Eight RHS Partner Gardens share insight into their borders - discover the key plants used, pick up tips on design and maintenance, and perhaps find the perfect border style for your own garden.
Each garden offers free entry to RHS members either at selected times or throughout their open period. Click the garden name for full details.
The colour-themed border
A colour-themed border brings an elegant and distinguished feel - it is a deliberate choice that demonstrates purpose and horticultural maturity. The colour itself can depend on your personality or the mood you want to create – from dramatic fiery reds and yellows to soothing, tranquil blues and lilacs.
The opulent blue borders at Parham House and Gardens in West Sussex are filled with ideas on creating memorable colour-themed displays.
In July and August, Phlox paniculata ‘Blue Paradise’, Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’, Agapanthus, Eryngiums such as E. x zabelii ‘Jos Eijking’ and E. bourgatii ‘Picos Blue’ come into their own. Salvias such as S. nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ and S. ‘Amistad’ are at their intense best too.
Salvia verticillata 'Purple Rain' can act as an ‘anchor’ plant, with a long flowering season to sustain large herbaceous borders. Lavenders are reliable at the border’s edge, further back Aconitum napellus lifts the eye higher, and try majestic delphiniums at the rear.
Silver plants like cardoons, Elaeagnus ‘Quicksilver’, Artemesia and lamb's ears make an excellent foil for blues.
Get the best from your colour-themed border
- Texture is as important as colour, so vary your plant choice based on foliage, form, size and habit.
- Create contrast by playing with verticals beside horizontals, e.g. Veronicastrum with Sedum.
- Mix things up towards the front of a border by occasionally using taller plants with a transparent quality, such as bronze fennel, Thalictrum ‘Elin’ or Stipa gigantea
- Don’t make your planting too ‘busy’ – avoid cramming in lots of different specimens, use large naturalistic drifts of best-performing plants for real impact.
- Choose four or five plants that you know associate well and major on them, repeating this combination in subtly in different ways throughout the border.
With thanks to Henry Macaulay, Parham Gardener
The shady border
With thoughtful plant selection, shady areas can be an attractive asset in the garden.
The shady border at Spinners Garden, Hampshire, is on the eastern boundary where the woodland edge gives dappled shade.
Planting focuses on perennials that cope with the heavy clay soil:
- Hostas including giant Hosta 'Empress Wu' and white-edged H. 'Spinners'
- Astilbe including A. 'Professor Wielen'
- Matteuccia struthiopteris (shuttlecock fern)
- Hydrangea heteromalla, with creamy white lacecap flowers
- Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’
Get the best from your shady border
'When adding to the mix, try to keep combinations simple so the border does not get too 'bitty',' say owners Vicky and Andrew Roberts.
'Experiment! We generally plant the low growers at the front and taller varieties at the back. But viewing the hostas through the arching heads of Rodgersia pinnata works well and Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Lavendelturm’ provides a tall sweeping arc from front to back.'
With thanks to Vicky and Andrew Roberts
The subtropical border
A subtropical border can be an exotic escape in your own back garden! Luscious lilies, daring dahlias and zingy zinnias will transport you to foreign shores - no passport required.
Being bold is the key to the subtropical style, says Jayne Alcock, Grounds & Gardens Supervisor at The Walled Gardens of Cannington in Somerset.
The border is filled with reliably hardy specimens including Fatsia japonica, Trachycarpus fortunei, Fuchsia magellanica and Tetrapanax papyrifer ‘Rex’ which lives up to its name!
'Joining these mainstays are short-lived half hardy or tender plants including lilies, dahlias and zinnias,' says Jayne. Bold foliage and vibrant, almost clashing colours entice you to dream of faraway lands. To recreate the look, Jayne recommends:
- At least one hardy palm – such as Trachycarpus fortunei or Chamaerops humilis
- Bold palmate leaves – try pollarded Paulownia tomentosa, Ricinus, Fatsia japonica (such as ‘Spiders Web’), Tetrapanax papyrifer, Pseudopanax lessonii
- Bright colours – Tithonia rotundifolia 'Torch', the Mexican sunflower produces cheerful, bright orange flowers for weeks on end
- The unusual – for example, Amaranthus caudatus (love-lies-bleeding) with its curious scarlet rope-like flowers.
Get the best from your subtropical border
Be daring, throw away the colour wheel and resist the urge to plant in neat, precise rows. Plant closely so that there is no bare soil, and really go for that luscious jungle-esque look.
With thanks to Jayne Alcock
The calming border
An interesting variation on the colour-themed border is the Jekyll-designed Grey Walk at Hestercombe Gardens, Somerset. It acts as a restful pause, cleverly preparing the visitor for the next part of their garden journey.
What does the Grey Walk bring to the garden?
'The Victorian Terrace with its colourful, classic bedding scheme, is a lot to take in. I think the Grey Walk, on the next terrace down, is designed to still the eye and almost be overlooked to start with,' says Head Gardener Claire Greenslade.
'It is quite a Jekyllesque border; she often used muted tones and, due to failing eyesight, textured plants.'
Lots of grey foliage plants, including Phlomis fruticosa, Santolina, Stachys, Olearia, rosemary 'Miss Jessopp's Upright', lavender and Echinops bannaticus. You will also find Eryngium, Dianthus and perennial sweet peas mixed with soft pink roses.
Get the best from a calming border
Choosing one strong colour theme makes textures really stand out. Heighten this effect by playing with contrasts - fo example, try a spiky grey yucca next to a soft Stachys.
With thanks to Claire Greenslade
The lower-maintenance border
Careful design and plant choice can help you create a border that is easier, more cost-effective and more straight forward to maintain.
The 72m Jubilee Walk at Penshurst Place and Gardens in Kent - made up of two, five-metre wide borders - is a good place to get ideas on keeping maintenance to a minimum without sacrificing impact.
- Clipped shrubs throughout the border reduce the area of herbaceous planting to be staked, divided and mulched. They also add background structure during the dormant herbaceous season. Shrubs include Juniperus communis, Rhamnus alaternus 'Argenteovariegata' and Phillyrea latifolia (back of border) and Ilex aquifolium 'Argentea Marginata' and Viburnum tinus (front of border).
- Ground covers cover exposed soil, giving weeds less chance to germinate. Sedum spurium Dragon's Blood and Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ make a striking groundcover under Camellia x vernalis ‘Yuletide’. 'Thymus vulgaris ‘Fredo’ and Chamaemelum nobile ‘Flore Pleno’ are both great as scented ground cover,' says Head Gardener Cory Fernmoor.
Star design ideas
- Take bites from your border: 'We scaled down the herbaceous ‘footprint’ by incorporating turf bays into the border at regular intervals,' says Cory. This has reduced the planting area by around 150m2 without losing border length - and gives visitors the chance to sit within the border surrounded by scented plants like dwarf sweet box.
- Edging and access: Steel edging on the front of the borders not only looks smart but speeds up cutting with edging shears. An unobtrusive path at the back of the border means you can get to hedges and shrubs easily without having to walk through the centre of the display.
With thanks to Cory Fernmoor
The naturalistic border
A naturalistic, loose style of planting allows you more freedom - a more relaxed approach means less stress and more time to enjoy what you create. And birds and small mammals will thank you for the shelter and winter seed larder.
Naturalistic borders using herbaceous perennials and grasses can give wondrous effects in a short space of time and with less effort and cost than a more traditional border, say the owners of Sussex Prairie Garden in West Sussex, Paul and Pauline McBride.
A judicious mix of colourful flowering perennials can give you an ever-changing palette from early summer up to the first frosts. Small, simple flowers are perfect for pollinators, and architectural grasses can create breathtaking spectacle.
- Kalimeris incisa 'Madiva'
- Veronicastrum virginicum 'Diane'
- Eupatorium maculatum Atropurpureum Group
- Grasses such as zingy Sesleria, statuesque Miscanthus and airy Molinia (for a soft-focus feel)
- Arundo donax for a jungly feel
Get the best from your naturalistic border
- Creating drifts of plants of the same genus gives immediate impact
- Learn how to propagate and make more of your own plants for free! Using reliable, readily-sourced perennials will help you save money, too
- Seeding perennials will help give that lax open feel, and you may get exciting new forms as your plants cross-breed
With thanks to Paul and Pauline McBride
The mixed border - Roses and friends
Combining roses with shrubs and billowing perennials can extend the season of interest and create a highly romantic effect.
The Statue Walk at Cottesbrooke Hall in Northamptonshire, designed by Arne Maynard, draws its inspiration from a summer posy. The planting is layered, building form and colour tones as in a posy, forming a coherent whole. Roses are trained onto frames to anchor the planting.
- Rosa Ausdrawn ‘The Generous Gardener’ for its pale pink flowers and rich healthy foliage
- Rosa Ausromeo 'William Shakespeare 2000' for its rich crimson blooms
- Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy'
- Pink, purple and mauve classics such as Achillea millefolium 'Lilac Beauty', Centaurea 'Jordy' and Erigeron ‘Quakeress’
Get the best from your mixed border
Large, open shrub Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy' is great for echoing roses with rich, deep colours. 'It is useful for 'airy' planting. With judicious pruning it can add an ethereal quality without the weight,' says Head Gardener Phylip Statner.
Try enlivening your scheme with the striking lilac-blue of Campanula sarmatica 'Hemelstraling' and grey-blue Aconitum 'Stainless Steel'.
White-flowered Verbascum chaixii could be used to add a vertical dimension to your scheme, and you can add pace to the planting with restrained use of Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’, with its blood orange daisy flowers.
With thanks to Phylip Statner
The purely herbaceous border
The herbaceous border at Waterperry Gardens, Oxfordshire, was developed by Beatrix Havergal in the 1930s as a teaching aid to help her students understand the three seasons of the herbaceous border. In late season, the border becomes a patchwork quilt of blues, reds, pinks, purples and yellows.
- Early (late May - early June): Lupins
- Mid (late June - mid July): Delphiniums
- Late (late August - mid October): Asters, including powder blue cross 'Mary Spiller', with a supporting cast of Solidago, Helenium, Eupatorium, Helianthus and Rudbeckia.
Get the best from your herbaceous border
'A secret to success is designing your border so that the earlier flowerers are hidden by the late flowerers,' say Horticultural Manager Rob Jacobs and Head Gardener Pat Havers.
To keep the border standing tall, plants are staked with hazel when they reach two-thirds of their eventual height.
With thanks to Rob Jacobs and Pat Havers