Tag Archives: herbaceous borders

Found! Our summer garden.

Gardening is usually a gentle activity in emotional terms. We may feel irritation, pleasure, satisfaction, disappointment or similar feelings. The feeling of sheer panic is probably largely limited to those gardening to deadlines with either an opening date for the public or a garden-based event. Occasionally, I feel real joy. I wrote about the feeling of joy in December 2016, down in our meadow. By joy, I mean the rare times when my heart sings.

It was back in 2009 when I wrote about our quest to get to grips with summer gardens. We do very good spring gardens throughout New Zealand but by summer, most people’s thoughts turn to beaches and barbeques. With a predominantly woodland garden here, our garden in summer was certainly lush, green and restful but not exactly vibrant.

A decade on and I looked at my herbaceous borders this week, and my heart sang. “Yessss!” I thought. “We do actually have a summer garden at last.” A colleague and friend visited this week and was suitably gobsmacked. “When you said you wanted to do herbaceous borders,” he said, “I thought …” I can’t remember what he said he thought but it was along the ‘yeah nah. Unlikely. They’ll learn. It’ll never happen,’ sort of thing. It was very affirming to impress a professional colleague of similar experience level to us. These borders are now at what I call the ‘tweaking stage’. Altering the bits that don’t quite work. Were I more high-falutin’, I would describe this as ‘editing’ (the current term) or maybe fine tuning. But every day, these borders bring me great personal pleasure.

Lily border to the left, caterpillar garden metamorphosing to the right

On the other side of this area (with the yet to be planted Court Garden in between) is what Mark calls the caterpillar garden. That is because he drew inspiration from a piece on BBC Gardeners’ World where leading UK designer, Tom Stuart Smith, was clipping established buxus plants into his trademark undulating forms redolent of a caterpillar. We don’t do buxus here, so Mark planted out the basic structure in the dwarf camellia species C. minutiflora. For the shape, he drew inspiration from the basket fungus which is based on five-sided shapes. So what we have are eight enclosed pentagons with bays to the side, making 23 different garden sections. Mark’s vision was of tall plants billowing out of the enclosed centres with lower plants filling all the side sections – all in shades of blues, whites and lilacs. It fell to me to fill in all the blank spaces. It is coming together. Most of the planting was done by last summer but because the camellias giving the basic form were poor, hungry specimens kept too long in the nursery (I have no idea how many – well over 100 of them?) they are taking time to recover and flourish. And the perennials with which I am painting are smaller growers than those I used in the new summer borders so it is taking longer for them to fill in the spaces. It is block planting – generally only one or two different plants per section – so a whole lot depends on the selections made at the start.

Today, I will strip out the deep pink phlox in one section – too pink. It was a mistake. Fortunately, Mark raised some perovskia seed – Russian sage with blue flowers and grey foliage. It is unproven in our conditions but will be ideal if it works and way more harmonious than the pink phlox.

A stokesia! We were both wrong.

An American visitor this week set us right on the plant that I was sure was a scabious but Mark kept referring to as a centaurea. It is in fact a stokesia and is a wildflower where he lives so we defer to his superior knowledge on this matter. He said he didn’t know which stokesia it is but as we know it dates back to Mark’s mother, it is almost certainly one that was sold in the 1960s. It has stood the test of time, I can tell you that.

Many of us covet those gorgeous big blue-lilac alliums that are seen widely in UK gardens. I was a bit shocked to find they usually treat them like tulips – disposable, one-season wonders. But then I looked at some bulb catalogues there and they are cheap as chips to buy. If we are paying anything up to $15 a bulb here, we are not going to be treating them as annuals. I decided this spring that the easy to grow blue brodiaeas – particularly Brodiaea ‘Queen Fabiola’ (also known as a tritelia) are not bad substitutes for we poor, colonial gardeners. I am drifting these bulbs along one side and very pretty they looked in spring with the white iberis. And they are perennial, not one-season wonders.

I am looking forward to autumn to start planting the central court area. I am mentally prepared for this large planting project. I have most of the plants needed at hand, not all, but most. It will be a quick turnaround, immersive grass garden – big grasses at shoulder height or taller, mostly. A prairie on steroids, perhaps?

I think it bears repeating: if you want a summer garden it needs to be close to all-day sun and start with the perennials, not trees and shrubs. Think of it like painting with flowers because it is those which give the seasonality. Form and foliage are important but they are not the foremost defining factor for a summer garden. 


Impressions of Parham – horticultural excellence

The white border at Parham

Parham was the only garden we went to on our recent trip without knowing anything about it in advance. As a result, while I have a fair number of photos and recollections, I lack an overview, a wider context. There is an interesting lesson for me there on future trips – we learn more if at least one of us does a bit of advance research on the destination. When we live so far away, making a second visit is unlikely so we need to short circuit the familiarisation step to have any hope of getting beneath the superficial.

The yellow border at Parham

That is why I only offer this as ‘impressions of Parham’. Just for context, it is a private house, garden and estate in Sussex that opens to the public. They say house. We New Zealanders are more likely to describe it as a mansion. Or stately home, at least. Big, historic – Elizabethan in fact. That is the sixteenth century one, not last century’s one who is still with us. We did not tour the house. I did not even think to photograph it. Nor did we look at the estate, a 16th century deer park and working farm, or test the on-site café which serves locally sourced food including from the garden. I can report that the plant centre had some of the best displays I have seen in a garden centre and good plants on offer and that the gift shop was better than many I have visited and not exorbitantly priced. I bought myself a souvenir – a pretty milk jug with Redoute’s roses on it.  I don’t even think we found the Pleasure Grounds. It was just the extensive walled gardens that we looked at. But, as you may gather, this is a multi-faceted operation which has to work hard to keep it financially viable and in private ownership.

There was a team of seven hard working gardeners though I can’t tell you if they are all full time. We met the head gardener because he did his apprenticeship under the eye of our friend who took us there. Britain still has an enviable tradition of training professional gardeners. I have seen a few gardeners at work when we have been out touring, and I can tell you that these Parham ones were hard workers and focused on tasks to hand.

From memory, they are required to provide 30 buckets of blooms to the big house a week. That is a huge amount and they must be hard pressed in winter. But the production of both food and cutting flowers was impressive – highly productive, in fact. Also done without chemical sprays.








The herbaceous borders were another modern take on classic design and techniques. The blue border was the most recent to have had a major makeover and it certainly looked glorious. I complimented the woman in blue whom I photographed strolling through the border, for her superb choice of toning colours. The yellow border was less flowery on the day but carefully composed and  easy on the eye. The shorter white border was also at peak border perfection that the Brits can do so very well. If there was a red border, I missed it entirely but I do not think there was.

Along the back wall – for this is all contained in a walled area – were the hot, vibrant colours and combinations, many of which were designed to zing.

Some of the statuary was… very white. Not necessarily to my taste. Some were more subtle than others. This was not. I am sure there will be somebody out there who can explain the significance of this figure and the inscription he is marking out with his finger.

Railway tracks of blue nepeta that many of wish we could achieve in NZ but rarely succeed

What we saw of Parham’s gardens were predominantly herbaceous or productive and sometimes both at the same time. They were not flashy or even particularly innovative, but they were very good. It is an example of high level horticultural excellence. Presumably it is tourism, both domestic and international, that enables a private estate such as Parham to maintain this level of excellence.

If you want to see more photos and get more detail, I have matched again to an album on our Facebook page.

The myth of the mixed border

A typical type of mixed border with boundary hedge behind

A typical type of mixed border with boundary hedge behind

Just at the moment I am somewhat fed up with mixed borders, or mixed beds for that matter. I am of the opinion that it is a myth that the mixed border is easier to maintain than the herbaceous border. It is easier to leave alone, but not to maintain.

The mixed border is a term coined to describe plantings which are typically a blend of small shrubs, perennials and annuals all frothing together to create a picture of flowers and foliage. It is pretty much how most people garden, certainly in freshly planted situations. The woody shrubs give year round structure often with the bonus of seasonal flowering while the clumping perennials and showy annuals fill in the spaces between and give a well furnished look, usually with the attribute of prolonged flowering. The calibre of the plant combinations speaks volumes about the skill and experience of the gardener.

This is also the face of the modern rose garden. Gone are the designated rose beds where there were only roses planted in well cultivated but bare soil with plenty of air movement – utility, lacking in aesthetics but a practical approach to growing these thorny, disease prone plants with fantastic flowers. Nowadays we generally integrate roses into mixed plantings which have a fair debt in history to the chocolate box English cottage garden. Most rose plants are not attractive in their own right so the mixed plantings mask the ugly bushes and, commonly, the diseased foliage while allowing the flowers to star.

So you plant a mixed border or bed and it looks perhaps a little new and bare in its first year, good in its second year, possibly even fantastic in its third year and then, imperceptibly, season by season, it changes over the subsequent years to the point it all becomes a little blah. The woody plants grow and start to dominate while at the lower level, it is survival of the fittest amongst the perennials. Anything rare or choice is by definition not a plant thug so will give up the fight and disappear quickly. Besides, the establishment of the woody plants is likely to have changed the micro climate and that will be compounded exponentially if you also enclosed your bed or border in a nice little hedge. Soon the well cultivated, freshly dug soil and open, airy, sunny conditions that your perennials loved has become compacted and congested with competing root masses from the woody plants, not to mention growing areas of shade.

This is the voice of experience here. I have been micro gardening the area we loosely refer to as the rose garden. By micro gardening, I mean taking apart as much as I can of the whole area and reassessing the role of every single plant. Because we also garden extensively with bulbs, there are limited times of the year when we can take apart a garden to recultivate and replant in this manner. As well as the roses, I had planted dwarf camellias for winter interest and all year round form and the site demanded a carpet of low growing perennials and annuals below. Said carpet had been looking a little moth eaten for some time – too many holes I had attempted to plug (or darn). In fact it all looked rather tired and messy. Successive applications of mulch had raised the soil levels above the surrounding edgings, compounded by the escalating invasion of masses of fine roots from an avenue of huge trees some distance away.

I am so over roses. Every time I turn around or move, I seem to get snagged on their thorns. There are times this week when I have contemplated pulling out and burning all but the standard roses. It is only the memory of their stunning November display that has given them a stay of execution. That, and the feeling that a complete garden includes at least some roses. I certainly will not be wanting to use roses extensively in any future mixed plantings.

Painful irritant though the roses are, they are not the major problem of the mixed border. It is what goes on below the ground that is the inherent structural weakness of the concept. We only view what happens above the ground but that is entirely contingent on the roots below. And the problem is that perennials and annuals are not particularly compatible with many woody plants. The latter determinedly extend their roots and prefer to be left undisturbed. In fact they can get downright touchy if you do too much poking around in their root zone. Whereas clumping plants like perennials and indeed all annuals much prefer extremely well cultivated, friable soil along frequent lifting and dividing of the former. Long term they are mutually exclusive plant families and it is the permanent roots of the woody plants which will dominate. In fact, the mixed border concept is a garden solution for the short to mid term only. In the long term, the bottom story planting of perennials goes into decline, only the tough thugs survive and it gets increasingly difficult to maintain suitable conditions even for them.

The classic herbaceous border is seen as extremely labour intensive and accordingly admired but shunned by most gardeners in this day and age when we lack legions of loyal, hardworking, devoted minions to do our bidding in the garden. Herbaceous plants are those leafy, clumping plants without woody stems and trunks and they tend to be seasonal. In fact many, such as hostas and asters, go dormant and disappear over winter. As I micro garden our mixed plantings in the rose garden area, I am thinking to myself that the digging, dividing and replanting that is the key to a good herbaceous border is not necessarily to be feared and it would be a great deal easier if there were no woody plants (and definitely no roses) in amongst them. No bulbs either. There are other places in the garden for bulbs but they don’t exist that happily in areas where you are forever plunging the spade into the soil to keep it friable and to lift plants for dividing. I have stumbled on rather too many by severing them in half.

Using hedges as a backdrop or as an edging is also problematic. At Great Dixter in the south east of England, Christopher Lloyd paid tribute to his father’s foresight in establishing a solid barrier below ground at the time when he planted the yews which are now major topiary features and hedging in that garden. It is more likely that Lloyd Senior had a man in to do it, but such long term vision stops the problem of competing roots. This sort of below ground barrier is recommended when planting invasive bamboos but I have not seen it done as a matter of course in this country with hedges. It makes sense if you garden with a long term view in mind even if it requires considerable effort in the establishment stages. You need to make sure that the barrier is far enough away to allow the hedge roots sufficient space or you will end up with poor, stunted and yellowed specimens.

If you want to reduce the amount of maintenance your garden requires to keep it looking good, turn to the shrubbery concept in preference to the mixed border and reconsider the role played by dinky little edging hedges beloved by gardeners throughout the country. What these do is give a sharp line, a definition which can also be achieved by the use of pavers, hard edges or even a low wall. None of these alternatives will cause problems with their roots, require clipping or suffer from the dreaded buxus blight.