20 tips for beautiful garden borders

Follow Matt James’ essential tips to ensure your garden border is in full bloom this season

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Looking to transform your garden for summer? Or perhaps your are designing a new garden from scratch and need tips on planning your planting scheme? Getting your garden borders right is essential for a beautiful and well-maintained garden. Think of borders as both decorative and architectural elements in your garden – not only do they fill your outdoor space with colour and fragrance, but they are essential for zoning different areas, improving privacy, and pulling the design together into a cohesive scheme. Whether you like a landscaped, formal look, or would like to create a natural garden, follow these tips from the horticulturalist Matt James and create luscious, thriving garden borders. 

1. Work with your garden's natural layout

Working in harmony with your garden is always best. Plants grown where they’re happiest need little attention and both flower and fruit better.

Spend time noting the characteristics of beds and borders: are they sunny or shady? Wet or dry? Sheltered or exposed? Chances are you’ll find different growing conditions in different parts of the garden. Look carefully, and then choose appropriate plants to match each one.

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

2. Plan your planting scheme carefully

All good gardeners make their mistakes on paper, not on the ground, saving both time and money in the process. Use graph paper and draw on the outline of the area to be planted, preferably to scale (1cm on paper to 50cm on the ground –1:50 scale – is ideal for all but the most complicated schemes). Then, considering the scale you’ve selected, play with different arrangements until you find one that works. Plot plants with their mature size in mind to be sure they’ll fit.

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

3. Research and find inspiration

Find combinations you like in books and magazines, and if growing conditions are the same as those in your garden, copy them. Neighbouring gardens and labelled displays at nurseries and garden centres are also useful for ideas.

a raised border full of bright flowers and colourful planting

Planting beds surround this raised water feature with rendered walls designed by Ann Marie Powell and built by Garden House Design. The colourful planting is designed to develop and mature to soften the harder lines

4. Consider maintenance carefully

How much time do you have? For young families and those at work all day, winter and summer bedding, rose bushes, fruit, vegetables and floppy perennials are too time-consuming.

Instead, favour shrubs, tidy conifers, ornamental grasses and tough-but-colourful mat-forming perennials such as Stachys Byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’. All need little attention once established and suffer few pests or diseases.

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(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

5. Choose a planting theme

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

Picking a theme brings clarity and focus to the design process. Personal taste and how you plan to use the garden have an influence, but the space itself can offer clues as to what works best. For example, a sunny free-draining slope is perfect for an informal Mediterranean-inspired gravel garden. Visually, it won’t look out of place either.

Natural Sandstone Paving in Autumn Green with borders and decorative planting

Choosing a theme can help to clarify the design process. This relaxed Mediterranean-style stone and gravel garden features simple planting in borders with pots to complement the scheme. The natural sandstone paving in Autumn Green is available as a 15.3m² patio pack or in five single sizes, from £22 per m², Bradstone

6. Keep the planting scheme simple

Hold yourself back from including every plant on your shortlist, as the planting will look chaotic and unplanned. Aim to create a sense of harmony and unity by choosing a colour palette or theme early on.

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

7. Repeat planting for a designed effect

Repetition is the easiest way to unify a planting scheme. It’s also the one thing that marks out a ‘designed’ border from one that happens by accident. Perhaps use the same hedging throughout or repeat evergreen perennials or ornamental grasses in drifts at the front of beds and borders (where repetition is most obvious).

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

8. Use a variety of plants to create contrast

While harmony is important, so is diversity. Plants with distinctive colours and dramatic shapes, such as spiky palms and pencil junipers, make great focal points. But a little goes a long way, so use sparingly or the planting will look over-stimulating. With standard-sized borders (1.5-2m wide) one focal point plant every four to six metres should be enough.

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

13. Consider the colour wheel

Colour is a personal preference, but if you want to be more precise about it and create memorable plantings like the professionals, choose a classic combination, taking into account the colour wheel. Colours opposite each other complement through dramatic contrast. Those adjacent are harmonious and the easiest way to combine colour over a large area.

You could pick the shades, tints and tones of one colour only for a sophisticated monochromatic look. Or alternatively, choose an exciting triadic combination using three colours from the wheel, each spaced equidistantly apart. A multicoloured scheme is also a possibility, but isn’t that easy to pull off successfully.

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

9. Add layers for extra interest

The easiest and most visually effective way to arrange plants is in layers, with borders backed by walls or fences, tall shrubs, bamboo and lofty grasses first. Place roses, smaller shrubs, mid-sized perennials and ornamental grasses in the middle. Feature shorter shrubs, mounding perennials and ankle-high ground-cover plants in front.

However, try to avoid arranging everything like a series of steps. On occasion sweep low plantings towards the back, and taller ones to the front, to create depth and interest.

10. Make big borders

Thin strips under 50cm wide will only allow for a low hedge, a wall shrub, or a line of tidy perennials arranged uncomfortably like soldiers on parade. Beds and borders in excess of two metres, however, can accommodate multi-layered mixed plantings with shrubs, roses and more natural drifts of perennials and grasses.

Some designs, naturalistic ‘prairie-like’ plantings in particular, need lots of space for the effect to be appreciated. In small gardens this might mean sacrificing lawn space.

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

11. Create mixed borders in urban gardens

In urban and suburban gardens, continuity of interest is important. The mixed border is best, as you can call on every plant group – trees, shrubs, roses, perennials, and bulbs – for interest, with each group sparkling at different times of the year.

12. Plants with autumn and winter in mind

Plants with fiery autumn leaves, stunning seed heads, colourful fruits and berries, brilliant bark or evergreen leaves prolong seasonal interest and help to lift the spirits on drab days.

Heuchera

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

14. Focus on shapes

The shape of plants is just as important as flower colour and because it’s around for much longer (with woody plants, all year round), shape helps to structure the planting. The colour and texture will then supply the finish.

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

15. Intermingle bulbs

Brilliant for seasonal interest in spring, summer and autumn, most bulbs cope with competition so can be planted to grow through frothy perennials, giving you two colour bursts from the same place – ideal where space is tight. Only large-flowered tulips need replacing each year.

16. Add volume with shrubs

Offering year-round interest for little effort, shrubs bring all-important ‘body’ to your borders, too. As a guide, most mixed plantings should contain at least 40 per cent, spaced evenly throughout the display, from the back right down to the front.

Evergreens with good form and shapely leaves should be first choice, especially in small spaces. Consider size at maturity and vigour carefully, though, as some shrubs can grow to monstrous proportions.

17. Cover all soil with plants

Plant plenty of ground-cover perennials and mat-forming shrubs to smother the soil and keep down weeds. But, don’t cram plants in cheek-by-jowl for an instant effect. Observe the correct spacing (your garden centre or nursery will help here), or be prepared to undertake some judicious pruning in a few years’ time.

18. The more the merrier in a garden border

Never place each plant as a solitary specimen. This results in a bitty-looking display. Instead, plant in groups proportionate to the size of space.

In small gardens/borders, shrubs and roses planted in groups of three is common, unless they’re larger specimens, where one by itself is fine. For perennials and grasses, plant in groups of three to 12 plants, depending on the importance of the plant and how distinctive it is; some plants – particularly pastel-coloured single-stemmed perennials, for example – are invisible by themselves.

19. Think vertical

Height is important for interest, contrast and to pull the eye skyward. Fastigiate (pencil-like) shrubs and climbers trained on wigwams are ideal. Take full advantage of walls and fences, too, perhaps combining tidy non-invasive climbers that flower at different times to prolong the season of interest. Roses and large-flowered summer clematis is a classic combination.

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

20. Fill border with scented plants

Scented plants enliven any garden, so try to include them when possible. There are so many different ones to choose from, but how powerful the perfume is will determine where they work best.

‘Free scents’, such as from Dutch honeysuckle and white jasmine, perfume the air for yards and are generous, sometimes to a fault. ‘Up close and personal’ scents, such as from roses, witch hazel and Daphne, are more subtle, so position near areas you use the most. ‘Touchy-feely’ scents, such as from thyme, are released only when the plant’s leaves are picked; position in patio pots or next to paths, within easy reach.

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