In Part 1 of “The New Front Border”, I described a front border that began with good intentions, but mutated from a dream into a nightmare in two years. The eventual solution was to simply start over, taking all the long-suffering and miserable plants out – with some going to the compost heap – and replacing them with plants suitable for the hot, dry conditions this border offers. Once the small perennials were relocated elsewhere and the Dahlias moved to a temporary nursery bed on the patio, it was time for that hideous tree to come down.
I’ve said many times that I would be very glad to see the tree come down and happy to see it go but that didn’t stop the sense of guilt and sadness that comes when a large plant is taken out. In this case it was the white ornamental cherry tree and it was unceremoniously pushed over onto the drive. The anchoring roots were dug up and cut and then the tree taken to pieces. While I didn’t feel good about it, I only had to remind myself of the ever-hungry pigeons eating the blossom, the ants farming the black fly and the the dead hanging-on leaves in the winter for any sense of regret to quickly go away.
All the plants apart from the lavender and edging thyme were taken out. Oh – I also left the clematis in as a problem for “future me” to deal with. This is a white Clematis Montana “Wilsonii”, typically used to cover sheds and small outbuildings. It was planted to cover the tree, which is no longer there now, so for the mean time it has the run of the fence but it won’t be satisfied with that for long. I expect I will have to dig it up at some point, but not before I see how it looks covering and spilling over the fence.
Digging out the dahlias before they’ve emerged was like digging for potatoes, I got most, skewered some with the fork and the rest are still in there, somewhere. They’ve now been relocated to a nursery border and the overspill have gone into pots. The old tree had thick roots that spread out horizontally and those were easy to remove once the soil was loosened and dug over. What was noticeable was that despite all the winter rain, the soil was barely moist. In the summer it would be as dry as bone dust. In the back garden, the soil was still waterlogged at ground-level.
The border was greatly improved with compost, manure and topsoil from when it was first extended almost two years ago and the soil level is high enough that I didn’t want to add more so I reached for the horticultural holy trinity of bone meal, all purpose Gro-more fertiliser and potash. The bone meal is a slow-release fertiliser good for the roots and leaves. The potash is for hardening plants (woody stems) and to encourage flowering and the all-purpose fills in any gaps. Once this was incorporated and the soil levelled, it was finally, almost ready for planting.
Before a single plant went into the ground the whole border was laid out. The plants to go in are all supposed to be drought-tolerant. They are:
- Various scented dianthus; with silvery, thin foliage and long fibrous roots, this plant smacks of being drought-tolerant. These were on offer and only a few pounds each
- Shasta Daisies; a favourite of the other half, the top of the plant may barely be a few inches, but the roots extend to several feet, this plant can tap into underground aquifers. These were grown from seed
- Hebes; which are from cuttings of cuttings of cuttings from the original plants that grew at the very front of the original garden, are now growing at the front of this one.
- Phormium; which are offsets from the main plant that belongs to the parents and which I helped divide last year
- Cupressus Sempervirens; the instantly recognisable and famous Italian Cypress, which lines the roads and fields of Tuscany; it is a very drought-tolerant tree when established. I am taking a risk with this tree as it is not hardy in prolonged periods of cold. However, we are in the south of the UK and the border is dry and very sunny, all of which increase the chances of this celebrity tree surviving the winters. A pair will be going in the border and they were also from the parents, who bought them cheaply from overstock.
- Coreopsis; not shown in the photo as it was added later, the coreopsis was grown from seed and will form a curving sentry line of yellow behind the lavender and dianthus
- Phoenix Canariensis; the venerable Phoenix Canariensis that we have had for several years now is finally ready to go into the ground. Endlessly potted on into larger and larger pots, it has tried to escape more than once by growing roots so thick and dense as it push itself up and out of the pot. It’s finally time to set it free by placing it as the centre piece of the border.
- Agapanthus: grown from seed from the plants grown from seed taken from the mountain top Agapanthus plants of Madeira
- The bird bath: as I always liked it in the centre at the front
Spending some time planting them all in gives the finished border:
You might notice from reading the plant list that several of the plants were started from seed, from divisions or from donations. In fact, only the Canariensis and the dianthus were bought and both were bargains. The amount of fertiliser that went into this border was probably more expensive than the cost of the plants in it. The Agapanthus was a side-effect of the holiday to Madeira, it wasn’t the original purpose so the cost of the holiday is not being included; this is my nod to creative accounting. Planting a new border doesn’t necessarily mean spending a fortune on plants, though it sometimes helps.
Drought-tolerant plants are naturally associated with hot, dry areas of the world, which locally to us is southern Europe. Certainly the thyme, lavender and cypress scream, “Mediterranean”. While the Agapanthus is natively South African, it is probably more associated with Madeira, where it has colonised so successfully it probably turns the island blue from space each spring. These young plants will take at least two or three years to flower (if they survive the winter) but they grow quickly once established and a mass of flowering agapanthus in a border this size should be a definite photo opportunity. The hebes are somewhat generic but their deep red foliage contrasts well against the stark white fence in the sun and will poke out between the fence slats. The Phormium gives a strong structural element and contrasting foliage colour and shape against a background of white and finally, the venerable Canariensis gives an unmistakable “tropical holiday” feel. The planting is strongly symmetrical with a muted palette, this is typical of formal mediterranean gardens and it wasn’t entirely by accident that this new border reflects it.
I think this new border will become known as the “Holiday” border. The combination and layout of plants should stir memories of gardens and parks in foreign, hot, dry places in this part of the planet. The only worry now is whether the more tender plants will be OK over the winters, at least there is a full growing season for them to become established before the next one. The old front border has finally been put out of its misery and in its place is something that should be far more adapted to the very local conditions.
Fast-forward several weeks and there have been a few tweaks made to “complete the look”. The first is that I gave in to my desire for a large terracotta pot and installed that in place of the bird bath. I’ve planted it with blue trailing lobelia to make it seem as though water is cascading out of the pot. I also placed some larger rockery stones behind the thyme and finally, we generously mulched the bed with bark chippings to keep the moisture in and the weeds suppressed. An attempt at early summer weather has managed to bring on the plants a little more.
The original “feel” I wanted from this border was of overflowing voluptuousness, but now that I see this new border planted, I realise that it is much more suited to and sits much better with the light-coloured gravel drive that surrounds it, which itself gives an impression of hot dry river bed. Add to this the Banksiae Lutea rose increasing its reach across the front of the house and it won’t be long before I have a piece of the Mediterranean in the front garden, I’ve already started on the terracotta pots.