Top tips and ideas for a better garden border

Tiffany Daneff / 16 June 2016

What to plant in your garden's border plus tips, tricks and ideas for keeping your border beautiful throughout the year.



With the recent dry spring followed by what is predicted to be the wettest June on record many garden borders are behaving badly with plants flopping, roses balling and others going over very quickly. It’s a problem for even the best gardens.

“I don’t remember this stage of June ever being quite so difficult,” says Susie Pasley-Tyler, one of the finest plantswomen in England today. She’s addressing a group of keen amateur gardeners on the subject of Border Control at the garden school at Coton Manor in Northants where she lives and gardens with her husband Ian.

This is their 26th season here which gives you some idea of how soggy a summer we’re having. Back in 1991 when Susie took over the garden, which had been created by Ian’s grandparents, she had had “minimal gardening experience”. Today she gardens every day in all weathers and there’s nothing she doesn’t know about making and looking after flower borders big and small. (Plus a whole lot more, but today’s subject is the border.) If I could have a garden wish it would be able to ask her advice every time I wasn’t sure what to do. Second best is coming to one of her half day talks at Coton Manor.

Read our tips for laying out a new garden

What to include in a border

As I know I’ve said before making borders is one of the hardest things to do in the garden because there are so many elements to take into consideration from soil, aspect and weather to colours, themes and seasons - and that’s before you even think about the plants.

Structure eg, trees, shrubs, roses, euphorbia. Even small borders need structure.

Smaller sub-shrubs like perovskia, lavender, fuchsia. In their natural habitat these would get cut down by harsh winters. In Britain we mimic that by cutting them down in early spring, once all danger of frost is over, so that they come back and flower later.

Foliage plants – think about different shapes and how they will work together. Aim for a combination of contrasting and complimentary shapes. Leaves come heart shaped and strappy, tiny or feathery.

Plants for the front of the border – you want useful plants like violas, geraniums and penstemons which can be cut down while still flowering and will regrow.

Bulbs aim for bulbs that will take you through the season eg tulips, alliums, lilies and gladiolus.

Half hardies dahlias are the perfect example offering long mid to late summer colour.

Early space fillers plants that flower early in the season and can be cut back clearing space for others eg aquilegias and foxgloves.

Later long flowering herbaceous plants examples include Japanese anemones, achilleas, asters and red hot pokers.

And, finally, annuals – look for plants that will flower for a long time and give good value like nasturtiums, anthirrinhums and cosmos

Find out how to grow cosmos

Susie Pasley-Tyler

That, of course, is just the start. A happy border needs good soil, deadheading, plant supports and much, much more. I have only just touched on the many and varied insights that Susie (pictured above) packed into the morning which included an illustrated talk followed by a walk round the garden. Here are just a few edited highlights:

Susie Pasley-Tyler’s brilliant border tips

1. Limit yourself to a palette of colours

2. Decide when you’d like the border to peak One border can’t look glorious all year round. Decide on the main season and plan from there

3. Repetition, repetition, repetition The eye enjoys repeating colours and shapes

4. Small borders need fewer plants in bigger groups. “Too many small things can look quite dizzying.”

5. Use strappy iris to break up mounding plants and create variety. Iris look good at the front of a border but avoid having too many verticals

6. Avoid the shelf effect ie not just small things in front and big at the back of the border. Mix up heights front to back.

7. Hide messy plants such as alliums and tulips behind something like perovskia which will disguise their floppy leaves.

8. Flowering times Aim to have one third of your flowers blooming before the end of June and two thirds from July onwards.

9. Woven plant supports will also look good in winter offering sculptural silhouettes when there is little interest in the garden.

10. Plant early flowerers at the back of the border so that when they go over you won’t see them.

Coton Manor Garden School half day talks cost around £80 including coffee and lunch. Talks are given by a variety of visiting speakers from our own James Alexander-Sinclair and plant hunter and botanist Martyn Rix to members of the excellent team of experienced gardeners at Coton. Book online at www.cotonmanor.co.uk; but hurry courses sell out fast!

Find out how to make a flower border from scratch

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.