Borders are the backbone of any garden, whether your dream is to lose yourself in full-blown cottage garden splendour or you prefer a streamlined modern look with sharply-defined angles or curves.
Garden trends come and go, but borders remain a popular garden idea because they have a multitude of uses; providing a showcase for flowers, foliage and shapes year-round, separating spaces, keeping pathways clearly defined and preventing plants from creeping into areas where you don’t want them to go.
Depending on the design you’re putting into place, borders can also be used very effectively to break your garden into clearing defined ‘rooms’. This sense of discipline helps to create intrigue and interest in even the smallest garden. It also allows you to have fun with ideas for how you want to use your space for outdoor living, dining, entertaining and relaxing. Plus, they make a great way to frame an area to show off your best garden furniture.
Garden border ideas
When you’re considering garden layout ideas you will want to include beautiful borders in your space. If you’re keen to learn how to plant and care for this important part of every garden, here are some top tips and tricks to help and inspire.
1. Collect your own ideas
Expert gardener Sarah Raven (opens in new tab), says the best way to start is to collect together a bunch of catalogues of good suppliers and print-outs from online magazines and websites too. ‘Cut out your favourite colours and forms of plants. Checking their seasons of flowering and their heights are compatible, combine your items on a large sheet of paper with blue tac so you can easily shift things around.
‘Then refine this with one main colour, with a large and showy flower – I call this my bride – then something in a very similar colour or tone which is a little smaller or more demure – that’s the bridesmaid.
‘Finally, scatter a colour contrast through to bring the whole thing to life – I call this the gate-crasher. You need this bit of zest, rather than pure harmony. Use that as a basis of a new border and spread out from this core of three plants.’
2. Divide areas with borders
As well as looking gorgeous, borders carry out a serious structural purpose in the garden. They work alongside hard landscaping elements such as garden decking ideas and patio ideas and they give a clear outline to lawns, bringing form to the space.
‘When designing your border, consider the other colours around. Contrasting colours give a striking look and can help each element to stand out clearly,’ says Nathan Gamba, director Protea Gardens (opens in new tab), ‘I always feel that borders accentuate a strong design feature of any garden.’
3. Use the fence
You don’t need a huge garden to introduce an effective border. It’s possible to create a neat growing space by building a border in front of a stylish fence. So if you’re interested in garden fence ideas and really want to make the most of every centimetre of space, consider a border which – as well as showing off colourful blooms and interesting foliage – holds a climbing plant to scurry up the fence in no time.
4. Keep to a colour scheme
If you have a clear idea of the colours you like for your borders – it’s a good trick to start with three, a neutral, a deep and a contrast, for instance, white, blue and yellow – you’ll be able to easily start to choose which plants will work well.
However, if you’re stuck for inspiration, you might want to look into how much a garden designer costs. Often, garden designers will draw up just a planting plan for a fixed fee, which should give you lots of expert guidance to get going.
5. Follow a path with purpose
A natural home for borders is either side of a garden path idea. There are lots of quick and simple ways to create a path, one of the easiest and most inexpensive being to lay gravel. However, if you’re keen to put down a more permanent pathway that will stand out as a strong design feature, perhaps in brick or stone, you might need to consider garden landscaping costs.
6. Don’t be afraid to add drama
The best borders should offer a surprise. So contrast dramatic exotic shapes such as banana trees, rounded hummocks, spires and ‘see-through’ shapes. Check out the latest garden trends for inspiration. ‘But don’t use too many different plants – restrict your choice of varieties, repeating them rhythmically at intervals,’ says Annelise Brill, a horticultural expert at Thompson & Morgan (opens in new tab).
A good rule of (green) thumb is to add border plants in odd numbers as this will help to create a pleasing sense of continuation. Sarah Raven says that she never plants just one of each kind of plant: ‘Ideally more like three or five so you have impact and pizzazz, rather than an overall fussy and dotty effect.’
7. Learn to love naturalistic planting
If you’re worried about a border requiring constant maintenance, embrace naturalistic wildlife and pollinator-friendly planting. If you’re after a cottage garden idea, this could be the option for you. At RHS Chelsea this year, garden designer Ruth Wilmott proved it was possible to plant a wonderfully relaxed garden that also followed precise design rules.
She interpreted the ‘Trellis’ and ‘Willow Bough’ patterns of Arts & Crafts maestro William Morris with borders filled with a dazzling array of cottage garden favourites such as roses, acanthus, meadowsweet, wild strawberries, jasmine, and wild honeysuckle.
8. Put pots in borders for instant impact
A quick fix for any border, especially in the awkward times in-between seasons, is to play with the potential of pots. To make pots work effectively in borders, you need to think about how to enhance the bigger picture. Avoid cluttering up with too many small planters. Go for impact, with stately palms or bright displays of tulips in springtime.
‘Use the biggest possible pots if you want to enhance your borders – as large as you can possibly afford and fit in the space,’ says Sarah Raven. ‘Raise them up on a plinth or top them with a woven silver birch or tied bamboo cane tepee, which you can cover with one of the quickly-growing annual climbers such as Thunbergias, impoaeas, cobaea or rhodochiton.’ This added height is a great trick to use for small garden ideas, where planting space is at a premium.
9. Make the most of shady borders
Don’t discount shady, north-facing garden ideas or overlooked spaces which could be transformed by being turned into a border. Chose planting carefully, paying particular attention to whether you have ‘dry’ or ‘damp’ shade, as shade-loving plants such as ferns and hostas are often fussy in this regard.
If you’re keen to add colour, easy-to-care-for hydrangeas are a good choice; white blooms against glossy green foliage look especially effective.
10. Always add an edging
There are garden edging ideas that can run along a border. These include: forming a natural ‘dip’ between planted-up soil and the lawn with a hoe, laying easy-to-use log rolling, or building low brick, stone, slate or rendered walls, typically painted in a complementary or contrasting colour to the planting scheme.
Always add a clear edging to a border – even if it ends up overwhelmed with vigorous plants – or it will lack foundation and end up looking formless. A clear border edging idea will also make it easier to mow the lawn, especially with the best lawn mower to hand.
11. Plan for year-round planting
The holy grail of border design is to create a display that looks good whatever the time of year. This can be a challenge, especially with a new border that will take time to establish itself.
Think of your late autumn/winter border as a framework. ‘Start by allowing space for plenty of evergreen foliage such as ivy, boxus and hebe,’ says Annelise Brill, horticultural expert at Thompson & Morgan. ‘And remember, when you’re planning, to leave several holes for bulbs and annuals, which you can plant throughout the year in drifts to add extra colour, even in the gloomiest months of January and February.’
What can I use for garden borders?
You can use pretty much any flower, plant or shrub you like in a border, but always ask yourself the following questions: Am I planting my choice in the right site for its growing conditions? How tall and wide will my flower, plant or shrub grow? Am I placing plants which complement each other in a pleasing shape or pattern?
Don’t think of a border as one-dimensional. If your border is backed by a fence or wall and you’re looking for easy climbing plant ideas to add interest or cover something unsightly, certainly consider bringing in climbing plants such as clematis, honeysuckle and jasmine.
However, avoid fast-growing and sometimes invasive climbers such as the ‘potato’ plant (Solanum); you will be constantly pruning it back as it will overshade your growing blooms.
How can I make my garden borders look good?
Even the most free-form self-seeding wildflower borders need keeping in check. Deadhead regularly to encourage new flowers and don’t allow one particular species to dominate the others.
A good piece of advice, even in a busy border, is to allow each plant, however small, its own space. Whilst interaction between different plants helps to create a full and captivating border, keep some sense of discipline.
And don’t forget, a border is only as good as what it grows in. Keep the soil fertile with lots of organic matter dug well in a few months before the growing season; manure is ideal. Add liquid seaweed food – you can even make your own by steeping seaweed in buckets – to add nutrients to the soil and encourage flowering during summer/early autumn. And always add a nurturing layer of mulch; the best mulch is homegrown compost from plant and kitchen vegetable/fruit waste, made in a compost bin with waste from your garden.
How do I make a simple garden border?
When looking for easy garden ideas, stick to a theme. Don’t be over-awed by the dramatic and complex borders popularised by hugely inspirational gardeners such at Gertrude Jekyll, who had teams of gardeners to help with all the hard work. You can create an impressive border with no more than three different kinds of plants. A tall plant to stand in a ‘holding’ line, a small, tumbling plant for underplanting at the edge and a colourful bushy plant to add colour and vibrancy.
‘Linear planting is used a lot in modern border designs but needs care as a single plant out of place can spoil the effect,’ says Rob Grayson, head of purchasing at Hillier Nurseries (opens in new tab).
‘Bamboos are often employed in this way to form screening or divide a space, ornamental grasses are particularly effective, offering a range of colours and textures with little maintenance. Ferns are also popular for their range of colour and form. Varieties such as Athyrium nipponicum ‘Metallicum’ and Cheilanthes lanosa in shades of steel grey and blue are a stylish choice.’
How do you create a low maintenance border?
Be super-disciplined in your choices. It’s very difficult to hold back when tempted by a sweetie-shop display of brightly-coloured perennials in the garden centre or online, but try to exercise restraint.
Work with nature, not against it. Start with the soil conditions and orientation then choose your plants, not the other way around. Every choice must be able to adapt to its environment.
“Focus on foliage not flowers,” says Annelise Brill, horticultural expert at Thompson & Morgan https://www.thompson-morgan.com/ “Foliage shape, texture and colour are enduring and low-maintenance qualities whereas flowering performance is fleeting. Go for evergreen foliage as much as possible.”
If your site is fairly sunny and well-drained – the optimum position for a border, but not always possible, we understand – Annelise says Mediterranean plants are “brilliant – many offer both evergreen foliage and flowers whilst demanding little attention. When you’re planting, always start with the more upright, structural shrubs such as Cistus, Ceanothus ‘Concha’, Euphorbia mellifera, Oleander, and Rosemary. Then place lower, more spreading plants, aiming to cover the ground as much as possible; Convolvulus cneorum, dwarf hebes, Helianthemum, Artemisia and dwarf lavenders are good for this.”
How do you structure a garden border?
Structure is something that most keen beginners and even well-experienced gardeners, find daunting. Whilst many borders break the rules, and tall plants at the front can be really effective, if you’re unsure, here’s hands-on, fail-safe advice from Annelise Brill, horticultural expert at Thompson & Morgan https://www.thompson-morgan.com/ (opens in new tab).
She thinks of a border in three layers and plans it from back to front – pointing out that borders more than two metres wide can accommodate four layers.
Layer one is the tallest, woody shrub layer, giving all year-round structure. “Many shrubs will grow almost indefinitely, if you don’t prune them,” says Annelise Brill, horticultural expert at Thompson & Morgan https://www.thompson-morgan.com/. “So, think about how large you would like those shrubs to grow and leave them your chosen amount of space.”
Then layer two should be medium-height, upright plants, and layer three will be low-spreading plants to – eventually – form a carpet underneath.
“Layers two and three can include herbaceous perennials, planted in elongated drifts, and also smaller woody shrubs, planted singly,” she says. “And don’t forget evergreen foliage, and lots of it.”