What makes a good border?

Double Herbaceous borders, Arley Hall, Cheshire

So what makes a good border these days? A thought that dogged me on my recent visit to gardens predominantly in Cheshire. And what do we mean by border? Is a good border classed as a typical herbaceous border as seen at Arley Hall or has that doyenne of the Victorian grand garden lost its edge and been replaced with more relaxed and mixed planting?

Bluebell Cottage Garden, Cheshire

This border, well large square island bed, at Bluebell Cottage has almost the same range of plants as the famous double borders at Arley Hall and yet for me they have more vibrancy and make my heart sing more. But what is it about the second border that speaks to me – again and again this came up over the trip.  The Arley Hall borders are historic, allegedly the oldest double herbaceous borders in the country but they haven’t stood still in time as new introductions have come along the planting is refreshed. However, unlike the Bluebell Cottage plants the Arley Hall plants are staked within an inch of their lives.  Don’t get me wrong the staking is unobtrusive but it is there and the plants are standing to attention, all neat and tidy.  By contrast Bluebell Cottage has limited staking, if any, in fact the owner, Sue Beesly, advocates moving borders into the centre of the garden as the plant grow more upright away from shading fences, hedges and trees.  Maybe the freer movement of the plants is what appeals?

Abbeywood Estate, Cheshire

The Prairie Borders at Abbeywood Estate from a distance impress on their sheer audacious scale, colour and textures but they are essentially large blocks which can become a little flat when considered for any length of time. Again, many of the same plants are present here as in the top photos.

Abbeywood Estate, Cheshire

Here is a shot of the same borders but closer up and consciously taken to give interest to the picture.  The colours work well and harmonious and there is texture.  This is possibly bringing us nearer to a rationale for my preferences.  I had never considered that I liked harmony in the colours in a garden and have avoided colour themed gardens as too contrived but maybe there is something about colour harmonies that is important to a good border.

Abbeywood Estate, Cheshire

And then there is texture and that often means foliage and I do love good foliage.  The tropical borders at Abbeywood Estate bowled me over so exuberant and masterfully constructed but again there is an element of harmony in the combinations of the colours here.

Trentham Gardens

I had high hopes for the Italianate Garden at Trentham, after all it has been designed by a top designer, but there was no quickening of the heart, no sighs and to be honest few photos taken (always a sign of disengagement).  Maybe it was the sheer scale that put me off but I think the planting is also too contrived for my taste – box hedging and fastigiate yews have never been my thing.

Trentham Gardens, Stoke on Trent

But the wildflower meadow planting was another thing altogether. Whilst there was a feeling that there was just too many white flowers in the planting the overall effect was loose, generous, floriferous and alive with insects.  You felt immersed in a world of flowers.

So it seems that the criteria for my perfect border is colour harmonies, texture, loose planting with minimum staking, and wildlife.

Grafton Cottage

Which brings us to the final garden of our trip, Grafton Cottage.  A tiny country cottage garden whose borders had consumed the instruction manual on planting a border, digested it and then spat it back out reconfigured.  Here we had colour harmony taken to a new level, possibly too far in some cases.  Borders of blues, purples and white; yellows, oranges and red; pinks and purples.  Textures, flower shapes, you name it the borders had it by the bucket load.

Grafton Cottage

It was quite breath-taking and you wondered how so much could be growing in such a small space.  Investigation showed that again staking was at the root of the success of this border.  Geranium flowers were lifted up from their normal sprawling mess and held upright allowing the flowers to be seen but also to take up less space. The same was true of the Dieramas which were held more upright than they would normally grow.  Maybe this was just too much – like a child who has gorged on an illicit box of chocolates I felt like I had experienced a huge sugar rush and then a sense of queasiness.

So what is the answer, what is the perfect border?  Well after a week with 36 obsessive gardeners my conclusion is that it is different for everyone. For some the formality and horticultural prowess of borders such as Arley Hall is something to aspire to;  others prefer the soft relaxed borders of Bluebell Cottage. For me I think it is a bit of all of the above – after all these are photos from the best gardens we saw – they each have something special, something to learn from, to take away and ponder but in the meantime the front border of Grafton Cottage with its mix of happy annual was a delight to my over stimulated mind.

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24 Comments Add yours

  1. Susie Dixon says:

    I visited Stonyford and Bluebell gardens last Tuesday, with Willaston horticultural society. It poured with rain, but didn’t stop my enjoyment. Sue Beesleys had lovely cakes🍰!! Thank you for your blog. I always get a lot from it.

  2. A thought-provoking blog on a subject that I have been considering as well. Oxford Botanic Garden has two contrasting styles of borders – a well-established herbaceous border, and the newer Merton Borders, showcasing plants plants grown grown from seed and which should thrive in a changing climate, growing in a more informal style.
    The older border looked heavy and leaden in comparison, and dated. But then are we seeing too many ‘naturalistic’ borders in Show gardens? Which are easier to manage and maintain? Only time will tell.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      I agree that the older style borders often look heavy and leaden and to be honest dated. I’m not keen on naturalistic too much but there must be some sort of happy half way house

  3. Gail says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post…Made me think about what it is about some gardens that makes my heart glad.

  4. Shirley says:

    We all enjoy different aspects of the borders and our different opinions. The large naturalistic plantings within the controlled box hedging of the Italianate garden doesn’t work for me either. Enjoyed your insights on different borders since we don’t really have borders in South Texas gardens. As you noted the ideas can be applied to big square beds as well.

  5. Pam/Digging says:

    Interesting musings, Helen. I don’t have any expertise on this subject, as English-style flower borders are quite unusual for the part of the world I live in (Austin, Texas), but I enjoyed reading your thoughts and seeing the pictures you shared.

  6. Helen, perhaps it is the difference between poetry and an essay – words put in an order that either engages our logical mind in order to make a point or engages our heart and resonates deep within.

  7. Oh that photo of the tropical border at Abbeywood definitely made my heart sing!

  8. Yvonne Ryan says:

    YES I THINK MY F ia the cottage garden a bit loose an colourful not so keen and ridgid pefer soft and natural My mother=inlaw used to use hedgecuttes and keep tidy plants that were trying to be their natural flopiness and everyt time ai see an ove pruned ai say Oh Ivy has een here She is dead but over tidied shrubs and plnts always remind me of her. Enjoy your late summer blimmin dold here coldest eer since lived up here in
    audkland was 5cadegrees other day. Lots of snow on mountains so good foe dkiers. Dont miss the snow. We ahve hd lots of sun an dblue skies and no or little swind so that is ok winter. some sogy grass tho’ as have had rain as well and on clay very squishy . Roll on spring.

  9. Really interesting post. I love Sue’s border, I love the exotic border and I love the blue and white border at Grafton Cottage. Judging from your pictures, the prairie borders at Abbeywood and Trentham leave me a bit cold. Perhaps it’s just the time of year, but the Trentham borders look a bit boring. And the Abbeywood borders seem to have very large clumps of perennials, which makes them look a bit indigestible.

  10. susurrus says:

    I’m a fan of traditional double borders – they make my heart sing as loud as anyone could want. Does a Shakespearean sonnet go out of date or lack vitality because it has an engineered framework? For me, the formula or style takes second place to is it well done or not – well planted, tended, watered etc. My least favourite style is the bedding out of annuals, yet at Disney’s Epcot they are so beautifully put together that resistance is futile, as the Borg would say.

  11. Layanee says:

    Great photos and a thought provoking post. I do love a mixed herbaceous border. I think that love is attached to some small piece of genetic code. That said, naturalistic plantings are also quite wonderful (I think of the Lurie gardens) but in spite of the appearance of ‘natural’, they are also quite manipulated. A field or meadow garden does make ones heart sing but, again, if left to its own devices it returns to forest. I guess the bottom line is that gardening is a verb.

  12. It will also depend on how you feel at the time, and perhaps on whether you are looking for inspiration for something to do at home, or alternatively, a chance to wallow in something you’d never do, for lack of time, space, soil type, or something….

  13. Wonderful, thoughtful post. For me the difference is that you look at one kind of border and it seems as though you can be within the other kind or at least feel as if you are. I only have a couple of spots which might be called borders in my garden and I realized I have one of each based on your post. The more engaging one is chock full of plants over my head and falling onto the path making me part of it.

  14. Leslie says:

    A lot of food for thought…I will have to pay attention and see what the specifics are about the garden styles that make my heart quicken.

  15. Steve says:

    Interesting thoughts. As some one who has some box hedging in some of my borders I need to stick up for box but it should be used sparingly and keep low compared to the planting. Trentham use is excessive and they have box blight and are trying to change their hedging. The other consideration for a domestic garden is how it can be managed through the year. It is easy to make a border that looks great at one time of the year and does little the rest of the year. For example we plan to move a Crambe from one of our borders . It looks incredible for about six weeks and then it looks a mess.

  16. mossfighter says:

    Grafton and Bluebell are the ones for me perhaps because we have a cottage garden, Trentham is too severe, somehow feeling cold.

  17. Cathy says:

    This was a really interesting post, Helen, especially as you finished with Grafton Cottage which I have visited about 3 times as it is only about half an hour from us. Your writing shows that we may know whether we like a border or not, although we might not always be able to articulate why – your comments about staking certainly made me think, as the discreteness of staking can have a huge effect on a border. My feelings about Grafton varied from visit to visit from awe to inadequacy (on my part, in my own garden!) and finally to a similar conclusion as you did, that it’s a bit over the top, especially after I found out that in the winter months the garden is virtually empty of interest. They raise huge amounts of money for charity though and have been opening for the NGS for 25 years, so focusing just on one season certainly pays dividends for good causes- even if it is not what we would choose to do in our own gardens.

  18. Joanna says:

    Grafton Cottage is my faborite too! So beautiful! Arley Hall has its charms too, though. Someday I would love to visit them!

  19. Valerie says:

    Lovely photos and makes me hanker after visiting more public gardens. I love those stately home grand herbaceous borders, but also the more patchwork country cottage look. Then lately I’ve been introduced to the idea of prairie planting. It’s fun to work out what appeals and try to mix and match to get a look that suits you.
    Oh, to have acres of land and endless cash to spend at garden centres. Plus employ a team of gardeners to do all the heavy work. Ha! Better win the lottery, hadn’t i?

  20. Steve says:

    Hi Helen, I hear you have stopped doing EoMV. In conversation with Cathy I offered to pick up the mantle from the end of August. Let me know if you are OK with this.

  21. Steve says:

    Hi Helen, I have heard you have stopped hosting EoMV. In conversation with Cathy I have said I would do it if you are OK with that change.

  22. Nadezda says:

    Dear Helen!
    I’m glad I found your blog, it’s very interesting. I agree with you about the borders, I’ve made my own one and is different. Love your photos of Grafton Cottage garden, I’d love my garden would be the same.
    Nadezda

  23. I love the Grafton Cottage photo – the colours are so beautiful.

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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