Herbaceous Planting

Well chosen herbaceous planting brings a splash of colour to the garden and with a huge array of candidates for sale in the average garden centre, you are likely to be spoilt for choice. The herbaceous border really became an established feature of gardens when its popularity rose in the 19th Century – although then it was almost exclusively planted with perennials just for summer interest.

However, as the typical garden became smaller over the next century, the character changed and our familiar modern mixed border style of planting emerged, designed to provide much more year-round appeal. While today’s version often includes a range of annuals, biennials, bulbs, shrubs and even some small flowering trees, the “true” herbaceous perennials remain the backbone of the border, making their own unique contribution of colour and permanence to the planting scheme.

Herbaceous Design

Whether the overall theme is based on colour, season, shape or texture, to be at their most successful, herbaceous plantings need to make a real impact – and remembering this is the key to a good design. Although the placing of the borders is often dictated by the shape and size of garden itself, if they can be located lengthways to the garden – so that the eye is drawn along them – they will appear full throughout the year.

It is, of course, possible to have the border lying parallel to the house and many gardens do, but it will take a little more effort to keep it looking at its best – not least because any gaps that do develop are so easily spotted.

Although the herbaceous border is undoubtedly as popular as ever, particularly in more strictly laid-out plots, it is not the only way of introducing the effect into the overall design; island beds offer a less hard-edged alternative which is perfect for an informal garden.

Traditionally, the planting scheme for borders hinged largely on the size of the plants involved, arranging them with the lowest-growing ones at the front, rising to the tallest forms at the back. In island beds, the division can be less rigid, suiting the softer feel of this style of planting, although even then, having most of the taller kinds towards the middle tends to produce the most pleasing effects.

However, for both beds and borders, it is worth trying to inject the odd element of surprise – perhaps a tall plant out of place, or a sharp focus of unexpected colour – to stop everything becoming predictable. If things look too perfect, the effect can seem overly artificial and regimented; adding a little spontaneity can go a long way to help.

Size and Scale

When it comes to deciding how big to make your border, the golden rule is that the larger the viewing distance, the larger the bed will have to be – and the more imposing the plants – to have the right sort of visual impact. In practical terms this means that any border less than 5ft (1.5m) from front to back, is always going to present a few problems, while in a large garden, one twice this width – or more – will not be out of place.

If the bed or border is too narrow, there may not be sufficient space to accommodate the necessary variety of heights and forms properly, forcing the transition from smallest to tallest to be crammed in too steeply. For those plots where space really is limited, the only solution to this problem is likely to be sacrificing the conventional back row of really tall plants – such as delphiniums and veronicas – and using the likes of lupins and plox. This sort of arrangement allows you to keep the spirit of traditional planting, without spoiling the overall look.

Herbaceous plantings can have such a major effect on the garden, especially where large borders sit alongside uninterrupted runs of paths or lawns, so choosing the right plants and arranging them well is crucial to their success. Getting it right is certainly worth the effort, as vibrant, full-looking borders and beds provide a strong supporting framework for the rest of the garden, lending height, depth and structure to the whole design.