Reviewing our mixed borders

The Ligularia reniformis were gratifyingly responsive to being dug and divided

The Ligularia reniformis were gratifyingly responsive to being dug and divided

Because I garden extensively, I have a lot of thinking time. Not for me the IPod and little headphones to fill the solitary quietness. I prefer to hear the birds and be aware of all my surroundings while I talk to myself and ponder.

My thinking this week has been coloured by a book I am reading. You will have to wait a little longer for the full discourse on “The Bad Tempered Gardener” by Anne Wareham. I am still digesting the contents but it has certainly focussed my attention on some of my least favourite areas of our garden. I had figured that in one area, the fact that I didn’t enjoy gardening it at all was an indication that all was not well there.

What got me thinking was the oft repeated message in the book that it was better to keep to a more limited plant selection and to shun the bits and bobs effect of one of this and one of that. This particular viewpoint is so much at odds with a great deal that I have written that it has taken some reconciling. I have often bemoaned the boring and limited planting schemes of so many New Zealand gardens and the simple fact is that neither Mark nor I have any interest at all in visiting a garden with a totally restrained use of a very limited number of different plants. Similarly, I have been critical of the ever diminishing range of plants on offer to the home gardener as nurseries continue to refine their production. To us, a garden that is all form and no plant interest is boring. To the author of this book, a garden that is all plant interest and no form is just as bad.

As always, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. And that was what led me to A Revelation. The messy borders and beds I dislike maintaining and sometimes find myself walking past with eyes averted, are frankly messy beds with too many bits and bobs at ground level. The underplanting, in other words. Too often there has been a gap so I have tucked something in to fill the space – and ain’t that the way many of us garden? And all these areas are mixed borders.

The combination of Siberian iris and Bergenia ciliata works very well

The combination of Siberian iris and Bergenia ciliata works very well

Mixed borders are by far the most common method of gardening – planting woody shrubs, maybe trees, and underplanting with herbaceous material and bulbs. I am not a huge fan of this style of gardening, though we have plenty of examples here. They are probably the least successful areas of our garden. But the remedy, I think, lies in revamping that bottom layer of mostly herbaceous material and getting more unity and harmony in managing the combinations.

Not carpet bedding. It is only a short step up the social scale from bedding plants on roundabouts to carpet bedding nepeta (catmint) beneath your roses, or swathes of uninterrupted mondo grass around your topiaried bay trees. It is just as utility and unimaginative, merely in better taste than marigolds.

That is where my thinking, coming from the other end of the spectrum to the author, met up with hers. The magic is in the plant combinations. If you are going to narrow your plant selection, it matters a great deal more which ones you choose and how you put them together.

I am revisiting my intense dislike of mass plantings. I realise now that my out of hand dismissal had much to do with all those Bright Young Landscapers who dominated the garden scene in this country in the decade through to the global financial downturn. Often with big budgets and other people’s gardens, they rejected plantsmanship in favour of form. Lacking any technical knowledge of plants themselves, or indeed any interest in plants beyond their role as soft furnishings, they claimed superior status as they used some of the dullest plants on earth to create gardens which ideally looked the same for twelve months of the year.

The hallmark of good gardens, in my opinion, is the ability to combine both form and detail, which involves thoughtful and original plant combinations. They don’t all have to be wildly unusual plants. One of my successful recent efforts was a cold corner where I used Bergenia ciliata (that is the one with big hairy leaves and pink and white flowers in spring) with deep blue siberian irises. It is unusually restrained for me, but the combination of the narrow upright leaves of the iris and the large but low foliage of the bergenia looks good even without flowers. I hasten to add, I only have about six square metres of this planting. Had I done the entire length of the border the same, it would have been over forty square metres and that I would have found extremely dull.

The same principle of contrast applies to an area where I dug and divided Ligularia reniformis (that is the enormously popular tractor seat ligularia). It was so grateful it romped away and stands large, lush and over a metre tall. With a backdrop of a common plectranthus which has pretty lilac flowers at this time and interplanted with the narrow, upright neomarica, it is simple but pleasing to the eye.

Now my mind is focussed on the messy borders that don’t work. I am pretty sure that if I refine the bottom layer of plantings, that will set off the upper layers. I can’t wait to start.

First up for a revamp

First up for a revamp

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

4 thoughts on “Reviewing our mixed borders

  1. Anne Wareham (@AnneWareham)

    How different can two countries be? In the UK people make gardens by cutting a hole in their lawn, outlined by a wiggly hose and then stuffing into the space created just as many different plants as they can get hold of. And “I only have six square metres of this planting” – a great many UK gardens are just about six square metres..
    This makes me very reluctant to comment, as it makes it very hard to envisage just what your garden may be like. I certainly wouldn’t dispute that the ” hallmark of good gardens is the ability to combine both form and detail, which involves thoughtful and original plant combinations.”
    I’m curious about the idea that a planting of 6 square metres can be stunning but would look dull if a great deal larger. Of course, scale, proportion and the surroundings are vital, but I can’t quite believe that size is the critical factor. Carrying an effect through several months is maybe more the problem? It would look dull perhaps once the spark of the iris flowers or bergenia flowers had gone? A backdrop of good foliage contrast enlivened by a succession of different seasonal highlights would not be dull?
    I wish we were on the spot, discussing these challenges together. They are the absolute heart of exciting gardening – that endless work to produce the scene with the the wow factor.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Simple answer (or so it seems to me) – by extending the planting with oomph to a much larger canvas, then one runs the risk of turning it in to an amenity planting better suited to the public domain. Mark points out to me that our hellebore border is a great deal more than six square metres yet is not boring – but we have inter-planted with various bulbs and the upper layers of specimen shrubs and trees are detailed, all different and each is standing in its own space (not knitting together). The hellebores stand as the only herbaceous perennial knitting the border together. Our natural inclination is to have a highly detailed garden – the challenge is to stop that being bitsy and that is the area where I am working hard to develop better skills. Breathing spaces are one technique, unifying plantings are another but with reservations as above. Still thinking and working through this one but massing the same plants in combination is not a method we choose.

      1. Anne Wareham (@AnneWareham)

        I start with just a small number of different plants as a kind of matrix and unifier then work through the seasons adding highlights.. Except where I began 20 odd years ago and am still living with the bittiness I created in my naive enthusiasm and lack of cash. It’s the highlights generally which by adding detail stop things looking institutional?

        I was thinking about this yesterday and thinking that your mass planting is imagined without context. Gardens need restful uneventful scenes as well as excitment and interest. A large mass planting isn’t anything at all out of context….It’s all about scale, proportion and that essential change of pace?

  2. Abbie Jury Post author

    I think we start from different places – you seem to be thinking from the blank canvas position whereas I start from a very well established, mature garden so the solutions need to be a little different.

    I agree on the need for breathing spaces in gardens. I guess we do it with grass (sometimes lawn), and spaces more than unified plantings. We have the luxury of both (grass that stays green all year round) and plenty of space.

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