Following on from last month’s column on front gardens, how we benefit from them and what to grow in your patch inspired by daily commutes around the neighbourhood, here’s a round-up of Forest Gate’s best trees, shrubs and blooms for February. If you don’t have a garden, you can still help establish and improve green corridors across the borough by planting up window boxes, containers or pots. Plus, there’s lots of pleasure to be had from eyeing up the fruits of someone else’s labour from well-gardened borders to jumbles of floral colour to pockets of wildlife-friendly guerrilla gardening – on which note, thanks to the bestower of daffodils to the mini roundabouts on Osborne Road, and indeed pop-up planters across Forest Gate thanks to biodiversity improving initiatives such as Bloomin' Forest Gate led by the Forest Gate Community Garden (www.fgcommunitygarden.org) and planted up tree pits and mini gardens by Zara Peters @theflowerstarter. So much prettier and beneficial than just a concrete block.
Winter flowering roses are particularly beguiling as they are often the only flower on the block, providing something of an impossible bouquet through the darkest months of the year. The front gardens of Forest Gate have some real frost-resistant beauties budding from the gnarled stems of what look like ancient shrubs. There are also lots of bright red hips brightening up the streets and offering a tasty feast to birds. If you want to add roses to your patch it’s an ideal time (Oct to April) to plant dormant (and often cheaper) bare root roses before they burst into leaf in spring. See www.davidaustinroses.co.uk for ideas including year-round roses for front of house, doorways, shady areas and containers and pots.
Late winter and spring bulbs
Planting bulbs is one of the best ways to incorporate successive, seasonal colour and interest in your garden and ideal for borders, pots and shady areas under trees. I’ve already spotted some snowdrops, crocuses and dwarf irises, the shooting promise of grape hyacinths, daffodils and narcissi, plus the fatter rolled leaves of tulips to come on my regular local commutes. If you didn’t manage to get your bulbs in during autumn and winter, you could always plant some flowering clumps out now, including ‘in the green’ snowdrops (bulbs with leaves and just-flowered stems attached) – the best way to establish these heavenly clusters of green and white. Available to plant out until April from www.sarahraven.com.
Perfect for difficult areas under trees or in shaded window boxes or pots, I particularly love the white Helleborus niger and green Helleborus x hybridus, adding subtle glamour between grasses and ferns, but you can also source them in pink, cream, green, burgundy, lemon and black or variations on that theme including double-flowering and speckled ones. I’ve spotted a pretty arrangement planted into some gabions (baskets of pebbles) on Sebert Road and a fair few in ‘woodland areas’ across the neighbourhood including our own on Claremont Road. For ultimate inspiration take the train from Stratford to Wivenhoe out in Essex, then grab a taxi to the beautiful Beth Chatto’s Gardens (www.bethchatto.co.uk) nearby (re-opens 15 Feb 2022) where the hellebores and winter bulb displays are spectacular.
Looking for a lime green hit for your borders? Look no further than the impossibly resilient euphorbia, an almost tropical looking plant that can survive the cold and just loves to spread – perfect if you’re on a budget and want to populate your garden quickly. The most common one around the neighbourhood seems to be the whorl-leaved Euphorbia characias subsp. Wulfenii resplendent in its grey-green foliage topped off by acid green flowers. Other beauties include the enticing Euphorbia x martini, which has red and white tear-dropped details on its flowers, and the dark green Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae, ideal for shady areas. I’ve also planted a swathe of more delicate Euphorbia oblongata, which has taken well in my clay soil and is great in cut flower arrangements.Just be careful of the sap when you cut as can be harmful to skin and toxic to children and pets.
There’s a sunny space in our front garden that is crying out for a small shrub. Every January I ponder what it should be, with a deep-scented, winter-flowering species top of my list. So far, I’ve contemplated a bright yellow mimosa (Acacia dealbata – see last month’s Frontline),a spice-fragranced, tassel-flowered witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.) or a leather-leaved, white-flowered daphne (Daphne bholua). I am, however, also considering shrubs that harbour wildlife such as the laurustinus (Viburnum tinus) –a glossy-leaved, creamy flowered species of Viburnum that I have definitely seen blooming on my recent front garden rounds. It may be a bit bigger than the space we have but it’s rich in nectar and pollen for bees and other beneficial insects while the black berries around August attract finches and robins.
Sonya Patel Ellis is a writer, editor and artist exploring the interconnectedness of nature. Author of Collins Botanical Bible (HarperCollins, 2018), The Heritage Herbal (The British Library, 2020), Collins Garden Birdwatchers Bible (Harper Collins, 2020) and the forthcoming The Modern Gardener (Harper Collins, 17 February 2022) she is often to be found roaming around nearby Wanstead Flats or in her garden for botanical inspiration. See www.abotanicalworld.com for more details plus signed books and botanically inspired prints. Writing for wellbeing workshops coming soon.
Photography © Sonya Patel Ellis