Thoughts of Summer Borders

With all the cold weather we have been having lately, the planning of new summer borders brings new enthusiasm to be out in the garden. On a long, dark night, what can be more pleasant than to sit in front of a blank sheet of paper, sketching and drawing, whilst thinking of balmy, warm days not so very far off? And you don’t need to be a great artist. I know, for I am the only member of my family that cannot paint or sketch well, yet I am the only one to make a living from design. I like to think that I paint with flowers instead.

I am often confronted with an area of garden which has been cleared by a client of vegetation for them only to be daunted by the expanse of ‘scorched earth’ that they are left with. The one below, turned out to be one of the biggest challenges to date with the request that the area had the appearance of one large flower border from the house, yet without too much height. The other specification was for there to be a driveway for cars incorporated into it and for it to look traditional – not one of the newer ‘prairie’ styles, the fashion for which has swept Europe in recent years. To make matters worse, in clearing the garden, the contractor had also removed most of the topsoil.

To make the garden more manageable I divided the area up into sections. In the photo below is a new stone path splitting the levels and, to the left, part of the driveway coming in, in an arc. Altogether there were three raised beds, a long border plus the ‘in and out’ driveway and new path running through the whole scheme. Also in the photo is part of the mountain of topsoil that had to be brought in and there is still some turf to be removed.

Hundreds of pots filled with herbaceous plants stretching into the distance were a daunting sight when it came to planting time. These are just some of them carefully positioned according to the plan. Although not very clear on the photo, I also placed some medium sized rocks and several clumps of dogwoods. These were chosen, not just for their coloured stems providing winter interest, but also because their pruning requirements meant they would stay relatively small in height.

The reward for all the hard work is the finished result – although of course, being gardeners, we never have finshed results for we are always pruning and tweaking and fine tuning, never quite satisfied. From the house the borders do look like one and give colour throughout the year, although summer is their glory time. They are remarkable low maintenance too requiring a thorough weed and tidy in spring and again in autumn, for the close planting precludes much weed growth in the summer months. This is the garden in its second summer of blooming.

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The pollarded willows that line the banks of our river are ancient. Pollarding is the removal of all the top growth of the tree, the timber in the past being used in many ways but, most famously in the manufacture of cricket bats, but now used mainly for firewood. Severe as this pruning is, it prolongs the life of the trees.

Their true age is difficult to determine as they have the strange habit of their outer trunk splitting. This then rots away leaving a relatively young looking trunk to start the process again. I have seen mulberry trees behave in the same way.
In the garden, pollarding (and coppicing, which is the same type of pruning but at ground level) can be used to advantage. The new growth of the coloured bark willows (Salix) and dogwoods (Cornus) are considerably brighter than the older wood and make a good backdrop to the winter garden.
In England, the pruning is carried out in late February, just before the new growth of Spring starts.
The flowering tree in the photo is, yes honestly, another of our pollarded willows. A wild rose – probably from a seed dropped by a bird – has established itself in the crown. It looks spectacular when in full bloom and confuses everyone that finds it!

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