Beginners Border Flowers Guide

Border flowers fall into three categories: annuals, biennials and perennials. Annuals are plants which complete the process from seed to flowering plant within the year. They come in two types: the hardy, which you sow outdoors, where they are to bloom, and the half-hardy, which you sow in a greenhouse or frame and later transplant outdoors, and which take somewhat longer to reach their flowering stage.

Biennials are plants which produce leaves their first year, flower and seed their second year, and then die.

Perennial plants are those which live more than two years. These include shrubs and trees as well as border flowers.

Seeds and plants listed in catalogues are identified according to these categories, so you can allow for the potential of the flowers of your choice when planning a border. Borders are usually known as herbaceous borders and at one time their plants were generally restricted to perennials, but this is no longer the case and most borders now include bulbs and corms and shrubby plants.

Now to soil preparation. Soils vary, but whether you have clay or sandy loam there must be a good supply of humus in the ground if plants are to do their best. So thoroughly break up the soil – double dig it, if necessary – mixing in humus, which can consist of well-rotted compost, manure and leaf mould – the latter is splendid, particularly if it includes oak and beech leaves.

The best time of year for preparing your border is the autumn. Winter frosts are on their way to break up clods, and the site will have a chance to settle down ready for spring planting.

Try to remove every scrap of weed, particularly bindweed, ground elder and couch grass; once these get a hold it’s almost impossible to get rid of them. Other menaces which you can do without are docks, clover, creeping buttercup and thistles.

Good planning of a border is most important. Bear in mind the huge range of plants available to suit your choice of colour scheme, the height of the plants, and their flowering times. The border is your canvas, the flowers are your paints, and you are the artist! As a general guide, pale shades could be arranged at either end, with bright colours grouped in the middle. For example, the white phlox, achillea and gypsophila would go with yellow verbascum and hemerocallis to contrast with scarlet lobelia fulgens and potentilla in the centre of the bed. The variations are almost endless.

It’s best to plant in fairly large groups, not forgetting that, apart from colour, the shape and the leaves of the plants can contribute to the overall effect. In fact, many perennials are grown as much for the beauty of their leaves as for their flowers. Good examples are the hostas, plantain lilies and acanthus. And some have attractive seed-heads – among them Chinese lanterns, pasque flowers and the splendid ten-foot tall heracleum mantegazzianum (a most impressive affair!). Talking of height, the general rule for border plants is shortest at the front, tallest at the rear. But rules are made to be broken, and if you have a better idea, use it!

Most perennial plants can be bedded in any time between September and March. Late-flowering types, like Michaelmas daisies and border chrysanthemums, can wait till April.

When you’re planting make sure that roots aren’t bunched or overcrowded; in other words, make planting holes big enough – and be sure the plants go in firmly. If your soil is very heavy, it’s a good idea to line planting holes with sifted compost or a dry soil/peat mixture.

Try to make the most of your border throughout the year. Obviously you can’t enjoy the same blaze of summer colour through from mid-October to spring, but dashes of colour can be had by including plants which flower both early and late. Helleborus (Christmas rose), daffodils, tulips, hyacinths and scillas are all ‘early birds’ and give a pleasant reminder that the dark days are over and summer is a-comin’ in! Wallflowers, forget-me-nots and polyanthus can also add their charms to the scene. At the other end of the scale, apart from the Michaelmas daisies there are Japanese anemones, which flower from August through till early frosts, and the African lily, agapanthus and nerine bowdenii, all of which play their part in brightening the latter end of the season.

In the real close winter season, tidy up the border and lightly fork between the plants. Certain plants need to have dead stems and leaves removed, although some gardeners leave this chore until spring so that the dead vegetation will protect the plants from frost and severe weather. They could be right.

Most gardeners like to be able to supply the’house with a variety of cut flowers, but you shouldn’t over indulge yourself at the expense of the border display. The odd corner can be used to grow flowers for that purpose. Good varieties for cutting include border pinks, erigerons, oriental poppies, delphiniums, crocosmias, herbaceous paeonies and doronicum (leopard’s bane).

Now what about plant troubles? Well, no one gets away scot-free, but you can take precautions. For example, buy healthy stock. Avoid droopy, off-colour bedding plants and soft bulbs. Sow seeds at the proper time. Sow too early and seeds will rot in the soil; sow too late and plants will be undersize and more prone to summer pests and diseases.

Stake plants against the wind. If your plants grow very tall and leafy with few flowers it means they’re getting an excess of nitrogen. You can off-set this by applying a dressing of potash and phosphate. Yellowing leaves on plants indicate iron or manganese deficiency. Counteract this by adding manure or compost to the soil, but avoid lime. If, after all your first aid, you find the trouble is incurable pull up the plants and burn them.


1. Michaelmas Daisies 2. Golden Rod 3. Dahlias 4. Helenium 5. Aconitum 6. Helianthus 7. Sildalcea 8. Phlox 9. Lupins 10. Chrysanthemum 11. Anchusa 12. Calendula 13. Scabious 14. Aubrietia 15. Geum 16. Arabis 17. Dwarf Michaelmas Daisy 18. Dianthus

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