Winter’s a fine time to make new borders or enlarge old ones

Winter is, hands-down, my favorite time of the year to do big projects in the garden – no sweating involved!  And really, except for those few weeks our gardens are under snow, there’s lots we can do this time of year – create paths, place boulders, and unless the ground is frozen, move dirt and plants.  Let’s just hope this winter reverts to normal, rather than repeating the freakish, Minnesota-like weather we endured last year.  (At least it seemed Minnesota-like to this Southerner.)  And winter’s a fine time in our area to create new borders or enlarge existing ones.  Then they’re ready to be filled up when the garden centers are brimming with plants in the spring.

Creating new borders or enlarging old ones

I recently doubled the size of the borders surrounding what used to be my back lawn (and now is a lawn-like swath of low groundcovers).  A landscape architect friend was the one who suggested enlarging the borders – here’s his sketch. 

Now, to implement his idea, I turned to standard border-creating techniques. Whether you’re starting a new border or enlarging an existing one, start by creating a pretty line – defined by what pleases YOU, the gardener.  (Though here’s a tip – larger curves usually look better than small ones that weave in and out a lot.  Larger, simpler curves are easier to maintain, too.)

So for this project I first inserted stakes to mark the edges of my new border, then stood back to observe, and repeated until I liked what I saw.  Then I applied orange marking paint along the line, stood back and observed and tweaked a bit to get it just right.  Then I removed the lawn-like groundcovers from inside the lines of the new border.

Now for the fun part.

How to fill up a border
If your budget is ample, then you can fill up your new borders in just a season or two by buying everything you need, especially  the larger, more expensive specimens.  I’ve never experienced that luxury myself but I’m sure it’s nice.  So what to do if your budget is meager, like mine always is? And also, if you’d rather not wait 5-10 years for tiny, affordable plants to become full-grown?  In this situation my favorite technique is to steal like crazy from other parts of the garden – because my garden is old and large enough to have plenty of divisions and too-big castaways to spare.  In that department I’m lucky.

Great items for stealing for new borders are all those spreading and self-sowing perennials you always have plenty of – like black-eyed susans – and the ones that get big enough to divide into four to six parts – like Hostas, Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, and especially the large ornamental grasses, like Miscanthus, because they really fill up a border.

Then I always have too many shrubs, because I buy so many and they grow (I’ve discovered), so for this project I borrowed a few spireas and a weigela from crowded spots in my garden to the new border.  And voila – the new space was almost full.

If your own garden doesn’t have extra plants to steal for your new border, try members of the local garden club, or your neighbors.  People in my neighborhood sometimes post emails seeking extra plants, and always seem to score a few.

But back to my supersized borders.  Extra plants from around my garden didn’t totally fill them up,  and I say thankfully.  What fun would it be to enlarge a garden and not get to buy any new plants?  Hardy any fun.  So I bought some low-maintenance shrub roses (‘Flower Carpet’) and a bunch of perennials, including agastache, monarda, ‘Little Joe’ Joe Pye Weed, Shasta daisy and some yarrow.  Now that’s fun!

In this wide border, plants get shorter from the back to the front.

Mixed American Borders, and the Guru Thereof

I first started reading about borders years ago when I discovered the wonderful writer Ann Lovejoy, who’s written not one but two books about what she calls the American Mixed Border.  She explains

Tulips and short perennials at the front of a border.

that if you simply copy what happens naturally at the edge of a forest, you can’t go wrong.   So at the back of the border are trees – large ones if the border is actually backed up by woods.  In front of them are shorter understory trees, in front of them shrubs, and finally at the front of the border are the perennials and groundcovers.

Another Lovejoy tip is to make the borders deep enough to accommodate all this.  (Most of us don’t.)

Lovely also believes that gardens don’t happen overnight.  She recalls showing a landscape architect around her new garden and explaining to him “the developmental stages that were to follow from its raw beginning.  He shook his head sadly and said, ‘Ann, Ann, I could make you a garden that looked like something in a week.’  I forbore from the obvious retort, ‘Yes, but it would never look any different after that,’ and made instead a (vain) plea for process.  For me, a garden is not something to have, but something to do.”  Right on!

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