One of the great delights of this time of year, in the run up to spring, is the sight of all the herbaceous borders as they start their annual growth spurt once more. With many of my clients, maintaining these beds for them is a key part of my role as a landscape gardener, so having my hard work resulting in such splendid sights later in the year is a tremendously rewarding experience.
That reward will come later, of course, and for the time being me and my team are busy finishing off our pruning and cutting, making sure that our annual restoration work amongst these borders will bear fruit. That involves cutting away last year’s dead growth, weeding the soil to make sure there are no unwelcome intruders, and making sure that the plants aren’t getting overcrowded, where too many root systems can compete for water and in more extreme cases stop the plants getting enough moisture from the soil.
We are also in the midst of planning a new herbaceous border in a modern walled garden for a client. Taking inspiration from the famed cottage gardens pioneered by Gertrude Jekyll, it is advisable to mix the perennials with a few evergreens sown in amongst them that way, when winter comes and the perennials die back, conserving their energy for the following spring, at least the borders will have some greenery to provide cover for wildlife and prevent the beds looking too bare.
The cottage garden theme is one in which a border is set out to appear ‘deliberately messy,’ and hence more natural. Inspired by the likes of William Morris and born partly out of the Arts and Craft Movement in the 19th century, it is symbolic of a return to Eden, where people would live more in harmony with nature, in contrast to the grand designs of the time where huge estates were being planned to the last detail and entire landscapes were being altered.
To make a border appear ‘deliberately messy’ is somewhat of an illusionary craft. Like a magician, there are simple things you can do that get lost when the border matures and the audience becomes dazzled by the spectacle of colour. Picking the right perennials for their height is an absolutely vital requirement: for this sets the structure of the border and will dictate the final shape. If you get this wrong, then the entire effect can be ruined.
To inspire me, I often examine famous gardens and see what works and what doesn’t. The longest herbaceous border in the world is located in Scotland, at Dirleton Castle, at a staggering 215 metres in length. Whilst that is too far for me to go, there are some hidden gems in Worcestershire. This year, for example, I am determined to make time to go and visit what looks to be an absolute delight just outside Kidderminster, in the village of Stone. A private house opens its gardens to the public from late March to mid-September, and the garden is the creation of the current inhabitants: the Arbuthnotts, who have dedicated 35 years of labour to get it in its current wonderful condition. (I have heard people talk about Stone House Cottage, and I would recommend you make the time for a visit, just as I intend to do this year. The Galloping Gardener has done a wonderful online review of this, that I have included as a link at the bottom of this article).
Herbaceous borders have a somewhat maligned reputation in that they are believed hard to maintain. This is probably something to do with the fact that many such gardens suffered in the first World War, when labourers were called off to fight and the gardens were no longer cared for, such as the famous Lost Gardens of Heligan that serves as a poignant reminder to the potential and talents of those who never came back.
But this doesn’t have to the be the case. And in fact the rewards of a flowering perennial that can provide colour for many months of the year are certainly worth the toil. This is even more the case if you add the evergreens into the mix, such as a buxus Box topiary that is easy to maintain.
In the next few weeks, I will write a blog entry about my favourite plants to include in any herbaceous borders, but in the meantime, let me know what you add to the mix and why.