How would you like to spend next summer? Deadheading and staking, or kicking back with one that takes care of itself?
Caring for a herbaceous border is a much-loved ritual for many, but if you’re pushed for time go for a prairie border. Inspired by the Great Plains in the USA, this informal style of planting is a cross between a flowering border and a grassy meadow. But you do not need rolling acres to create a border – a modest space in full sun is ideal and a border can be as little as 2x1.5m.
Around 80 per cent of prairie borders are ornamental grasses, such as miscanthus, pennisetum and stipa, which provide texture, movement and a swish when the wind blows. Flowers that do not spread rampantly fill the rest of border, adding splashes of colour.
For a natural looking border use curved edges and plant in groups of three, five or seven, avoiding straight lines or dense blocks. Make the plants look as if they have spread naturally by using the same flowers and grasses in several areas.
Borders are best created in stages. Start by preparing the soil this winter and plant it up in the spring. You’ll soon have a border that will look great all year round: even in winter when the seed heads of grasses and the skeletons of the perennials can look magical.
How to create a border
Prepare the soil
Mark out the shape of your border with a length of rope, hosepipe or by trickling sand over the surface – curved edges will look more natural than straight lines. Remove tough perennial weeds by tugging out by hand or lifting with a garden fork, and use a hoe to chop off shallow rooted weeds. If you are turning part of a lawn into a border, skim off the turf with a spade to expose bare soil.
Next, spread leaf mould or well-rotted manure over the surface and mix into the soil by digging, or if you have a large border, hire a powered rotovator. This will help to improve the soil’s drainage and provide nutrients to the plants. Level the soil off by raking.
Lay out plants
Even if you have planned your border on paper, it is best to make sure it works on the ground before starting to plant. Keeping plants in their pots, arrange flowers in groups of three, five or seven of the same variety – the amount depends on the size of the border. Place them in informal patterns with a distance of 60cm between plants – this will allow them to grow with plenty of space so they can be seen fully.
Repetition is important for a prairie border so use the same plants elsewhere. After arranging the flowers, fill in the gaps using a range of ornamental grasses, again placing them in groups with taller growing varieties planted at the back. If you are planning a very large border, leave a path of bare soil so you can walk through without crushing all of your plants underfoot.
3 Start planting
Work your way methodically from one end of the bed to the other. Dig holes twice the width and a little bit deeper than the root ball of your plant. Place in the hole, making sure the root ball is level with the surface of the soil, fill and firm down the soil with your heel.
4 Finish the border
Stand back and check the newly planted border. If you are not happy with the location of any of your plants, move them before watering each well. Finish by covering the surface with composted bark. This will not only act as mulch, but help to lock in moisture and also to show off plants.
Echinacea pallida (cone flower) drooping pale pink petals with a bright orange centre.
Rudbeckia maxima (coneflower) imposing plant with egg yolk yellow flowers with distinctive black centre.
Monarda ‘Cherokee’ (bergamot) aromatic leaves and purple blooms.
Astrantia ‘Roma’ (masterwort) pincushion-like purple flowers.
Eryngium yuccifolium (sea holly) white flowers on long stems above clumps of sword-like leaves.
Eupatorium purpureum (Joe pye weed) stiff stems and pink flowers.
Verbena bonariensis elegant airy stems with tufts of purple flower.
Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ (reed grass) clumps of thin leaves below wiry stems of pinkish flowers.
Pennisetum alopecuroides (fountain grass) arching leaves and big, hairy yellow flowers.
Stipa gigantea (golden oats) bronze flower heads on statuesque grass.
Words: Martyn Cox