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Expert tips for designing and planting a border

Val Bourne / 20 May 2016

Award-winning gardeners share their tips for designing and planting a flower border.

Matthew Wilson's show garden at Chelsea 2015
Matthew Wilson's show garden at Chelsea 2015

Combining plants in a border is a real skill. The best place to find inspiration is in the show gardens at Chelsea. We asked six top designers exhibiting this year to reveal their fresh, new planting styles.

The show gardens at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show are sometimes dismissed as mere pastiches, but look more carefully and you’ll find inspiration all around you. Successful garden designers have a knack of creating captivating plant combinations, ones that you can copy in your own garden.

Motifs such as the peony ‘Buckeye Belle’, used so effectively with bronze fennel, blue irises and salvia by the Italian designer Luciano Giubbilei in the 2009 Laurent Perrier Garden, have been repeated again and again. And there are always new plants at Chelsea, as well as old favourites.

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Jekka McVicar

Signature planting style

‘It’s always 100% herbs and I always use splashes of red and purple foliage to make the greens shine a bit brighter.’

A favourite combination

‘An irresistible, sexy mixture containing jagged silver cardoon foliage (Cynara cardunculus), mingling with feathery bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’) and underplanted with purple sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’). Fennel flowers and pollen taste of aniseed, so cooks and chefs adore them.’

Jekka McVicar’s top tip

‘Always add a touch of red to your planting schemes, rather as Turner did to his moody seascapes, because it gives the other colours perspective. I often use the bright-red nasturtium ‘Empress of India’, which has edible leaves and flowers.’

Garden design spotlight: A Modern Apothecary

‘For my St John's Hospice garden 'A Modern Apothecary' instead of a traditional lawn I made an edible herb ley in a semi-shaded part of the garden under hawthorn trees. I used chicory (Cichorium intybus), salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium) to create a textured planting that can be picked and eaten. You could do this in a container, or in a small herb garden.’

Jekka McVicar's tips for growing herbs

Cleve West

Signature planting style

Great attention is given to creating atmosphere with drifts of plants chosen for texture, shape and form, rather than flower alone. There are always umbellifers and self-seeders, some of them unusual, to soften the planting.

A favourite combination

‘I like any combination that suggests a wild habitat and I deliberately group together plants that enjoy the same conditions. Last year I used drought-tolerant plants in gravel and worked with a pink poppy (Papaver dubium subsp. lecoqii var. ‘Albiflorum’) that I’d seen at Great Dixter. Pinks can be difficult, but it worked well with a tomato-red California poppy (Eschscholzia ‘Red Chief’). There were tiny pinpoints of fiery colour among the delicate pink poppies.’

Cleve West’s top tip

‘Don’t be frightened to use more of the same thing to create a texture or a foil. Eryngium giganteum ‘Silver Ghost’ looks far bolder and more architectural when framed by a swirl of Calamintha nepeta subsp. nepeta ‘Blue Cloud’, for instance, than on its own.’

Garden design spotlight: M&G Garden 2016

‘For the 2016 M&G Garden I used a strong acanthus, the white-flowered ‘Rue Ledan’, with a toning green and white grass, Melica altissima ‘Alba’, as a foil. I added Epimedium ‘Amanagowa’, a dark-leaved epimedium with dainty blush-white flowers smudged in squid ink. Pallid yellow aquilegias (A. chrysantha ‘Yellow Queen’) and a sylph-like foxglove called Digitalis lutea add touches of light and shade.’

Cleve West's allotment guide

Matthew Wilson

Signature planting style

Handsome and rugged with a backbone of foliage and fine trees.

A favourite plant combination

‘I like touches of pure drama and last year I used a group of soaring white foxtail lilies (Eremurus himalaicus), above an early summer tapestry of deep-blue Salvia x sylvestris ‘Mainacht’ to contrast with the acid-yellow Euphorbia ‘Redwing’. A fine-tined grass (Festuca amethystine) picked up the colour of the euphorbia foliage and added lots of airy movement.’

Matthew Wilson’s top tip

‘Grasses with fine foliage add a long-term, airy presence and unite any scheme.’

Garden design spotlight: God's Own Country

Matthew, almost an honorary Yorkshireman, having been the Curator of Harlow Carr Garden near Harrogate for several years, used York Minster as his inspiration for God's Own Country, sponsored by Welcome to Yorkshire. Local stone pillars and gargoyles were loaned from historic sites, while some of the more vivid planting mimicing the colours in the Minster’s Great East Window, the largest single expanse of medieval stained glass in the world.

‘My shadier area features foliage, which can get overlooked in the flowery glitz of Chelsea. The statuesque Hosta ‘Halcyon’, which has quilted slug-proof blue-grey foliage, will rise above the young russet fronds of Dryopteris erythrosora, along with an airy golden grass (Deschampsia cespitosa), which add a touch of the Yorkshire moorland and catch the raindrops and sunbeams.’

Get the Chelsea look at home

Rosy Hardy

Signature planting style

Colour-coordinated cottage-garden style with a natural feel and artistic flair.

A favourite combination

‘I’m an admirer of bright yellow and orange because they draw the eye and stop that flat-faced look. I love Trollius ‘Dancing Flame’, an orange globe flower with a punk haircut. Used with deep-blue Iris sibirica, the orange trollius picks up the orange on the beards of the iris so the two hold hands together. The lime-yellow foliage of Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ provides a bright backdrop for this early summer explosion for moister soil.’

Rosy Hardy’s top tip

‘Always look at the detail in each flower, whether it’s the stamens or the veining, and use that as a springboard. Never be afraid of orange. It’s a touchpaper for blue and purple, as is yellow.’

Garden design spotlight: Forever Freefolk

‘I hate bitty planting that doesn’t work in the garden. For 'Forever Freefolk' I used a drift of soft and dainty flowers in pinks and purples through gravel in the sunny section to create a minimalist planting scheme. Centaurea bella, Centaurea montana ‘Joyce’ and Scabiosa ‘Kudo’ emerge through the felted grey foliage and stems of an alpine willow (Salix lanata). Less can be more.’

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Andy Sturgeon

Signature planting style

An exuberant style, which is ‘maximalist rather than minimalist’, with a restricted floral colour palette and an emphasis on lots of foliage rather than flower.

A favourite combination

‘This rich combination, which peaks in May and early June, features the deep-blue spires of Salvia ‘Caradonna’, a warm-red aquilegia called ‘Ruby Port’ and the silvery sword-like leaves of Astelia chathamica. The handsome foliage and lime-green flower heads of Euphorbia x martini and the lacy green fronds of Polystichum setiferum, together with the linear astelia foliage, look good throughout the season whether there are flowers or not.’

Andy Sturgeon’s top tip

‘Always look at the foliage first. Mix the textures and the shapes and remember that all shades of green do go together, but you may have to segregate the extremes. The dark, high-gloss foliage of evergreen Pittosporum tobira will go with the olive-green Myrica gale, a Mediterranean shrub, for instance, if they have a buffer in between them.’

Garden design spotlight: The Telegraph Garden 2016

‘There are smatterings of colour, principally yellows, purples, blues whites, among lots of foliage, including the blue-green foliage of the flax lily Dianella revoluta ‘Little Rev’ and a soft green sedge named Juncus effusus. The heart of the garden is very manicured but the outer edges will contain wilder Mediterranean planting, including shrubby pistachio trees and Myrtus communis subsp. tarentina, a dwarf evergreen with scented white flowers.

What happens to the show gardens after Chelsea?

Jo Thompson

Signature planting style

Relaxed, loose planting with a traditional English feel and although Jo’s style tends to be floaty and feminine, it’s equally popular with men and women.

A favourite combination

‘Roger Platts, who has won many medals at Chelsea, has been my inspiration because I admire his simple planting style. I have an east-facing wall covered in the pale-pink rose ‘Blush Noisette’, which flowers for ever and ever. It’s supported by the late, purple Clematis ‘Etoile Violette’ on one side and the spring-flowering, softer blue Clematis ‘Frances Rivis’ on the other. Gaura lindheimeri, a willowy perennial with white flowers touched in rhubarb-pink, blooms through summer and into winter, picking up the colour of the rose.’

Jo Thompson’s top tip

‘Soil conditions come first because your chosen plants must thrive in their position. Then take a main plant and look carefully at the texture and colour, and use that as your key. The ragged amber and honey bark of Betula nigra, for example, is made to go with apricots such as Verbascum ‘Cotswold Beauty’. The purple, fuzzy stamens of the verbascum then call for an added touch of purple.’

Garden design spotlight: The Chelsea Barracks Garden

‘For the Chelsea Barracks Garden, sponsored by Qatari Diar, we were able to borrow the landscape of the Royal Chelsea Hospital and the stained-glass windows of the chapel are decorated with roses, so we used fragrant, purple-pink old-fashioned roses such as ‘Chianti’, ‘Charles de Mills’ and ‘Rose de Rescht’. We framed these with a soft mixture that included the silver-blue Geranium ‘Mrs Kendall Clark’, but we also added richer colour – including chocolate-coloured irises.’

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