|Even when planted this border has never been dug|
I have hundreds of square yards of herbaceous perennials in my four acres of cemetery gardens which I maintain with an average labour input of two hours per week. I use some of my methods in my own herbaceous borders.
My friend Isobel had magnificent herbaceous borders. As she gets older - she is younger than me - to reduce garden maintenance, she is converting to growing roses! I am very pleased about this because as a result she has given me some magnificent herbaceous plants. Her superb peak season, colour co-ordinated borders, hugely acclaimed on her Open Day, used to take many hours to maintain.
Why herbaceous borders are traditionally high maintenance.
It is important before you plant a herbaceous border that you eliminate established perennial weeds. Most gardeners fail to do this and subsequent weed control becomes nye impossible. Many gardeners accept divisions of herbaceous plants riddled with couch and ground elder from ‘kind friends’. These weeds have a way of taking over.
Most gardening books advise deep cultivations before you plant, to dig in huge barrow loads of farm yard manure and to leave fallow for the first winter before Spring planting.
Weed control in traditional borders involves laborious forking and hand weeding (or hoeing under more enlightened management). You might not believe this, but some gardeners actually dig their borders in Autumn!
Most gardening books recommend replanting every three to five years. Absolute nonsense, but I can understand why when rubbishy lanky spreading mildew ridden michaelmas daisies wander all over the place and lupins self seed vigorous purple offspring. Don’t get me wrong, many varieties of asters are my very favourite plants. I love lupins too but they are very high maintenance. There is a ridiculous idea that clumps need to be divided because their centers become moribund. Once in a blue moon this will be true but I have yet to divide a herbaceous perennial for this reason. Of course vigorous plants do have a tendency to out grow their space and need to be reduced…
Some plants such as primroses and polyanthus do respond well to regular division. I grow these elsewhere in my garden.
Staking perennials is a skilled and time consuming job. Not only does inserting bushy supports need to be carefully timed and synchronised with plant growth they need to be carefully removed when the plant is cut back in Autumn. Some gardeners insist on staking all their herbaceous plants. I remember years ago in a famous park in Leeds where even Dicentra formosa was supported. As holder of the National Collection I shuddered.
|I do not stake any herbaceous perennials plants in the cemeteries but of course it does not matter if they flop everywhere!|
Cutting back is an extremely labour-intensive task and if as I do, you believe that every ounce of beauty should be extracted from your plants before you prune back, the process needs to be spread over a long period.
Many herbaceous borders are riddled with powdery mildew, have slugs on the hostas, caterpillars and aphid. I never spray against pest and disease in my herbaceous borders but many gardeners find this necessary…
And we have not even considered watering, adding organic matter and feeding! All this angst and hard labour. And after three years you need to do it all again. Not for me, thank you.
Better quality borders with much less labour.
On a new site eliminate perennial weeds before you plant using glyphosate. If in a new garden this takes a whole season start a lifetime’s policy of not letting germinated weeds seed.
Do not cultivate other than to adjust levels. Unless it is compacted by previous bad management do not disturb the existing soil profile at all. I am particularly addicted to making new borders by direct planting in a grass sward killed a few weeks earlier by a glyphosate spray. Why destroy wonderful soil structure? I have been planting into dead lawns for clients and in my own gardens for many years now!
|I am planting Cathi’s garden next door and am reshaping the borders to ease mowing|
Best to plant in early Autumn and get the plants off to a good start in warm soil. However where necessary and with appropriate management you can plant anytime. The only time I water my plants is when getting them established. I never water my established borders but of course in a very dry summer period an occasional very thorough soak with more than an inch of water is a beneficial option. Never faff around watering established plants with frequent applications of small quantities of water.
You must of course design your borders. Personally, I am incapable of drawing but do have the advantage of having a large stock of plants and divisions - knowing my plants intimately, I design as I plant. You will never get things completely right the first time and be prepared in the first few years to make small adjustments. This is best done at the time you can see something is wrong.
I am pathologically opposed to staking. I never stake plants in my cemetery gardens and at home I can count on the fingers of one hand the occasions when Brenda insists that a delphinium, helenium or peony is given a cane or a loop of string. I prefer to plant bold self supporting clumps that grow sturdily in good light. Plants drawn as a result of poor light due to close proximity to buildings and hedges or planted in too narrow borders might need supporting in some gardens. I admit I am lucky to be able to plant in large self supporting clumps. Where small clumps of tall plants are planted, staking is more likely to be needed. My garden has no special wind protection and is very windy. My plants grow sturdily in response to wind stresses right from first emergence and stand like soldiers even in gales. After exceptional very heavy wind it might take a few minutes to tidy the odd broken shoot but this will be no more (and frequently less) than those gardeners with their mental crutch of a crutch!
|None of these perennials are staked|
|It would be a shame to stake elegant Verbena bonariensis|
Excellent weed control is fundamental to low maintenance borders. Throughout this blog I extol a ‘little and often’ approach to weed control. In my glyphosate post last week I described specific aspects of timing and directional spraying to make weed control in herbaceous borders efficient and easy. In my own borders I spray around herbaceous clumps with glyphosate and if necessary, hand weed amongst delicate new shoots. I sometimes lightly hoe.
Some herbaceous plants such as helianthus and eupatorium are thugs and without appropriate attention tend to take over and swamp less vigorous plants. You need to adjudicate in this battle. I frequently do this by chopping out pieces to plant elsewhere. Sometimes this is insufficient. A weed is a plant in the wrong place and where my herbaceous perennial has spread too far I spray its invading advancing front. I am totally ruthless but a visitor to my garden is unaware that I sprayed early in Spring as shoots emerged or sprayed portions of the tops at the end of the season a few weeks before the plant’s natural senescence.
|Emerging spring shoots of helianthus have been deliberately sprayed and will die. If I have fastidious visitors I can hoe these yellow shoots off now. Do not try this with delicate plants.|
|This simple example is on ‘Gardeners Garters’ in late Autumn, the method is of greater value on thuggish miscanthus and elsewhere, bamboo! The dead sections make nice autumn colour!|
I generally try to avoid planting pest and disease prone plants and am remarkably tolerant of light infections and await normal health to be restored by natural control as predators and parasites devour pests such as aphids. Because my borders are mainly island borders they receive plenty of light and do not much suffer from fungal disease. Other than my glyphosate I never spray!
I have been trying to convince readers that minimum cultivation creates very healthy soil. I hardly ever find it necessary to fertilize herbaceous plants. Should your soil be less fertile than mine, top dress with general NPK fertilizer - perhaps in March. Just scatter it, don’t damage the soil and plant roots by working it in!
Cutting down herbaceous borders with secateurs at the end of the season is very hard work, back breaking and boring. I have been cutting back with a petrol driven hedge cutter for many years now. The technique is now starting to become popular in public gardens. I find I can cut very close to the ground and get a very tidy finish. In my cemetery gardens I shred the tops as I cut and leave the trimmings as a mulch on the surface. Management here does not permit this untidy refinement which I only get away with in parts of the garden Brenda rarely visits. You will probably be horrified that sometimes I flash burn the cut tops in situ on the surface of the border. I would argue that the char is beneficial..
|Before and after|
At Boundary cottage my herbaceous borders are at least ten years old. They will outlive me before they need replanting.
|It would not be as much fun if I did not sometimes add a few extra plants|