Bordering on magnificent

I'm looking out of the window on what is best described as a mess; a jungle of flattened fronds, foliage and dead vegetation.

Three years ago, when I planted it, this was my mini herbaceous border (more a herbaceous patch). It thrived and I have to admit that I let it get away with a lot of things.

This winter, however, before I could get to grips with it and give it a good seeing-to, the snow came. Almost two feet descended and the herbaceous 'border' vanished beneath a covering of white. Everything was flattened, and it stayed flattened until the first thaw.

My fault; I should have tackled it earlier. But daft as it sounds, I am now contemplating yet another herbaceous 'border' (patch) where until a few weeks ago stood several small trees and numerous shrubs. A monumental clear-out has left me with space to plant an interesting if small corner and I am seriously thinking of going herbaceous.

Ages ago, almost every garden had its own herbaceous border; grand houses had grand borders (sometimes two) while less-grand houses had less-grand borders. Each to their place, but the border was almost obligatory.

Sadly, the border is no longer a patch on what it was – great masses of colours, al shapes and sizes, guaranteed to catch the eye. They were the products of imagination, countless hours of hard labour.

To see it in all its splendour, you have to visit one or more of the various stately homes which still possess the big and bountiful border. One of the best in Yorkshire (two, in fact) can be found at Newby Hall, near Ripon, where the twin borders cascade down to the river Ure.

The idea seems to be to pack together as many species and as many colours as possible – but ensuring that they blend to form a oneness, a living mass of plants. So there are roses, delphiniums, larkspur, clematis, red-hot pokers, iris, columbines and smaller plants to the front – heuchera, scabies, snow-in-summer, fuchsias. In fact, just about anything goes – as long as the overall result is stunning.

The common go hand in hand with the uncommon. Roses make the most of handy walls to gain height; clematis go where they want; yet it's a planned profusion and, boy oh boy, does it take some work to keep it looking good.

Yellows, oranges and reds gave way to blues and whites in the scehem of things. This is truly gardening on a grand scale, but the ideas – and some of the plants – can be adapted to fit in to much smaller spaces.

But there has to be method in this sumptuous madness. First choose your site –south-facing and sunny if you can. Then clear it, digging out every weed large and small. It's hard, dirty work, but in the end, it will be worth all that effort.

Then improve the soil, incorporating plenty of good muck – old compost, well-rotted leafmould, manure...anything which will add heart and improve the drainage,

Deciding what to plant can be a hard task – but the rule of thumb is big plants to the back, smaller plants to the front, with the lowest-growers to the fore. There is no rule saying that the gardener must plant a specific plant or use a particular colour – grow what you like.

When money was no object, a gardener would plant four or five of the same plant, grouped together. This meant that they would grow quickly to cover all the bare soil. Today, when cash is increasingly hard to come by, best to plant just two or three of each plant and allow them a little more room to expand.

Water them well to help them establish their root systems and then let the plants get on doping what they do best – growing and flowering.

Within just a few months, there should be flowers galore.

Come autumn, leave the interesting seedheads for the birds to enjoy, but cut down all dead and dying foliage and compost it.

If you really want to go to town, apply a mulch of old compost or well-rotted manure to keep the soil warmer and weed-free over winter.

YP MAG 15/1/11