Sheep Garden Blog, Feb 3, 2014: rhythm and blues: the secrets of planting up a new border

Tiffany Daneff / 03 February 2014

Tiffany's carefully drawn diagrams are tossed aside as garden designer James Alexander-Sinclair gets to work planting up the new border.

Last weekend I filled the car with 69 plants, all in 2 litre pots.  They took up the whole of the back seat and every inch of the boot.  These were all going in to my sunny south-facing and newly dug border.

It is a lot of plants and at over a fiver each, a lot of money too, but it’s my late birthday and Christmas present to myself.

A freezing east wind was blowing but it was warm in the sun.  Spotting the tips of Crocus ‘Cream Beauty’ just emerging through the grass I almost believed it could be spring.  

I wheeled the plants from the boot to the border in four barrowloads and, now comes the clever bit. I had previously invited to lunch local garden designer James Alexander-Sinclair ( as I wanted some help with arranging the plants.

As fast as I unloaded the plants James began moving the pots into position. With a pot in each hand he darted up and down the border, placing one plant here, one there still in its pot on the surface of the soil.  It was almost musical.  Da da da dum dum: down went five perovskias which will produce dusky blue spires of Russian sage.  Da da dum.  Another three followed.   There was me with my convoluted drawings and plottings and ummings and aahings and no real idea of how to arrange all the plants.  James, meanwhile, was weaving fluffy fountain grasses along the border in between the flowerpots that marked the clumps of tulips that I had planted the week before (See Sheep Garden Blog 13).  

I couldn’t believe how easily he did it all.  Down went the 12 moody mauve asters in groups of three and four, likewise the sanguisorba (with its plummy bobbletail flowers).   Next, it was the turn of the meadow rue (thalictrum delavayii), almost my favourite with its tight little purple button flowers.

“And then you’ve got the persicaria at the far ends to frame the border and the Rosa Sharifa Asma [which I haven’t got yet] will go on either side of the front door.”   69 plants was the work of moments – unlike actually digging the holes and putting them in, of course.

“How did you do that?”

“Easy,” he replied.  “I just arranged them with gay abandon.”  Sure.  The kind of abandon that only comes from endless practice.  It’s not abandon, of course, so much as “rhythm and repetition”.  This, I would say, is the key.  Eyes, like ears, enjoy pattern and rhythm (whether in colour or texture or shape) and every border needs to provide that if it is to please.   

So, how to do this?

Decide on a theme

The plants I chose have a colour theme of pinks/reds/mauves/blues and a textural element that is all bobbles and buttons woven together with a bit of wisp and fluff.

Choose the plants to fit

Tip: to create rhythm and repetition you must resist picking too many different varieties.  This is the hardest thing – like not being able to taste all the flavours in an ice cream parlour.  I started with a list of almost 20 (!!) plants on which James forced a horribly brutal cull.

This is what I used for a 40ft by 5ft border.  All, apart from the rose, are available from

12 Sanguisorba officinalis Tanna (plum bobbles)
12 Pennisetum alopecuroides Hameln (fluffy caterpillar heads)
12 Perovskia Blue Spire (wispy blue spires)
12 Aster x frikartii Munch (mauve daisy heads)
12 Thalictrum delavayii (purply button flowers)
9   Persicaria amplexicaulis Rosea  (pinky bobbles)
6   Rosa Sharifa Asma (blush pink double rose) (from David Austin Roses)

Plus 300 tulips ranging from pale pink through crimson to a rich violet mauve.

Get weaving

James wove the plants along the border by eye putting some to the front and some to the back, working them in groups of threes and then fours (or sometimes two and two). I’d like to say that having watched him do this once I could do it myself next time.  I know it’s not that easy but it is definitely worth a try.  Just remember to keep standing back to check that everything is balanced.  If you’re not happy rearrange.  Only plant when you have every pot in the right place.

Almost the moment the plants were in the rains returned.  In some ways it could not be better weather.  Lashing rain, puddling paths to mud, is just what new plants need.

Finally, after almost a year of being here the main border is pretty much all planted and I cannot wait to see what it looks like when its grown.  

intoGardens app logoTiffany Daneff is also the editor of the award-winning intoGardens app - the world's first magazine app for gardens. Visit the appstore to download a free sample or go to the website for more information.  Gardening has never looked better or been more exciting. Visit  for more info. 

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