Guest post: plants for natural playscapes


Vince Edwards of James Coles & Sons (Nurseries) Ltd shares a list of species that meet the particular planting requirements of play areas. The plants provide a safe yet interesting backdrop and a floral complement to the various elements of a play scheme.

The list below provides a brief description of form, size and each species’ key individual characteristics. It is intended as a starting point; soil, site conditions, light levels and long-term maintenance programmes will also need to be considered when selecting a range for a scheme.


  • D = deciduous
  • SD = semi-deciduous
  • E = Evergreen
  • C3, C5, C10 = plant container size in litres
  • MH/S = approximate mature height and spread


Buddleja davidii (butterfly bush): lance-shaped leaves, bears dense panicles of fragrant lilac/purple flowers; other varieties have range of flower colour. E, C10, MH/S: 3.0/5.0m.

Caryopteris “Worcester Gold”: full hardy to frost hardy; shrub, mixed border; aromatic foliage with blue flowers. D, C2, MH/S: 1.2/1.5m.

Cornus varieties (dogwood): full to frost hardy; shrub, small tree, border/ground cover; some species have fruit that can cause mild stomach upset; stunning winter stem colour across range. D, C10, MH/S: 12m/8m.

Cotinus coggygria “Royal Purple” (smoke bush): fully hardy, border/specimen shrub; excellent autumn colour. D, C10, MH/S: H 5m.

Fatsia japonica (castor oil plant): frost to half hardy; shrub/small tree, border/specimen; good foliage and habit; creamy autumn flowers; coastal and atmospheric tolerant. E, C5–C10, MH/S: 1.5m/4m.

Hebe ochracea “James Stirling”: compact, erect then arching; triangular rich ochre-yellow leaves; particularly attractive in winter; small/medium-sized white flower in late spring/early summer. E, C2, MH/S: 0.45cm/0.60cm.

Hypericum calycinum “Rose of Sharon”: dark green ovate/oblong leaves; spreading by runners; summer to autumn, has saucer shaped bright yellow leaves, 10cm across. MH/S: 0.60m.

Lavandula angustifolia (English lavender): compact bushy shrub with linear green shrub that produces fragrant pale to deep purple flowers in dense spikes. MH/S: 1.0m/1.2m.

Phormium, all colour varieties: frost/half-hardy; border or focal point, variegated foliage across range, flowers; coastal tolerant. (E, C3, C5, C10+, MH/S: 1.5m/4m.

Thymus: herb aromatic group of evergreen herbs; range of flower colour in summer depending on variety. MH/S: 0.30–0.60m.

Herbaceous plants

Bergenia cordifolia (elephants ear): clump forming, with heart shaped leaves, tinted purple in winter; bears rose red to dark pink flowers in late winter and early spring. E, C2, MH/S: 0.60m-0.75m.

Fragaria vesca (wild strawberry): perennial forming rosettes of three bright green leaves; late spring bears cymes of white flowers followed by red fruits. C2, MH/S: 0.30m upwards.

Mentha piperita var. citriodora (lemon mint): herb vigorous spreading eau de cologne; scented perennial; bears pinkish/purple flowers in summer. C9, MH/S: 0.50m/1.0m.

Stachys “Silver Carpet” (hedge nettle): full hardy to frost hardy; foliage, no flowers, ground cover mass plant; soft silver grey leaves. C2, MH/S: 0.45m/0.60m.

Grasses and bamboo

Briza media (common quaking grass): full hardy; tufted annual grass; border/rockery; long-lasting dense racemes and colour; flower heads can be dried for display. E, C2, MH/S: 0.90m/0.30m.

Carex elata “Evergold” (sedge): most full hardy; tufted grass species; grown for colour, form, foliage. C2, MH/S: 1.5m/0.90m

Carex flagellifera (sedge): densely tufted evergreen perennial, taller than comans; green/reddish/brown leaves; long stems bearing brown flower spikes. E, C2, MH/S: 1m/0.90m.

Cortaderia argentea/selloana (pampas grass): full hardy to frost hardy; perennial grasses, back of border/free-standing specimen; plumes can be dried for display. E, C3, C5, C10, MH/S: 3m/2.5m.

Fargesia nitida (bamboo): full hardy to half-hardy; striking specimen plants; useful hedge material; can be vigorous; excellent for foliage and colour. E, C3, C5, C10, MH/S: 1.5m/5m.

Festuca “Blue Fox”: full hardy; tufted perennial grasses; border/ground cover; good colours and forms. C2, MH/S: 0.5m/0.45m.

Leymus arenarius: perennial grasses; spreading clumps of pale blue/grey leaves to 60cm all summer, through to buff spikelets. C2, MH/S: 1.5m upwards.

Miscanthus Gracillimus (maiden grass): full hardy to frost hardy; perennial tufted grass; free-standing specimen or in mixed border; foliage colour in spring and autumn. C2, MH/S: 1.3m/1.0m.

Molinia (purple moor grass): attractive autumn foliage and dense panicles of compressed spikelets; dark green/cream stripped leaves, ochre stems and purple spikelets. E, C2.

Panicum virgatum (crab grass): full hardy to half hardy; grass with light airy flower heads, ideal border; purple/glaucous to mid green stems. C2, MH/S: 1.2m/0.75m.

Pennisetum alopecuroides perennial grasses: clump forming; pointed mid/dark green leaves; bristly yellow/green to dark purple spikelets. E, C2, MH/S: 1.5m/1.2m.

Phalaris arundinacea “Picta”: full hardy to frost hardy; perennial grasses; border/ground cover plant; tufted soft foliage. E, C2, MH/S: 1.5m/5m.

Stipa tenuissima/gigantea (feather grass): full hardy to frost hardy; perennial grasses; shrub/border; grown for habit, colour and inflorescences that can be dried/dyed for display. C2, C5, MH/S: 2.5m/1.2m.


Acer palmatum “Garnet”, “Osakazuki”, “Atropurpureum” (Japanese maple) (D, C5, C10): full hardy/frost hardy; large shrub/tree; border/specimen; grown for excellent colour of foliage, form and bark. C2, C5, MH/S: 3m/10m.

Ginkgo biloba (maidenhair tree): full hardy; specimen tree; yellow autumn leaf, pollution tolerant; great landscape tree. D, C10–C65, MH/S: 8m/30m.

Salix alba (white willow): all standard tree sizes in bare root or container; very fast-growing, spreading tree with grey-pink to brown shoots; leaves dull green with blue tint on under side; yellow male catkins or yellow/green female catkins in spring. D, MH/S: 25m/10m.

Salix caprea (goat willow): all standard tree sizes in bare root or container; female version is “pussy willow”; weeping habit with a dense head of yellow-brown shoots; grey catkins with yellow anthers in mid to late spring. D, MH/S: 1.5m-2.0m.

Betula pendula “Youngii” (Young’s weeping birch: all standard tree sizes Br or C; dome-shaped weeping tree with peeling white bark; yellow-brown catkins in spring. D, C2, C5, MH/S: 8.0m.

Betula utilis jacquemontii (Himalayan birch): all standard tree sizes Br or C; peeling bark variety with white bark colour and very gloss leaves. D, MH/S: 18m/10m.


Juniperus media “Pfitzeriana” (juniper): spreading male shrub with ascending branches at 45 degrees, forming a flat topped bush with tiered foliage; round fruits turn from dark purple to a pale blue. E, C10, MH/S: 0.90m/2.00m.

Juniperus squamata “Blue Carpet” (flaky juniper): spreading shrub/bush with flaky, rusty brown bark; wedge-shaped leaves, dark green to silvery blue; bears ovoid glossy black fruit. E, C10, MH/S: 10.0m/1.8m.

Juniperus scopulorum “Skyrocket” (rocky mountain juniper): narrow, pencil-shaped tree with glaucous/grey green leaves. E, C10.

This list has been compiled with reference to Coles Nurseries’ stock, which is available from over 195 hectares of trees and shrubs in Leicestershire.

Coles Nurseries is the largest grower of trees for the amenity landscape in the UK, producing one million field-grown trees and two million container plants. The company actively supports the promotion of tree planting by local authorities, landscapers and private individuals. Over 200 tree varieties are grown in sizes ranging from feathered to extra heavy standard. The company also offers containerised trees all year round.


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