How to plant a border like a pro
It’s time to plant a border.
A whole border. I’m not just going to stuff a few plants into the current bed. I’m starting again from scratch.
Of course, I dream of glorious borders bursting with colour. I see them on TV programmes, in magazines, in professionally-run gardens…
But how can we achieve those brilliant, beautiful borders in our own gardens?
So I’ve been picking the brains of professional gardeners and have asked them how to plant a border.
This is what you need to know:
1) Show gardens aren’t real
They’re there to give you ideas and inspiration, not for you to copy.
Show garden borders are like the fashion pages of a magazine. They are stuffed full of plants that have been prinked and perked to perfection. Only planted for a few days at a time, they’re jammed together and treated as if they’re in intensive care.
If you’re planning to plant a border, don’t worry about whether it will look as good as a show garden. That’s not real gardening. It’s show-time. Enjoy it.
2) How to plant a border from scratch
Think about the width and density of the plants as well as their height. This is particularly important when you are planting a border from scratch.
Borders used to be planted with the tallest plants at the back. You put towering 6ft blooms at the back and tiny 6″ flowers at the front.
Now it’s fashionable to have most of the planting at the same height.
Whichever you choose, you need to give your plants the space to grow sideways. If the label says that the width is ultimately 30cm, you need to make sure it has 15cm on either side before you plant its mate.
But also think about how airy or dense each plant is, before you plant a border. I planted some phlox in the middle of my new border, with some verbascum behind.
‘You need the phlox towards the back,’ said garden consultant Posy Gentles. ‘It’s a very dense plant. Whereas the verbascum is a bit taller but it’s airy so you can see through it.’
Now I know why I never felt my penstemons looked right. They were no higher than the plants around them, but they sat in a solid chunk. They didn’t flow into the planting around them. I think I’d have liked them more if they’d been on the middle or at the back, rather than looming over the front and blocking everything behind them.
But you don’t find anything out about plant density on the label. If you buy your plants from a nursery, you should be able to find someone who knows about horticulture who will help you.
Or Google ‘plant name + images)’. Some of the pictures will show the whole plant.
3) How to plant a perennial border
Many perennials take more than a year to reach their best.
I’ve often bought plants from a nursery or garden centre, then been disappointed with their performance. But many herbaceous perennials won’t look their best the year you plant them.
They’ll be better next year. After that they’ll go on looking good for a few years. So don’t be discouraged if they don’t look interesting when you buy them.
My acanthus mollis ‘rue Ledan’, for example, has taken three years to find its feet, but it looks as if it’s going to be lovely this year.
4) So fill your gaps with border annuals.
There’s a huge amount of snobbery about common annuals for borders.
But there are lots of attractive plants that will plump up your borders while the perennials get established. Posy thinks we should look at begonias again, and a massed planting of cosmos always looks fabulous.
Cosmos, antirhinums, nicotiana, gazania, zinnias….annuals are rather colourful. Most also come in white.
5) How many different plants do I need when I plant a border
This tip comes from horticultural and landscaping expert Matt Jackson. ‘Try to keep to just six types of plants when you plant a border,’ he says. ‘This can look very good.’
It’s very difficult to stick to six, but the main point is that drifts or clumps with lots of the same kind of plants are more effective than planting just one or two of each plant.
‘Plant in threes or fives’ is the standard garden advice. Professional gardener Stephanie Wolfe has a pragmatic attitude: ‘I often plant in fours and sixes,’ she says. ‘Because one usually dies.’
6) Look at leaf colour and shape as well as flowers
There’s more about this here, and also on this video.
7) Boring but necessary ‘plant a border’ tips
You need to soak the plants in water in a bucket (or the sink) before planting them.
Arrange your plants (still in their pots) in the border in the pattern you intend to plant them. Change around until you get the effect you want (although that’s more difficult when they are still relatively small).
Dig a hole that is larger than their roots.
Garden author and expert Sarah Raven teases out the roots of plants – or even tears a few tendrils away – so that the plant doesn’t go in with all the roots curling round in its pot shape.
Add some compost or fertiliser. See my post on fertiliser here for more information. Professional gardeners always start by looking after their soil. They add a layer of compost at least once a year. But if a border is crowded, they often add extra fertiliser. And if you’re filling gaps between your perennials with annuals, then they’ll be growing fast and needing extra.
Water well until plants are established. If you have a dry spell or a dry summer, you’ll need to water new plants regularly for the whole season.
8) What is the best time to plant a border?
Autumn and spring are the best times to plant a border.
But the beauty of container-grown plants is that you can plant many of them in the summer as well. If you are planting your border in the summer, make sure that you water it regularly. Your new plants won’t have established their root systems yet.
It’s not generally a good idea to plant a border in the winter. The soil may be too wet or cold.
More about how to plant a border
If you’re time-poor, and want a beautiful garden which doesn’t take too much looking after, see my post on brilliant low-maintenance plants.
And if you have a shady side of your garden, find out why the shady borders are often the easiest to look after and go on looking good for longer.
Add colour and structure when you plant a border by using perennials. And they’re much easier to look after than annuals. To find out more see Alan Titchmarsh’s book How to Garden: Perennial Garden Plants. (note: links to Amazon are affiliate, see disclosure)
If you love the abundant effect of a cottage garden, with loads of colour and texture, then consider self-seeding plants. My 25 best self-seeding plants add so much to my garden! And they’re very little trouble.
And No Dig gardening can be another good way of saving effort in the garden. Here Charles Dowding explains why no dig is easy, weed-free and brilliant for flowers as well as for vegetables.
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