Flowers in the Garden – Herbaceous and Mixed Borders

flowers in the garden - herbaceous borders

If trees and shrubs are the furniture, then flowers are the soft furnishings and the lawn is the carpet. No one should worry unduly about arrangement and colour schemes as most colours in nature go together. The green of the foliage is always a saving grace and if you  want a garden to look like a painter’s brush rag, why not? Whatever you enjoy most is the important factor to consider.

Herbaceous and Mixed Borders

I look back rather nostalgically on the last really big herbaceous border that I designed and planted. It was some 98yd long and 7yd wide and was a real show piece backed by a mellow brick wall. The border was fronted with a red shale path, 6ft wide, and edged with grey lavender and santolina on the other side. Such a border is virtually a full-time job for one man. What with the staking, tying, thinning and dead-heading, a true herbaceous border takes quite a lot of attention. To the purist, the term herbaceous means herbaceous perennials, but strictly speaking herbaceous plants include annuals and also bulbs and dahlias.

For the ordinary garden, my own opinion is that a mixed border, which includes flowering shrubs as well as the whole range of spring and summer bedding plants and bulbs, is a far better proposition. Such a border provides colour for the whole of the year and there is no reason why such subjects as heaths cannot be included too. One advantage of herbaceous perennials is that with few exceptions they all enjoy the same type of soil and there is no need, as in a rockery, to provide pockets for lime haters or lime lovers. A few plants, such as the perennial scabious, require extra lime but such pockets may be localised and treated separately after planting.

Generally speaking, the same sort of treatment that would be given to a vegetable garden can be given when preparing the herbaceous border. Great play is often made of preparing the ground, but this is only of real importance when a new garden is being made or when a particularly bad site is being prepared. For convenience, herbaceous or mixed borders usually bound one or both sides of a lawn. But, where the garden is large enough, a central border which can be viewed on both sides makes a striking feature, and even an island site can be used to advantage. From the point of view of drainage and for setting off the plants it is desirable to raise the border slightly higher than the adjoining lawn or path and, better still, to slope it from back to front. A border which is planted regularly with tall subjects at the back sloping down to dwarf subjects at the front, looks too much like an exhibit at a flower show and is extremely artificial. A certain amount of thought and skill is necessary for the satisfactory arrangement of plants in borders. Most catalogues carry plans of suggested arrangements which will be found invaluable to the beginner.

The life of a border depends entirely on how it is cared for. A garden border which is planted and left may need lifting and dividing in about four years, but a well-maintained one can go on for twelve or fifteen years. I prefer to treat and replant the border piecemeal rather than to dig everything up and start all over again. The actual planting and preparing of a border is a straightforward common sense job, and no great quantity of manure or fertiliser need be added; I prefer annual topdressing to a heavy initial application. My own suggestion is to use a barrow load of well-rotted manure or compost per 4 sq yd and to supplement this with 2oz or a good handful of raw bonemeal and 4oz basic slag per sq yd. This should be well mixed into the soil and the whole well trodden before and during planting.

The sort of thing I had in mind when I talked of piecemeal renovation was the regular division of strong rampant growers such as Michaelmas daisies and heleniums. Good varieties of lupins I prefer to propagate each year and replant when necessary. In a large border I prefer to plant in groups rather than clumps. I would like to illustrate this more fully. A clump of Michaelmas daisies requiring division is lifted and the soil shaken off. This invariably leaves a depression which should be topped up with a barrow load of soil from the vegetable garden, a little bonemeal and rotted manure added and well trodden in. Good individual rosettes with two or three growths are selected from the outside of the clump and planted 9 in. apart. In a large border there may be ten to twelve such clumps, in a small border three to five or seven. Each of these clumps grows outwards eventually to form a large ornamental and striking group. In the case of lupins and delphiniums, which begin to deteriorate after about four years, cuttings are regularly taken in the spring. The young ones are planted close to, but not actually on, the site of the old plant. For example, there may be three delphiniums in a group adjacent to a clump of phlox. Some of the phlox may be removed and the young delphiniums placed nearby. Cuttings or divisions of phlox go into the reserve border and when the old delphiniums are taken up the new phlox plants are put in their place. This means a certain amount of juggling with space and materials, but although it sounds rather complicated, in practice it is not too much trouble. This treatment keeps the border perennially young and any replanting of a particular type or variety is given a different site. This is for two reasons; exhaustion of the soil by particular plants and the possible incidence of pests or diseases.

flowers in the garden - herbaceous borders In a mixed border I like to reserve spaces for such things as dahlias and chrysanthemums and certain well-defined bays in the front of the border for annuals, spring and summer bedding and plots of bulbs, so that there is colour all through the year. I am not averse to using shrubs in such a mixed border and like to employ certain of the less-sprawling shrub roses. The so-called pillar roses, which are a compromise between the rambler and an ordinary bush-type rose, make wonderful columns. So do sweet peas which, if strategically placed, make a splendid splash of colour. In my opinion, such a border is more colourful, far less trouble and requires less annual material  than a series of beds devoted entirely to bedding plants. Clumps of annuals may be sown direct and at different times of the year, even as late as the end of June, to produce masses of beautiful fresh colour when the rest of the border is beginning to look a bit tatty. Generally not enough late sowing is done; it is usually one good do which uses up all the packets and results in half the plants being wasted. Far better to make three sowings, and this can easily be done from the same quantity and number of packets.

Nowhere in the garden is there such a concentration of roots and such intensive cultivation as in the herbaceous or mixed border. Yet far too often the plants themselves receive very little in the way of food. It is just as easy to apply manure and fertilisers to the surface of a herbaceous border as it is between the rows in the kitchen garden. The amount needed is comparatively small and the applications are spaced over a season. For example, three light dressings of Growmore fertilizer or fishmeal hoed in during the summer, followed by a regular autumn dressing of some organic matter, whether it be – best of all – well-rotted manure, well-rotted compost or a favourite mix made up of peat and fertiliser. A good standby topdressing for shrubs and herbaceous plants is to mix 30lb of Growmore with a bale of peat. Break down the peat, damp it and then incorporate the fertiliser thoroughly and apply this at the rate of about 1 to 1-1/2 lb per sq yd to the whole of the border.

Herbaceous borders, mixed borders and shrub borders should never be dug. After shortening back the tops and taking out the weeds, the topdressing should be applied and the whole surface lightly pricked over to a depth of about 2 in with a fork. For this sort of job I like to use either a flat-timed border fork or a five-tined curved Cheshire fork, so that despite the shallow depth the whole surface can be completely inverted, burying the weeds and weed seeds. Where bulbs are used in the border tulips can be lifted in the normal way as  with ordinary spring bedding, but daffodils can be allowed to remain provided they are marked to avoid danger of skewering them during the autumn prick-over of the border.

27. September 2010 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Flower Gardens, Gardening Ideas | Tags: , | Comments Off on Flowers in the Garden – Herbaceous and Mixed Borders


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