Garden structure – the surprising reason why some borders look brilliant and others don’t
Garden structure means the permanent elements of your garden, and how they relate to each other.
It’s the paths, pots, walls, fences, arches, arbours and pergolas. It’s the trees and evergreen hedges – all the elements left when plants die back for the winter.
But this isn’t just about how your garden looks in winter.
Good garden structure is the surprising reason why some borders really seem to pop, while others appear to flop. It makes a huge difference to how your plants and flowers look in summer.
I visited Cloudehill, a Diggers Club garden, to talk to Cloudehill’s owner, Jeremy Francis, about the cool and hot borders.
When I saw the borders, I realised that their success was not just about the planting. It also due to the way the borders are anchored by paths, pots, evergreens and arches. ‘We started with the structure,’ said Jeremy.
Start with what you already have
Most of us inherit some structure when we move into a new house and garden. It’ll save you money to work with what you have already.
And a mature tree or an old wall anchors a garden. It makes it feel established.
At Cloudehill, all Jeremy had were the trees. It had been an old nursery, but hadn’t been trading for a couple of decades. So everything was very overgrown.
But there were some stunning mature trees, which had been imported from around the world in the early part of the 20th century.
Cloudehill is in the Dandenong mountain ranges, near Melbourne in southern Australia. The climate is almost similar to that of the UK and I recognised many plants that I grow in my own garden. But, of course, garden structure goes beyond weather, climate or zone.
Jeremy retained many of the mature trees. They give the garden presence and help shade the borders when the summer gets very hot. Trees are good for wildlife and their roots help anchor the soil, especially on a slope.
However, if you’re working on a garden that has lots of structure from the past, then see this garden with ‘a sense of place’. It’s a town garden behind a Victorian house in the seaside town of Margate. The owner has designed the garden around the old garden sheds, walls and floors and even what he can see over the garden wall.
Hard landscaping – the heart of garden structure
Cloudehill had no hard landscaping because it had never been a garden. Jeremy started with the area nearest the house and worked outwards from there.
He has split the gardens up into garden rooms. As the garden spreads further away from the house, it gradually becomes less formal, with less hard landscaping.
When you enter Cloudehill, the hot and cool borders are the first part of the garden you enjoy. This is also the part with the most hard landscaping and structure. The borders are anchored by a brick path.
You go down a set of steps into the ‘hot border’, which is 20m long. At the other end are steps, leading up to an arch.
Go through the arch to a round terrace with a large pot. This separates the hot and the cool borders. Then there is another arch with steps down to the 40m ‘cool borders’. This, too, ends in an arch through to the next part of the garden.
The arches lead the eye through and tempt you to explore. And the path is a structured counterpoint to the billowing borders.
Improve the structure of your border with pots
Not all garden structure is permanent. You can achieve a great deal with pots.
I particularly liked how pots were used as punctuation points to the hot and cool borders at Cloudehill. A series of identical pots stood at regular intervals along both sides of the borders.
The pots were planted up simply, often with architectural plants, such as phormium.
It’s worth thinking about whether you want your pots to add structure in this way. It’s different from using them to add colour and movement to your garden.
At Cloudehill, there are also are pots planted with flowers and trailing plants. But these are against plain evergreen hedges, marking the start to the borders, not part of the borders themselves.
You can use pots either to add flower colour to a border that’s looking empty or with evergreens to add structure. It depends on what you want to achieve. There are some good ideas in 5 ways to use garden planters.
And there are evergreen plant suggestions in 10 easy care evergreen pots.
Think about colour in the hard landscaping
In a domestic garden we may not always be able to add our structure all at once. We might start with a path, then add a pergola or pots when we could afford it.
However, it can help if you have a theme or colour to pull it all together. At Cloudehill, the borders have warm terracotta bricks and pots.
What evergreen structure adds to a border
The borders at Cloudehill are planted in front of evergreen hedges.
In fact, they’re beech hedges, so they’re not always exactly green. In colder climates, beech and hornbeam leaves die and go brown in winter. But the plant holds onto most of the leaves until the new foliage arrives in spring. So they are effectively evergreens.
Hedges make a good backdrop to a flower border. At Doddington Place Gardens, yew forms an evergreen backdrop to the Sunk Garden herbaceous borders. In 6 perennial flowers that bloom all summer, you can see how effective that is.
At Cloudehill, there is also evergreen structure planted in the hot borders. Three Chinese plum yews, cut in sculptural shapes, are planted on either side of the hot borders.
How much evergreen structure to add is a question of personal taste. For example, Roger Lloyd created his garden almost wholly out of evergreens. It looks dramatic and is easy to look after.
Foliage contrast – part of the garden structure?
Foliage contrast is more ‘structural’ than flowers are because foliage lasts longer.
But good foliage contrast isn’t always evergreen. At Cloudehill, there were some wonderful combinations using dark red smokebush (Cotinus coggyria ‘Grace’) and a citrusy yellow-green Ninebark (Physocarpus ‘Angel’s Gold).
If you’re having trouble getting plants to flower…
Sometimes even a carefully planned border fails to flower as it should. So I asked flower farmer Sue Oriel of Country Lane Flowers to tell me the 6 most common reasons why garden plants fail to flower. And she’s also explained how to fix each one!
More brilliant border inspiration
This post is part of the Brilliant Borders series, where I interview top garden experts about their borders. For the start of my step-by-step border re-vamp, see Brilliant Garden Border Inspiration. Here is how to create an outstanding perennial border. And award winning head gardener Tom Brown has 12 tips for creating stunning garden borders here.
And see here for advice on the best time to plant perennials and filling gaps in the border from Henry Macaulay of Marchants Hardy Plants.
And there’s a free Beautiful Borders Planning Checklist, which you can download here.
Pin to remember garden structure in your borders
And do join us – see here for a free weekly email with more gardening tips, ideas and inspiration.