BLOG - 21/12/18
OK, so you want to plant a new border in your garden. There are lots of styles you could go for - take a look at the RHS website to get some inspiration. If that doesn’t do it for you, there’s always the gardener’s best friend, Google Images (try “planting borders styles”). Whichever style appeals, there are a few fundamentals to bear in mind.
Before you do anything, you need to understand what kind of light your border will get. The orientation of your garden is just the starting point. In urban gardens, just because the back of your house faces south - usually an indicator of full sun - that doesn’t mean a great deal if your neighbours have huge trees casting shade onto your garden. Keep an eye on your garden for a few days. Get a sense of where the sun falls, at what time of day and for how long. Once you know this you’ll have a good idea as to which plants will do well in your new border. Say, for example, that all of the border gets full sun for a few hours a day. That means that any plants that are good in full sun or partial shade should do OK.
Time of year, density, height and spread are four good things to bear in mind when choosing your plants. When is a plant at it’s best, and for how long - or is it great all year round? How tall will it grow? How wide will it be? When it grows, how dense will it’s foliage and stems be? Will it be really thick so you can’t see through it to see other plants behind it (in which case it should probably go nearer the back of the border) - Phlox and Penstemon, for example. Or will it work in the middle or front of a border because it’s not so dense it’ll block the view of what’s behind (Verbena and Verbascum)? Ideally, you should be looking for a mix of plants and shrubs that give you a variety of heights and densities. In terms of structuring the border, you should be working on the basis that you’d like there always to be something interesting going on, whatever the time of year. It’s a bit like imagining a time lapse camera taking a photo every month and it always being a beautiful picture.
With all that in mind, start by choosing a few evergreen shrubs to give the border some permanent structure. Taxus, Box balls, Bay and Rosemary will all work in this role. There are also some really fantastic dwarf conifers available that’ll add a little Japanese feel. “Conifer” doesn’t have to mean those huge Leylandii trees that are dotted around London gardens. They usually started as a good idea and a few 1m tall trees. Within a few years they’ve turned into 10m tall, spider-filled, light-blocking triffids! No. We mean things like Cryptomeria ‘Globosa Nana’ and Mugo Pine (type them into the gardener’s best friend. You’ll see). Slow-growing, naturally dome forming evergreens with soft textured foliage. Perfect for low maintenance, year-round structure in a border. If there’s a wall or fence at the back, think about an evergreen climber or two. There are some amazing (and fragrant) climbing roses available. Or the evergreen Trachelospermum Jasminoides (easy for us to say!) - a quite wonderful waxy green leaved climber, with small white star-shaped flowers from late Spring, which have the most lovely fragrance.
As well as evergreens, think about adding a bit of height, combined with year-round interest. These don’t need to be evergreen. Things like Cornus and Acer ‘Sango Kaku’ are deciduous (leaves fall off in winter), but have really fantastically coloured branches and stems. They’ll give a border colour and structure year-round, and are easy to maintain.
Next, you might want to add some movement. When the wind blows, it’s great to see plants moving around, reflecting light and casting shadows across the others. Grasses are perfect for this. Some die back to the ground in winter, to return the following year (herbaceous perennials). Some retain their shape all year round. Festuca Glauca and Stipa Tenuissima are excellent examples of these. If you’re going for a bit of a cottage garden feel, you should definitely add in a few of the Stipa’s - low maintenance, instant form and structure - and lovely movement in a breeze!
OK, so that’s the backdrop sorted. Now some colour! Herbaceous perennials are great for this.
A herbaceous perennial is a hardy plant that dies down in autumn, but only to its roots. These stay alive through winter, and in spring the plant starts into life again. It will put on a huge amount of healthy, fresh growth from these raring-to-go roots in a season, so will very quickly reach flowering size from nothing. Perennials’ vigorous growth means they are hungry plants and can deplete the soil quickly, so enrich it with compost or well-rotted manure before planting, then feed every spring. After a few years they lose a bit of their energy, but the great thing about that is you can rejuvenate them by digging them up, splitting them and replanting again. Every time you do this, you get new (free) plants, which only enhances the ‘mass planting’ look.
It’s often a good idea not to choose too many different types of perennials in a border. Sticking to just six or seven types of plants can look fantastic. Drifts or clumps with lots of the same kind of plants are always more effective than planting just one or two of each. Planting in threes or fives is the usual rule of thumb, although we know of one designer who always goes for fours and sixes “because one usually dies”! And look at leaf colour and shape as well as the flowers themselves. You need to like those too.
Whichever plants you choose (and really, “just go for it” would be our advice), you need to give your plants the space to grow sideways. If the label says that the width is ultimately 30cm, you need to make sure it has at least 15cm of space all round it before you place other plants. Air flow through a border is pretty important. Do bear in mind that many perennials take a year or so to get to their best, so don’t worry about the gaps for now. Let the border develop and see how it all spreads out. If you do see a gap that’s starting to annoy you, just head out to the garden centre and choose something to fill it!
Herbaceous perennials will died away in winter, as we have said, so consider planting spring-flowering bulbs under and around them. Perhaps early Snowdrops, then Narcissi, Anemone, Tulip and Allium. That way, you’ll have an ever-changing flush of colour and texture from mid-February through to late April/May - and then the joy of the herbaceous plants coming through for a wonderful display right through summer. Remember the monthly time-lapse camera?
Garden centres usually only sell what’s coming into flower and looking its best at any given time during the year. So if you’re prepared to be patient, it can be great fun to get the basic structure of the border in place and then visit a garden centre every month of the year, buying a few plants in your chosen colour palette each time. The following year you’ll get a great deal of pleasure in watching the border evolve and develop throughout the year, with the plants you bought each month coming through to add ever more interest as the year progresses. Without knowing anything about plants or gardening you will have planted a border for all seasons!
If you have any questions or think we can help you with something, please do get in touch.
The Lancasters Team