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January 2014

tradional herbaceous border on a grand scale at Arley Hall CheshirePlanning and Planting a Herbaceous Border or Bed

Watching (and taking part in) the recent BBC TV series Great British Garden Revival episode about Herbaceous Borders got me thinking about how one might plan and plant one on a smaller scale.

Our garden is 99% herbaceous and all of our beds and borders are of a scale to transfer and adapt to even the smallest scale.

So I thought I'd set down what I've picked up over the years and how I go about it.

We can't all have the space for a traditional border on a grand scale like Arley Hall in Cheshire (photo right) 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.

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.

Its a common "mistake" to dig a narrow border in a small garden. To my mind it always leaves it looking like the plants are scared to be there and are cowering against the hedge. 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 until you get more confident!

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.

Take this border at Powis Castle and see how blue and yellow 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 plants like Sisyrinchium, used to great effect at Powis, that quickly bulk up, are easy to divide and flower again rapidly after planting as your rhythm section.

To my eye some colours jar and are the visual equivalent of fingernails raking down a blackboard but it is all a matter of taste.

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.

Have a look at this border at Trentham Gardens in mid September and see how the design groups together the late blooming plants into blocks of colour.  Lots of the earlier flowering plants now have attractive seed heads but also their leaves provide a frame for the blocks of late blooming perennials.

Its tempting when you go to a plant fair in late summer or autumn to buy a selection of late bloomers 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.

Think of plants with lovely buds or young leaves to add interest early in the season. Oriental Poppies 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.

Cephalaria always have delightful and very visible buds as do Centaurea. 

Seed heads and stems can add interest after the flowers fade. Phlomis russeliana is a classic choice for this.


In part 2 I'll talk about bringing it all together on the ground

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