How to Create a Beautiful Border

By Janet Epp, Master Gardener

Recently, I discovered videos on YouTube by The Middle Sized Garden based out of England. In a video titled How to Create Stunning Borders, the hostess, Alexandra Campbell, interviewed Tom Brown, the head gardener at West Dean Gardens in Sussex. And in another video, titled Create an Outstanding Perennial Border – how to choose and combine plants, she interviewed Steve Edney, the owner of No Name Nursery in Kent, England. I was so thrilled with the suggestions, that I grabbed a pen and scribbled down key points. I’ve compiled the following 10 essential tips.

1. When you create the bed, think about the size of the border compared to the yard including the fence, trees and hedges behind it. Make it grand as opposed to apologetic. Don’t worry that you won’t be able to manage the size. It’s really more about how it feels. It should be at least 2 to 3 m deep to give you room to play. For a narrow yard use a winding path to vary the width of the garden.

2. The second point is plant selection. Select plants that will thrive in the conditions in your yard, specifically, the type of soil, the amount of sun or shade and the amount of moisture. Pick the right plant for the right place. Make 80% perennial and 20% annual. Pick a theme, such as cottage garden, native garden, rain garden or colour-themed garden and identify plants that are small, medium and large that fit into your theme. And then drastically reduce the number of plants on the list. Fewer varieties will have a greater impact.

3. Choose long flowering perennials for the front of the border. For early bloomers in zone 3 try catmint (Nepeta racemosa) ‘Walkers Low’, geranium ‘Rozanne’, and bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) ‘Luxuriant’. For midseason blooms try ‘White Swan’ and ‘Magnus’ coneflower (Echinacea pupurea), allium ‘Millennium’, coreopsis ‘Moon Beam’, astilbe (Astilbe x arendsii) ‘Bridal Veil’ and ‘Fanal’, dwarf Chinese astilbe (Astilbe chinensis var. pumila), and yarrow (Alchemilla)‘Cerise Queen’ and ‘Moonshine’. And for fall colour try black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) ‘Goldsturm’ and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) ‘Raindance’. Deadhead flowering perennials often, cutting down to a fresh stem or set of leaves. This will push the plants to continue producing more blooms. In late spring, cut back all your fall blooming perennials, such as Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium), sneezeweed (Helenium), Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and sedum (Hylotelephium)‘Autumn Joy’, by pruning off one half or 2/3 of the growth. This will result in especially bushy plants, with reduced height and often considerably more flowers, although smaller in size. This technique also reduces the need for tedious staking

4. Choose different textures and shapes of leaves. For example, castor bean (Ricinus communis), lamb’s-ear (Stachys byzantina) and bergenia all have different textures and leaf shapes. Also vary the flower types with spires, daisies, umbels, orbs and screens. It may be helpful to create a spreadsheet, garden map and/or journal to keep track of all the design factors to make perfect selections for your yard and to keep a record of what didn’t work for future reference as you develop the garden over several years.

5. Leave no bare earth. The gardeners in the video recommend planting thickly to avoid weeds. But I suggest that planting based on the growers recommendations and spreading a thick layer of organic mulch.  This will not only suppress weeds, but will also hold the moisture in and prevent winter root damage while nourishing the soil. Nature will colonize bare earth with weeds, so plan well.

6. When choosing plants, think about the flowering season, to enjoy colour throughout the spring, summer and fall, the length of flowering, the attraction to wildlife, and seed heads for winter interest.

7. Vary the heights of plants and flowers to add drama. Use tall plants for structure and to anchor the border. Decide on a few tall plants and repeat them at intervals along your border. This creates rhythm. Repeat a stand out or ‘firecracker’ plant, such as cardoon (Cynara cardunculus). Medium size plants are the main flower colour. Select a few medium plants and repeat them. Use smaller plants as fillers and repeat them. And then add accent/firecracker plants. Choose a stand out plant for each month or season of the year. For example tulips, alliums, annuals, gladioli, daisies and poppies.

8. Don’t always focus on flowers. Remember to assess the foliage for colour, texture and shape, for example grasses, hosta, heuchera. Foliage is around much longer than the flower in many cases.

9. Follow the rule of thirds. Plants look best if they are 1/3 shorter or taller than their neighbours, no more. But you can grow grass much taller because they act as a transparent screen. Never use more than 1/3 grass in your garden.

10. To keep the border full but not messy plant large clumps with fewer varieties. Plant groups of 7, 9 or 11 young plants in a tadpole shape, wider at the front and narrower at the back. They will dovetail into another plant grouping tadpole shape. In this way the plants will begin to intermingle and look more natural.

These two videos inspired me to take notes and employ some of their tips immediately in my back yard. I’m excited to see the impact these changes will make next year. Do you have a border that could use some help? To view the full videos yourself, here are the links:

Photos by Janet Epp

Published: November 2021