Refreshing a white border

Tiffany Daneff / 09 September 2015

Tiffany Daneff decides it is time to refresh the Sheep Garden's white border and starts shopping for plants.

The west facing white border, the one that straddles the front door, is annoying me. It’s just too gappy. This is a good time of year to make plans as the plants are still growing and the gaps, and failings, are obvious. If I leave the decision making until next spring – even using photographs as reference – it will be that much harder to visualise.

To recap, I planted this border two winter’s ago with all white perennials, grasses and bulbs. The idea was to keep it simple both visually and to look after. So the backbone of the design is a loose informal weave of repeating plantings of Deschampsia cespitosa, white Japanese anemones and white Gaura lindheimeri. In spring this is filled in with magnificent stands of Tulip White Triumphator and scatterings of the pretty crocus Cream Beauty. Last year I boosted the spring display with orange wallflowers (E. Fire King).

Sounds great. Trouble is that last winter’s sustained wet freeze got a hold of the gaura and wiped out all but one. As they were the mainstay of my frothy summer look (flowering most usefully from May to September) I need to think again. Question is what is tough enough to survive what our Northamptonshire winters offer? I am so not going to plant anything that needs molly coddling.

Another problem is that the far left end of the border has the most miserable shallow dry soil as it backs up to the house wall and the hedge. I’ve plumped it up with sackfuls of well rotted sheep muck but it still looks inhospitable. So what to plant here?

I’ve been using Crocus plant search filter to answer these questions. And it is a wondrous thing. You just tick the relevant boxes… aspect/soil/type of plant/flowering months etc and up comes a selection of suitable plants. You can then go through the list knowing that at least you will be choosing something that should thrive.

For Misery Corner – (dry, clayey and partly shaded) the options are elephant’s ears, of which I favour Bressingham White over Silberlicht. Both grow to 45cm but the former has whiter and more striking blooms. Another suggestion is Geranium Phaeum ‘Album’, the dusky cranesbill, flowering May to June. Or there’s Geranium Maccrorhizum ‘White Ness.” All of these are pretty good at providing ground cover. However the geranium seems a better fit with the more relaxed look I’m trying to create. I do love bergenia but those lovely leathery “ears” will dominate.

As replacements for the gaura I am toying with Phlox Paniculata ‘Rembrandt’ which flowers from July to September, smells heavenly, is loved by bees. On the negative side it does need supporting, but I do love a phlox.

This is always the hard part: having to make a final choice and useful as the plant filter is it can’t do the Simon Cowell bit. So I asked my friendly local designer, James Alexander-Sinclair, who gardens in pretty much the same conditions so knows what works here.

He approved all the Crocus suggestions and then came up with some of his own. These were:

Ground cover plants that will cope with dry, semi-shade

Tiarella Cordifolia, the foam flower, a semi evergreen woodland plant that’s fully hardy and grows to 10 inches. New American breeding has produced less invasive kinds. I might go for Tiarella cordifolia 'Spring Symphony’ which has pink buds opening into a froth of white flowers.

Viola Labrodorica, the low growing alpine violet. There are some self sown violas already so I know this should survive well. But it is a little small at 1½-3 ins. I might get some seeds from Chiltern Seeds though and see if I can’t encourage a few more.

Plants that will provide an alternative to the gaura

Aquilegia. A single blue aquilegia appeared in the south border this year so I know it does well here and I do love them. I am going to go for A. vulgaris ‘Nivea’, the white granny’s bonnet, which is fully hardy, grows to 0.8m and will be a perfect match for the other plants in the border.

Aster Divaricatus, the white wood aster, flowering from June to October, fully hardy. I like the idea of this as it grows to about 2 foot. The height is an advantage in this border. It was, says the Crocus website, a favourite of Gertrude Jekyll, who planted it with bergenia. Another point in its favour, it will echo the A. Frikatii Monch, growing in the south facing border.

Hellebores – another good idea that goes with the border’s informal look and will provide nice leaf contrast. There are hellebores dotted around the garden so this also ties in well with the existing plantings. I shall plan a visit Ashwood Nurseries in Worcestershire where the best are to be found. (You can also buy online or by phone.)

Though most plants are not available yet I have filled in requests for an email to be sent to me when they do come online. So that’s it for now. Oh, except one key thing, to put markers in the ground where the new plants will be needed.

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