Garden Guide: By Mary James • Photography by Bob Wigand
Successful mixed borders don't require a lot of room
Classic mixed borders, like those celebrated at England’s Sissinghurst and Great Dixter need space … lots of space. But that doesn’t mean these all-season plant tapestries don’t have a place in San Diego gardens. In fact their dense but artful mix of small trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and bulbs can be particularly satisfying for plantoholics limited to a small suburban lot rather than a grand estate.
Big or small, backed by a fence or “open style,” successful borders share similar design strategies and careful planning. Without them, the mix becomes a muddle or mess. Here are tips gleaned from English masters like Gertrude Jekyll and Christopher Lloyd and modern proponents Tracy DiSabato-Aust, Nori Pope and Noel Kingsbury.
Suit your site: “Is it right?” and “Does it fit?” are two questions Jekyll asked of every garden design. Don’t fight shade or clay or yearly freezes. Also take into account your surroundings and available space, as well as the time and money you’re willing to commit.
Feel the rhythm: Visually, mixed borders need the continuity of repetition and the excitement of the unexpected. Find unity in a color scheme, style or plant palette. Then build in surprises — a specimen plant, artwork — remembering that less is more. Aim, as DiSabato-Aust does, for “a graceful flow” or go for Pope’s “layers of music.”
Establish good bones: Perennials and small trees and shrubs structure a border and shape it to last. Aim for “super models” with dramatic foliage, great shape, fall color, beautiful bark or bright berries that delight once any annual bloom fades. If easy care and drought tolerant are goals, choose accordingly.
Color with care: Monochromatic borders like Sissinghurst’s white garden or the double-red borders at Hidcote are legendary and fairly easy to create. More complex (and challenging) are plantings that emphasize two or three colors that either are harmonious (red, orange and yellow) or contrasting (orange and purple). Take both floral and foliage color into account and repeat them to help pull the design together.
Diversify with texture and form: Bold blades, nodding grasses, feathery fronds, conifer needles, tall flower spikes — all add variety and interest as they conform to a color scheme or plant palette. For focal points, pick the most dramatic and strongly vertical.
Underplant with bulbs: Herald the seasons with easy-care bulbs tucked throughout the border. Plant them to pop through ground covers, hide the thorny legs of pruned roses, or fill in for dormant perennials or youthful shrubs.
Annuals to the rescue: Mask gaps by scattering seed or planting nursery six-packs. Pretty bloomers bring exuberance to single-plant borders like a rose garden. Also mingle in showy lettuces, chard, peppers and basils for a bit of edible landscaping.
Display discipline: Too much, too many, too close, too bad. Practice discipline and restraint in design and planting to avoid a hodgepodge. Use these same strengths to avoid trends in favor of your own preferences and creativity. After all it’s your border — and that should be obvious. υ