My 'Desert Island' Plants - Mandy Bradshaw
In what we hope to make a regular series in our newsletters, well known gardening journalist and blogger Mandy Bradshaw reveals the plants that she just can't be without in her garden. - 02 March 2018
As a plant-lover, I’m rather fickle. My favourite plant is always the one that’s in flower now. I lurch from one minor obsession to another, falling hopelessly for something only to forget it when the next thing blooms. At the start of the year, it’s snowdrops that I must have but they are soon pushed aside by the hellebores, which are my only thought until the tulips start to bloom. And so it goes on.
Yet, despite this there are a few plants that are always on my must-have list, my 'Desert Island' Plants. There’s nothing fancy or showy about most of them. Rather, they are plants that have a special significance for me, or are simply what we gardeners call ‘good doers’. Here they are,in no particular order.
I couldn’t have a list of favourite plants without the sunflower. It’s my ‘trademark’ on the blog and social media and an annual I always grow. There’s something about those big flowers optimistically following the sun that makes me smile. If I had to choose one, it would be ‘Teddy Bear’ for its fabulous shaggy head. It grows to only a couple of feet, making it perfect for toddlers to grow, as they can look right into its flowers.
Helianthus annus 'Teddy Bear'
My kitchen garden is a favourite place and I can lose myself for hours in it – weeding, sowing and devising ways of beating the resident pigeons. Choosing just one plant to represent the range of fruit and veg I grow was tricky but, in the end, it had to be basil. I use it a lot in cooking and just one sniff takes me back to family holidays in Italy. Basil can sometimes be a bit temperamental, especially in cold or exposed gardens. Kim Hurst, from The Cottage Herbery, recommends Greek Basil (Ocimum basilicum var. minimum). With its smaller leaves, it is sturdier due to the nature of its growth and not so easily bruised by the weather.
Ocimum basilicum var. minimum (Photo: Kim Hurst, The Cottage Herbery)
No collection of garden favourites – and no garden come to that – is really complete without a tree. My favourite is Malus floribunda. It’s not the very best of the crab apples as it doesn’t produce particularly good fruit but I forgive it anything come blossom time. The tiny buds are dark pink, opening to pale pink flowers that gradually fade to white. With all three colours on the tree at once, you can see why it is known by the family as ‘the strawberries and cream’ tree.
Some would regard cow parsley as a weed and it can be invasive but put in the right spot there’s little else that so beautifully conjures up an image of the English countryside. For me, it brings back memories of a childhood in Norfolk and long days roaming the fields.
Anthriscus sylvestris - Cow Parsley
The mock orange has a special place in my heart – and not just because of its wonderful scent. There was a small spray of Philadelphus flowers on my wedding cake, carefully nurtured by my Dad; keeping it going for early July was no mean feat in a Bristol garden that was always weeks ahead in flowering time. His bush was a cutting from an elderly aunt’s plant that had supplied flowers for my parents’ wedding cake. I learnt my early gardening from my Dad but still can’t take cuttings the way he could. The most unpromising ‘twigs’ would root for him. The best varieties for scent (as recommended by Chris and Gordon Link from The Gobbet Nursery) are Philadelphus × lemoinei 'Belle Etoile', which has the large, single white flowers with a purple centre, or Philadelphus maculatus 'Mexican Jewel', which has smaller, but similar, flowers and an even stronger scent.
Philadelphus × lemoinei 'Belle Etoile'
Every spring, I vow not to buy so many bulbs in the autumn. Every autumn, I forget. Tulips are one of my addictions and I cannot imagine having a garden without them. Choosing just one is almost impossible: should it be the sumptuous peony-flowered ‘Angelique’, the elegant lily-flowered ‘China Pink’ or the sultry ‘Queen of Night’? I’ve gone for ‘Douglas Bader’, a short, slightly stocky tulip with mid-pink, cup-shaped flowers, good grey-green foliage and the added bonus of dark, purple-tinged stems. It’s not widely available but, luckily, so far reappears in my borders every year.
Tulipa 'Douglas Bader'
It may be a cliché but there really is nothing quite like seeing the first snowdrops. Arriving at a pretty dismal time of year, they really cheer me up. I have several named varieties but for my Desert Island list would choose a common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, that came from my parents-in-law. It’s shorter than normal with fat, double flowers and is spreading well. I had a clump when the family home was sold and some were planted on my mother-in-law’s grave.
The common English marigold is an under-valued star of the garden. It flowers for months, puts up with a range of sites and soils – including my poor sandy stuff – and shrugs off even the wettest British summer. One packet sown years ago was all I needed as it self-seeds happily in my kitchen garden, brightening up the veg and bringing in the pollinators.
Mandy Bradshaw is a Cotswold-based gardening journalist who writes for newspapers and magazines, covering everything from glorious open gardens to how to grow leeks. She also has her own blog and website which you can find at www.thechattygardener.com
All text and photos copyright the author, except where otherwise noted.