A delightful dozen of shrubs for the 12 days of Christmas
My top foliage for cutting
Seven years ago, I planted shrubs and trees in the field plot. One of the three ‘plots’ I grow cut flowers and foilage to cut from.The ‘field’ (tiny really) is open, no running water and has an electric fence to jump over, giving protection from the muntjac.
From this plot, my single most important lesson learned there was:
I should have planted more.
Foliage from shrubs takes your arrangements up a level.
But they take time to mature enough to cut from.
There are no short cuts to achieving this.
Ideally, they were planted them 7 years ago.
The next best opportunity is doing so this winter.
Grasses and annual foliage, even perennial plants are incredibly useful for cutting - ideally about a third of your cutting space would be made up of these plants, but it’s the shrubs that separate the good from the plain excellent.
Even in a diminutive posy or right through to large sculptural installations, woody foliage give wisdom and maturity about a selection in a way that arrangements with just fast growing light annuals can’t achieve. Arching branches, emerging young leaves or buds or twisting stems create movement and definition; a richness. And it is the interplay between the different types of material that brings depth and excitement to floristry.
Some clients consider that foliage is ‘cheaper’ and can be used to make the flowers go further. Of course, a shrub takes longer than most flowers to grow and done well, I consider it is foilage that elevates.
Foliage is oft be the unsung star.
And all the more important for creating that support for the pretty soft ‘focal’ flowers. Once established, they take little care and reward handsomely. Far, far less resources and attention than annuals. They create wind barriers, and protection in your garden, giving shape and structure even before they are cut. Far far less than an annual. I need to grow more. We all need to grow more.
So I’ve convinced you to plant shrubs - as a backdrop to your garden borders, informal hedging to an allotment or rows and rows of them on a field plot.
Which ones are worth investing your time, space and money on?
Narrowed it down to snappily fit into Twelve shrubs* for the twelve days of Christmas - perfect to order now. You might find them bare rooted which is even better - cheaper and quicker to establish. Or root balled. Either way, plant between now and early March.
I’m going to list in order of how brilliant these shrubs and trees are - 1. Is the first day of Christmas and just one plant will do, right through to day 12, the star and plant as many as you can.
Here we go.
On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…….
Rosa fillips ‘Kiftsgate’
Any rose with rosehips is going to be a winner for your cutting plot - flowering during the summer and into winter, adding hips in autumn arrangements with dahlias and chrysanthemums. For Christmas they add that cheery rounded spot. I need something vigorous to ramble all over a long exposed fence. I reckon this will do - once established, it is huge and those tiny hips will be so pretty for Christmas. A ‘kiftsgate’, famously huge means one will be all you need.
2. Malus sylvestris - Crab Apple
A couple of crab apple trees would make a lovely arch or frame for a garden entrance, or eventually to hang a hammock off. Like most on this list, crab apples have two brilliant uses - blossoms in the spring and leave enough on the tree, they’ll be crab apples into the autumn and winter. Again, lovely for Christmas wreaths and decorating. I love both the rosey red ones and bright chartreuse green ones. Look up trees at the National Collection at Brogdale and see if you can find a tree native to your area and bring these back home.
3. Sambucus - Elderberry
I’d got for one classic green hedgerow elderberry and two dark ones - Sambucus ‘Black Lace’. The native elder has the most beautiful green and pink emerging foliage as early as January in some hedgerows and looks so pretty with snowdrops and hellebores. The flowers and berries can be useful, but I like the skeleton fingers of the branches when the birds have had their share.
4. Abelia x Grandiflora
A classic garden shrub and for good reason. Easy, reliable and bursts with flowers for the whole summer long, usually evergreen and scented to boot. Plant lots of these for essential branches to enrich summer bouquets of annuals.
5. Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’
Once established, these pump out the flowers. Prune hard in the late winter for smaller, more manageable flowers than one might usually find on a hydrangea. These are lovely as focal flowers - think more delicate, lighter airy versions of alliums, and very good dried too.
This position in the list was a tricky one. When reflecting on the best ones, which is tricky in snowy December, I came up with at least 20. The first 5 in the list are essential basics, real useful ones. The next 6 are my favourites. Desert Island Shrubs for the garden and for cutting. This middling spot could have had a host of options. I’ve gone for the lilac - mostly for the flowers which the shape and scent is almost unparalleled . Buddleja comes close but a poor long lost cousin. In late May when we reach that tricky gap between the seasons, lilac is wonderful. I like it emerging, smaller and easier to work with, with some half open. The flowers are edible too. Pretty in ice cubes and on cakes. It slightly pipped another 10 shrubs to slide into this spot because of it’s very useful flowering time.
7. Lonicera x purpusii 'Winter Beauty’ - Winter Honeysuckle.
One of my absolute favourites, not a climber but a semi evergreen sprawling shrub with gorgeous mid green foliage for most of the year. It’s true jewel is the scented delicate flowers produced all winter. Utterly exquisite. Just a few branches of this in the house will delight. A really great plant for the whole year.
8. Lonicera tatarica
This is quite unusual, but so useful in the early in the season. Bright green leaves in mid spring, much earlier than most shrubs and trees, and small, manageable for cutting and arrangements to work with bulbs and rancunulus. And the pretty dark pink blossom is just a bonus. I cut almost every stem I can on these. I could do with more plants…
One of the most useful plants, in the pretty spring blossoms, lovely light foliage over the summer then warm complex colours in the autumn. It doesn’t grow vigorously, so I have to be parsimonious with cutting it. More plants would be useful, but you can only take a little at a time. Grow it anyway, so the special bouquets and visitors. You won’t regret it.
Ten of these wouldn’t be enough! Grow a spread of varieties, ‘green fountain’, peachy maroon ‘grace’ and the very dark ‘Royal Purple’. The foliage is wonderful to work with but when it flowers and ‘smokes’, there are beautiful airy shapes that can be used to fill that space in an arrangement. Like a netted veil across a demure face or misty morning, it airbrushes and blurs between stems in an arrangement. Bridging together colours and shapes.
This would be number one as it is so useful in the summer and autumn months, but really only then, and for it’s foliage. A beautiful shaped leaf, and if pruned hard in late winter, sending up a lot of stems. But it’s not a diverse shrub with lots of uses, just great colours in almost all the plants. I love the dark red ‘diablo’ and lime green ‘dart’s gold’ which is gorgeous in the summer months and usual.
12. Cornus ‘midwinter fire’
Ahhh my number one. I don’t think I could have too many shrubs. These get cut to nothing each year. Right now, the branches that are left, are brilliant roaring fires of creamy yellow, through to peach and dark pink, making them lovely to use even on their own.
In winter arrangements, carrying climbers like clematis cirrhosa, with hellebores, or perhaps holding rosemary and artichoke leaves. In the summer they slink into the background waiting for their moment, and come September, BOOM! The leaves start changing, right into October and November. Leave them as long as you dare and they become buttery in colour with splodges of browns and tiny holes. Sounds awful, but mixed with almost anything at this time of year, they add an unmatched autumnal texture that will be used across bridal bouquets, in vases and then into wreaths. Plant at least a dozen and try to leave them alone for a few years to mature!
*11 shrubs and a tree actually. Let’s not split hairs.