The traditional English border that graces the pages of garden magazines usually includes dense plantings of old-fashioned favorite flowers arranged in church choir order – tall in the back, medium in the middle and short in the front. Too often the plant layers end up being too rigid, the occasional dead plant creates a whopping hole, and the design falls flat. My goal as a designer is to update the traditional design – to use more modern plant varieties such as tropicals and vegetables and then relax and interweave the elements to create a mixed border that has movement and mystery.
Traditional English mixed borders contain perennials mixed with annuals and the occasional shrub or evergreen as an anchor. Sometimes, as is the case in the borders I design each year for the Basin Harbor Club, borders are planted with mostly annuals. The difference from a design perspective is time. A perennial garden’s plants are spaced according to their future mature size, which can take several years to achieve, and there is time to make adjustments to the design along the way. At Basin Harbor the border gardens are clean slates every spring – completely ripped out and replanted with different annuals every year so the gardens are exciting and new for returning guests, which means that the planted design needs to go from zero to wow really fast.
I’ll be the first to admit that I failed miserably at designing annual borders when I was starting out, and I still find it challenging. I learn more each year however, and my biggest realization is that it’s more of an art than a science, and success depends on letting go of my analytic nature, which is easier said than done. For my sanity I still start out with detailed spreadsheets and a plan that includes the necessary 14,000 plants. In the design phase an understanding of each plant is required that includes how it will mature over time so that the correct spacing and layering can be achieved, and thus how many of each variety needs to be ordered. Once all the plants are grown and delivered to the site I take a deep breath, toss all the paper aside and ask not to be disturbed for four days – that’s when the magic happens. There’s a fine line between a relaxed design and a messy one, so here are some guidelines that I keep in mind when I start laying out a design.
1. Start with Bold Forms – plants such as large grasses, Colocasia, Datura, Ensete, Canna, Phormium, and Ricinus take center stage and are the types of plants I’m constantly scouting for when I visit trial gardens. They are usually larger and more dramatic than the other plants in the design, and stand out because of their leaf size, texture or color. The trick is to keep finding new bold forms or unique ways to coordinate them to keep the designs looking new each year. If the border is long I divide it into blocks with one bold form per block to create a repeated visual rhythm. I place these bold forms before anything else and build the composition around them, trying to have some bold forms appear at the front and some in the back to differentiate the layers.
2. Add Vertical Elements – tall plants are placed next, and not just in the back row, but throughout to create depth and to draw the eye up and down. Sometimes we use teepees and train vines such as scarlet runner bean or morning glories. Delphiniums are such a favorite because they give great vertical punch, as do foxglove and grasses such as Calamagrostis. In an annual garden I use sunflowers, broom corn, and amaranth to achieve the same effect.
3. Add see-through plants – these have open-form branches that add depth when they are placed towards the front of the border because you see through them to elements beyond. They break up rigid geometry, and create a veil. Some favorites include Kniphofia, Alliums, Perovskia, and Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’. The more they are used in staggered asymmetrical groups, the more casual the bed appears. I use more see-through “frothy” plants such as Verbena bonariensis in the “Sunny Pines” garden, because it traditionally has been planted in a cottage style.
4. Create Vignettes that focus on texture contrasts first and color second – fine textured plants such as Pennisetum, Amsonia, or Agastache need to be contrasted with large, smooth leaved plants such as Sedum, Heuchera, or Dahlias and then brought together in a cohesive color scheme.
5. Repeat in blocks but Blur the edges – this is critical, both between vertical and horizontal layers and between blocks. Throwing in an occasional random large clump helps blend blocks. Adding variegated plants can also have a blending effect.
I hope this helps you if you’re designing your own gardens this summer, or helps you understand what I’m thinking if you find me standing in your garden with plants in hand. The photos included in this post were all taken in the Basin Harbor gardens last year. The gardens peak in mid-July, so if you’re in the area stop by sometime and see what the new designs are for 2012 are and see if you can identify the five design guidelines above. Have fun!