The daunting herbaceous border
Often seen as the pinnacle of gardening achievement, the much vaunted herbaceous border leaves many gardeners, if you’ll forgive me, rather daunted.
The highly prized high summer flowering bonanza with a pomp and circumstance the like of which is unrivalled at any other time in the gardening year can seem challenging all right.
This is particularly true when your benchmark can be seen in some of the magnificent gardens around the country peacocking their 40m dual borders astride immaculate lawn walkways.
It is true that the plant combinations used, height, colour, form and the skill and technicality involved are never more considered than on show here but it is also true that for most of us the scale and intricacies of these borders bear little relation to what we hope to replicate in our own gardens.
The history of the herbaceous border dates back needless to say to those Victorians and in particular a man named William Robinson.
Tired of the endless bedding plant displays and on the back of the many new species being brought back from around the world at the time, he took inspiration from the traditional cottage gardens and championed a new style of planting.
Needless to say this became the de rigueur and the rest, as they say, is history.
The herbaceous border is broadly planted with soft stemmed plants that are perennial, meaning they come back every year, but many of which die back to ground level every year.
This is opposed to shrub borders planted with woody stemmed plants and mixed border that combine both. Ironically I find the herbaceous border a little too flowery for my tastes and in many gardens the mixed border is the more practical for a whole host of reasons.
This doesn’t stop me enjoying herbaceous borders but I am glad I can take them away as a memory, walk away and leave them behind.
My general perennial piece of gardening advice to anyone who is prepared to listen is: don’t try to start too big and if you like it then it’s not wrong. This is never more true than with herbaceous borders.
When selecting a location for your border ideally site it in a sunny sheltered position. Also important is that it doesn’t contain nasty perennial weed types that send runner roots under the soil.
Horse or mare’s tail, bindweed, ground elder, scutch or couch grass and colts foot are classic examples of weeds you don’t want in your herbaceous border as they invade the root system of the plants and are virtually impossible to get out.
The only hope you have is to lift the plant in the winter and literally pick out the plant from the weed roots, sometimes washing all of the soil away to do this.
Regular hand weeding is also a good idea as spraying near herbaceous plants can be disastrous as they are much more susceptible to spray drift than a shrub.
Herbaceous plants in particular like an open soft soil so cultivate well when planting incorporating plenty of organic matter.
Try to stay off the ground when wet to reduce surface compaction. An organic mulch spread after planting will help with this also. Feed every year with a general garden fertiliser by top dressing.
For an easy herbaceous border select plants that don’t require staking, are not invasive, are long flowering and don’t require regular lifting and dividing. Bear in mind heights as you want tall plants to the back sloping down to lower plants towards the front. As for colours ? like I said you can’t be wrong.
Some suggestions. For some tall foliage impact and flowers, Melianthus major, Solanum lacinatum, Macleaya ‘Kelways coral plume’ and Ligularia przewalskii.
For grassy foliage and flowers Agapanthus varieties, Dierama pulcherrimum and Hemerocallis. Daisy flowers, Rudbeckia, Helenium and Anthemis. Transparent plants, Verbena bonariensis, Gaura ‘Whirling Butterflies’ and Stipa gigantica.
Roses and Dahlias work well within the herbaceous border as do Penstemon, Scabiosa and repeat flower geraniums.
Woody lavender can also be used dispite not being herbaceous, you don’t have to be strict anyway, L. angustifolia is short and a good edging plant L. X Intermedia is much taller and can be worked in among the medium-sized plants.
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