How to create borders in your garden

A well-designed border is one of the most desirable of all garden features, providing shape, colour, texture and movement. Most are planted to reach their peak in summer but with careful selection of plants it’s possible for these displays to add interest to the garden scene all year round.  But if you’re a beginner gardener, you might be wondering how to create borders in your garden.

Some people associate borders with grand gardens found within country estates but they are suitable for all sorts of spaces, from town gardens to rural patches, and from large plots to small gardens. And forget about the notion that they are best left to expert gardeners – anyone can create borders with impact. 

When to make borders

Technically, you can create borders at any time of year, but for my money, the best time is spring or autumn. The weather is often dry in summer, making it hard to slake the thirst of newly planted specimens and the soil is frozen or too soggy to work in winter. In spring and autumn, the soil is warm and moist, making it perfect for planting. Also, any damage caused to the garden by trampling feet will have recovered before the growing season gets into full swing.

Size and shape

The first thing to do is to define the outline of your border, whether it’s backed by a wall, hedge or fence. Traditionally, borders were straight and rectangular, and this formal shape suits neat and tidy spaces. Borders with a curved outline are more informal and will even make a linear garden seem larger. Narrow borders might be necessary if space is tight but if you can, provide a depth of around 1.5m (5ft) to allow a multi-layered display.

Mark the outline of a formal, geometric-shaped border with string attached to wooden stakes.

Prepare the ground

One of the most common questions we’re asked by gardeners wondering how to create borders in your garden, is how to prepare the ground. If you are creating a formal, geometric-shaped border, mark out its outline with string attached to wooden stakes – a clever way to the define the edge of an informal border is to stretch a hosepipe across the ground, twisting it to the desired shape. If you are creating borders on a lawn, strip back the turf with a spade and then dig the area over, working in well-rotted manure or garden compost and removing any large stones. Leave to settle for a couple of weeks before raking level.  

Pick a theme

A random selection of plants are unlikely to work well together in a border, so pick perennials, grasses and shrubs that will suit a theme, such as Mediterranean, exotic, contemporary or cottage garden. Another option is to go for a particular colour scheme, whether it’s a hot border filled with fiery reds, oranges and yellows, or something calmer and cooler, such as a green and white scheme – select plants with white flowers, green foliage and a few with variegated leaves. 

Placing plants

As a rule, it’s best to arrange plants in borders according to their height to create a tiered display that graduates in height, working from the back to the front. Place things like delphiniums, cardoons, Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ and other lofty specimens at the rear so they don’t hide shorter specimens. Set floppy Alchemilla mollis, hardy geraniums and nepeta at the front, and sandwich medium-sized plants like lupins, asters and heleniums in-between. 

Arrange plants in groups with taller specimens at the rear.

Planting in odd numbers

If you want borders to be easy on the eye, avoid dotting them with lots of individual plants. It’s best to arrange plants in groups of three, five, seven and so on, spacing them 24-60cm (18-24in) apart, depending on their mature size. Individual plants do have their place. For example, tall, airy perennials, such as Verbena bonariensis and bronze fennel, can be popped in to provide punctuation marks, while a few key shrubs or roses will provide year round structure. 

Borders in shade

Borders in shady parts of the garden will never rival their sunny counterparts for lashings of colour, but they don’t have to be filled solely with foliage plants. Astilbes, foxgloves and aquilegias all thrive in lower light. Hydrangeas, azaleas and fuchsias are perfect shrubs for adding height and extending interest.

Hydrangeas will thrive in lower light.

After planting

Water plants well after planting, and then spread a 7.5cm (3in) mulch of garden compost, leafmould or well-rotted manure over the ground, leaving a gap around plants to prevent stems softening and rotting. Get everything off to a flying start in spring by spreading some slow release fertiliser granules like Easy Feed over the ground.  

Looking after borders

Ensure borders remain in good shape by giving them plenty of attention. Remove weeds, unwanted seedlings and stake tall or top-heavy varieties in spring to prevent them collapsing prematurely. Every four or five years, lift and divide clumps that have outgrown their allotted space.

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