The trick to keeping your borders going all the way through to the winter is shopping.
Garden centres report that their peak period for plant purchases is spring, which is why we have a great many gardens that peak early in the year and very few good late gardens. If you want good borders for the whole growing season you need to keep looking – always looking for what’s missing, and then going out to get whatever the border needs.
The Crescent Border at Veddw House spends most of the summer in soft colours, pinks and blues with a touch of magenta from Geranium psilostemon to point it up. I work on the principle of having a limited number of plants that are in flower repeated all the way through the border, to create impact and bring the picture together. One August I was looking critically at the border, trying to put my finger on what was missing, and realised that what was needed was a good sharp yellow to echo the yellow in the rugosa foliage and complement the crimsons, reds and purples that were emerging in rose hips, hydrangeas and the turning foliage.
This is the point where the research starts. I look through garden books, and I visit gardens, nurseries and garden centres to see what is in flower – and to get it, if I can find the right plant in reasonable quantity. Then I put them in straight away, water well and look to see if it hits the spot. Garden centres are frequently the best place to go. Nurseries respond predominantly to the demand for unusual plants, and they can sometimes only provide you with one or two plants of a particular variety. I don’t know how many times I’ve been buying plants in a nursery, trying to get a reasonable number together, only to be told by the nurseryman that I can’t have a particular plant because it’s their stock plant.
However, you can sometimes make numbers up by splitting the plants before you put them in. Garden centres usually have their plants in greater quantity and never object to you clearing them out.You are also not looking for delicate little exquisites: such things do not make a good border. If you fall for one of those, grow it in a pot where you can keep it under your eye, both to enjoy the detail and to care for it. What you need for a border are tough, vigorous plants, which will hold their space against your other tough, vigorous plants. Bear in mind that such plants do not always look their best in pots (indeed, for this reason, some good plants can only be obtained from nurseries, who will be more tolerant about this).
If your plant hunt fails to provide what you need, or funds are tight, you may need to resort to growing from seed. This is clearly a longer term project, but perfection does not, regrettably, always come easily. Autumn can be a good time to start seeds of perennials, as some need exposure to frost in order to germinate.In this case I actually found what I wanted in a nursery, getting my numbers up by having several of two different varieties of helianthus: ‘Lemon Queen’ and H. decapetalus.
I particularly like repeating plants in versions or colours that are not totally identical but still carry the effect. I resolutely stuck to my guns about what I was after, ignoring the complaint by Graham Stuart Thomas, in my bible, “Perennial Garden Plants”: “I cannot write about these with any enthusiasm. Their large daisy flowers are of brilliant yellow; their leaves coarse and rough, the taller varieties have running roots and need staking.” Just what I was after. (I also ignored the staking bit – packing plants in solidly, with no bare earth, means they all support each other. Friendly)
While I was at it I added several Eupatorium purpureum, to pick up the purple and pink of the miscanthus flowers and contrast with the yellow. Of course, this process, while useful, demonstrates my weakness, and consequently the weakness of the border. It is flower orientated. I have a habit now of asking visitors what would improve the garden, and the comment I had on this border was that the bitty leaves and flowers leave no rest for the eye. I began putting big foliage in, and am still working on that: adding hostas, for example. Miscanthus are also good for countering bittiness, the strong vertical of their stems making a good counterpoint, large enough to rise above surrounding plants, then flowering all autumn and winter in sumptuous purples. The flowers of Stipa gigantea contribute a useful mass, too: the feathery flowers of both grasses are quite different from the spotted look of most flowers. Then the treasure of the late border, Sedum ‘Herbstrfreude,’ adds good big chunks of crimson. The other way to add stunning colour late in the season is to grow annuals.
This article first appeared in The English Garden, October 2004