Clay soil

There are a number of factors to consider dealing with compact soil (medium that’s difficult to penetrate and work over). It can often be waterlogged. The plant might find sourcing food difficult, the roots to develop too. The surface “crust” may make it difficult to allow air in.

These problems can be alleviated by working over repeatedly, improving the movement of air; encouraging worms to condition the quality.

The soil particles ideally need to be finer, sand can be added to make it more free draining (since not many plants cope in excessive moisture). However, under this surface “crust” it can also be thin and lacking lustre, nutrients and bulk.

In this instance, the soil can be nourished with manure, organic matter, any rotted compost that might be ready. There will be worms in this certainly, these will populate the designated area and treat. It will still be on the heavy side but much better. It may need adding to periodically with humus rich matter, since all soil becomes tired.

There are plants, without these steps, that will tolerate clay conditions despite no action being taken. This is not a comprehensive list, there are many others.

Fatsia japonica is a resilient evergreen with very attractive foliage. It prefers a fertile soil and perhaps some shade if anything. As long as it is relatively sheltered it will thrive. This shrub will bear black berries aswell as flowers but its really recognised for its leaves. It has an anti-pollutant quality too.

Garrya elliptica (Silk tassel) prefers a sheltered spot but generally is forgiving of most conditions. It doesn’t require any maintenance – to do would cause more harm. It flowers very early in the year, provides a food source for birds and bears attractive catkins in spring.

Sarcococca confusa (Christmas box) is an evergreen shrub which like a few flower in wintertime. It will provide delicate scented flowers from winter to spring. It keeps it shape well by habit. It is very resilient to drought, needs little support. A shrub good in a shaded, neglected spot. After it flowers, it will bear black fruit.

Lavatera (Mallow) an annual, a perennial, and warrants the term “shrub” aswell. A large specimen that flowers mid summer, it’s very resilient and can cope with an exposed site with salt laden winds. Keep spent growth on until spring and then remove. It protects it for the future year.

Magnolia grandiflora is an evergreen with glossy leaves. It prefers a well drained soil with humus matter. It bears fragrant flowers throughout summer. Its roots system is relatively shallow so can cope with partially compact soil. Having said this, be mindful that any roots protruding from the surface are coveted to avoid unecessary drying out.

Magnolia stellata, a very different variety (starry flowers) but equally impressive. It offers spring flowers that are scented but not heavily. It does prefer a more sheltered spot although roots are very so good close to the surface. It does not need planting deeply albeit protected though. It prefers a heavy humus rich medium. If it’s in a sheltered position, it is protected from both the wind and sun.

Weigelia is decidious, so over the dormant is non descrpt. However, W. florida “variegata” does provide you with the most wonderful cream edged leaves and fragrant flowers from late spring to summer. A resilient shrub, it can cope in most aspects, exposed or sheltered. It also attracts beneficial insects too which always a bonus.

Rhododendrons/Azaleas are together since they are so closely related. Both flower from spring to summer. A variety of colours, some scented and others not. R. occidentale offers orange/yellowish flowers which are fragrant in early summer. This is decidious so will lose its leaves. R kaempferi (which is an Azaelea really) flowers late spring to summer but is evergreen, so will provide you with foliage all year round. What is certain, however, of this family is the soil must be acidic soil to perform well. This is something entirely for a different post.

It can also be said that an Azalea is a Rhododendron but a Rhodendron is not an Azalea. This is something else entirely too.

Choosing a hedge

Unconventional hedging is becoming more common providing colourful foliage and suitable habitat for wildlife. In addition to this, most of these plants offer berries as a food source in the winter period. The overall effect and the purpose of the hedge (a boundary line, a deterrent, providing shelter, a food source, windbreak or winter interest) are certainly important to consider. The flowers, habit, growth rate and maintenance need to be looked at before this is achieved.

Elaeagnus, Photinia and Portuguese Laurel are relatively new to hedging offering colour, fragrance and resistancy – Elaeagnus can cope in very poor soil offering interesting foliage, flowers and fruit. Prunus lusitanica (Portuguese Laurel) is tolerant of almost all conditions bar sitting in wet soil. While these remain popular, they can’t outshine some of the more traditional species.

Privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium) is undoubtedly the 1st choice. While some may think its blandness offers nothing. It provides effective shelter for wildlife, it tolerates pollution, poor soil, is fast growing, the list goes on. It flowers but only when left unpruned. It’s a winner with its hardiness, ability to regenerate after being pruned quite severely.

Spotted Laurel (Aucuba japonica) (not to be confused with Laurus nobilis – a Bay tree). The shrub offers interesting foliage and a food source for wildlife. The variegated ‘Crotonfolia’ bears berries when a female is located close to a male. A hardy evergreen that effectively acts as a specimen plant or as hedging. It is tolerant of shade and able to cope with demanding neighbours (other large shrubs, trees).

Barberry bush (Berberis) A spring flowering shrub that can be sought in red B.thunbergii Atropurpurea – a decidious variety and green B. darwinii – an evergreen. There is a yellow too. It provides autumn colour but with being decidious, between winter and spring, be mindful it doesn’t offer anything.

Common Box -(Buxus sempervirens). It can be sought already shaped or alternatively as a hedging choice. It’s slow in its growth which is why it is suited to topiary. It’s good in sun but tolerates a shaded position. It does, however, need a well drained environment. Its density thickens the more its clipped.

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) offers fragrant flowers in spring to early summer and berries in autumn. It is good in both sun and shade although decidious so lacking interest in the dormant period. A fast growing shrub tolerant of exposed sites. It needs a trim after flowering. If it is done at the correct time this may not need more than an annual prune. It does need some sun so not a shade loving plant.

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) a fast growing habit offering flowers and berries. The flowers have no scent and although it offers interest in autumn, it eventually loses all signs of life until the following spring. It is very similar to Hawthorn although can cope in slightly more adverse conditions – this being the soil, air, nutrients and light. It is particuarly resilient in exposed areas with salt laden winds making it drought tolerant.

Pyracantha Saphyr Orange – this shrub flowers in summer and attractive berries are borne throughout autumn into winter. An evergreen, it provides interest at all times of the year including large thorns.

Conifers – encompass a large number of different species with different habits. Chamaecyparis lawsonia ‘Alumni’ – (False Cypress) is an evergreen that can be used as hedging. A hardy choice offering reliable foliage for little maintenance. Pinus and Thuja are conifers but usually used as an accent plant in a sunny border as opposed to a hedge. Cupressocyparis x leylandii ‘Castlewellan’ is fast growing and considered the typical choice for hedging. It does only require a shave to keep in check. A little every so often is key. A mistake that is made is that this hedge is left to get out of hand and then cut back in one go. This is needs to be clipped periodically rather than cut like privet. It doesn’t regenerate the same way and weakens it making it more prone to disease and fungal infection.

Forsythia x intermedia – a spring flowering shrub and Mahonia, an evergreen providing flowers, foliage and fruits in winter have been used but not particularly associated with hedging. Mahonia, a hardy evergreen tolerant of shade. It does need protecting from exposed areas though. It also flowers off last years growth so when you prune it, you pruning all the flowers away. The growth habit of both is informal, these plants shouldn’t be conditioned.

Fake Fruit

Although their names assume a fruit, some of these plants don’t produce any. The ones that do provide effective blossom in the early months and a food source at autumn time.

Mock Orange – Philadelphus – a highly scented large shrub / small tree. It prefers a full sun aspect; good soil too. It flowers in spring although has no leaves in dormancy so only seasonally interesting. The soil needs to have substance but be free draining. It does not tolerate being soaked either.

Mexican Orange Blossom – Choisya – A spring flowering shrub. Different varieties have varying leaves of shape and colour. ‘Sundance’ light green and ‘Aztec Pearl’ dark, narrow and pinnate in shape. This is a shrub that will tolerate some shade and offers spring flowers that are heavily scented. Both attractive foliage and flora. It’s an evergreen, so all year provides colour.

Ornamental Cherry Blossom – Prunus serrulata – an upright tree that is quick to establish. It flowers in spring although has no fragrance. A full sun aspect is preferred. Though its decidious (leaves fall off), this tree provides the biggest of white flora in May.

The Japanese Apricot – Beni chidori – Prunus mume – a highly scented specimen offering flowers late winter into spring. It flowers when there are no leaves. It does fruit in summer, but you wouldn’t eat them voluntarily – good for wildlife though. A sheltered site is preferred so exposed areas are not ideal.  This tree needs full sun; the soil free draining too.

Prunus incisa ‘frilly frock’ – a smaller variety with white flowers early in spring. Its habit is weeping and suited to a smaller space. It prefers sun but will tolerate some shade. As long as it’s in well drained soil, it accepts most medias.

Pyrus salcifolia ‘pendula’ – its flowers offer attractive white blooms in mid spring, autumn fruit and interesting opaque / frosted leaves. It bears no edible fruit although there is a yield. No fragrance to speak of either. It needs full sun to effectively perform.

Malus baccata – crab apple – offers highly scented flowers for beneficial insects and berries for birds. It’s very resilient and can withstand a poor environment, an exposed location and little maintenance.

Malus spectabilis – a chinese flowering apple blossom – will offer flowers early spring, fruit early autumn. Its flowers attract beneficial insects.

Shallow Roots

There are benefits to shallow rooted specimens if you have limited space/ the quality of the soil/the root zone depth is not sufficient. Most plants by their growth habit will penetrate their roots far below the surface. Some will have lateral (branching of from main stem) and some fiborous (fine, feathery roots). These are designed to source nutrients, water and find an available space to develop. However, It can be a problem at times, if roots are close to the surface leaving them exposed, vunerable to the elements and potential harm caused by animals or other external disturbance.

The benefit is that stem cuttings can often be used as the method to propagate successfully. The plant can be transplanted without fuss and generally can be moved at the right time without any problems. These plants can be often quick to establish and straightforward in nurturing. This can be a nuisance, when the plant is too happy and can become quite invasive.

All ash have relatively shallow roots but are not keen on being moved so an exception to the rule. (Fraxinus – woodland and Sorbus – mountain). The contorted Willow, as with all willows, is very close to the surface and can be easily damaged by aggressive winds. In fact, the closer the plant roots are to the surface, it will affect what you choose to plant in that area if anything at all!

Mahonia (x media/winter sun) will give you a show of flowers from late winter to spring and as an evergreen provides attractive foliage all year round. The only pruning is to retain the shape so a thinning exercise periodically is needed. It does prefer a shaded location, but as long as the soil is moist.

Hydrangeas – by the very name, these plants need a lot of water which is why it is unfortunate they’re shallow rooted. The plant can be affected by sun scorching and often intolerant to drought conditions. Hydrangeas like sun to partial shade. The colour will depend on the Ph level of the soil. What natural aluminium resides in the soil. The more acidic the soil, the more likely the hydrangea is blue. The more alkaline the more likely the flowers are pink. Hydrangea quercifolia – the oak leafed hydrangea offers white flowers from summer right through to autumn. The attractive foliage from spring. It prefers a slightly more acidic soil.

Azaleas prefer light shade but are a contender for any border. Similar to Rhododendrons they are shallow rooted and can often be containerised to ensure the soil is suitable for them. Rhododendrons do prefer a partially shaded aspect and a little sheltered. They do have a tendency to become leggy within, so an annual prune will retain the plants vigour. This plant is acid loving and must be planted in ericaceous soil to perform well. A spring flowering shrub that provides fragrance and flowers April onwards.

Virburnum offer a number of functions. This plant will attract both beneficial insects and habitat for wildlife in the winter months. Virburnum x bodnantense is a variety that is scented too. so a productive shrub. V. tinus, as an upright bush or effective hedge offering foliage, flowers and berries offering the same benefits.

Some Climbers as Honesuckle and Jasmine do have shallow roots. The plants have a mat forming growth habit under the surface that give the plant stability. This extensive habit is very dense and highly effective. It has no need to penetrate further down.

Winter Colour 2

There are plants that are principally known for their Winter show and largely non descript at other times. The plant can often be decidious and the flowers or berries borne on bare stems. These plants may have foliage throughout the year but this is not what they’re recognised for.

Hamamelis mollis ‘Pallida’ (Chinese Witch Hazel) bears fragrant Yellow flowers early in the year. It loses its leaves and the flowers are borne on bare stems. This is a very low maintenance plant, pruning would purely be to shape.

Hamamelis x Intermedia is a similiar Witch Hazel but a hybrid often offering Orange or Red flowers in the Wintertime. ‘Diane’ (Red) and Orange ‘Orange beauty’ or ‘Gingerbread’. The size of these shrubs often determines where they are planted. The back of a border is ideal. The shrub is slow growing and doesn’t require any maintenance. Hamamellis can cope in full sun or dappled shade.

Chimonathus praecox (Wintersweet) can offer highly scented flowers in late Winter into the new year. This plant is decidious and there is no foliage in the flowering period. It needs some protection and can not tolerate being in an exposed area. It likes full sun and well drained soil. No real maintenance other than removing dead, diseased and damaged stems.

Callicarpa bodinieri flowers in midsummer but has an amazing show of purple berries in Autumn. Borne on bare stems, the berries continue long after the leaves are lost. It is quite robust despite having delicate characteristics and can cope in an exposed environment. This plant can tolerate most soils and is straightfoward to maintain. A superficial prune in Spring is all.

The (flowering quince) Chanomeles speciosa might not be an obvious choice but provides, fruit, foliage and flowers throughout the year. The flowers can range from a deep pink to a white. The plant is hardy and very easy to maintain. The only drawback is that the flowers are so shortlived. Little pruning is needed other structural shaping in the dormant period.

Daphne Odora ‘Aureomarginata’ while not Winter flowering, this decidious or evergreen shrub has attractive leaves and flowers in early Spring. The plant is flexible on the level of sun it needs but does need to be in a sheltered position.