green shoots before they are planted out.

Provided the weather isn’t too frosty, begin pruning bush and tree forms of apples and pears, shrub, hybrid tea, floribunda and climbing roses.

Check stored tubers and corms, such as dahlias, gladioli, cannas and begonias for signs of rotting.

And consider planting winter and early spring flowering shrubs such as viburnums, daphnes, Christmas box or winter honeysuckles.