Border Designs


Credit:Shelley & Dave

Got a bit of garden as bare as a dieter’s fridge and wanting to transform it into a stunning border? Here Lucy Summers tells you how to plan, prepare and create a border that will fill you with the joys of spring.

To begin- let us imagine you have a   typical town garden border- roughly rectangular, measuring 2.4m x 91cm backed by a six foot brick wall – and your plot is bare.  Added to this, your border receives precious little morning sun with a minimum of four hours afternoon sunshine.

Firstly you have to decide on the style of the border. Is it going to be modern or traditional? High or low maintenance? Would you prefer a mixed border of perennials and shrubs or perhaps solely perennials, later planted with annuals to buck it up a bit in the summer?

It is tempting to try and cram too many plants into a flower border to achieve flowering in all seasons, but frankly extensive flower borders that can sustain a very wide seasonality are the preserve of those with larger acreage. Most urban gardens simply don’t have the space, so city gardeners are forced to limit the plant palette and to some extent the seasonality. However, that said, we still need to aim for a border that is more than a ‘one hit wonder.’ I’ve plumped for a mixed spring bed, but what ‘star’ season are you going to choose:  spring, summer, autumn or winter? Decide now. 

Beware the obvious pitfalls. Many favour, quite mistakenly, dotting single plants of varied species about the border. Dotty is not good. Planting a successful border means embracing cohesive colour and making complementary plant choices to provide unity and rhythm.

The other notable point to remember is that the most successful flower borders are ones that are embellished over the years. (I.e. those not just planted with perennials but layered with bulbs, annuals etc woven into them to prolong the interest.) This requires only a small amount of effort, but you need to be big on planning.  Top tip: when you’re ready to put your plants in, avoid planting them in straight lines. 

I can almost hear you groaning because already you’re thinking that limiting your plant choices is going to result in a dull border. On the contrary, you are going to plant it so that it’s absolutely at its Rolls-Royce best in your chosen season, yet still carries subtle interest for the rest of the year.

Preparing the ground

So to the shovel my friends, let’s create our border. First ensure the border is plant, stone and weed free. Your soil may not be the caviar of garden composts but we can soon fix that. However, let’s assume it’s fairly decent and not heavily waterlogged or compacted.

Now feed your soil. This will feed your plants later. Layer a continuous 2”/5cm mulch of well-rotted organic matter on the surface of the soil. This takes five minutes but is probably the most critical stage of the preparation. Mulch will nourish your plants throughout the year and help them survive extended periods of dry weather. In one fell swoop you will have halved the time spent on watering and weeding over the coming months. Why we haven’t even broken a sweat yet and the hard work is almost done. Now your bed looks a little more promising -no longer common or garden dirt but a rich, dark planting medium that will retain water and attract sunlight so fueling healthy plant growth.

Choosing the plants

Do some plant research and make a selection of your favourites, checking for flowering periods and ultimate height and spread.

Use my tried and tested ‘Plantometer’ to check your plant choices to fully justify their presence in your small space. Each plant has to have at least two of the following going for them:

  • Foliage
  • Flower
  • Scent
  • Shape
  • Texture

If you can tick two or better still, three or more of these, then you can include them in your plant list.  If a plant only has one remarkable feature, your flowerbed is way too small to showcase a one trick pony, so leave it out.

Here’s my suggested recipe for a simple spring border. You can extend or subtract from these plant numbers according to the size of your border.

Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Yukigotan’ x 1

Polystichum setiferum (Divisilobum Group) ‘Herrenhausen’ x 3

Euphorbia × martinii x 3

Digitalis purpurea ‘Pam’s Choice’ 3-5

Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’   x 3

Tulipa ‘Black Hero’ x 15 bulbs and /or Tulipa ‘Spring Green’ x 15 bulbs

Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’ x 2

Planting the border

We’ll start planting at the back of the flowerbed and move forwards.

Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Yukigotan’ (Ht. 1.5m. x Sp. 3m) is first up; this is planted centrally at the back of the border, planting some 12”/30cm away from the foot of the wall. This subtle flowering quince bursts forth with lime flowers buds opening to candle-glow cream petals on bare stems from March to May. You’re going to train this along the wall each year to provide a constant backdrop to the other plants.

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Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Yukigotan’

Next up you’re going to plant Polystichum setiferum (Divisilobum Group) ‘Herrenhausen’ (Ht. 90cm. x Sp. 50cm.)  Our native evergreen soft shield fern offers year round lacy fronds setting off Euphorbia × martinii (Ht. 75cm. x Sp. 75cm) that’s going to be inter-planted slightly to the front of the ferns in the gaps. It has eye-catching architectural chartreuse-green flower bracts from March to July. Intersperse both the ferns and euphorbia with Digitalis purpurea ‘Pam’s Choice’ (Ht. 1.5m. x Sp. 45cm) a tall stately white-flowered foxglove with a maroon-splashed centre, that flowers from May to July.  

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Polystichum setiferum, Euphobia x martinii, Digitalis purpurea ‘Pam’s Choice’

To the front mid- centre of the border we’re planting our ‘workhorse’ plants en-bloc to provide great foliage and enduring flowers. Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’  (Ht. 55cm. x Sp. 55cm) has dramatic white ghostly foliage, etched with deep green veining and incredibly pretty sprays of dainty blue flowers from March to May. Cut the leaves back in midsummer when they start looking a little tired and you’ll be rewarded with fresh foliage – another device for extending our flower display past spring. Plant Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’ (Ht. 60cm. x Sp. 45cm) to the far right and left front of the border as it’s pretty much a year-rounder with pleasing leafy mounds of foliage and powder blue flowers from May to September. It will take over as the Brunnera flowers fade.

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Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ and Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’

To add dramatic accent colour, you’re going to under-plant both the brunnera and geranium with your choice of the tulip bulbs this coming November (OK, so they won’t be out this year, but you’re layering the border for oncoming seasons.) Try the brooding claret-black blooms of Tulipa ‘Black Hero’ (Ht. 60cm. x Sp. 10cm) or the fresh white frayed flowers of Tulipa ‘Spring Green’ (Ht. 50cm. x Sp. 10cm) both flowering in May. Scatter them from the middle towards the front of the bed and plant them where they fall for a natural effect.

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Tulipa ‘Balck Hero’ and ‘Spring Green’




Credit: Lucy Summers 

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