What do the words ‘herbaceous borders’ mean to you? To me they conjure up wide, sweeping areas of abundance and colour and are my idea of an English garden.
I don’t like straight lines, both in the shape of borders and the arranging of plants. Try and place your borders away from boundary fences and hedges if possible. Make your borders as large as you can manage, even if it means sacrificing some lawn. A border is much more interesting if you can walk around it and is easier to maintain. Have plants of varying heights, you do not have to plant the tallest plants at the back, irregularity is more interesting than conformity, but plant those which need a lot of maintenance in an accessible position. Try and have colour for as long as possible, bulbs in the Spring to dahlias in late Summer. A few foliage plants add interest and contrast if you have space.
Colour is very important to me. I hate to see clashing colours next to each other. If you have room for several borders make them colour co-ordinated, if not try to emphasise a shade by planting a complementary plant as its neighbour and blend one colour into another. White and blue enhance any border and look lovely in evening light. Do not worry about a few weeds in the lawn; after all, most weeds are green too!
I am a compulsive dead-header. It makes the border look tidier and you get many more flowers. Cut the flowering stems of early summer plants down to ground level after flowering, give water if necessary and possibly a feed and they will reward you with a second flush later. Delphiniums and lupins are good examples.
I hate bare earth. Don’t be afraid of planting thickly, you can always move a plant when it gets swamped and it reduces the need for much staking and weeding. My aim is to see no earth by summer; this suppresses weeds and conserves water. I only weed once in late spring. Do not spoil your plants, they will get used to little water in dry weather, only water when they look really sad.
My borders have a layer of home made compost in the autumn. Put weeds in the green bin, your compost heap may feel hot enough in the centre to kill weed seeds but the outside is not. Cover plants, with a double dose over dahlias (which I leave in), and other delicates, and give a helping of chicken pellets in early summer. Do not be afraid of using slug pellets or liquid sparingly to save your hostas and other slug and snail delicacies.
As plants start to fade in early autumn cut woody stems down to ground level, do not worry about low level foliage, it will rot during the winter and provides some protection against frost. It is easier to cut them down as they fade rather than all together. Leave stems of more tender perennials, such as penstemens, until spring, the foliage will provide some protection for the roots. When plants, after several years, get too large, dig them up, split them, and replant a piece, throwing away the old, woody bits. This can be done in the autumn or the spring; I prefer the autumn as the soil is still warm.
Beware of Greeks, and other nationalities, bearing gifts! I have often found after accepting a plant which has been pressed upon me that it has become rampart and taken over, after all, why had the donor so much to give away? On the other hand I have been given some lovely plants from friends and strangers alike, but be careful.
Sometimes, neither I nor the donor know the variety of the gift, but no matter, I name it after them.
Good luck and happy gardening.
“I don’t like straight lines, both in the shape of borders
and the arranging of plants”
and the arranging of plants”