Designing the Ornamental Border

Ornamental gardening is, by its very nature, a show.You are the designer, producer and director of this show. You need to make sure that all of your plants appear and flower on time, that they look good together and that the show lasts for as long as you had planned. Having looked at assessing your site during the last session we’re going to be looking at plotting and designing the border during this session.

The hardest part of  any design is deciding what to plant. If you have a style or theme in mind this is likely to guide you but there are still an enormous number of possible species out there. Starting at this time of year your choices, if you want to plant a border next year, are going to be limited to plants that you can grow from seed or rhizome in the early part of next year. Actually, that’s probably an advantage. It narrows your choices and you can have a border full of colour for the price of a few packets of seeds.

Our gate borders in 2015, designed by Kate Sebag, were composed mostly of plants grown from seed

Helianthus annuus, Cosmos bipinatus, Verbena bonariensis, Cleome hassleriana, Ipomea nil, Salvia patens, Tropaeolum majus, Ammi Majus, Tanacetum parthenium, Gaura lindheimeri, Quamoclit Lobata, Amaranthus caudatus, Eschscholzia californica, and Rudbeckia hirta were the main floral components and were arranged in two opposing borders each with a colour theme. There are more species per square metre than in the walled garden.

As you can see from the photo the plants are mixed up and tumble over one another and there’s a gentle increase in height from front to back. it’s a riot of colour but the tonal range is controlled and is harmonious. The border develops over time as the plants have varying flowering time producing a display from May to November.

You can produce all sorts of annual borders from seed including bee or butterfly gardens, herb gardens, cottage gardens and meadows. If I have any guidance for you it would be to follow the work of James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett. Look at Hitchmough’s ‘Merton Border’ at Oxford Botanic Garden here. This will lead naturally to the work of Piet Oudolf, Tom Stuart Smith and Dan Pearson. (Remember, you need to prepare your soil now!).

This year the recommended book is Dream Plants for the Natural Garden. All the plants on our list are featured in this book and it also tells you the things you need to know about the plant to begin planning. The key things are these

Height: in general border planting is raked from front to back – tall things at the back

Spread: how wide will the plant grow? By when? What spacing do you need?

Colour: not just flowers but leaves and seeds as well

Season: when does it start, flower and seed?

Foliage: Evergreen or deciduous?

Form: is it coarse like the Tithonias or filmy like the Cosmos?

Habit: is it a climber? A clumper? Bushy or upright? Does it sucker?

Soil: will it grow in your conditions?

Hardyness: Will it survive the winter?

You need to know all this because the next step is to try to organise your plants on a scale drawing of your plot. This might sound hard but it’s really useful as you can see how many of each plant you’re going to need. A good place to start is by looking at other peoples’ garden plans.

Here’s the plan for the Oudolf field at Hauser and Wirth in Somerset. Click the picture to enlarge
Oudolf field plan click again to enlarge even more

This year we are going to be concentrating on a palatte of 100 perennials, many of which are included in this meadow design. We looked last time at the possibility of using pre-mixed seed as we did last year for our own perennial meadow. The mix in that case was Romantic Ruins from Nidel Dunnett’s firm Pictorial Meadows. These mixes were originally developed for the public realm but have also proved popular with private gardeners. It’s certainly not too late to plant a completely seeded border now. But you’ll need to get on with soil preparation now. A PM meadow requires a completely weed-free bed with a 5cm mulch of sterile compost. However many of you will want to have more input into your own designs than pre-mixed seeds.

Try this link for a selection of other garden designs. Some horticultural suppliers publish plans that you can adapt such as this one from Norfolk herbs for a bee and butterfly scented border. Remember, though that Norfolk herbs want to sell you the plants. This border grown from seed would be pretty thin in the first year.

Look at how many plants they are using. The walled garden has a density of 1 species per 2 sq. m. The gate border has a density of 1 species per sq.m. – almost double the density. But notice that both borders use groups of at least 3 plants for each species. There are almost no single plants. For those with the required self-restraint read this Guardian article about planting in ‘drifts’.

There’s no rush about this as you are not going to be planting any seeds until early March. Keep lists of plants you like and their characteristics. Put your plants on your plan using a tracing overlay and work in pencil so you can revise easily. We’ll be looking again at the walled garden plan on Sunday and you’ll see how there are a variety of versions and quite an enormous amount of rubbing out and re-positioning. As we mentioned last time we are encouraging you to experiment and it’s easy and cheap to experiment on paper. We’ll be looking at different plants over the December and January sessions as well as on Sunday as this is a really big subject.

It’s important to know where you are in the planning cycle. By the time the top photo above had been taken in August we were already conducting walk-thru reviews of the border and agreed any changes we wanted to make by mid September. We already know what the basic border will look like for 2018 although there are still a few decisions to be made about next year’s annual planting. The need to grow on stock means that delivering your border can be a slow process.

On the practical front we’ll be remmoving Cannas – more on this in the session. We’ll be taking great care not to compress the soil by treading on it. If you need to get into the border, use boards. Taking care of your plot once it’s cultivated is going to be a consistent theme throughout this workshop.

Happy Gardening!

 

 

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