If the Christchurch Botanic Gar­dens is the city’s crown­ing glory, then its herba­ceous bor­der is the jewel in the crown, and its cu­ra­tor for the past 15 years, David Bar­wick, the Peter Fabergé of the Pa­cific.

NZ Gardener - - Content -

Mary Lovell-Smith fo­cuses on the Botanic Gar­dens’ herba­ceous bor­der.

The bor­der, an im­pres­sive 165m by 6m, has been lauded as the finest in the south­ern hemi­sphere of­ten dur­ing its 92 years.

When it was laid out in 1926, it re­placed a mixed bor­der of trees and shrubs with rib­bons of peren­ni­als and other flow­ers run­ning through. Con­ceiv­ably, it aroused a cer­tain cu­rios­ity among the cit­i­zens as it would have been novel. As David ex­plains, although herba­ceous bor­ders date to the late 1800s in Eng­land, Europe and the US, “New Zealand was a bit be­hind the times.”

He says that the rise of the bor­der and its sub­se­quent pop­u­lar­ity through­out Western gar­dens was helped by cheap labour (the bor­ders are labour in­ten­sive) and the ready avail­abil­ity of plants. Since the 1700s, plants had been flood­ing into Europe from around the globe; by the 1800s, “they were com­ing out of the grand es­tates and into mass pro­duc­tion”.

A herba­ceous bor­der is, by def­i­ni­tion, a bor­der filled with herba­ceous plants, pre­dom­i­nantly peren­ni­als, usu­ally aided and abet­ted by some bulbs and grasses. Be­yond that, there are no hard and fast rules – apart, that is, from cre­at­ing a mag­nif­i­cent dis­play!

The Botanic Gar­dens bor­der changes along its length in re­sponse to the vary­ing soil and amounts of sun.

The east end is pro­tected from cool east­er­lies by the old Robert Mc­Dougall Art Gallery and the Christ’s Col­lege build­ing. Ma­ture trees fend off the cold souther­lies. “It’s a sun­trap and can get very hot in sum­mer in the af­ter­noons,” says David. Here, the soil is light, of­ten sandy and free-drain­ing.

The pre­dom­i­nant plants have vi­brant hot-coloured flow­ers and are mainly from Mex­ico, South Amer­ica and South Africa. These in­clude red-hot pok­ers, cro­cos­mias, salvias, geums and can­nas. Some pale colours ap­pear, the likes of artemisias, whose soft sil­very fo­liage are used to break up the hot hues. Over­hang­ing trees in the ad­ja­cent shrub­bery cre­ate pools of shade, so David uses a red-leaved lysi­machia and Euphor­bia ‘Fire­glow’, which like damp shade yet still fit in with the hot colour scheme.

David talks about craft­ing the colours, of “in­cre­men­tally mod­i­fy­ing the bor­der ev­ery year, chip­ping away at it”, of see­ing a colour scheme that doesn’t quite work and chang­ing it.

Other changes are for prag­matic rea­sons.

The tall, brightly coloured can­nas used to sit at the back of the bor­der but David has had to move them to the front af­ter le­gions of tourists would tram­ple over plants to be pho­tographed with them. David blames this rel­a­tively re­cent phe­nom­ena on cell­phones and dig­i­tal cam­eras.

Half­way down the bor­der is the sun­dial. Be­yond it, the soil is heav­ier – a silty loam. Over­all tem­per­a­tures are lower, it gets frosts and Dou­glas firs shade it in win­ter. Con­se­quently, it more re­sem­bles a tra­di­tional English bor­der.

“West of the sun­dial starts off with prairie flow­ers, such as phloxes, crambes, eu­phor­bias, Trades­cantia vir­gini­ana,” David says. “These gen­er­ally have softer colours – blues, pur­ples, mauves, cream, softer yel­lows, but also some hot colours.”

At the western end of the bor­der, wood­land plants do best – the likes of thal­ic­trum, Solomon’s seal, rodger­sia, astilbes and hostas. “There will be asters in sunny patches sprin­kled along the bor­der. If things sulk or get too hot they are moved. There are no hard and fast rules… be­cause of the na­ture of herba­ceous bor­ders, plants are al­ways on the move.”

It is not just about flower colour or plant size ei­ther.

Leaf shape, shade and tex­ture must also be con­sid­ered in the over­all look.

David main­tains the bor­der mainly alone but has help from vol­un­teers and staff at busy times, such as in au­tumn and early win­ter when plants are di­vided and re­planted, and in early spring when the first flush of weeds come through. The qui­etest time is the dead of win­ter, “when you wouldn’t want to split and re­plant as they would rot.” Sum­mer, too, is quiet. “The weeds are un­der con­trol… though you may get the odd sow this­tle.”

Den­sity of plant­ing helps con­trol weeds but too much in­ter­min­gling of dif­fer­ent species is gen­er­ally frowned upon in bor­der main­te­nance. More vig­or­ous va­ri­eties may get “a spade around the edges” to stop them spread­ing.

The en­tire bed has a layer of com­mer­cial com­post spread over it in win­ter (the Gar­dens no longer makes its own) – all that is added in the way of feed. David says too much fer­tiliser means the plants grow too fast, be­come floppy and need stak­ing. Like­wise, sin­gles pre­dom­i­nate as dou­bles tend to need stak­ing.

Bor­der fans will say any­time is good to visit it. David may agree but says it re­ally looks its best in Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary. He loves it, too, in spring, when new shoots are pok­ing through the soil, and the leaves un­furl in fresh per­fec­tion. It’s not such a good look in win­ter though. “We don’t have the hoar frost to cre­ate that won­der­ful win­ter won­der­land ef­fect, but I do leave some seed­heads for the birds.”

Christchurch Botanic Gar­dens’ herba­ceous bor­der.

Plant­ings are dic­tated by soil and sun.

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