Designing garden borders

Gardening expert Matt James offers his advice on how to design perfect garden borders for your outdoor space and make sure that they stay colourful all year round.

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Gardening expert Matt James offers his advice on how to design perfect garden borders for your outdoor space.

Sketch out your plan

Successful beds and borders begin on paper, not on the ground. It’s so much easier to toy with ideas, and if you make a mistake you can simply rub it out and start again.

Get a big sheet of graph paper (from art shops) and plot the outline of the border to scale (a scale of 1:50 is fine – 1cm on paper equals half a metre on the ground) before adding the plants from your wish-list. Use blobs to signify trees, shrubs and roses. For a natural look, use sweeping teardrop shapes for perennials and grasses. Always draw plants at their size when mature to check that they’ll fit in. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to include all the plants on your list, so try to be content with your favourites.

Five steps to the perfect border design

1 Include any mature plants that you want to keep, especially those that perform a practical purpose, such as dividing one garden area from another. Don’t be too hasty to get rid of mature plants – in the short term you might find they will help to screen a neighbour’s old fencing, for example, while your new plantings bulk up. In exposed gardens, mature trees and shrubs offer temporary protection from adverse weather too and can be removed when new additions are established. Be wary about losing large trees, however – a sapling is no replacement for one that has taken decades to grow.

2 Next, add any new shrubs, putting the taller ones at the back. Shrubs may not be showy all year round, but they’re essential for bulking out a design and giving it structure, plus winter interest when other plants have died back. Position a little group every 4-6m (13-20ft), each group containing at least one evergreen shrub. If it’s a small border, one evergreen is fine – or at the least allocate space for an evergreen ivy or star jasmine to climb a wall. These help to divide a border into sections; it’s also easier to design a section at a time rather than tackling an entire border in one go.

3 Now add groups of four to five plants in rough triangles to your plan, starting next to the shrubs and working outwards. Lower-growing perennials and carpeting shrubs such as Euonymus ‘Emerald Gaiety’ should be at the front. Once you’re happy, work on a similar sized grouping next to the first one, then place the two together to check that the colours and textures work. Continue like this until each section is full, then move on to the one next door.

4 Plants with long spiky leaves or a slender shape make great focal points and pull the eye deeper into the planting, so position a few as you go. Don’t use too many, though, otherwise the design will look chaotic.

5 It’s unlikely that you’ll be happy with your first attempt, but it’s fun to tweak combinations. Check that there’s year-round interest distributed evenly in your plan by shading in the plants that look good each season. Sheets of tracing paper laid over your initial design will be useful – you can play about with different designs yet still have the original to go back to.

Add year-round cover

It sounds obvious but plant size will actually determine how quickly the composition will mature. Unless you have the budget for large specimens you’ll need to buy smaller, cheaper ones. Don’t choose one little plant of each variety, otherwise the scheme will have bald spots for ages before it fills out. Instead put a few small plants of the same variety together in groups, each one at least a trowel’s length apart, for a fuller look.

Equally, for shrubs and roses consider groups of three rather than one plant on its own. Perennials, ornamental grasses and ground cover should be placed in groups of five, seven or nine and 12 if it’s a large border. Avoid even groupings of two, four and six – they often appear in straight lines that don’t look natural. You might need to thin out congested clumps later to stop them swamping each other, but it’s better than looking at bare soil for five years or so.

If you’re creating a large border with lots of plants, go direct to one supplier. They do the sourcing, and delivery will be cheaper. Suppliers can also suggest substitutes if they can’t source everything on your wish-list.