How to plug the gaps in a white border

Tiffany Daneff / 16 May 2016

After some of the flowers in the Sheep Garden's white border did not survive the winter Tiffany Daneff plans what to replace them with.

Last winter might not have been the coldest or wettest but it was the end for the last surviving gaura, which is a real shame. I love this plant. For those of you who haven’t grown it Gaura lindheimerei, often called Whirling Butterflies, is a wonderful wafty perennial (it’s common name is wand flower) that blooms for weeks giving borders my favourite kind of light and airy look.

I had chosen the white variety for the west facing white border outside the front door. It did brilliantly the first year though a few died over that winter, not entirely surprisingly as we garden on heavy clay in a wind blasted frost pocketed valley. Though, Jean Wiseman, at my new favourite plant nursery Ravensthorpe, near East Haddon in Northamptonshire, says they do need replacing after a while.

Related: white flowers for your garden

So what to replace them with?

The white border is quite narrow, only a couple of feet deep and about ten foot long on either side of the door. In spring it starts off with Crocus Cream Beauty and the impossibly elegant tulip White Triumphator to which I add an annual planting of wallflowers. The backbone of is made up with a loose weaving of low growing grasses and white Japanese anemone Honorine Jobert. The star plant was the gaura.

All the bulbs and perennials went in over the winter of 2013/14.

Interestingly, the tulip has kept on coming up strong and in this its third year its showing is as tall and bold as it was in its first. (Same goes for the all the tulips in the west facing border (Maytime, Angelique and Black Hero. So three cheers for tulips.) And this despite the fact that they are supposed to weaken and need replacing every three years.)

By contrast the crocus are pitiful. I planted 300 of the ruddy things. THREE HUNDRED. And I swear less than 20 came up this spring. Why? I don’t know. Mice perhaps? Voles? Did I not plant them deep enough? I’m going to have another go this autumn and see if I can get it right. After that if they disappear again I’m giving up on crocus.

It’s Chelsea soon and I’ll certainly be looking for inspiration there. I’m after white perennials that reach the height of the window sills (ie a yard high), that are bold and beautiful enough to hold the planting together visually but I don’t want fuss pots. Nothing that needs staking and hand holding. I’ll feed and water (though I’d rather not as the hose won’t reach this far) but whatever I get is going to have to survive whatever winter chucks at it.

Tall, white, easy-going star plants

The obvious contender is Veronicastrum virginicum 'Alba' . We grew this in London so I know it well, which is a reason not to choose it. However it is so reliable and does tick all the above boxes perfectly.

Other plants I’ve been toying with are the white Phlox paniculata 'David' and a white lupin 'Noble Maiden', neither of which I have grown. Both are hardy and undemanding and a pretty good match for height and spread. And I’d really like to try them.

There are also some spaces around the far edges of the border which are dry, being close to both the house wall and a box hedge. I wonder if I need something smaller to cover up the unhappy looking soil?

White ground cover semi shade: I am wondering about a white lungwort ie Pulmonaria 'Sissinghurst' but will it tolerate the dry soil? I suppose I could just add loads of new soil and heap on the compost. There is no end to how much well rotted muck these borders can take. But then I read on Crocus the dread words: “Best in a soil that remains moist over summer, since mildew can take hold if the roots dry out.” And if there’s another thing I can’t abide along with fussy plants it’s those that succumb to mildew. Not least because it tends to spread. So it’s back to the drawing board. Or at least Chelsea.

One of my greatest faults as a gardener is impatience. I can’t bear the sight of empty soil and the temptation is always to rush ahead and plug the gaps when what I should do is wait for the plants to grow into their spot. Going to Chelsea never helps. Every garden there is packed to the gunnels in a hopelessly unrealistic fashion. Still go I shall and many lists will I make. I’ll let you know what plants I end up buying.

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