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I have planted a deciduous native hedge (Euonymus Europaeus, Viburnum lantana, Acer campestre and Viburnum opulus, plus an existing full-size sycamore) along the south-eastern boundary of my back garden in southern England (Gloucestershire). The soil is clay, but dry and shaded because of the tree and hedge, and the area is exposed to cold wind parallel to the hedge in the winter.

At present, the area in front of the hedge is planted with cornus with green stems, and looks particularly uninteresting all year round (apart from spring when there are some crocus and bluebells in among the cornus). What can I plant in front of the hedge to provide more interest, especially in the spring summer and winter (the hedge should be the star in autumn)? It needs to be fully hardy in a Gloucestershire winter.

  • Is there a bed or border in front of the hedge then, in which the current Cornus is planted? If so, how deep is it from front to back? – Bamboo Aug 29 '13 at 17:10
  • There's a bed, about three feet front to back, with lawn in front of it, so I have the option of laying or lifting turf to make the border wider or narrower. – ColeValleyGirl Aug 29 '13 at 17:30
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It's a bit of a tall order, wanting plants that perform best in spring, summer and winter and not autumn, but I've had a go! Check out Ruscus aculeatus, the variety 'Sparkler' if you can get it, because that one's hermaphrodite and will produce red berries which last well into Winter. Otherwise, you'd need a mix of male and female to get berries. It's evergreen, gets about 3 x 3 feet and will provide winter interest - flowers are relatively insignificant in Spring/early Summer. Mahonia aquifolium is another evergreen which reaches 6 feet eventually. often producing reddish leaves in winter - slow to get going initially though, but can be pruned back after flowering. Flowers late Winter/Spring with yellow clusters - the variety 'Apollo' is slightly less tall.

You say it is shaded, but if there's any sun at all, say half a day or at least 4 hours, then Senecio Sunshine is worth planting - it's now known by the unlovely name of Brachyglottis 'Sunshine' though often is still available under the original name. Can (and should as far as I'm concerned) be pruned back to shape around May. This one produces yellow daisy flowers in mid summer, is evergreen with grey foliage. I'd like to suggest Berberis thunbergii, which is deciduous, but has purplish/brown foliage all summer IF it gets enough sun - flowers insignificant, but the colour of the leaves gives it value.

For added Spring colour, have a look at Allium, in particular, Allium aflatuense (now sold as Purple Sensation) and Allium christophii. These should work provided the hedge isn't in full throttle by the time they flower, so that they're getting a little sun. Foxgloves are worth planting (Digitalis purpurea) for later Spring colour too. For summer flowering 'bulbs' (they're actually corms) then Crocosmia 'Lucifer', but again, these may not do too well if there's no sun at all. Lamium maculatum varieties make good evergreen ground cover in shade - 'Beacon Silver' (white flowers) and 'White Nancy' (lilac flowers) are two of the best. Trim occasionally to stop them becoming invasive. If you can find Campanula portenschlagiana (previously C. muralis) then that's a good evergreen ground cover, makes a nice green mound in winter and is covered in purple bells early to midsummer. I'd avoid C. carpatica though, it's a messy grower. Verbena bonariensis is a useful flowering plant to pop in between larger plants - they take up no room at all, but get tall. The drawback is they do need some sun, and usually die over winter, but I find they produce lots of seedlings by the following late Spring.

If you wanted to use the shrubs proposed, I suggest you widen the border and plant in groups, so that it doesn't look like a second, smaller, mixed hedge in a single row. Improve the soil by digging well and adding humus rich material (home made compost, composted animal manure, etc.) prior to planting.

UPDATED RESPONSE:

Your partner won't need to prune the Berberis at all, it doesn't get that big, and there's a smaller version anyway, B. thunbergii atropurpureum 'nana'. As for pruning the Mahonia, that won't be necessary for at least 5 years, and only then if you think it's got too tall or wide - but note I'm talking about M. aquifolium, NOT japonica or media.

  • I love Mahonia but both it and Berberis are prickly and not anything you want to get too close too. – kevinsky Aug 30 '13 at 14:00
  • true enough, Kevinsky, but the Berberis is worse to handle. There's also not a great deal of choice for the situation described... – Bamboo Aug 30 '13 at 15:57
  • Autumn interest is acceptable but not mandatory :) Good point about not having it look like a second hedge. Not sure my partner will be keen on pruning berberis and mahonia, but the other ideas look good, particularly Ruscus aculeatus. – ColeValleyGirl Aug 30 '13 at 17:10
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I've had great luck in dry shade with a ground cover of Sweet Woodruff. It is attractive even when not in bloom, smells good, and in the spring and early summer is covered with tiny white flowers. It spreads quickly, likes shade and can tolerate drier conditions once you get it going.

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