Can I admit to finding it difficult to design this early spring border? Without a given context, my list of possible spring plants and planting combinations has spiralled uncontrolled. In an effort to curb my enthusiasm and fix a scene, I’ve chosen to draw inspiration from my most impressionable and earliest memories of spring. These, rather predictably, have come from the secret depths of a somewhat neglected woodland garden. Here I discovered congested clumps of snowdrops, and later, pure white wood anemones, nestled amid elegant old forms of pheasant’s eye narcissus.
I marvelled at how the wood anemones, with their delicate flowers and fragile, divided leaves, had managed to run through the vigorous celandine to colonise even the tiniest of gaps within the old trunks of neighbouring royal ferns. I wondered if it was the anemone or the gardener that had been so clever, later realising that of course it must be the anemone.
This simple spring border scene has provided the starting point for the design on these pages; the succession of dainty white flowers described above are joined by plants which share a similar sense of lightness and understated sophistication.
For the purposes of this article, the spring border is set within rectangular boundaries. However, the spring border design is in the choice of plant associations and I imagine these partnerships drifting outwards, gently diffusing into the surrounding dappled woodland or sunnier garden setting.
When I design planting schemes, I think of the plant compositions in layers, which I’ll sketch out loosely, mapping the height and habit of the plants. I’ll often draw the imagined growth through the seasons, which helps me to visualise the planting in the ‘round’. I always aim for a variety of heights within my designs, which I try to ‘intermingle’ so that views can be glimpsed from multiple angles.
The near-naked stems of the daffodils, foxglove, fritillary and the lily offer an alluring degree of transparency and I would suggest using these plants as an overlay, dotted liberally through the surrounding perennials.
How to create the look
Prepare the soil
Generous soil preparation is essential and the plants in this spring border will appreciate well cultivated and deep, moisture-retentive soil, in a relatively cool spot in light or dappled shade. If your soil is light and acidic, incorporating extra organic matter will help retain moisture; a waterlogged soil, though, would spell disaster for these plants. I’m a big advocate of deep mulching, and recommend spreading a crumbly, dark compost 5-8cm deep after planting.
Central to this border is the graceful, spreading form of Corylopsis pauciflora, or buttercup winter hazel, a Japanese shrub that’s breathtaking to behold in March, when its pale yellow, pendant racemes hang from bare stems, casting an incandescent glow. Like many of the selected plants, this shrub has a lightness of form and flower that needs space and a dark backdrop to be fully appreciated. Its new foliage is tinged bronze, which perfectly complements the evergreen groundcover plant beneath it, the red-tinted Epimedium x perralchicum ‘Frohnleiten’.
Sarah Price has chosen to draw inspiration from her earliest memories of spring and her love of woodland gardens.
Recommended early-plants for a spring border
The sophisticated Paeonia mlokosewitschii, also known as the more pronounceable Molly the Witch, provides the earliest accent of vivid colour in this scheme. Surprising bright pink shoots break the chilled earth as early as February, forming a beautiful contrast to the delicate yellow clusters of accompanying primroses. The dusky pink of the peonies’ unfurling new foliage hints at the later beauty to come. I remember being astounded when I saw Molly for the first time in flower. It was late April, and I was working as a gardener in the ‘woodland dell’ at Hampton Court Palace’s Tiltyard Gardens, where I unexpectedly encountered this most beautiful of flowers. It was tucked away, hidden from the palace’s many visitors, so please do plant it in full view, or you may also miss its exquisite seedheads later in the year.
A more common player, Brunnera macrophylla, with its near heart-shaped leaves, forms an invaluably early, weed-suppressing groundcover. Sprays of tiny pale blue forget-me-not flowers appear shortly after the leaves cover the ground. I’ve inter-planted this with Cenolphium denudatum, whose mounds of finely cut leaves form a fine contrast in April. Later in the year, the Cenolophium’s beautiful umbels will associate well with neighbouring drifts of Deschampsia, providing a link to the umbels and grasses in our countryside.
Another invaluable grass for intermingling is Millium effusum ‘Aureum’. This starts growing early in March, its seedlings emerging like patches of light between the wood anemones and the dainty cream flowers of Narcissus ‘Jenny’.
Flowering slightly later, the deliciously scented Narcissus ‘Hawera’ has soft, pale yellow blooms and delicately, grassy foliage that forms a subtle contrast to bolder emergent leaves. The tall and rather exotic-looking Fritillaria persica ‘Adiyaman’ should be planted in sunnier, more sheltered patches towards the outskirts of the border. Lilium martagon is the last to flower, and is relatively adaptable growing in sun or shade.
Short on space?
Even if you do not have the space or situation for this border, many of the plant associations can be adapted to a smaller scale. Living in London, I find I am less in tune with the seasons, and like an expatriate away from home, a clump of primroses planted in my tiniest of gardens serves as a potent reminder of spring outside the city; the early enchantment of the countryside is not that far away.
A note on bulbs
Plant Anemone nemorosa 7cm apart, in a generous drift of 25-plus. The snowdrops should be 10cm apart, in a drifts of at least 20 bulbs; the narcissi 10cm apart and in clumps of seven-plus. The fritillary and lily should be planted at random throughout the border (the latter no closer than 30cm from each other).