In the first session of this workshop we are going to be looking at the physical environment of the border. This session’s key thought is:

You cannot grow a plant in a place where it doesn’t want to grow. To grow great plants gardeners must create the environment where these plants will thrive. This is the secret of gardening.

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.

H. Greenii in the west borderSite
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.

Brugamansia 'Grand Marnier' in the west borderSoil: 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.

 Canna purpurea in the west borderResource
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.

East borderSkill
“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 white or scented border for example or Shakespearean plants 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

Genus Species Cultivar Common Family Origin
Alocasia odora Araceae SE Asia
Alocasia macrorrhizos Giant Taro Araceae SE Asia
Arisaema griffithii griffithii Cobra Lily Araceae S. Asia
Arundo donax Giant Cane Poaceae S  Med to Asia
Begonia grandis ssp. evansiana BSWJ11188 Begoniaceae Japan
Beschorneria yuccoides Asparagaceae Mexico
Borinda macclureana KR # 5177 Poaceae Tibet
Brugmansia Grand Marnier Solanaceae Tropical S America
Canna Wyoming Cannaceae Antoine Wintzer USA
Canna Musæfolia Grande Cannaceae Herb Kelly Venezuela
Canna Roma Cannaceae C. Sprenger Italy
Canna Richard Wallace Cannaceae W. Pfitzer Germany
Canna Abassadour Cannaceae unknown hybrid
Canna Indica Purpurea Cannaceae Americas
Canna Ehemanii Cannaceae Peru, Columbia, Costa Rica
Canna Stuttgart Cannaceae unknown hybrid
Canna assaut Cannaceae Vilmorin-Andrieux
Capsicum Purple Flash Solanaceae South America
Celosia argentea Cock’s Comb Amaranthaceae Asia
Chasmanth floribunda Iridaceae South Africa
Cleome hassleriana Cleomaceae S South America
Colocasia esculenta Burgundy Stem Taro Araceae Malaysia
Crocosimia Lucifer Iridaceae Africa
Crocosimia Sunglow Iridaceae Africa
Cuphea blepharophylla Lythraceae Mexico
Cuphea ignea Mexican Cigar Plant Lythraceae Mexico
Cuphea llavea  Tiny Mice Lythraceae Mexico
Cyperus papyrus  Papyrus Cyperaceae Africa
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 York Asteraceae Mexico
Dahlia variabilis Honka Surprise Asteraceae Mexico
Echium pinninana Boraginaceae Canaries
Ensete ventricosum Montbilliardii Abyssinian Banana Musaceae Ethiopia+
Ensete ventricosum Abyssinian Banana Musaceae Ethiopia+
Ensete ventricosum Maurelii Musaceae Ethiopia+
Eremurus Cleopatra Foxtail lily Xanthorrhoeaceae E Europe temperate Asia
Eucomis bicolor Pineapple lily Asparagaceae South Africa
Eutrochium maculatum Atropurpureum Joe-Pye weed Asteraceae USA
Gladiolus Baccarat Iridaceae South Africa
Gomphrena globosa bachelor button Amaranthaceae Brazil
Hedychium gardnerianum Kahili Zingiberaceae Himalayas
Hedychium Tara Zingiberaceae Himalayas
Hedychium coronarium mariposa Zingiberaceae Himalayas
Hedychium greenii Zingiberaceae Himalayas
Hedychium coccineum Zingiberaceae Himalayas
Hedychium stenopetalum Zingiberaceae Himalayas
Imperator cylindrica Rubra Japanese bloodgrass Poaceae Asia
Ipomoea lobata Spanish Flag Convolvulaceae Brazil
Kniphofia uvaria Ice Queen Red Hot Poker Xanthorrhoeaceae South Africa
Lobelia cardinalis Campanulaceae Americas
Matteuccia struthiopteris Onocleaceae Temperate North
Melianthus major giant honey flower Melianthaceae South Africa
Miscanthus floridulus Poaceae Japan, Taiwan, Pacific
Musa sikkimensis Musaceae India – Sikkim
Passiflora caerulea Passifloraceae South America
Plectranthus scutellarioides Coleus Lamiaceae SE Asia
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
Rudbeckia occidentalis Western Cone flower Asteraceae NW USA
Salvia involucrata Lamiaceae Mexico
Tetrapanax papyrifer Rex  Rice-paper Plant Araliaceae Taiwan
Thalia dealbata powdery alligator-flag Marantaceae S USA
Tithonia rotundifolia Torch Mexican Sunflower Asteraceae USA Caribbean
Verbena bonariensis Verbenaceae Tropical South America
Xanthosoma sagittifolium Cocoyam Araceae Tropical Americas
Zantedeschia aethiopica Arum Lily Araceae South Africa
Zantedeschia rehmannii Black Calla Lily Araceae S. Africa