As we start year three of this workshop there are some new volunteers and some who attended last year. During the first session we’re going to get to know the border and the characteristics of the site. Later we’ll be doing some thinning and dividing perennials.
This session’s key thought is:
No matter how much you want a plant you cannot make it grow in a place where conditions don’t suit it. To grow great plants gardeners must create the environment where these plants will thrive. This is the secret of gardening.
We’ll be looking at the factors that influence how a garden is designed
What is the border for? Who is it for? How does it relate to the building and to other surrounding spaces? How is the border accessed? How many people will use it at once? This course doesn’t cover hard landscaping but you may need to think about that. For example do you want to raise the beds? Now is the time to plan for tree houses, pergolas, paths and seats. Think also about lighting.
Light: Which way does your border face? How much light does it get overall? Where are the bright spots? Where are the shady spots? You can do very little about the light on your border except perhaps by adding a mirror behind it. This is often a good trick in a small urban garden but probably less appropriate for a more public space. The amount of light you can get to your plants will influence the type of plants you’ll eventually choose to cultivate.
Moisture: How well does your border drain after rain? Does water pool in certain places? Are there any damp spots? Are there any really dry spots? Underneath tree canopies can often be very dry. How far away is the nearest tap? How often could you water your border – if at all..? It’s hard substantially to alter drainage unless you dig new drains. However you can improve moisture retention by improving soil structure with organic material and surface drainage by incorporating grit.
Soil: What sort of soil do you have? Much of London garden soil is a heavy clay-based soil though there are of course variations. Clay soil flocculates into clumps and is easily compressed. Clay holds cold moisture in the winter which can be bad for many rhizomatous and cormous plants. Many London gardens also have soil that is long since exhausted of nutrients. Do the soil test (Sunday). Try to measure the ph of your soil as this matters for certain plants.
There really is no substitute for soil improvement. Now (autumn) is the time to start. Double dig if you can. If your border is intended as a permanent display you should dig as much as you can before planting anything as it will be harder to dig comprehensively once the plants are in. Incorporate as much organic material as you can. If your soil is clay also add grit or grit sand. Every year, mulch the bed in the autumn and again mulch the plants in the spring.
Local microclimate: Numerous topological, natural or architectural features may affect very local conditions. If your garden is in a frost pocket you need to know. If it’s protected from North and East winds it may be able to support more delicate plants. A masonry wall may offer a heat sink that again will support tender plants. Is there a wind vortex created by high adjoining building? You need to have observed your site carefully to understand the hyper-local conditions.
What is the size of your border? How much time do you have to maintain your border? If you have only limited time you need to plan a low maintenance border. BPCG’s ‘Hot!’ border is a high maintenance garden requiring a lot of weeding, watering, feeding and seasonal maintenance. Don’t plan one like this unless you’ve plenty of time. We will deal with strategies for a low maintenance garden in a later session.
Buying stock for a border can be very expensive. Can you acquire the stock you need by other means? Could you find divisions of plants from friends and family? Could you grow some of the plants from seed? What about cuttings?
Gardening is essentially a slow process. Fast gardening is expensive and instant gardening is very expensive. Perhaps your border will take 2 or 3 years to take its shape fully whilst you grow on your stock. You can still fill with cheaply grown annuals whilst you’re waiting. One thing that will help to reduce your costs is setting up a small propagation space.
The greenhouses have a wide range of plants that you could propagate from and you’ll be able to grow several small trays of seedlings in the spring as well as nurture cuttings in the greenhouse.
“Never say you can’t grow something until you’ve killed it at least three times” my dad used to tell me. Gardeners learn by trial and error and it’s OK to make mistakes. It’s especially OK when the plant you are killing hasn’t cost you anything.
If you’re new to gardening you can get to know planning a garden space cheaply and easily using annuals grown from seed. if you’ve already got some perennials or shrubs you’d like to keep try increasing the stock by divisions or cuttings.
We are encouraging you to experiment. If you’re not sure how to do something, just ask.
Design, Theme & Style
So called garden styles have limited use in border design as their meanings aren’t really clear. Styles in modern gardening include ‘Contemporary’, ‘Urban’, ‘Mediterranean’, ‘Exotic’, ‘Wildlife’. The RHS has these pretty broad definitions. However I am struck by the number of people who describe the Hot! Border as ‘exotic’.
A border doesn’t need a theme but a theme often clarifies a design idea. a meadow, a white garden or a prairie creates a planting discipline and is easy to interpret.
Garden designers, their gardens and books are for me an important source of learning and inspiration. From William Robinson to Piet Oudolf there is a vast amount of experimentation and experience available to would-be gardeners. Local libraries can get you these books. BPCG has a small stock.
Every garden is different as are their gardeners. Next month you can describe the border you’d like to plan in these terms. If you don’t have a space in mind, plan for a fantasy space.
Plants in the BPCG Hot! Border (
No longer present)
|Giant Taro||Araceae||SE Asia|
|Cobra Lily||Araceae||S. Asia|
|Arundo||donax||Giant Cane||Poaceae||S Med to Asia|
|Borinda||macclureana||KR # 5177||Poaceae||Tibet|
|Brugmansia||Grand Marnier||Solanaceae||Tropical S America|
|Canna||Wyoming||Cannaceae||Antoine Wintzer USA|
|Cannaceae||C. Sprenger Italy|
|Canna||Richard Wallace||Cannaceae||W. Pfitzer Germany|
|Cannaceae||Peru, Columbia, Costa Rica|
|Cleomaceae||S South America|
|Cuphea||ignea||Mexican Cigar Plant||Lythraceae||Mexico|
|Dahlia||variabilis||Bishop of Dover||Asteraceae||Mexico|
|Dahlia||variabilis||Bishop of Llanduff||Asteraceae||Mexico|
|Dahlia||variabilis||Bishop of Auckland||Asteraceae||Mexico|
|Dahlia||variabilis||Bishop of Oxford||Asteraceae||Mexico|
|Foxtail lily||Xanthorrhoeaceae||E Europe temperate Asia|
|Eucomis||bicolor||Pineapple lily||Asparagaceae||South Africa|
|Kniphofia||uvaria||Ice Queen||Red Hot Poker||Xanthorrhoeaceae||South Africa|
|Melianthus||major||giant honey flower||Melianthaceae||South Africa|
|Poaceae||Japan, Taiwan, Pacific|
|Musa||sikkimensis||Musaceae||India – Sikkim|
|Polystichum||setiferum||Dryopteridaceae||S & W Europe|
|Ricinus||communis||New Zealand Purple||Castor Oil plant||Euphorbiaceae||SE Med to India|
|Ricinus||communis||Carmencita||Euphorbiaceae||SE Med to India|
|Western Cone flower||Asteraceae||NW USA|
|Thalia||dealbata||powdery alligator-flag||Marantaceae||S USA|
|Tithonia||rotundifolia||Torch||Mexican Sunflower||Asteraceae||USA Caribbean|
|Verbena||bonariensis||Verbenaceae||Tropical South America|
|Zantedeschia||aethiopica||Arum Lily||Araceae||South Africa|
|Black Calla Lily||Araceae||S. Africa|