Popularised through their use in traditional cottage gardens throughout the 20th century, herbaceous borders have their origins in the Victorian era and become a common component of the Edwardian and Arts & Crafts gardening style that followed. Today, however, they remain a key component of many modern British gardens.
In fact, it was Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), who created around 400 gardens in the UK, Europe, and America (and was a senior figure within the RHS) that popularised the herbaceous border that we know today.
Jekyll’s huge herbaceous borders were famous for their unique take on colour, which schemes running from cold shades of white and blue, to warmer shades of orange and red, and back to cold again.
Rosamund Wallinger from gertrudejekyllgarden.co.uk, says: “It’s Miss Jekyll’s superb eye for design, structure, and proportion that makes her still popular today, and people come from all around the world to see her garden art.
“In her herbaceous borders she uses plants that were simple to source, and still are. She also wrote that a plantsman’s garden is simply a collection, implying that it is not fine art. Nonetheless, her use of colour is both scientific and beautiful. Beside where a plant flowers and fades early, she plants another that will flower late and fill the space when the early plant has been cut back. I have learnt a great deal from Miss Jekyll, with design and structure being the most valuable.”
Consisting of perennial herbaceous plants (such as peonies, delphiniums, chrysanthemums, and many ferns) that are arranged in tall, wide borders and islands, herbaceous borders (as Jekyll demonstrates) are a great way of adding colour, interest, and a dramatic effect to your garden.
Rachael Funnell, Editorial Assistant and Online Editor for The English Garden Magazine, says: “Large herbaceous borders with a mix of perennials replaced Victorian bedding. The planting design left behind Victorian bedding displays of exotics, and focused instead on neat, box-hedged beds billowing with roses, and generous, sprawling herbaceous borders.
“The exuberant and colourful planting contrasted with the formal layout of verdant lawns and bowling greens, tennis courts and shady loggias for tea. The same plants were used again and again: peonies, irises, Alchemilla mollis, lavender, catmint, delphiniums, edgings of bergenia, stachys, erigeron, foxgloves and nicotiana.”
Herbaceous borders are also very versatile as you can plant a range of perennials, annuals, and bulbs; this gives you plenty of options to really get creative, as well as cater to the needs of your garden. For example, if the area is more shaded, you can opt for plants that thrive under these conditions.
Additionally, there are plenty of colour schemes to choose from, whether you decide to keep it more traditional with plenty of greens, yellows, reds, and baby pinks, or embrace an exotic feel with vibrant shades of purples and oranges.
Thomas Mickey, author of America’s Romance with the English Garden, says: “I think there will be more interest in herbaceous borders as homeowners rethink the area of the landscape devoted to the lawn. To save water, encourage pollinators, and cut down the amount of lawn such a border would offer a wonderful alternative.”
Ready to get planting? Get inspired by a few of our favourite herbaceous borders from the UK…
Dirleton Castle, East Lothian
Clocking in at an impressive 215-metres (705 feet) in length, this herbaceous border is recorded as the world’s longest in the Guinness Book of Records, and it can be found in the Dirleton Castle grounds in East Lothian, Scotland.
Running alongside both sides of an immaculately mowed lawn, this herbaceous border is full of colour during this time of the year. Favouring a more traditional take on summer planting colours, the famous border contrasts delicate whites and blues with vibrant pinks, yellows, and purples.
Plants that make up this herbaceous border range from peonies, poppies, and geraniums, to bearded iris, scabious and sea holly. (source)
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
‘The Great Broad Walk Borders’ at the Royal Botanic Gardens is the world’s largest double herbaceous border at 320-metres long. It contains over 30,000 plants in total, and these bring various colours and textures to the border’s sections (which are separated by paths).
With each section of Kew Gardens’ double herbaceous border being designed with a different theme, there’s plenty of places to take inspiration from.
The Compositae themed section, which features a range of stunning plants from the daisy family, is a particularly interesting part of the borders with its golden Rudbeckia (coneflowers) being contrasted with the lighter, subtler shades of Symphoyotrichum ‘Little Carlow’ flowers. (source)
Arley Gardens, Cheshire
The double herbaceous border at Arley Gardens is world famous for its great beauty. It’s also thought to be one of the first of its kind to be planted in England.
Containing four pairs of flowerbeds that are backed by a 19th century wall and a yew hedge, the double herbaceous border at Arley Gardens is regarded as being one of the finest to exist today. It’s especially impressive in the summer months when it embraces bright, uplifting shades of red, yellow and cream.
Yews have also been pruned into decorative shapes between its sections to add further interest to the border.
Waterperry Gardens, Oxfordshire
Dating back to 1932 when Beatrix Hevergal opened her gardening school for young women, the 8 acre Waterperry Gardens are home to one of the finest purely herbaceous borders in the country.
Flowering continuously from May to October, the border has been cleverly planted to maximise colour without shrubs. Colourful Lupins, Anchusa, Geraniums, Pyrethrum and Veronica flower during the first display in May and June, while late October and early November give way to Goldenrod and Heleniums in uplifting shades of orange and yellow.
Delphinium, Achillea, Verbascum, and Phlox are also cultivated so that they reach their peak on Beatrix Hevergal’s birthday (7th July) each year. (source)