Monday, 13 December 2010

Cutting back the border

Cutting-back in progress
With the snow gone and the air temperature positive - though with the soil still frozen - it is essential that we crack on and do as much as possible to prepare the garden at Colesbourne Park for the snowdrop season - not very far away now. One of the major jobs is to cut down the old growth in the herbaceous border, tidying it up and giving it a good mulch.

I am very well aware of the prevailing fashion for leaving herbaceous plants standing through the winter, both for the supposed beauty of the stems and seedheads, and for the refugia they provide for insects, etc. I have to say that the latter point does not trouble me unduly: for every ladybird there must be many more aphids. As for beauty, this is in the eye of the beholder, as usual. I am trying very hard to find positives, but I can't completely get over the fact that, to me, most dead herbaceous plants look horrible - a real witch's washing line - especially when lank and dank in the usual English winter (see right). True, they crisp up and look better in frost, and there are some that have real attraction and elegance. Last week's hoar frost showed these up beautifully, but there aren't very many plants that really carry it off well for very long into the winter - they lose their charm very quickly when they cease to be more or less vertical. 

Perennials in hoar frost in the cottage garden
It is obviously quite possible to plan a border full of plants that retain elegance in winter, but I think that if this is to be done it needs to be in a designated area, because, as I've found in the cottage garden, isolated clumps of standing stems just look daft, however nicely they blended in with less persistent companions when in growth.

In addition to disliking the general air of desuetude of dead perennials, I have two good reasons for clearing the borders now. Firstly, they are not planted only with late-flowering perennials. There is too much space in a border to waste on having only one display (however late into winter the remains of that are left), and there is no reason why it should not be of interest and beauty for most of the year. To be so, however, it is essential that old material is cleared away before the new growth starts to appear. With an early display of bulbs in the mix this means it must be done now to avoid their shoots being damaged. This may not be the case in all gardens, but there is also the issue of practicality - it cutting-back isn't done now, it must be done later, and why do a winter job when spring is advancing? Or who has time to?

Helenium 'Sahin's Early Flowerer'

The second reason is not unrelated to the first, but is perhaps more philosophical. I think that winter should be a time for looking forward to the rebirth that is spring, not for contemplating the disarticulating skeletons of last summer's feast. Even today, early in the winter, the promise of new growth is very apparent, whether in the red buds of peonies, the rosettes of herbaceous perennials, or in the vigorously pushing noses of the bulbs. Gardening is all about the future, not the past.

New shoots of Galanthus 'John Gray'


  1. Hear! Hear! I, too, am less then enthralled by the spectre of a summer garden. There are great examples in Wisley's double border of when it works and when it doesn't - mostly the latter. An Oudolfian garden which is mostly one for summer and autumn may stand up to winter, but what does one do in spring and early summer then but wait. Not for me. I will pair a sturdy grass with a clipped ball of holly or box, or Hydrangea 'Annabelle' with a shrubby luma, but other wise herbaceous plants are cut down when they no longer look right to my eye. Then I can see the weeds that have snuck in under cover of summer's light and verdancy. Chop away. But do give a cover to poor John Gray lest Jack Frost nip too much at his toes.

  2. A Post Script, if I may. This topic shows why it is important to design a mixed border from the winter up, so to speak. I always create the first of four layers to look pleasing in winter - lots of colors and shapes arrange in a pleasant pattern - leaving gaps of course for the other season. Next I do the autumn scheme, followed by summer's, and lastly spring's which is a no brainer, though I try to keep to a color scheme. The two "perennial" borders at Denver Botanic Garden were even designed to look good after a winter snow storm of 1-2' of snow. The resulting mounds, lumps, and colorful twigs sticking out were very much like a Henry Moore sculpture. Something to try only when deep snows are a winter given.

  3. It is a fascinating post, John! You spoke from the bottom of my heart :)

  4. Very interesting and informative post John - here in wet wales there is nothing that looks more bedraggled than a sodden mound of herbaceous "stuff"


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