Horticulture Magazine

How To Create A Stunning Herbaceous Border

a path leading alongside a colourful herbaceous border with Crocosmia, Monarda and Coneflowers

Creating a stunning herbaceous border can be great for the wildlife in your garden, and great for you.

Herbaceous borders are great for gardeners who want to create a beautiful and long-lasting garden design. These planting schemes are great for biodiversity, and for attracting plenty of beneficial creatures to share your space. They can also be quite quick to establish, meaning that you might not have to wait as long to get a lush and established look in your garden.

If you would like to learn how to create a stunning herbaceous border where you live, then read on for some tips and suggestions.

What is a Herbaceous Border?

an overgrown herbaceous garden with stone path and tree
Borders like these are a haven for pollinators

A herbaceous border is a garden growing area which features a range of herbaceous perennials (plants which live in your garden over a number of years, but which die back each winter).

The concept of herbaceous borders evolved here in the UK during the 19th Century. This planting style which emerged after new hybrid and imported plants flooded the plant market and altered the style of British gardens over the 18th and 19th Centuries. The term is usually used synonymously with the herb perennial border, which is the more popular name for this type of planting in the US and elsewhere. The term herbaceous border was popularised by Gertrude Jekyll, a 20th Century garden designer involved in the resurgence of the British cottage garden.

Creating, Marking Out and Preparing a Herbaceous Border

  • Don’t restrict yourself to the very edges of the garden. Create broad, generous borders at least 4-5ft wide as a minimum.
  • Consider bringing the plants out of the edges, curving borders out into the centre of the space, or using herbaceous borders as divisions between garden rooms.
  • Use curving and sinuous forms for a more naturalistic look.
  • If creating bed edging for your new border, consider natural or reclaimed materials.
  • Or consider simply edging the border with living ground cover plants.
  • Mark out the edge of your new border with flour, string and stakes, or with a garden hose to create the edge of a more sinuous shape.
  • Consider using no dig methods – when creating a border on lawn, cover the grass with cardboard then layer up mulches before topping with a layer of well-rotted compost/ manure. (You will dig planting holes to accommodate each plant but most of the soil will remain undisturbed. You can then add an organic mulch around your plants once you have placed them, and replenish this in spring each year.)
  • If you are already working with bare soil, make sure this is weed free, then top dress with plenty of compost and/or other organic material.

Layout Tips For a Herbaceous Border

  • For a very formal and regimented design, place taller perennials at the back of the border, mid-height plants at the centre, and low-growing or ground cover plants at the front.
  • However, you can also mix things up a little, and place wispy, tall plants close to the front of the border, so you look through these to the plants behind. Placing taller plants towards the front of the border can help break up the lower, mounded forms and make it look for organic, free-flowing and natural.
  • Plant in ribbons, or drifts of plants, and avoid placing too many individual flower types, which can make the overall border look a bit messy and overly fussy.
  • Be sure to mix textures and forms to create a look which leads the eye and flows in a natural way.
  • Avoid creating straight lines and solid blocks or colour of foliage, as these can be jarring and spoil the overall effect.

How To Choose Plants For a Herbaceous Border

  • Think about the environmental conditions. Be sure to choose plants suited to the climate and microclimate where you live. Think about whether the border is sunny or shaded, sheltered or exposed, and choose plants accordingly.
  • Choose a selection of plants which provide blooms and visual appeal over as much of the year as possible. Try to make sure that each time one plant in the border finishes blooming, there are at least a couple more ready to take over.
  • Consider native perennials, which can be particularly well suited to local growing conditions, and which can be particularly beneficial for local wildlife.
  • Don’t overlook the potential of edible perennials, perennial herbs, and other useful perennial plants as well as flowering ornamentals. A herbaceous border can be useful as well as beautiful.
  • Remember that you can always ‘break the rules’ a little, and keep your border looking fantastic all year round by including grasses for autumn/ winter interest, and perhaps also some flowering shrubs towards the back of your perennial border.
  • Consider whether the plants you are considering will fit in with the overall look and feel of your garden. Will they be suited to the style of garden (contemporary, rustic, natural, wildlife-friendly etc..) that you want to create?
  • Consider whether you will have a colour scheme for your garden. While there are no rules, and if you want a cacophony of colour you can certainly have one, it can often be best to choose a few hues and create a scheme centred around those colours. For example, you might create a silver and blue border, a green and white border, or a border with reds, purples and pinks or a sunny border with yellows and oranges, for example.

Flowering Perennials For a Herbaceous Border

beautiful herbaceous border with lavender
A beautiful herbaceous border

To give an example of how to create a stunning herbaceous border, let’s take a look at some suggestions for a sunny herbaceous border, with year round flowers in shades of purple, purplish pinks and blue. Here are some beautiful options to consider:

  • Agastache
  • Asters
  • Bergenia cordifolia
  • Campanula portenshlagiana
  • Campanula lactiflora
  • Centaurea montana
  • Ceratostigma plumbaginoides
  • Chives/ Alliums
  • Comfrey
  • Delphiniums
  • Echinops ritro
  • Eryngium
  • Geraniums
  • Heuchera
  • Hosta
  • Limonium platyphylum
  • Lupins
  • Penstemon
  • Perennial brassicas
  • Salvias
  • Scabiosa
  • Sedums
  • Stachys byzantina
  • Verbena bonariensis
  • Veronica
  • Violas

Many of the options listed above will also work well alongside certain ornamental grasses, or alongside small shrubby plants like – most obviously, lavender, thymes and other perennial herbs, and perhaps some heathers too.

Fortunately, there are choices of plants in many different shades that will work very well in many UK gardens. And the plants listed above are just a few examples for one particular scheme. Learning more about different plants that will grow well where you live, and the details of their blooming and care, will help you make the right choices for your own specific border.

Make the right plant choices and your herbaceous perennial border can be in bloom from May or even earlier right through to September and beyond.

a herbaceous border with sea holly, lavender, poppies, salvia, achillea. Wall in background
Herbaceous border with sea holly, lavender, poppies, salvia, achillea and more!

Planting a Herbaceous Border

Once you have chosen which plants to include in your border, and once the border preparation as been done, it is a good idea to lay out the plants in their pots into the growing area, so you can play around with them and decide what to place where before you actually commit.

March and September are the ideal times for planting out perennials. But you can plant them out at any time throughout the year, as long as the ground is not frozen, or waterlogged. But it is also best to avoid times of extreme heat and dry conditions, as this can also make it more difficult for plants to become established successfully.

Once you have placed all your plants in their pots, be sure to stand back a little so you can take in the overall effect. It can be difficult to see the bigger picture when focussing closely on a few grouped plants.

Once you are certain that you are happy with the overall look and balance of the border, then you can begin to plant all your plants. Bury each one to the same depth that it was in its pot.

Then water your plants in well, and lay your organic mulch around your plants, making sure that you do not pile it up around the stems or crowns, as this can cause them to rot. Make sure that you continue to water well and regularly until the planting has become more established.

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