Borders in garden design

Use traditional borders, with their dense concentration of colourful flowers and foliage, to add shape, character and seasonal interest to your garden.

B orders – formally geometric or informally curved areas filled with ornamental plants – are one of the most popular garden features and can be found in most gardens. The words ‘border’ and ‘bed’ are sometimes used interchangeably, though a border suggests a linear effect and a bed generally describes an island planting area.

Borders are traditionally set alongside lawns but can also be edged by paving or gravel. In some cottage gardens, however, the whole garden area is basically an extended border or borders either side of an approach path. Borders can be front-facing, backed by a wall, hedge or fence or they may be ‘all-round’, laid out to be viewed from every direction.

Unlike hard landscape elements, such as paths or walls, new borders are relatively easy to create; and existing borders aren’t difficult to reshape or even replant elsewhere, with the redundant ground reinstated as lawn. Before embarking on such an exercise, however, carefully consider a border’s size, shape and position – these will affect the finished appearance as much as your choice of plants.

What borders can do

As well as their obvious potential as colourful features, borders, especially those with plants 1.2m (4ft) or more high all year round, can have other functions, in terms of garden design: Framing A pair of borders can lead the eye to an attractive view outside the garden, such as a distant hill or church spire, or to a focal point, such as a fountain, seat, summerhouse or birdbath within it. An island bed can enhance a statue, small standard tree or other focal point in its centre. Concealing A good-sized border, with planting up to eye level or higher, can conceal a mundane building, an unattractive view out of the garden or a children’s play or utility area within it. Including a few evergreen shrubs helps ensure year-round effectiveness. Containing Surrounding a seating area, or even just a bench, with a border on three sides creates a feeling of shelter and privacy. Similarly, a tall boundary border can provide that same privacy for the garden as a whole. Climber-covered trellising rising out ot such as border extends the sense of containment and could even provide a rooflike bovver for a se-cluded seating area.

Between the base of a house wall and an adjacent path. Unless there is no option, however, it’s best to have a minimum width of 60cm (2ft), especially since the soil next to a house or garden wall or patio foundations is liable ro be dry, and require frequent watering in summer. This is doubly so in the case of narrow beds underneath deep eaves or gutters.

Very wide borders require pro-portionately more ground, planus and maintenance. A border 1.5-1.8m (5-6ft) wide is a good size but needs access from both sides or a few central stepping stones, for ease of maintenance.

A border can be as long as the garden, scarcely more than its own width, or anything in between. The larger the surrounding lawn, the smaller circular or other-shaped island beds look, so make them at least 1.5m (5ft) in diameter.

Formal shapes range from rec-tangles, squares, triangles, ‘L’s and diamonds to circles and ovals. Complex geometric shapes : stars, for example – may nor ‘read’ as such once planted (except, perhaps, from an upstairs window), and they require enor-mous edge upkeep if set in lawn.

Informal shapes are partly or totally curved in plan. A single or double, loosely teardrop-shaped outline is usually more effective and easier to maintain than a series of several vviggly, repeated curves. Remember, too, that an informal effect can be created by planting a simple, geometric-shaped bed with large clumps of intermingling plants, with some overhanging the edge.

Height and level

A border’s height obviously depends on the plants, but can range from as little as 5cm (2in), with carpet bedding, to 3.7m (12ft) or more, if small trees are included. Height can be uniform throughout, as in the case of summer bedding. Or it can be tightly graded from short at the front to tall at the back, as in formal, front-facing beds. Alternatively, it can be loosely graded from front to back, as with informal, front-facing beds, with a few medium-sized plants placed towards the front, to break the uniformity. Island beds tend to have the tallest plants in the centre.

Most borders are level with, or very slightly above, the surrounding lawn or paving. Raised borders, supported by retaining walls, can add extra height and interest, especially along the boundary wall of a small urban garden. They also reduce the need for bending during maintenance, and bring medium-sized and small plants a little closer to eye level. Additionally, the wall offers great scope for arching and trailing plants to overhang the edge. On steeply sloping sites, a scries of raised borders can create a handsome, terraced effect.

Borders can be generously wide or even expand to fill the whole of a smal or medium-sized garden, crossed by one or more paths. Colourful, informal, even gently haphazard borders comprise the bulk of many cottage gardens, but a more sophisticated effect can also be achieved by limiting the colour palette, as here, and concentrating on bold contrasts of foliage forms.

Multiple borders

If you decide on two or more borders together, consider their visual relationship. Identical pairs of formal, rectangular borders can he planted to become mirror images of each other, and reinforce the symmetry of a formal layout. Two loosely interlocking but asymmetrical curved beds, perhaps one slightly larger than the other, with similar but not identical planting, is an informal equivalent.

Four square or rectangular borders can form the quarters of a single ‘mega-bed’, separated by a cross-shaped, lawn path. But re-member that the more borders you have in a lawn, the less visually restful the lawn appears and the more maintenance is required.

Siting borders

Each garden is unique but there are certain areas in a garden which are especially suitable for borders. One border can connect to or respond to another, and by careful planning you can build up an integrated scheme. Along a boundary A generously wide planting strip along the side and or/back boundary wall or fence, with lawn or paving in the centre, is a foolproof treatment for small square or rectangular gardens.

In a corner You can widen boundary borders where they meet in a corner, or confine the border to the corner itself.

Along a path A border along one or both sides of a path is always pleasing, provided the path is wide enough to allow for overhanging plants.

Next to the bouse Borders next to a house should ideally respond to its architecture – a curved border beneath a curved bay window, for example, or symmetrical borders responding to the inherent symmetry of a Georgian facade. It’s a good idea to insert stepping stones central to windows for window cleaning – they will also help prevent plant damage.

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