Gardening: Plants which stand the test of time deserve recognition

Andy McIndoe
Andy McIndoe

You don’t have to introduce new weird and wonderful plant varieties when you have some great reliable stalwarts on your doorstep. Andy McIndoe, MD of Hillier Nurseries which is looking for its 70th gold medal at Chelsea, chooses some of the best

As a man who has lovingly cared for, cosseted and cajoled a plethora of plants into looking their best for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, you might think that gardening guru Andy McIndoe might be a little dismissive of some of our old garden stalwarts.

Yet this year, as Hillier Nurseries MD McIndoe designs and stages the firm’s iconic stand for his 25th time in the Great Pavilion, he’s banging the drum for some of our better recognised plants which have flourished in our gardens for years.

With a 70th consecutive gold in its sights, Hillier has opted not to release new plant introductions at the show, but instead to shine a spotlight on the reliable, favourite plants from every corner of the world that come together to make up a British garden, in its exhibit Crossing Continents.

“The performance of a show plant at Chelsea is a good indication of its durability in the garden,” says McIndoe. “If it stays in good condition during preparation, transport to London, staging and for the week of the show, whatever the weather, it will stand up to most things in a garden.” His choices include Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diable d’Or’, a wonderful foliage shrub with arching branches and red-brown leaves, Phormium cookianum, with its bold architectural forms and exotic colours, and Agapanthus, the Blue lily or African lily is a wonderful summer blooming perennial that loves a sunny border or a pot on the patio.

Fatsia japonica and Sambus nigra are also among ‘s choices.

“The boundaries have become more blurred between what is a patio plant and what is a long-term garden plant, what’s going to give you years of good service and what’s going to give you a summer of colour,” he explains.

“Often, plants that you see at Chelsea looking great haven’t necessarily been given normal garden conditions to grow in. They’ve been cosseted, they’ve been protected. That doesn’t mean they are bullet-proof.”

Plant fashion doesn’t necessarily mean longevity, he continues.

“At the moment there’s quite a lot of interest in coprosmas and lophomyrtus because they’ve got colourful leaves and are very attractive from a foliage point of view. But they’re not necessarily lasters. Some of the highly coloured variegated hebes vary in their performance so if you take something like ‘Heartbreaker’, it may be very appealing but it’s not the toughest.

“After a reasonably average winter it’s going to look pretty rough. I never think it’s worth planting anything that just survives, I want to have things that thrive.

“Other hebe varieties like ‘Frozen Flame’ are very good plants which should thrive. Look at the plants which have been around for a few years. Quite often when plants are newly introduced they won’t have been trialled to the same extent as some of the old, reliable varieties you’ve seen for many years.

“Most of us are looking for those good, hard-working garden plants which do their stuff and give us a long season of interest.”

Perennials can also be deceptive, he says. Some come up year after year, others may not survive. Take delphiniums, for instance.

“The elatum hybrids, normally propagated by cuttings, are good, long-term perennials. If you went and bought a delphinium from Blackmore & Langdon’s ( for about £9 then it’s likely to be a cutting-raised delphinium which will last. The elatum hybrids are good, long-term perennials.

“If it’s a seed-raised variety which is more compact in habit and makes a good pot full of colour in a short space of time, it’s probably shortlived.”

Lupins can also be hit and miss when it comes to returning year after year, he agrees.

“If you’re on slightly acid soil your lupins should last, but choose varieties like ‘The Governor’, ‘Chandelier’, ‘The Chatelaine’, ‘The Page’ and the old established ones. Those which may die out will be gallery lupins, which are seed-raised, perform in a pot and are not as long-lived. But that shouldn’t necessarily put you off as long as you know.

“If you are going to pay £3 for a lupin and it gives you a summer of colour, I think you’ve had your money’s worth.”

Expect a lot from your plants, but be realistic about their longevity, McIndoe advises. “When somebody buys a cheap shrub or a perennial, they think it’s got to live forever. But if they spent £3 on a coffee, they’d be delighted if they got 10 minutes out of it.”