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  • east neuk perennials

How to plan a herbaceous border

We think that planning a herbaceous border is one of the most exciting aspects of gardening which is why we offer a full border design, supply and planting


Whether you want to create an explosion of colour over high summer, or a more staggered season of interest from late spring to late autumn it’s a great way to get creative and find out about new plants.

If you’re keen to design a border which really packs a punch, here’s our top pieces of advice to get you started.

  1. Decide on your plot & assess the conditions

  2. Choose a colour scheme

  3. Size and structure

  4. Don’t forget foliage

  5. Year-round interest

  6. Get planting

Decide on your plot

A herbaceous border is a collection of perennials that are closely grouped to create a dramatic, colourful and structural show. Pick a space in your garden where they’ll be on full show and where they can truly shine – both to you as you walk through the garden, and to visitors. Traditionally, herbaceous beds are planted out from the wall of a garden, but there’s no reason why you can’t have a long herbaceous river bed flowing through the middle of the garden, either.

Assess the conditions of your plot. For new plantings to be successful don’t fight nature! Find out whether you have heavy clay, perfect loam or light sandy soil. Is the border south facing and in full, bright sunshine all day during summer or is it west facing with overhanging trees only getting dappled sun late in the day and having to cope with the prevailing westerly winds on a regular basis? Although you can improve your soil, it really is best to select plants that are suited to the conditions you have naturally.

Choose a colour scheme

As for the colour scheme, decide whether you want a loud selection of bright colours, relaxing pastel shades or perhaps a pick and mix collection of contrasting colours. Yellows and reds create a hot sensation, whereas purples, blues and lavenders are more cooling and relaxing on the eye. For a design challenge, consider having a border with a single flower colour, using foliage, structures and other features to create contrast and interest.

Get some inspiration from flower shows, such as Gardening Scotland or take a trip to some of the many gardens open with the Scotlands Gardens scheme. Make a list of ideas that you like. Jot a plan down on paper or on a computer, moving the elements around to the greatest effect.

Size and structure

The tallest plants should be planted at the back of your border with a gradual reduction as you move towards the front, and groundcover or low lying perennials at the edge. In the back row you might like tall plants like delphiniums, verbascum, heliopsis and campanula. In the middle, phlox, peonies, dahlias, rudbeckia and pyrethrum, while at the front can be gaillardia, scabiosa, chrysanthemums and asters. If you only have room for a narrow border, don’t try and use the really tall plants, they will look out of proportion and you won’t have space to graduate them down to a lower level. “See through” plants like Verbena bonariensis and many grasses can be used further forward than their height might suggest as they don’t block the view through to other things.

Don’t forget foliage

Foliage is also important – it can offer year round interest and also allows the colours in your border to truly shine. If you have a plant with rich foliage put it next to one with sparse foliage. Some plants with exceptional foliage can be included on that basis alone. Using shrubs can help to ensure that there is some structure still visible in the winter months but do ensure you allow them room to achieve their ultimate size or you’ll be digging them up again in another 3 or 4 years when they have outgrown their allotted space! Also try to use plants that attract insects and butterflies such as Achilleas, Echinops, Campanula, Helenium, Sedum spectabile and the best one on our nursery – Calamintha nepeta (it’s alive with bees for months!)

Year-round interest

When selecting the plants for your herbaceous border, pay attention to flowering times and flower shapes. You don't want one side of the border in bloom and the other not. If you have a large border it is possible to mix plants to have a continuous show all season throughout the border – grasses and evergreens can be really helpful for adding interest all year round. However, if you only have a small border it may be preferable to pick a time of year when you want it to have maximum impact and plant predominantly for those few months otherwise you will end up with it looking very ‘bitty’ all year round but never great. Try and have a variety of flower shapes (spikes, flat umbels, daisies, spherical, bells, etc.) Although not strictly herbaceous, bulbs such as crocus, alliums and tulips are perfect to fill in the gaps. Avoid planting singly, use blocks of plants for continuity of colour and the greatest impact.

Get planting

Ensure the area that you are using is free from all weeds and large stones. Add a balanced fertilizer, such as blood fish and bone and dig in lots of organic matter, well-rotted manure and compost. Leave the bed for a couple of weeks to settle down and then level the soil.

Choose your plants based on the conditions they are best suited for as well as to achieve the colour scheme and structure you have decided on. Once you’ve chosen your plants, place them out, still in their pots, to see whether they have enough room (check their ultimate spread!) and you are happy with their positioning.

Plant the shrubs first, they need time to establish and herbaceous plants can be moved more easily if you decide they are incorrectly located. After firming the plants in, give them lots of water and mulch. Continue to water and deadhead over the summer, only the larger ones will need staking and it will be a good 3 years before any need dividing.

Good luck!

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