How to plant perfect borders

The spirit of place can be difficult to articulate in a garden, being a result of history, objects, plants and people, but one of the most compelling ways a gardener can achieve it is in the choice of plants and how they're arranged together. Nature's floral tide generates an effortless succession of seasonal effects; take a stroll through Sissinghurst's bluebell wood, for instance, and you will see a close-knit and balanced community of plants that co-exist in harmony, emerging, flowering and fading, to be replaced by something else.

In a multi-layered, complex and completely artificial flower border, however (containing species from various habitats around the world), the subtle and successful relationship between perennial partners is more difficult to maintain. Achieving a harmonious balance here requires continual critique and reworking of the component parts.

At Sissinghurst, both Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson were surprisingly well-organised gardeners, always keeping copious notes and lists. Vita’s garden note-books demonstrate what a perfectionist she was, never satisfied with a planting that could be improved. Two of the things that Harold said he most admired about Vita were her ‘courage to abolish ugly and unsuccessful flowers’ and her ‘extraordinary taste in plants’. Vita experimented all the time with shapes and colours, moving whole groups of plants. She rejuvenated the garden every season, with new varieties or fresh ideas.

The Nicolsons deliberately engineered each garden room at Sissinghurst to peak at a certain time, such as the magnificent crescendo of flowering bulbs in the Lime Walk during April, the Rose Garden in June or the White Garden in July. In this way, they achieved a succession of climaxes throughout the garden, with each space peaking in turn and then allowed to rest when another area of the garden would take over.

However, Sissinghurst’s change of use to being a public garden brings an expectation that every part of it should be of interest, whenever you visit. And I can think of few other gardens where, over the past 50 years, more successful combinations of plants have been realised than here.
It now falls to me to continue orchestrating these sophisticated multi-layered plantings and one area I’m currently working on consists of four beds at the garden entrance that we call the ‘Donkey Beds’, named after Abdul the donkey, who used to graze the lawns here.

My preferred way of gardening is hands-on and intuitive, but, whether planned on paper or not, all of my schemes follow the same process, whereby the plants are grouped into several categories, as follows. Keynote plants, providing structure and character, are placed first. They act as anchor points and don’t have to dominate; however, their personality and presence must be sufficient to hold a scheme together. Accent plants follow. Their role is to give unity and they work in two ways. When woven through a scheme, their effect is of rhythm or, if planted at intervals, the effect is of punctuation and potency.

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Finally, the filler plants. It’s at this stage that many schemes fall apart, for as much care should be given to the choice of filler plants as the structural ones. I want to keep the four Donkey Beds simple as they lie outside the garden gate. However, I want to provide them with year-round interest. My keynote plants are musk roses, which were loved by Vita. They will be added to by accents of alcea, delphinium and lilium, all emerging from a foaming froth of Ammi majus, grown from two sowings in autumn and spring. Seasonal highs will come from my choice of experimental filler plants, from which we will refine our selection.

In my first clutch, I’m growing a wonderful annual Lunaria- acquired from a gardening friend on Guernsey-with intensely blue-purple flowers, Campanula persicifolia, Dictamnus albus, Crambe maritima and Berkheya purpurea from South Africa.No one said this kind of gardening was low maintenance or easy, but it is rewarding.

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