This border is well-suited to a cottage garden. Quintessentially English garden style, this border comes into its own in summer on dewy, misty early mornings in late May and early June, and in the early evening when the blue flowers become ultraviolet and seem to hum in the lowering light. I am a strict ‘spatialist’ when making gardens, so all my garden borders are tightly designed and controlled with steel or paved edges. I can’t bear mess where mess is not required and it drives me nuts if plants flop out over lawns in high summer and kill off the grass beneath. Have you tried mowing beneath flopped-over plants? Quite. I rest my case.
So before we get all breathy and flustered about the flowers, let’s get the basics sorted out. I once made my beds at home 3.5m deep. I must have been mad. They are impossible to manage; a woman alone can only do so much. Now I’m more pragmatic. Frankly, Gardens Illustrated dictated the bed size. I’d never make a bed this deep. Make them shallower – 1.8m at most – or if they are 3m deep, as this one is, make them accessible on all sides. If you do use these more manageable dimensions, make the shrubs central to the bed and put edging plants on all fronts.
How to create the look
Prepare the soil
Another area I’m obsessed with, to the point of demonic possession, is preparing soil. You will only ever want to do it once, so do it properly. Ameliorate the soil with a layer of best-quality organic matter at least 10cm deep; make sure it’s weed-free and don’t use composted bark (I’m no scientist but the idea that it robs nitrogen from the soil has stuck). The plants and your winter-soft stomach muscles will thank you for the effort. Actually, if you’ve dug-over well and weeded the border in winter, the act of planting will usually incorporate the spread of organic matter quite nicely, so there is really no need to martyr yourself.
Choose hard-working plants
I adore all plants. My favourite borders have fewer flowers over a long season, rather than a big blast in June. I’ve been trying to get to grips with this for years, with a moderate degree of success. Gardening is typified for me by annual serendipity combined with perennial mishap. That’s the fun of it. I am past the point of using rare trinkets from a forgotten cleft of rock near Machu Pichu. These days I only plant good reliable things that are justifiably popular.
I am mad about colour and reasonably carefree with it, though the great Christopher Lloyd once told me my choices were ‘far too tasteful’. I like to choose plants that create a structurally strong yet visually soft backbone; Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ and Rosa‘Madame Knorr’ are both great, indestructible, bug-free and beautiful. Viola cornuta ‘Alba’ will scramble through the rose, peering out from between the leaves. Creamy white and neon pink are a good start for the colours. Using the deep navy blue of Campanula‘Sarastro’, Aconitum ‘Bressingham Spire’ and Iris ‘Deep Black’ tempers the pink and gives it substance. I have found the blue triggers the underlying violet in pink and makes it much more profound. Tremendous in its intensity is Geranium Patricia (=‘Brempat’) – it’s a hard worker and not averse to being cut back.
Maintenance and good plant placement is key
At the back of the border, or along its spine if it were free-standing, I’d plant Leucanthemella serotina and Campanula lactiflora ‘Loddon Anna’. If you are weak of character, don’t plant L. serotina, the autumn ox-eye. It can be invasive, but I am firmly convinced of its place. In this and every border we need daisies, thuggish though they are. I have chosen three, from the sublime to the ridiculous. I’d add the Californian tree poppy, Romneya coulteri. Sometimes the glaucous leaves jar in a border but I do so love its crazy, spontaneous habit and huge, crinkly flowers.
Using hard-working plants that provide texture and height within the border will result in a stunning floral display all through the summer
Violas, Iris and Erigeron at the front. In the gaps in the near front, plant Astrantia, Campanula, Lychnis and so forth. In the bigger gaps towards the middle, and wrapping around the shrubs, are Verbascum, Aconitum and Cirsium. Pack it full of Nerine to take over from the irises in autumn. Both like to have their roots baked, so they are good mates. Add Gladiolus communis subsp. byzantinus and Allium sphaerocephalon for the extra texture and pinkness to poke through the gaps. I do adore clematis and they can extend the season. Clematis x triternata ‘Rubromarginata’ is mainly there for its gorgeous scent.
This is a reasonably well-structured mix of plants, with plenty of spires to give it lift and grace, nothing too stodgy and lots of prettiness, without being fey. In terms of management I’d just keep an eye on the smotherers and chop them back after flowering, mainly the ox-eye daisy. Violas and erigerons can be refreshed in late July with a haircut. Apart from that, sit back and watch – and enjoy the summer.
Jinny Blom is an award-winning garden designer based in London. Tel 020 7253 2100, www.jinnyblom.com