The front border is a narrow semi-circle, which the drive wraps around forming the “in and out”. It has gone through many iterations; when we first saw it, it was tight against the fence, looking as though it was trying to breathe in and not touch the gravel. A few days after moving in, one of the first things I did was to rake the gravel back and make the border more generous, and relaxed. It was the first ever border expansion in the new garden, way back in April 2014.
Pushing the gravel back for an expanding border
The old, tired shrubs were quickly ripped out and in went a pair of rose towers, rescued Dahlias and grown-from-free-seed sunflowers, dotted formally by lavender and a line of thyme. There were also two clematis planted either side of the tree. By summer 2014, we had a very respectable and promising new border, the roses were getting established, the sunflowers were going to be a great show and the formal edge would gradually knit together. It was an elegant border for an elegant frontage. The plan and execution were brilliant, surely the rest would follow?
Job done; or was it really?
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that; trouble was brewing and things started to go wrong with this border in 2015. We discovered the tree liked to hang on to its withered, rotten leaves all through winter, pigeons liked to eat all the emerging blossom buds in the spring and ants liked to farm the black fly on the growing tips in the summer. I never did like the shape of the tree, it had a rough, stout trunk, which was too thick for the misshapen canopy. Its proportion was all wrong, there was something discordant about it that I couldn’t put my finger on.
While the dahlias put on a brilliant show of flowers in 2014, it was noticeably lacklustre in 2015, this was because we were very good at watering the border in 2014 to get the plants established, but it was never meant to be a continual thing. Once the plants are bedded in, they’re generally on their own. The dahlias suffered in the hot, dry summer months and flowered sporadically. The roses were off to a very promising start and they did flower, but their initial enthusiasm ran out when the water did. Under stress, their flowers were small, wilted easily and they became overrun with disease and rust, unable to afford the energy to grow out of it. At one point I was worried we would lose Rosa Gertrude Jekyll as it defoliated completely and only emergency watering and intensive care revived it later on in the season. I would have been devastated had it died. Rosa Teasing Georgia fared little better, its growth was stunted and it came over with orange rust. This rampant and voluptuous rose that was in our previous garden became as stunted and misshapen as the tree and I worried I would never see it in its former glory again.
The only positive was that the old wooden fence fell down shortly after we re-painted it and so we ripped it all out and replaced it with a beautiful new white picket fence, instantly making it the most iconic front fence on our street.
The idea was there, but the water wasn’t.
The clematis also did unexpectedly well and continued to scramble into the tree. Being drought-tolerant plants, the lavender and thyme had a good year, everything else was a disaster. Towards the end of the season, the spent sunflowers (planted for a second year) were taken out, the bed was worked over and young seed-grown perennials were put in their place, simply because we had a glut of them and there was no where else for them to go. The mix of herbaceous perennials were to form the flower show in 2016. There were to be shasta daisies, lupins, coreopsis and Cupid’s Dart; bunches of Iris Sibirica also went in for good measure. There was no particular theme, I was simply going for the “cornucopia” or “kitchen sink” look.
Some late summer Dahlia colour
Another winter passed and one again the tree hung on to it’s brown rotting leaves that shivered in the cold winds. Every day I saw that hideous sight and it grated. Furthermore, I dreaded the coming season where I fully expected the repeat of ravishing by pigeons and ants, the struggle of the roses and the failure of the dahlias and iris. I didn’t hold much hope for the young perennials either. Instead of going down the “sticking plaster” route of trying to control the ants and water more often, more drastic measures were needed.
A logical analysis of the problem led to the solution for this border. The existing plants were stunted, under stress and wilting. This was caused by a lack of water, therefore, the problem was the soil was too dry for the existing plants. The options are to make it rain more often in the border, manually and repeatedly water forever, change the plants or change the nature of the soil to be more water retentive. It is easier and quicker to change the plants, than it is to change the nature of the soil, which in this border won’t ever be able to hold enough water. The nature of the soil is dry. The type of plants therefore, need to be drought tolerant. All the existing plants but the lavender and thyme must go. The solution is to start over.
So start over, I did.