How to make a white flower border from scratch

This week our gardening editor draws up a plan for a white border, with the help of garden designer, James Alexander Sinclair. The south border“Making a border is one of the hardest things a gardener has to do so if you can get some help, take it



“Making a border is one of the hardest things a gardener has to do so if you can get some help, take it.” So advised (in words approximating to the above) the gardener and writer Ursula Buchan. How right she was and is. 

So many people start out thinking there’s no more to making a flower border than simply choosing plants that look nice together.  Of course that is hugely important, and by far the most joyful part but, as anyone who has tried knows, there is so much more to it than that. 

You need to think about all these things:

  • Colour
  • Texture
  • Height
  • Compatibility – thugs versus wimps
  • Will the plants be happy in your border – how sunny is it/what about drainage/ what kind of soil have you got?

And, when you’ve got your head around those there’s the trickiest of all:

  • How to make sure there are flowers or other nice things to look at all year round?

It’s worse than a Rubik’s cube – if you make a mistake things can die.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, this time I am going to have a go at it myself. 

First I asked myself these questions:

  • The space – what have you got to work with?
  • A yard deep border that’s about 9 foot wide on either of the west facing front door. 
  • Sunny, free-ish draining loam, not too exposed but very cold in winter
  • The vision – how do you see the finished border?

I want:

Wispy, unified, minimalist – a band of frothy grasses interspersed with flowers that start early in the spring and take it through to late autumn

Specifics – what plants/colours MUST you have.  What have you set your heart on?

I want to include Gaura lindheimeri.  I tried growing it in London but it just wasn’t happy.  I saw it growing among grasses in a hotel border and it looked so light and airy. 

Putting the plan together

The theme: Grasses with white flowers

Now to build that into a seasonal, three-dimensional border.

I have to confess that I am terrible with manuals, plans etc In other words I tend to throw away the rule books before I even start.

The way I did it was to think what I needed for each season:

Spring – I thought crocus, Pheasant Eye narcissus and euphorbia to bulk things out.

Summer – the white Gaura.

Autumn – white Japanese anemone.

I have to confess I was stumped with what grass to choose. Or rather which would be happy in the conditions here. And at this point I caved in and asked an expert, James Alexander-Sinclair who gardens round these parts and, being a garden designer, knows whereof he speaks.

I was worried he might diss my whole plan but, thankfully, I was saved total humiliation. 

The grasses he said would green up in spring so no need for the Euphorbia to bulk things out. 

James’ advice

Don’t plant daffodils in the border – (I know, I know) – better to use tulips for the same effect and less messy leaves.  I chose White Triumphator, a wonderful, strong and reliable flower.

James' tip: Save money – plant Narcissus Actea instead of Pheasant Eye

With tulips in the border I shall put the Pheasant eye on the wild bank but James advises that I buy Actea, a very good modern version of Pheasant Eye, (my all-time favourite, for nostalgic reasons) and cheaper (which makes a big difference when you’re buying bulk).

For spring colour he recommended Crocus ‘Cream Beauty’, not white white, but with the softest yellow which will go well with the primroses that already appear in the lawn.

Height:  It would have to be about two foot high so that it was reached the window sill . Deschampsia Goldtau (tufted hair grass) seemed to fit the bill – frothy, golden and flowering from June to August.  As our own Val Bourne puts it on the crocus.co.uk where you can buy it “The finest textured seed head of all: this feathery grass wears a golden tawny shimmer by July and it’s the front of border grass for midsummer”

That’ll do me.

More flowers for summer: I needed to find more whites for early summer. How about campanulas and iris, suggested James.  And Veronicastrum would be nice and spire-y too and go on until the anemones started making themselves felt.

The anemones will spread about but the rest should be well behaved with no staking needed as the border is not too high or exposed.  So this is the full list:

  • Deschampsia cespitosa Goldtau
  • Crocus Cream Beauty
  • Tulipa ‘White Triumphator’
  • Campanula persificolia var ‘Alba’
  • Iris Sibirica ‘Butter and Sugar’
  • Veronicastrum Virginicum ‘Album’
  • Gaura lindheimeri ‘Whirling Butterflies’
  • Anemone x hybrida

But how many plants should you get?

Well, there’s the thing – how do you work that out?  I did a Google search and found a rather useful planting calculator gizmo on this New Zealand site.

It prompts you to work out the area and then fill in which plants and how much space each requires and what proportion you’ll use in the border and then magically works out how many you’ll have to get.

The two borders either side of the door are between 5 and 6 metres long and will be three-quarters-of-a-metre deep.

I took an average length 11 metres x 0.75 deep = 8.25sqm.

For dense planting,   the rule of thumb is to use 5 plants per sqm.

I am going to use 3 per sqm - that’s 25 plants, give or take.

And how to arrange the plants? James recommends planting eight grasses for each five-metre length, five at the front and three behind to give depth to the border.  The campanulas, gaura, iris etc will be planted in between.

Not forgetting the bulbs: 100 each of crocus and tulip, recommends the designer, which won’t be cheap.  I suppose I shall have to see about an early Christmas present. (De Jager sell tulips at 30 for £23.95 while Cream Beauty are £20.65* for 150 bulbs)

I had better get on and order the bulbs before they disappear…

*Prices correct at the time of going to press.

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