Previous Parts in the Corner Border Series:
Well, this is the exciting bit – who cares about the weeds I started off with? plants I inherited? the neighbour’s rockery I pilfered? the tones of compost and manure that went into improving the soil? It’s all about the planting.
We last left the corner border as a beautifully sculpted canvas, just crying out to be planted. I love seeing borders at this stage. All the hard, physical work is done, what’s left is a curvaceous expanse of bare soil, full of potential, bordered by the neatest, crispiest border edging you ever did saw.
Out of the various scraggly shrubs in the original border, we saved the euonymous and the camellia, the rest was a case of “wrong plant, wrong place”. A sad viburnum devoured by viburnum beetle, a drowned choisya trying to grow in waterlogged clay, the most hideously-coloured salmon-pink hemerocallis you can imagine and a lovely rambling rose, but with nothing to climb up.
The process of creating a border and getting it ready to plant takes so long that through the process, I have a lot of time to think about theming, planting and to get material together. By the time a border is ready, there is a long waiting line of plants desperate to go in it.
The Corner Border was no different, the first wave of planting saw myriad plants going in and filling the entire space; from wide-leafed hostas to sword-like irises, one exotic palm to hundreds of common Crocosmia. It was late June 2016 that the Corner Border was “made”.
and it was glorious.
By late summer the same year, all the planting had settled in and the dahlias were the new “wow” factor for the garden. Those dahlias were ones I rescued from when I was investigating the back of the garden (“trying to reach the back of the garden”, more like). I discovered them all discarded on a heap of garden rubbish. I recovered, potted up and grew-on over fifteen sets of dahlia tubers and the Corner Border was the place to plant them all together in a long-running swathe of vibrant flower.
I had no idea of the varieties, they were all mixed shapes and colours – but thankfully all around a similar size. The late summer gave the most spectacular flower show the garden had seen yet and it went on far into the autumn.
If was the first and last year we’d see such a show from this border.
Despite a mild winter and ideal conditions of a raised border with rich, airy soil not a single dahlia re-appeared the following spring. I know that you’re supposed to ideally lift dahlias and store them over winter, but I had hoped the conditions in the ground would actually be better than what I could manage had I dug them up. After all, they had survived being thrown out onto a compost heap at the back of the garden and abandoned.
The loss of the dahlias was a significant setback. I had already moved on to working on other parts of the garden, I didn’t have time and I didn’t want to stop and ruminate on the large glaring gap left by the dahlias. It would be an admission of failure and I had a problem facing that.
Instead, I ignored the problem but occasionally tried throwing plants at the border to see what would stick. I tried a carpet of crocuses, they were OK until the pigeons started pecking out the flowers and the soil became too dry for them and they thinned. It was too dry for the mass of Allium Christophii, which started out wonderfully but gradually faded over the years to one or two flowering bulbs. The carpet of ajuga I wanted to cover the whole area was more of a thread-bare rug that died back each summer from the heat and dryness of the soil.
It dawned on me that in raising the border height, I had swapped one hostile environment for another. The heavy, wet, waterlogged, airless clay was now a free-draining, dust-dry, sun-baked, parched expanse. Even seasonal plants had trouble just maintaining their flowering, let alone spreading.
This isn’t the “success story” I wanted.
I continued to all but ignore the Corner border as I worked elsewhere in the garden but every time I went along the path that ran alongside the stepped stone wall, I would get a painful reminder of what was then and what was now. I avoided this part of the garden, I took other paths around it. I kept this up for several years as the main part of the Corner border went neglected, while all the shrubs, trees and plants flourished around the two straight edges.
By 2022 I had finished the major borders in the garden and it was time to face the music and return to the areas of the garden that weren’t doing so well, the areas that needed overhauls and major attention, the Corner Border was on that list. In summer – after an absence of five years – my attention finally came back to this border and I cleared out was what still left in the barren middle area. I had a good sit-down and think about the dry sunny conditions this border has and tried to reframe it from a from a problem into an asset.
There are lots of plants that would love these conditions, it’s just a matter of dedicated research and experimentation to find the right set. Throwing plants at a border to see what sticks has never worked in this garden. At best it’s produced a bitty hodge-podge of random plants that don’t fit a cohesive theme. At worst it’s been a waste of money.
I wanted to solve the problem of the Corner Border for the last time and made lists of plants that might work (after no small amount of reading). We took a trip to a few garden centres and came back with a selection of plants that might just do the trick.
In the basket I had Sedums, Senecio, Nepeta, Verbascum, Erigeron, even Oxalis. They went in as recurring groups, with a ribbon of epimediums along the back under the shade of the ferns. The Agapanthus are still there and so are the Foxtail Lily underneath.
I’m counting on the height of the border above the normal ground level to keep these plants from getting too wet over the winter, giving the borderline plants a chance to keep from rotting (the number one winter fatality). The other trees and shrubs in the border have had several years to grow and mature to provide solid protection on two sides, creating a microclimate that is hopefully suited to the new additions.
These plants only went in this summer and so it remains to be seen what will survive the winter and thrive in next summer’s dry heat. Even after eight years, the story of the Corner Border isn’t over yet.
I guess that’s the exciting and forgiving part about gardening. If it doesn’t work the first time, just take a moment to review why, come up with another plan and then try again. I’ve done the same approach for other areas of the garden that’s suffered similarly and although it’s too early to tell if it has worked, I know exactly what I should do if it hasn’t.
So that’s where we are with the Corner Border. There’ll definitely be a follow-up next year. For the moment,
Is it finished?: No.
Is it ready for showing?: I hope it will be.
Is it a lesson in problem solving, facing fears and learning to adapt to unexpected setbacks and changing microclimates to select the best-suited plants for horticultural success?: Most definitely yes.