Designing a new border

May saw the completion of a replanting of two 90ft x 9ft south-facing borders backed by a substantial brick wall. About two years ago, the easy decision was taken that we didn’t like the mixture of hardy shrubs planted there. The borders were too narrow and the 18in gap between border and path was turfed with a narrow strip of grass. It was a nuisance to cut, as the shrubs spilled out across it, often leaving muddy patches; and there were two edges to trim after the mower had been through. We decided to start again, widen the border to 12ft, and replace the grass strip with a 9in edge of side-by-side brick, to match the wall. The heavy clay soil needed lightening with a generous helping of sand, and fertilising in the time-honoured way from the stables.

We opted to focus on May to September, but with some interest to be carried over a longer period. That didn’t do much to help the decision about what to plant. For most, the safe decision and a wise one is to get help from professionals or the gifted amateurs among one’s friends who have enthusiasm and at least a work-ing knowledge of plants. It is a more or less risk-free option to consult them, knowing that, come next year, you’ll be proud to show off the results. But there is an alternative, high-risk option and, on the basis of ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ we went for it and planned the borders ourselves.

We wanted three groups of long-flowering, scented pink roses in each bed, and, with the help of the rose specialist Robert Mattock, we selected Rosa Fantin-Latour. Four 8ft conical frames were painted dark green and placed in the gaps between the roses. Into each frame we have planted Rosa Awakening and either Clematis Jackmanii Alba or C. Marie Boisselot for summer effect. We will add C. alpina varieties for earlier colour. There is still a long way to go. In my experience, there are two essential reference books: the RHS A?Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants and the RHS Plant Finder. The encyclopedia is well illustrated, but, more importantly, it stimulates ideas for interesting and compatible plantings. The Finder (updated annually) lists what is available.

Off we went to tour nurseries and garden centres. We called on Nick Macer, of Pan-Global Plants, at Frampton-on-Severn in Gloucestershire, where, among the offerings, are plants he has grown from his own wild collections. Hoo House Nursery at Tewkesbury is very much the small, family business with an exciting range of alpine and herbaceous plants. (Most impressively, it offered us a comprehensive guide to the nurseries in the area, in what seemed to me a very enlightened example of co-operative enterprise.) A visit to Bob Brown’s nursery, Cotswold Garden Flowers, near Evesham, completed the time allotted. Nearer home, we added The Nursery Further Afield, near Brackley, and Waterperry Gardens at Wheatley, where I was struck by their declaration: ‘We know the plants because we grow them.’ Reassuring.

We were ready. Pots galore, more on the way, and two clean sheets of A2 cartridge paper. In goes the outline of each bed, scale 2cm = 1m. A large rubber is essential at this stage. A profusion of reds, pinks and whites against green, grey and silver foliage. Some obvious giants such as Cynara, Angelica, Onopordum to join the Magnolia grandiflora and Rosa Cooper’s Burmese for the back of the border; poppies, peonies, dome shaped Euphorbia characias Portuguese Velvet, Sedum erythrostictum Frosty Morn and many others in midfield.

We put in Hemerocallis under-planted with narcissus; hostas will be underplanted with giant snowdrops and black tulips, various Centaurea, Helianthe-mum, Dianthus and a charming alpine, Androsace strigillosa, collected in the Himalayas by the modern day plant hunter, Chris Chadwell. There are still some gaps to fill and the likelihood of a long, dry summer to get through. We have probably made some dreadful mistakes. But sometimes, as a distinguished gardener said to me, one can make good mistakes. Things can work in practice that the rule book would prevent. The one certainty is that we have borders that we designed. There won’t be any like them!