How many of us have looked long and hard at the planting in our gardens and considered making changes, but daunted at the prospect, have tinkered at the edges instead? Just imagine the resolution needed to dig up and replant 250 metres of double herbaceous border. Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in Hampshire did just that. The planting in their redesigned Centenary Border is now well established and a joy to see. As Head Gardener, Fran Clifton, told Country Gardener, the result has been more than worth the effort.
As Fran concedes, it was ‘a bold decision’ to make such a dramatic change. Quite apart from its scale, the Centenary Border also has an impressive pedigree. It was originally created in 1964 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Hilliers Nurseries. Many visitors will remember its central grass border and the backdrop of high holly and yew hedges. Why did Hilliers decide to make a change? ‘The hollies had grown very tall and were past their best’ says Fran. ‘It was the perfect opportunity to make the border work in a different way. We wanted it to be accessible to visitors throughout the year. Also, having a traditional herbaceous border surrounded by a mature arboretum is very unusual. It gave us the chance to use it as a backdrop’.
The decision to change the border was made five years ago. With the exception of five trees, everything was taken out. Fran says that ‘when we first saw the empty beds we did ask ourselves whether we had done the right thing. But that concern didn’t last. We were soon involved with the buzz and excitement of the design and replanting’.
The border was redesigned for the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens by Julia Fogg and Anny Evason. Their design fits the brief perfectly. Long strips of hard landscaping on either side of the central grass path ensure that the double borders are accessible throughout the year. In the centre there’s a clever break in its linear form. An ellipse-shaped path creates a space for sitting and enjoying the display whatever the season.
Part of the designers’ intention was to improve the way in which the herbaceous border blended with the arboretum. To achieve this, they’ve included additional paved paths that cut through the borders at 45-degree angles. Visitors can use these paths both to view and to walk into the arboretum beyond. They also give the rather delicious sensation of being completely surrounded by plants.
The width of the grass path down the centre hasn’t changed, but the scale and proportions of everything else has increased. The addition of the long strips of paving on either side has widened the path to six metres while the depth of the borders has doubled. This combination has created a sense of space and airiness that wasn’t possible along the original Border.
With the hard landscaping in place, Fran and her team worked towards having the Centenary Border ready to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2014. New shrubs and trees were added to the empty borders. Then, in 2012, between March and July, the rest of the 30,000 plants followed.
Given the length of the Border, it’s little surprise to learn that the soil changes along its length. While the bottom end is wet clay the top is almost alluvial.
The very hot spring of 2012 was followed by a deluge. As Fran explains, there was a positive side to the tricky weather, ‘it did show us which plants worked best in which section. They all have to work to keep their space’ Fran continues. ‘They must provide good structure and colour.’
With a team of just two permanent gardeners, occasional students and a group volunteers, the planting had to be as efficient as possible to cope with the increase in border size. Annuals were included in the original design but now tender perennials are used as summer gap fillers instead. Salvias, dahlias and clouds of Gaura lindheimeri punctuate the borders from summer into autumn. In some sections the planting is naturalistic and in others it is almost cottage style.
‘It’s a traditional border with a contemporary edge’ says Fran. Nowhere will this be more evident than in its backdrop. As with the majority of traditional borders, a yew hedge has been planted at the rear but when mature, this will be a yew hedge with a difference. At certain points there will be a break in the hedge, a change in its outline or a window cut through to reveal the arboretum beyond. ‘It will add another layer of interest’ says Fran ‘particularly in the winter’.
Whatever the season, the central ellipse is planted very simply. In spring for example, 2000 blue Iris reticulata hold court. This gentle pause in the planting of the long borders provides a kind of breathing space.
Staking starts in March and early April. ‘We use black painted stakes with stock netting over the top’ says Fran. ‘It works well and is hidden very quickly. We use the same materials to make cylinders to support delphiniums’.
‘Maintenance is on going’ she continues. ‘The borders must have something to offer visitors in every month of the year so it’s inevitable that at times there will be slight gaps. We cut back some of the grasses such as Poa labillardieri in September but they’ll grow back strongly in time to provide good winter interest. We leave some plants, such as verbena and verbascum to self-seed then we decide which to keep and which should go. Every year the picture will be familiar but different’.
Among Fran’s stars of the border this year is Sedum ‘Red Cauli’. ‘It has great flowers and goes on for ever’. The dark leaves of Angelica ‘Ebony’ are a striking addition, while Origanum vulgare ‘can always be relied upon to give a huge flower display and it’s so easy to grow’.
The redesigned Centenary Border looks spectacular. The reaction of visitors must give the Sir Henry Hillier Gardens team a lot of satisfaction. As Fran points out, ‘people are interacting with it in a way that they couldn’t before’. Certainly, exploring the paths that cut through the planting is the closest most of us will ever get to sitting in the middle of an herbaceous border. It’s a rather magical experience.