High value varieties for soft landscaping

In the face of tough budget cuts, Graham Clarke looks at the plant varieties that offer specifiers more bang for their buck.

Varieties that offer more 'bang for your buck' - image: Graham Clarke
Varieties that offer more 'bang for your buck' - image: Graham Clarke

Many horticultural businesses are being affected by the spending cuts. Hardy stock producers who rely directly or indirectly on public sector funds will be feeling the pinch more than most.

This is not simply an issue for local authorities. Private sector money is less forthcoming, too. Soft landscaping is particularly at risk thanks to its position at the end of the funding queue in new-build projects.

What should landscape architects and the nursery trade do to persuade clients to continue planting? Kent-based landscape architect Tom La Dell says: "We need to impress on local authority planning departments that good planting, with the right plants in the right place, will pay dividends over time.

"Select plants that have low maintenance requirements. Choose those that cover an area and suppress weeds. Go for plants that are quick-growing and then are easy to look after once established. Select plants that have good resistance to pests and diseases or high tolerance of extreme weather."

If landscape architects press home these points, then it may help to reduce the impact of the budget cuts. But Nick Coslett, marketing and sales manager at Kent-based Palmstead Nurseries, reckons the issue is even more basic. "Designers often choose plants with the lowest common denominator - price. Cheap rather than appropriate plants are used to fill space. The cheapest plants to produce are the ones mass-produced with economies of scale, even if they are not the best plant for the job. The HTA top 100 list is full of these."

He adds something that will be music to the ears of the nursery trade, but which will be the hardest sell of all: "The best way to reduce costs over the long term is to buy quality-grown, low-maintenance plants - even if their initial cost is more."

While low maintenance is increasingly becoming a prerequisite in plant choice for landscaping schemes, the situation in domestic gardens is different. Andy Moreham, sales manager at Hertford-based Joseph Rochford Gardens, which specialises in plants for small schemes and gardens, suggests that plant specifiers should add a bit of colour to the situation.

"The recession is influencing plant choice. People want brighter colour in these dark days of economic decline. They need cheering up. The strong, simple contemporary designs that peaked in the mid 1990s have given way to softer, more colourful landscapes," he says.

Another way to promote landscaping during times of austerity is to drive hard the virtues of green space and healthy living. Mark Long of the Plant Publicity Holland-funded Colour Your Life campaign reckons we should look overseas. "All plants bring practical benefits. A cost-benefit analysis from New York demonstrates a $5 yield for every $1 invested in landscape. Barcham Trees is testing two computer models that number crunch the eco-system services and other benefits that accrue from green space."

Similarly, there is TreeBristol (HW, 19 November 2010), where cost-benefit analysis determines where they plant new trees. Long adds: "There is a major retail development in Rotterdam that has established an 8ha park on the roofs of the shopping development. The park serves an important urban storm water management function by reducing peak flows during and after rain. The site abuts a rundown housing area and it is anticipated that access to the green space will improve the indices of deprivation."

Plants for specific situations

Ground cover plants, grown for weed suppression, soil moisture retention and general ease of maintenance, can be any height. "But low ground cover plants may be needed, for example, so that traffic can be seen over the top of them," says La Dell.

"The tried and tested ones include Cotoneaster x suecicus 'Coral Beauty'. However, 'Ifor' is even better, although it is not yet commonly grown. Lonicera pileata is a variable species, but a good spreading plant is L. pileata 'Stockholm'."

Coslett agrees about cotoneaster and recommends: "C. dammeri Award of Garden Merit (AGM), C. horizontalis AGM and C. microphyllus, Symphoricarpos, Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald 'n' Gold' AGM and E. fortunei 'Emerald Gaiety' AGM. Hedera hibernica AGM, the evergreen ivy, is worth considering, but in wide scale these can make places all look the same."


Leicester-based James Coles & Sons supplies 90 per cent of its offering to the landscape and amenity sector. Marketing manager Lynn Hunter says: "We are aware of cuts being felt, so we have come up with a checklist of points that should be made to tree specifiers.

"First off, they should select seasonally available trees - bare-root plants that are only distributed and planted at the appropriate time. They also cost significantly less than containerised trees because buyers do not have to pay for containers, compost and heavier transportation." Low-maintenance trees include:

- Japanese maple (Acer japonicum) - no pruning necessary.

- Hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata 'Paul's Scarlet' AGM) - no maintenance.

- Manna ash (Fraxinus ornus AGM) - pruning not generally needed.

- Maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba AGM) - no pruning necessary.

- Pine (Pinus heldreichii AGM) - pruning seldom necessary.

- Mountain ash, rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) - no pruning needed.


Hedges that need least clipping are generally slower growing. Yew and box make perfect hedges that need to be cut once a year, but are expensive. Common privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium) and Lonicera nitida need frequent cutting.

La Dell says: "Lower hedges are useful to define landscape planting. Box edging is too weak and suffers badly from blight. However, the bushy cultivars of L. pileata, such as 'Pilot', are robust and easy. The grey-leaved Cotoneaster amoenus is easily cut into a hedge 30-100cm tall." Other worthwhile low-maintenance hedging includes:

- Barberry (Berberis thunbergii AGM) - trim once a year in autumn, after the berries have fallen, and encourage strong new growth by cutting out a few old stems each year.

- Spotted laurel (Aucuba japonica) - trim once a year, during the growing season, to keep to shape and size.

- Blackthorn, sloe (Prunus spinosa) - trim once a year, in early summer, to keep shape and size.

- American arbor-vitae (Thuja occidentalis) - trim once a year in early spring; if left, the species can reach 20m in height, so select appropriate cultivars for the space.

- Lawson's cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) - no trimming needed.


Some of the most frequently used plants in municipal landscaping are actually high-maintenance. Coslett points out: "Just think of Elaeagnus x ebbingei, which in some situations needs cutting back four times a year."

The best example of this has to be the massed planting of ebbingei in the car park at the Lakeside Shopping Centre in Essex. The plant, which grows rapidly and up to 5m, was obscuring views and threw up numerous safety issues for drivers at the site. The plants had to be hacked back at least three times a year and there was no long-term benefit for all that effort and cost.

Eventually, the ebbingei was replaced with Cotoneaster amoenus, a good alternative offering controlled growth and, therefore, minimal maintenance. Other easy-care decorative shrubs include:

- Goat willow (Salix caprea) - no pruning necessary.

- Red-barked dogwood (Cornus alba) - cut to the ground every two or three years in late spring.

- Smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria) - no pruning needed, except to clear dead wood in spring.

- Kerria (Kerria japonica) - pruning not normally required.


Plant and landscape consultant Noel Kingsbury says trees can make the most dramatic of specimens: "Vast lawns may support the extravagantly asymmetrical tiered branches of a cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani AGM), but good specimen trees for smaller spaces are generally those with upward-sweeping branches, like the ornamental apple Malus tschonoskii AGM."

But specimen plants can be effective when emerging from low ground cover too and they do not need to be bushy to the ground. La Dell says: "Choisya ternata AGM and Viburnum tinus are reliable. If height is important, V. tinus will reach more than 4m in most conditions, but V. tinus 'Gwenllian' AGM is under half that height."

Hunter adds: "Specifiers should choose UK-hardy plants and resist the urge to create trendy or exotic-looking schemes. There will be far fewer failures - especially if we continue to have very cold winters like last year - and therefore less replanting six months later."

She offers the variegated Hebe 'Heartbreaker' as an example of a plant that is not fully hardy, although it is generally sold as such. "We've seen this shrub planted and replanted again months later after a harsh winter," she explains.

Kingsbury says: "'Wild' plantings are, in theory, low maintenance. The idea is to establish a community of plants that will coexist happily and flourish because they are suited to the prevailing conditions. Plant selection is important and so is careful attention while the planting is becoming established. Once this phase is past, maintenance can be reduced to a minimum. There is no denying the usefulness of wild schemes."

La Dell adds: "This is the area of drifts of herbaceous plants, such as can be seen at Trentham Gardens, using the ideas of Dutch designer and nursery owner Piet Oudolf. But meadows do need at least one or even two annual cuts."

Oudolf has published a number of books and lists all species of Eupatorium, helianthus, hemerocallis, Miscanthus, Molinia and Polygonatum as well as Carex pendula, Euphorbia palustris AGM and Geranium macrorrhizum,as plants that "once established and have reached maturity can survive and almost go it alone".


1. Forecasting time

Landscape architects, specifiers and garden designers must think about how much time will need to be spent on maintaining the grounds and then to plan solutions that will minimise unnecessary work.

2. Design naturally

Consider the climate and soil conditions in the area so that plants are chosen that will thrive naturally and not need constant attention - or replanting at a later date.

3. Choose the right plants

Give preference to native species and tried and tested reliable varieties. Always use a supplier with a good reputation and one who sells quality plants.

4. Proper preparation

Soil preparation should be deep to avoid panning and poor plant performance. Soil conditioners and humus should be incorporated to guarantee good establishment. Attention should be paid to watering in the first six months.

5. Plant with foresight

Always allow enough space between plants. This will avoid having to thin out. Where budgets permit, temporary gaps can be filled with fast-growing summer annuals.

6. Cover the ground

Fabric mulches, topped by bark or gravel, will suppress weeds and keep moisture in the soil, reducing the need for weeding and watering.


Palmstead Nurseries marketing and sales manager Nick Coslett says: "The current stiff competition in the market is perhaps encouraging undeclared - you could even say 'dishonest' - substitution of plants, often with value engineering in mind. This impacts on both the quantity of plants delivered and, more seriously, on the long-term management implications and costs.

"For example, a designer specifies a particular plant for their project - such as Cornus alba 'Ivory Halo'. This is a magnificent red-stemmed dogwood with attractive variegated foliage and a compact habit. It won't grow too tall, stopping at 1.5m, depending on soil.

"'Ivory Halo' carries a royalty of 20p and is not very widely grown, so the nursery may substitute the plants. Instead they may supply Cornus alba 'Elegantissima', which is very similar in most respects but does not carry the royalty charge. Trouble is, it could grow to 3m tall. They may also offer it as a bare-rooted plant, offering a further cost saving.

"So a plant that should cost £2.50 is devalued to a 50p bare-rooted inferior-quality plant with a long-term maintenance burden."

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