If the weather smiles on us in July, there is no better time to enjoy a characteristic feature of British gardens, the herbaceous border. Catch them at their peak!
Picture a herbaceous border: that receding view of cushiony mounds of colour backed up by phalanxes of tall nodding plumes and often set against the warmth of a long wall. This was Edwardian or Arts and Crafts gardening at its best. Developed in reaction to the formality of Victorian parterres, thanks to the influence of Irish gardener William Robinson, the herbaceous border was perfected by that genius of colour, Gertrude Jekyll. The display of massed perennial plants requires space and careful planning so if you can’t fit one into your patch, here are some of the best.
One of my favourites is Newby Hall, Yorkshire. The double border here rolls away between yew hedges, down a gentle slope to the river Ure, setting off the mellow brick walls of Sir Christopher Wren’s house to perfection. At 140m it is the longest border in Europe.
However, Dirleton Castle in Scotland has reputedly the longest herbaceous border in the World and, at 215m, it is certainly impressive. Historic Scotland continue to renew and refresh its Edwardian planting.
Another in the top 5 is the double border at Arley Hall Gardens, Cheshire. This was the first herbaceous border created in an English garden and is a classic of the genre with four pairs of flowerbeds backed on one side by a 19th century brick wall and on the other by a yew hedge. At its glorious best in July, with lush planning separated by shaped yews which divide the beds and provide structure and interest all through the year.
I particularly love Kiftsgate Court Gardens in Herefordshire because it is a garden created and maintained by 3 generations of women gardeners. The main colour tones in the dou
ble Wide Border are pinks, mauve and purple with abundant grey foliage. Anne Chambers, its current chatelaine, claims that you can set fire to the oily seed heads of the Burning Bush’ Dictamnus albus purpureus on a still summer evening for a spectacular pyrotechnic display.
There is heat enough already in the famous Hot border at Lawrence Johnson’s 1905 garden at Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire. This border is just one of many influential features in one of the most brilliantky planned gardens in the land..
If you want to explore Gertrude Jekyll’s way with colour, several herbaceous borders designed by her in the early 20th century have survived. One of my favourites is the border at The Manor House, Hemingford Grey, still full of romance in a typical Jekyll colour palette of soft blues and pinks.
The famous Long Border at Great Dixter in East Sussex owes its even blue and yellow colour tones to Gertrude Jekyll but the influence of the great 20th century gardener Christopher Lloyd is apparent here too. In particular, he experimented with tall plants at the front of the border to create unusual perspectives.
On the other side of the county, at Parham Park in West Sussex a series of classic 20th century herbaceous borders enjoy the shelter of the South Downs. The Blue Borders to the west and Gold Borders to the east bisect the 4 acre walled garden.
Another walled garden which has been adapted to provide a setting for herbaceous plants is at Raby Castle. Here the herbaceous border in the East Garden was designed by the Dowager Lady Barnard in the 1930s. It is set off by ornamental trees and roses.
At Hindringham Hall Gardens in Norfolk it is water not walls that provides the architecture for three long borders screened from the moat by a pergola draped with scented roses and clematis .
Many of these gardens also sell plants so you can bring a bit back to try out at home. I shall be planting out some promising looking verbascums with no help from enthusiastic dog Walpole who can’t understand why I don’t appreciate his help with the digging!