Plants Life Cycles

Someone recently asked me what a perennial actually was, and I thought it would be useful to recap on a few common botanical words which most gardeners are familiar with, but may not realise what they really mean. All plants have different life cycles ranging from very brief to thousands of years…


Annuals complete their life cycle in one year, they grow from a seed, flowers and set seed, after which they die. Chickweed and Sweet Peas are both examples. Also commonly known as annuals are Ephemerals – these can complete many life cycles in one year, such as the pernicious weed Bittercress. Many bedding plants are treated as annuals but in fact frost-tender perennials, such as petunias


Biennials complete their lives over two years, growing from seed at the end of the first year, continue to grow and then flower early the next year, set seed in the summer then die, such as Sweet Williams.



Perennials live for more than two years and in most cases, many years. Trees, roses and shrubs fall under this category, these have a permanent structure, herbaceous perennials grow and bloom over the spring and summer and then die back every winter, their root-stock (or crowns) surviving below ground to re-shoot again in the spring. All perennials are either deciduous, dropping their leaves every Autumn, or evergreen, retaining their foliage all year.

Plant of the Month – Fritillaria melagris

Daffodils brightly herald the start of spring, but the subtle charm of the Snakes head Fritillary is hard to outdo. Each slender stem of this spring bulb carries a hanging bell-shaped bloom, heavily chequered with dark purple and white squares, an effect rarely seen on petals.

Also available is a sub-species with pure white flowers (FRITILLARIA meleagris ssp. Alba).
Unfortunately these hardy wild flowers are becoming increasingly rare in the countryside due to modern farming methods, but the few protected sites in Britain really are a wonderful sight in April.

They are easy to grow in a border or pot, and look stunning naturalized in grass, either in sun or partial shade.

Garden Design Software


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Plant of the Month – Euphorbia amygdaloides 'Purpurea'

A striking architectural perennial is a good choice for a large winter or spring container, and this bushy euphorbia is perfect. 'Purpurea' has lovely purple tipped foliage that contrasts with the lime green flowers that appear in spring. These last into summer when you can prune the whole flowering stem back to the base to tidy the plant.

If your garden soil is poor or dry and in partial shade, this hardy euphorbia will cope! It makes a good evergreen backdrop in the shady garden and reached 60cm high. Try with phormiums for contrasting shapes, or with alchemilla mollis for similar coloured flowers in early summer and contrasting foliage.

One note of caution for all euphorbias, they have milky white sap, which is poisonous and a potential skin irritant so always wear gloves when working near them.

What soil do I have?

Every garden soil is different. All are mixtures of sand, clay and silt, but in differing quantities.

To determine what your soil is, take a piece of soil about the size of a golf ball and roll between your fingers removing any large stones. Now try to roll into a ‘worm’ shape.

A sandy soil will not form this shape, it simply falls apart. If you can form this shape easily and when rubbed, the surface turns shiny, this is clay soil.


However, if the ‘worm’ can be crushed in the palm of your hand, then you have a loam soil, perhaps the most desirable of soil types. Very similar is a silty soil, which possesses a silky feel.
You can improve every soil by adding organic material such as compost or manure. This helps bind particles together in a sandy soil, or helps clay soil become more workable.

Knowing your soil will help you choose the right plants for your garden and enjoy more success growing healthy and happy plants.

Plant of the Month – Dryopteris filix-mas

The native Male Fern is an elegant addition to the winter garden. It serves as a green backdrop to flamboyant summer flowers, but comes into its own during Autumn and Winter, with its structural shuttlecock shape. It has robust mid-green foliage and can withstand drier soil and sunnier spots than other ferns, although equally happy in damp shade.

Its foliage lasts well into late winter, when at some point the leaves will fold down, forming natural protection for the crown of the plant during the wet and cold winter months. Its best to leave these until early spring, when they can be removed completely to make way for the fresh new leaves (known as fronds) to elegantly unfurl.

Planting for sandy soil

Anyone who possesses heavy sticky clay soil will always pine for a light, sandy soil, yet this is not the best soil. Although much easier to cultivate, the main problems with a light sandy soil is compaction and the inability to retain water and nutrients.
As the sand particles are small, rain will wash through these particles and cause them to ‘pan’ or form a hard surface crust, making it difficult for young plants to establish. This type of soil is free draining, so although it can be easier to dig in autumn or spring, saving your back, it will dry out quickly in summer so plants need to withstand periods of drought. It is this rapid loss of water that leaches out nutrients also, so to sum up, plants will be hungry, thirsty and slow to establish!

The key step to improving sandy soil is the addition of organic matter in large quantities, year after year. Manure, compost, green waste, leaf mould, or mushroom compost – all contain something called humus – a black fibrous material formed from organic matter of decomposed plant or animal residues. This will coat individual soil particles, helping retain water, nutrients and give structure to the soil.

Some planting ideas to get you started are...

Grasses
Helictotrichon sempervirens

Trees
Amelanchier lamarkii
Cercis siliquastrum
Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’

Climbers
Jasminium officinale

Perennials
Agapanthus ‘Bressingham White’
Echinops ritro ‘Veitch’s Blue’
Kniphofia ‘Little Maid’

Shrubs
Artemisia ‘Powys castle’
Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Heavenly Blue’
Philadelphus coronarius