Gardening: Back to basics with borders

Garden designer, Sally Cunis, gives us a few hints and tips about how to plan the perfect border

Snow and icy blasts from Siberia may have delayed the start of the gardening year but now gardeners are busy planning for the year ahead.

As it can be a daunting task not only to choose the right plants from the vast range on offer but also position them successfully, this article attempts to give some guidance about planning a border.

In an ideal world everyone would like a sheltered, south facing border with a good, rich loam soil! However, wonderful borders can be and are also created in shady, wooded, boggy and dry, gravely situations.

To achieve a good border plan, first assess the area and your requirements.


Make the border as wide as possible, at least 1 metre wide if space allows.


An essential aspect in planning a new border is soil preparation. Remove all pernicious weeds; dig in well-rotted manure or garden compost if soil is light; lighten heavy soils with horticultural grit. The more effort that goes into soil preparation, the better the plants will perform. Choose plants suited to your soil type.


If unsure, use a compass. Nursery plants will be labelled with their preference for sun, shade as well as soil tolerance. There is no point planting sun-loving Lavender and herbs in deep shade!


From where will the border be viewed? Is it visible from the house or hidden at the bottom of the garden? This will dictate the type of planting.


A border against a house wall or fence shelters plants as well as providing a vertical structure up which to grow a backdrop of climbers. If the border has no protection, consider erecting a trellis screen or planting a hedge to act as a windbreak.

Plant choice:

Aim for a variety of plant material to give contrast in terms of height, shape and all year interest. Consider plants in terms of their Form, Texture, Colour, Style, Structure and Framework

  1. Form includes rounded, fastigiate or upright, weeping, horizontal and decorative plants.
  2. Texture includes glossy and velvety leaves.
  3. Colour is found in bark and leaves as well as flowers and can be different throughout the seasons within the border. It is a very personal choice. All year round colour may be desirable.
  4. Style determines the look of the border ie: traditional mixed, modern and minimalist, architectural, rose border or spring border
  5. Structure and framework is provided by evergreen plants especially in the winter when the leaves of deciduous plants have fallen and perennials have died back.

The Plan:

For simplicity I am assuming a mixed border design.

Draw up a simple garden plan (scale 1:50). Mark on key shrubs and trees but beware of their positioning if the border lies against the house or boundary wall. Stagger shrubs rather than plant them in a straight line.

It is better to repeat plants throughout the border rather than to choose many varieties to avoid a fragmented appearance. Allow sufficient room for growth. (Buy young shubs; they will soon catch up.)

Add perennials to the plan around the shrubs in groups of three or five enabling them to merge in time, placing them through the border in ribbons to tie it together.

Inter-plant with bulbs especially under deciduous shrubs to extend the season. Upright evergreens such as Juniperus “Skyrocket” and the blades of Iris and Sisyrinchium give vertical accents. Clipped box balls, Hebes, Lavenders and Alliums add rounded elements whilst Fatsia japonica, Japanese Acer, Mahonia japonica and Bamboo are fabulous architectural plants. Achieve horizontal effects with prostrate Rosemary, Cotoneaster and, if space allows, the dramatic Cornus controversa (dogwood).

At the front of the border, place an edging of smaller plants such as Saxifrage, Heuchara, Stachys and Ajuga.


Before finally planting, set out the plants according to the plan but be prepared to move them around until the desired result is achieved. In a shrub border, infill the spaces with bulbs and temporary planting until the shrubs grow and fill the gaps. Nature soon takes over and plants will self -seed weaving the whole border together into a joyous seamless riot of colour.


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