Tag Archives: planning a border

How (not) to design a border

March 31st, 2014 | 5 Comments »

A few years ago, a huge tree blew down. The tree was at the edge of the lower garden, by what we call the dragon gate —  a construction of vertical and horizontal pieces of painted wood that matches architectural elements on our house. The tree and the dragon gate marked the start of a path that meanders through the woods and semi-wild areas of the garden.

I cried when this ‘tremblant’ or trembling aspen blew down in a storm,
but soon I preferred the more open view.

Losing the tree was sad but not horrible. It allowed more sun into the area, which I hoped would improve the condition of the old and rather bedraggled shrub that you see at the left of the photo above.

The shrub was part of a border that wasn’t very important in the grand scheme of things. It contained some odds and ends of plants, things I’d collected and hadn’t known what to do with. (I bet you have a place like that in your garden, too.), along with some plants I really liked, like the wood poppies in the photo below.

Virginia bluebells liked this area. So did the wood poppies,
stylophorum diphyllum and stylophorum lasiocarpus.

Taken all together the area looked pitiful. I didn’t worry about it, though. We passed the border as we went to the lake but no one paid any attention to it — we were too busy thinking about how cold the water might be. We passed it as we started onto the path through the woods but, again, attention wasn’t on the border but on the path and what lay ahead.

For a few years, the border simply sat there, doing nothing in particular, bothering no one. Except me. That straggly shrub was looking worse and worse. Surely if I removed it, everything would look better, wouldn’t it?

So I did. I removed the shrub. I pruned the old lilac that was near it. I repaired the rail fence that was starting to topple.

As soon as the shrub was gone, I was faced with bare ground. So I did what every sensible plant lover does: I looked around to see what I had in stock. That small blue spruce malingering at the far end of the big lawn — wouldn’t it be better here than there? Of course it would. I moved it, and at first it looked ok. A little lonely, perhaps, but that was easy to solve. All I had to do was add more plants.

The large slabs of slate mark the beginning of the path into the woods,
a semi-wild garden.

I did. I added plants. And more plants. And then some more. The border still looked wrong. The problem, I decided, was scale. The bed was too small. So I enlarged it, making it half again as big as it had been. (Did I realize I was simply doubling the problem?)

The stakes and orange string show the edge of the soon-to-be-bigger border.

I hadn’t considered what I would plant in the border, but when we had to dig up some plants to make room for the aqueduct (see here, here, here, here and here.), the border became a holding bed. And a trial bed. I planted some things I’d never planted before, just to see how they would grow: two varieties of camassia to see which one I preferred, lots of different bulb and some fritillary imperialis ‘Vivaldi’ because it looked so pretty in the catalogue.

I loved the orange of this fritillary ‘Vivaldi’
even if I did have to get on my knees to see it properly.

But a few fritillary do not a border make. Or even many. By the time I’d finished stuffing the border with trial plants, odds and ends, and left overs I couldn’t decide what else to do with, the border looked like what a was, a mishmash with no sense of who it was, or of who it wanted to be.

Coming up through the awful bare mulch, these fritillary look only half dressed.
No wonder they hang their heads.

The problem was a lack of definition, I decided. So I straightened the front line of the border and added narrow pieces of slate to mark the edge.

This photo illustrate perfectly how not to plant a border.
No structure and far too much mulch. 

This made the mishmash look neater but otherwise was no improvement at all. The straggly, wind-burned blue spruce I’d put at the rear end of the border didn’t help, either. Clearly it had to go, and last summer it did.

All through this never-ending winter I’ve been asking myself the questions I should have asked at the beginning. What do I want to do with this space? What do I want it to say? The area has no function. It serves no purpose, except as a strip next to a rail fence. It sits at the end of the formal garden…

The lower garden sits within the stone walls of an old summer cottage.
The bed in question is partially hidden behind the magnolia.

at the beginning of the path that leads into the semi-tamed woods beyond.

Paths meander through the woods.
The large, moss-covered rock is one of several that we discovered when we put in the trails.

Finally, as I sat in front of the fire, it came to me. Could that transition from formal garden to informal forest become the idea that shaped the border? Could the space serve as an indicator that the garden was about to change?

That’s the idea I’m working with now. I see hedges like rectangles, intersecting blocks in different textures and different shades and colours, living panels that open and shut off the view into the woods. I see horizontal lines and shapes that shift the farther back they go.

My ideas aren’t clear yet. But I know one thing for sure. This border will be guided by an idea. It won’t simply be a place to shove a few more plants. That far in my thinking I’ve come. It’s a start.