It’s time to rewild your borders
Certain plants help to blur the lines of formal planting and allow your garden to take on a character of its own. Why not let them surprise you, says Ben Pope
As dusk settles on what was a late summer’s day I stroll along a winding gravel path by the side of the drive towards the garden. The air is warm and heavy, still thick with sweet smells and the buzzing of bees. I brush past Calamintha nepeta ‘Blue Cloud’ and Oenothera stricta ‘Sulphurea’, which have self-seeded among planted clumps of Stipa tenuissima and Digitalis parviflora ‘Milk Chocolate’. Informally knitting the display together is Alchemilla mollis, Berkheya purpurea and Dipsacus fallonum. It’s a happy accident – but the combination is pleasing, and one that the bees obviously appreciate.
“Well worth a spot in a border,” I think to myself. The irony is that many of these plants probably started life in a border but seem happier growing in a small patch of gravel, indifferent to the formalities of garden layout. Visually, the escapees and self-seeders work well, softening the hard landscape of the drive and complementing the more structured planting by threading their way back and forth. This relaxed, naturalistic style of planting is so popular now and I’m always looking for good examples of adaptable, boundary-defying plants.
Along with many others, I have come to appreciate what native plants can bring to the garden. As a country, we are becoming more environmentally conscious and aware of the important role our outside spaces have to play. We seek plants with local provenance and use natives in the garden to provide food and shelter for wildlife.
I encourage foxglove ( Digitalis purpurea), sweet rocket ( Hesperis matronalis) and forget-me-not ( Myosotis sylvatica), to establish in my borders. All are native sources of nectar and pollen while adding seasonal colour. Umbels such as angelica ( Angelica sylvestris) and
greater burnet saxifrage ( Pimpinella major) enthusiastically self-seed, filling gaps with their pinnate leaves and sculptural seed heads.
A rich mix
However, this love for natives is not exclusive. Our rich horticultural history provides us with a wealth of plants to choose from, and recent scientific research has shown that non-natives can be just as beneficial to wildlife. Contemporary planting design is all about creating plant communities within our borders – schemes in which natives grow alongside non-natives, creating an ecosystem that promotes the sustainability of the planting itself.
The 2012 Olympic Park in east London is a prime example. Large swathes of what appear to be wild planting gently roll over the undulating landscape that once was derelict. Sections of the park are organised and structurally planted in a naturalistic way to represent the different flora of climatic regions around the world.
Typically, the plants used in this style are tough and strong growing but have a natural aesthetic – in other words, they lend themselves to a loose, informal style: Aronia criniata, Eupatorium maculatum and Persicaria polymorpha are good examples of big and bold plants. Others, such as Rudbeckia triloba, Sanguisorba officinalis and Thalictrum rochebrunianum are softer in habit but like most, are generally pest- and disease-free.
Many are often great self-seeders and happy to grow in proximity to their neighbours, be they flowers like Erigeron annuus and Helenium puberulum or ornamental grasses such as Molinia ‘Transparent’ and Panicum virgatum. Used together, these characteristics make this group of plants easy to incorporate into existing borders, as well as being candidates for more neglected sites.
In various parts of my garden, such as along the periphery, I allow selfseeding to dictate the development of the planting. Here non-natives are mixed with natives, annuals along with biennials and perennials. It is very much an experimental, dynamic process that changes year on year, dramatically affected by both the soil and weather conditions.
Not only do I plant wildflowers in borders but I am also trying nonnatives in wilder areas. For instance, our meadow has become home
to Stipa gigantea and Euphorbia palustris. Both are traditionally found in the herbaceous border, but they sit equally well with “cow parsley” natives such as Anthriscus sylvestris and Daucus carota. I have also added easy-going bulbs: Ornithogalum pyramidale, Allium
(Nectaroscordum) siculum and Gladiolus communis subsp. byzantinus provide flashes of perennial colour that complement the native Geranium pratense and Leucanthemum vulgare. The overall effect enhances the “natural” appearance of the meadow.
Mind the gap
However, the experimentation has gone further. I am always looking for space to grow more plants. It is now the gaps between lawns and borders, along boundaries and buildings that have caught my attention. These provide mini microclimates that, with a bit of planning, can be exploited by careful planting of adaptable, opportunistic plants.
In a grassy sward at the base of a deciduous mixed hedge I have planted Origanum ‘Herrenhausen’ and Kniphofia ‘Bees’ Lemon’, plus plugs of annuals like Tagetes linnaeus and Echium ‘Blue Bedder’, which sit happily with the existing Primula
vulgaris and Succisa pratensis. The semi-shaded base of a wall provides another, yet very different, opportunity. Here, planted in small pockets and then mulched with a soil conditioner, is a collection of nonnatives including Geum ‘Lemon Drops’, Mukdenia rossii ‘Karasuba’,
Bergenia ciliata and Hakonechloa macra. They are pulled together with rambling clumps of London pride ( Saxifraga x urbium), creating a tapestry of interesting foliage and texture that lasts throughout the year.
Like the Olympic Park, these plantings are not static and nor are they complete. In the future I want to experiment more with the addition of bulbs, self-seeding annuals and other perennials. Of course, there will be some failures as well as some successes, but guaranteed there will be excitement and discovery as I continue to bridge the gap between border and wild periphery.
Blurred lines: a mass of perennials in the cottage garden at The Garden House, Devon, top. Ben Pope, left, with dachshund Geoff
Wild at heart: from left clockwise, grasses soften the lines of hedge and path; evening primrose self-
seeds among sea holly; Primula
alpicola, a nonnative, looks wild; grassy verges can be subtly enhanced