Dream Borders

The depth of winter is when I take time to dream about the summer and imagine how the garden is going to be when I’ve got it “just so”. Of course the great thing about gardening is it’s never completely finished and there’s always one more tweak to be made.

I’ve always loved the traditional herbaceous borders of our British stately gardens and this winter I’ve been thinking about how I might plan and plant one on a smaller scale.

We can't all have the space for a traditional border on a grand scale but we can learn a lot from them.

Firstly, aspect: the border will need some sun during the day or your choice of plants will be severely limited. You may be able to let more light in by pruning back or removing overlarge shrubs.

Next the backdrop: traditionally a large, sheltering hedge or wall. These are fine but don't forget that hedges take moisture and goodness from the soil and walls cast a rain shadow. Fences, or shrubs are just as good a backdrop, or dispense with one completely and plant an island bed instead. A border along a path with a lawn to the other side is just as traditional and you can make this backdrop so much better by edging the lawn to produce a neat, sculpted shape.

Its a common "mistake" to dig a narrow border in a small garden. To my mind it looks like the plants are scared to be there and are cowering against the fence. Learn from the grand gardens and give your borders some depth.

I'd like to say make the border twice a deep as the tallest plant you're going to put in it or at least as deep as the height of the backdrop but this isn't always possible. My tip to avoid timidity is to make it twice as deep as you first thought you would!

The next point to consider is colour. Some people get technical about it and others think it doesn't matter. I think the key is to choose one or two key colours for the border.

In traditional borders these key colours are repeated at intervals along the border. This repeating colour theme gives rhythm and visual structure to the planting and is probably more important than matching colour shades and tones within the planting.

Pick some tough plants, that quickly bulk up, are easy to divide and flower again rapidly after planting as your rhythm section. I like Silk Flower (Sisyrinchium striatum) with its sword-shaped leaves and spikes of cream flowers. It is easy to divide and establishes a good clump quickly.

Remember that reds shout out and look closer than they are. So if you plant them at the far end of the border you’ll made the garden look shorter. Whereas blues are “receding” and have the opposite effect.

A border will seem longer than it really is if you make it wider at the near end and gradually narrower as you move to the far end. This false perspective is a useful trick to use in the small garden.

The next consideration is season of interest. It would be lovely to have a border in full flower all through the season but in reality this doesn't happen with perennials.

There are lots of things you can do to extend the season though.

Its tempting when you go to a plant fair in spring or autumn to buy a selection of plants in flower and dot these around your garden to give you some colour everywhere. But this lacks impact, and grouping them together in a block or strip in the border or bed packs a real colour punch at lean times of year.

Think of plants with lovely buds or young leaves to add interest early in the season. Oriental Poppies (Papaver) and Bearded Iris have short flowering season but the buds of the former and sword-shaped leaves of the latter start looking good weeks before the flowers.

Traditional borders are planted with tall plants at the back and shorter ones at the front but also think about “spot plants”: upright, architecturally shaped plants that are taller than those around them. These add drama to a border. Good perennials for this are Veronicastrum, Bugbane (Actaea), Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia), Mullein (Verbascum) and Delphinium.

The old adage was to “spend a penny on the plant and a pound on the hole” and this is good advice when planting a border. Proper preparation is time well spent.

Prepare the soil well by removing all perennial weeds, digging deeply and adding compost or muck in liberal quantities. I sprinkle a granular fertiliser every spring and top this up with bone meal in planting holes.

Planting distances vary but a good rule of thumb is around 2ft / 60cm apart for large or very vigorous plants and 1ft-1ft 6in 30-45cm for others. You can of course plant more densely for a more rapid effect.

Don’t forget to water plants even if it rains until the plants are growing strongly – don’t drown them though!

Enough dreaming, it will soon be time to sharpen the spade and get digging for that dream border.

Giant Scabious (Cephalaria) always have

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