Flower border guide for beginners — what to buy, when to plant, and how to provide year-round care

·9-min read
how to plant flower borders what how when buy care flowers when garden summer 2022 - Marianne Majerus
how to plant flower borders what how when buy care flowers when garden summer 2022 - Marianne Majerus

Experienced gardeners will know that there is hardly ever time to sit back and relax as there's always a lot of managing of your plants and flowers that needs to happen.

It's all about keeping the show on the road and attending to your flowers' needs - tweaking borders like a hairdresser with a long-handled comb. Any less than fresh-looking foliage can be easily snipped away too.

Out with the shabby and in with the better-looking. Sure, gardening is a fickle thing but the trick is to not be afraid to cheat and bed in a new addition or two from the garden centre.

When it comes to the ultimate border flower - don't attempt to keep it going all year long. More tips include squeezing flower power out of them and creating ones that concentrate on one season. For example, a spring woodland border will shine again in September - should hydrangea paniculata be woven through.

Summer borders stick around until November with the aid of penstemons, Gaura lindheimeri and annual cosmos. Autumn borders, set to blaze from August on, can be livened up in April-May with a blend of Triumph and late tulips. It's all about choosing well and making things last.

It's not all about the flower though. Echinacea buds look like fairy coronets long before the daisies appear. Likewise, the silvery parchment scales on the buds of Catananche caerulea (Cupid’s dart), are works of art for weeks before the flowers begin to unfurl.

Delaying tactics for long flowering

The Chelsea chop

how to plant flower borders what how when buy care flowers when garden summer 2022 - The Garden Collection
how to plant flower borders what how when buy care flowers when garden summer 2022 - The Garden Collection

A drastic cut by a third is known as the Chelsea chop. A well-known tactic, this is mainly used on achilleas, sedums, phloxes and heleniums.

However, not all sedums respond well. The chop means you risk your plant not flowering - although not a problem for those who are more pro-foliage. If you're a true foliage fan, ‘Matrona’, iridescent like a pigeon’s breast, and ‘Karfunkelstein’, a smouldering pink-brown sprout a good set of healthy leaves.

The front third only

how to plant flower borders what how when buy care flowers when garden summer 2022 - Marianne Majerus
how to plant flower borders what how when buy care flowers when garden summer 2022 - Marianne Majerus

Looking to extend your phloxes and heleniums' flowering season? Why not cut their front few stems by a third. You can do this with all heleniums but the precociously early and sterile hybrid ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’, in shimmering orange and brown, starts up in summer and is willing to rebloom.

The pale-pink phlox ‘Monica Lynden-Bell’ is the most drought-tolerant of border phloxes, along with the airy, white ‘Alba Grandiflora’. If you're trying to revive your plants, give these three a try.

Extend the roses

Struggling to make your roses last? The Chelsea chop is an option for English lavenders such as Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’, ‘Melissa Lilac, ‘Imperial Gem’ and ‘Munstead’. These are the short, bushy lavenders, with stubby flower spikes and needlelike foliage.

Lavenders normally coincide with roses, but if cut back by a third at the end of spring or beginning of summer, they perform later. Lavender ‘Melissa Lilac’ is in a class of its own, with far larger lavender florets, although ‘Hidcote’ is a striking purple-mauve. Downderry Nursery sells the widest range (downderry-nursery.co.uk).

Rich blues make for long summer evenings

how to plant flower borders what how when buy care flowers when garden summer 2022 - Marianne Majerus
how to plant flower borders what how when buy care flowers when garden summer 2022 - Marianne Majerus

Cutting back campanula lactiflora ‘Prichard’s Variety’ is also a way of allowing the entire blue wave to shine after the roses have taken their first curtain call. Alternatively, why not let the top flowers do their thing and then deadhead to promote more flower lower down the stem.

Aconitum ‘Sparks Variety’ also provides glimmers of deep blue, via side shoots that radiate out at 45 degrees. You get the same rich blue from an easy summer bulb, Triteleia laxa ‘Queen Fabiola’, an agapanthus-like native of California. This cheap as chips bulb is superb on sunny edges, especially when set against clear yellow flowers – such as Hemerocallis ‘Whichford’.

Halfway houses

‘Rozanne’ is the best late-summer hardy geranium around - but it’s a sprawler that needs at least a quarter of a square metre of space. However, cut it back by half when cut back by half and it will produce later flowers.

They shine in clear autumn light and the foliage looks even fresher. ‘Rozanne’ should stay more compact too, in the front of an autumn border – try it with purple asters such as ‘Helen Picton’.

Second flushes

how to plant flower borders what how when buy care flowers when garden summer 2022 - Dieter Schinner
how to plant flower borders what how when buy care flowers when garden summer 2022 - Dieter Schinner

Getting a second bite of the cherry is a real bonus, particularly when plants bounce back quickly and produce leaf and then flower. Two obvious candidates are nepeta (catmint) and hardy geranium – a scalping back to nothing prompts them into miraculous regrowth within days. The smaller-leaved aromatic nepetas work best.

These generally look tired by early to mid summer so shear them off and they will be back to their best four weeks later. Previously, I’ve grown two stunners, ‘Hill Grounds’ and ‘Summer Magic’.

A cautionary tale

Unfortunately, some plants do not appreciate being scalped. I, myself, have been caught out with lupins and a rather invasive red scabious, Knautia macedonica. They resolutely stayed underground afterwards and sulked for the rest of the year. Learn from your failures and fill the gap using penstemons instead.

Second helpings

how to plant flower borders what how when buy care flowers when garden summer 2022 - GAP PHOTOS
how to plant flower borders what how when buy care flowers when garden summer 2022 - GAP PHOTOS

Some flowers are remontant. That is, they flower again when prompted by autumn dew. Certain heritage tall bearded irises will perform again, when truly happy; they include ‘Golden Encore’, ‘Lovely Again’ and ‘Red Revival’.

Dark-red astrantias, such as ‘Gill Richardson’, ‘Hadspen Blood’ and ‘Claret’, look magnificent back in May, but will also throw some September flowers after a wet summer (all the above varieties need good soil).

Similarly, the candy-pink ‘Roma’ and the pale-pink ‘Buckland’, both sterile, produce no nuisance seedlings, flower for months and they’re not so fussy about soil – just cut them back as the flowers brown.

Claire Austin has a remontant iris list and many perennials, including red astrantias.

Follow-ups and repeat flower peformers

Sterile keeps on giving

how to plant flower borders what how when buy care flowers when garden summer 2022 - Michael Gray
how to plant flower borders what how when buy care flowers when garden summer 2022 - Michael Gray

One way to get more flower is to grow sterile plants that can’t set seed (owing to pollen incompatibilities between parents). They flower for months, but still attract bees. Geraniums ‘Patricia’, ‘Orion’, ‘Nimbus’, ‘Spinners’, ‘Blue Cloud’, ‘Ivan’, ‘Nicola’ and ‘Joy’ all flower for many weeks.

The Plantsman’s Preference has a great range. Other excellent sterile perennials include Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ and the crisp Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii, which produces brown-centred yellow daisies from August.

Deadheading

A plant doesn’t have to be sterile in order to perform for many months, because deadheading has the same effect – it prevents seeds from being formed. A pair of kitchen scissors, or pinching between finger and thumb, is faster and easier than secateurs.

Annual cornflowers, Scabiosa atropurpurea, tall French marigolds, cosmos and calendulas just keep going. Red valerian (Centranthus ruber and the mauve C. lecoqii) can also give you months of flower when deadheaded. If your valerian gets shabby, shear it back to base in summer for later flowers.

A rose tip or two

Deadhead repeat-flowering roses to promote more flower. Simply grasp the top of the flower and twist it, right under the bud, with your fingers.

Any thick stems that need secateurs, make a slanting cut down and away from you, rather than a straight one, and then you only see the tip. The shake test is invaluable here, because sometimes it’s difficult to tell which flowers are over. It’s the same with peonies.

Exceptions to the rule

There are some seed heads you’ll want to keep: herbaceous clematis, such as C. integrifolia ‘Ozawa’s Blue’, creep through summer borders and their thickly tepalled, blue pagoda-like flowers eventually metamorphosise into pale, silken spiders.

Deciduous eryngium flower heads can fade beautifully too, although in wet summers they have to go because they turn to rust-brown. Go by instinct.

Generous self-seeders

how to plant flower borders what how when buy care flowers when garden summer 2022 - GAP 
how to plant flower borders what how when buy care flowers when garden summer 2022 - GAP

Always cull the generous self-seeders, like foxgloves, annual poppies and the biennial Eryngium giganteum, leaving about one tenth standing.

Careful removal is advised to avoid a compost trail but other than that, your remaining plants and flowers can be left to self-seed and will often place themselves to advantage.

Gapping up

August is a dire month that needs all the help it can get, so be prepared to gap up with well-grown late performers from the garden centre – preferably in bud, not full flower. You’ll find good-looking dahlias, asters, sedums, crocosmias and asters. Look out for a dark-leaved, pink verbena called ‘Bampton’ – it’s a great, late addition.

Face the front

Bear in mind that every plant has a front and a back, so twirl it around before you plant to get its best profile. Water the spot well and then dig the hole, a little larger than the pot if possible, although we’re talking shoehorn here.

Fill the hole with water, drop in the plant quickly and then backfill – an ancient technique known as puddling in. It will give your plant a damp base.

Use the southern hemisphere

how to plant flower borders what how when buy care flowers when garden summer 2022 -  Rii Schroer
how to plant flower borders what how when buy care flowers when garden summer 2022 - Rii Schroer

Plants from the southern hemisphere (e.g. South Africa) have lots of pigment in their rain-resistant flowers and are fond of longer nights because they evolved close to the equator. Penstemons, salvias, gauras and fuchsias will flower until November. Diascias carry on, too.

The hardy D. personata rises to around a metre high. Alstroemeria ‘Indian Summer’ provides near-black foliage and sunshine red and yellow flowers and lasts year to year. Pluck fading flower stems on alstroemerias to encourage more. Thompson & Morgan.

If all else fails – here's your cheat sheet

Place a colourful container in the foreground to draw the eye in dull corners with not much flower, or place it in the border on a couple of bricks.

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