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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.