We all deserve a garden pick-me-up after the horrible winter and nothing does it better than a border re-vamp - think of it as the horticultural equivalent of a new wardrobe. But before we rush out impulsively buying plants (ditto new clothes), it's worth taking some time to make a plan. A full make-over is a little more daunting than improving an existing border, but the same principles apply, and a little thought about the look (and feel) of the border will make a big difference.
This is the dreaming time - look in magazines, books, in friends' gardens, open gardens and flower shows for inspiration, but remember you are seeing many of these 'ideal' borders at a moment in time - a gorgeous Chelsea Flower Show border has been designed to peak in late May - it will probably have less to offer (and sometimes nothing at all) through the rest of the year. Choose a style that will match your surroundings, your taste and lifestyle. And think about how much time you'll have to maintain your beautiful border once it's planted.
It's not necessarily a bad thing to have a few restrictions - unlimited choice can be overwhelming. Nearby buildings, or overhanging trees may plunge your border into shade for at least some of the day. You may have difficult soil - heavy clay or impoverished chalk or sand. There are things you can do to improve the soil, but there are also plants around that have adapted to all kinds of conditions. From damp shade and frost pockets, through to arid and sun-scorched slopes, there will be a plant that can cope. The trick is to make the best of your conditions, not fight against them. Seeing sad plants in places that don't suit them is not easy on the eye or heart.
Budget can be a big restriction, especially if you want an 'instant' border, but there are ways of creating impact without breaking the bank. It may take a while for structural shrubs to grow to maturity, but in the meantime you can fill the gaps with cheaper, pro-tem plants that can be moved elsewhere when space gets tight, or try planting bulbs, annuals and biennials for season long colour. In fact, for the price of a few packets of seeds, it's possible to create a whole border just using annuals.
If you are restricted in the shape and size of your bed, you'll have to work around what's imposed on you - maybe it borders a path, or is defined by a wall or building, but if you have no restrictions, be as generous as possible with the width of the border. Thin beds are one dimensional; the plants in them will have to work extra hard to provide interest for as long as possible, as there's no room for succession - nothing behind or in front of them to take over once they start to fade.
In general, larger shrubs and tall perennials are placed at the back of the border, but it helps to mix this up a little - regimented tiers of plants look stiff and unnatural, so a few taller plants in the middle of the border will loosen it up. The structure of the border will be created using permanent planting; usually large shrubs, or even large perennials, that will anchor the design, giving it a definite shape. This is the backbone of the scheme.
Whether you want interest in one or two seasons, or want the border to perform well all through the year, be careful not to have all your plants at their very best during one month of the year and then doing nothing for the other 11 months. If the border can be seen from a window you look out of every day, try to have something of interest to look at all the time. Using bulbs, foliage plants that also bear flowers, berries, or fruits will keep the border looking alive and reflect the changing seasons.
This can be the rhythm of repeating shapes within the border, or colours, or both. The rhythm can be punctuated with contrasting shapes or impact plants. Movement is introduced with grasses, seedheads or delicate leaves that rustle and bend in the breeze. A border made up from dense, unmoving, unchanging evergreens will have a very different effect to one that is planted with airy, ephemeral shapes.
It's important to think about the whole plant when you are making either harmonies or contrasts. Try not to think too much about flower colour at this stage. Look at the size, shape, colour and texture of leaves. Shiny leaves reflect light and are useful in shade; matt textures absorb light and provide contrasts. Strap-like leaves next to those that are big, round, or finely cut will create complex and rewarding harmonies and contrasts within the border. The different forms of the plants, the texture and size of leaves, the density of the plant - all these things will come into play and help to hold your border together or conversely cause it to work less well. This is where the skill comes in, together with a familiarity of plants and it is a skill that will grow as you become more confident in placing plants within your border.
Colour is important - it is one of the first things we notice, but try not to choose flower colour above other considerations. Remember that flowers are (like romantic love), fleeting, so look beyond the dazzling blooms to see what you'll be left with (yes, oh dear, we all make those mistakes) when they've faded. That said, here are some colour rules in brief:
• Blues, whites and pale colours recede, look good at dusk and dawn and show up well against dark backgrounds (pastel colours suit our climate).
• Bright colours spring out and work well in sunny areas, when pale shades would have no impact and look insipid and bleached out.
• Reds, oranges, bright yellows and pinks, though cheery, are sometimes hard on the eye (especially in English light) and need lots of green around them for best effects.
• Green is a colour too.
Scent is often overlooked, but has enormous, and often very emotional impact - think of the smell of tomato plants, of newly mown grass or aromatic herbs. It's the sense most directly in tune with memories and feelings. Many of the most fragrant flowers open at dusk to lure twilight pollinators like moths and have pale flowers that shine out in the dusk. Use scented plants in a border if you walk past often, or sit outside near to it.
You don't have to make a plan but it does help - even if you change the positions of the plants once they're in situ. A plan will allow you to cost out how many plants you need too. Remember that plants are priced according to size (think of it as paying for growing time). Slow growing shrubs will be more expensive than faster growing perennials. If you're on a tight budget it helps to know that some plants will grow quickly and are often easy to propagate, so that buying smaller, younger specimens is a better option, as they adapt well to the conditions in your garden.
Do all you can to improve your soil and give your plants the very best start in their new home. Incorporate well rotted, weed free organic compost or manure to improve drainage, add nutrients and help the structure of the soil. You can add a little fertiliser when planting larger plants and shrubs, but don't overfeed them, as this can result in lots of sappy (pest-prone) growth, and not many flowers.
Water your plants well while they establish, especially for the first couple of seasons, and make sure the moisture gets right down to the roots, then leave them. It is better to water occasionally, but deeply, than little and often. Trees and shrubs will need a longer period of establishing than herbaceous plants. A mulch applied after planting will deter weeds and help conserve moisture.
The border will develop with time and will need some tlc to keep it looking good - plants will need pruning and dividing, and occasionally re-locating. This is sometimes frustrating, as nothing ever stays the same, but ultimately change - the coming and going of seasons (and plants) - is one of the enriching aspects of gardening. Let's get out there.
Jo offers a full border planning, planting and maintenance service - go to email@example.com or visit www.hornbrookmanor.co.uk or phone Jo Arnell on 01233 861186. Special WT reader offer: enjoy a 20% discount on any border makeover ordered in March. Please quote 'WT BORDER OFFER' (offer ends 31st March 2014).