Plants and gardens are rather like people: they all have different personalities, and one of the great gardening skills is finding the right place for them in your personal paradise, however small it may be.
You may have sunnier spots that catch the full force of midday sun, and these are perfect for silver and aromatic drought-busters, capable of taking the heat without frazzling. There may be shadier nooks and crannies, in the lea of shrubs and trees for instance, and these will be perfect for spring-flowering woodlanders such as hellebores and epimediums.
Hardy evergreen ferns, meanwhile, grown purely for their foliage, will also love your shadier spots. You’ll almost certainly have frost pockets, too – places that stay colder for far longer, or perhaps there’s a challenging north- or east-facing border or wall. These will need hardy toughies.
Don’t attempt to create a border for year-round interest
Most inexperienced gardeners – and that included me at one time – fall into the trap of trying to make the all-singing, all-dancing border designed to offer something throughout the year. That way madness lies, to quote King Lear. You’ll end up with a shabby peony next door to a dazzling aster and the evenly balanced September light will be totally unforgiving.
Stringy daffodil foliage will stubbornly cling to the ground and spoil your first flush of roses. It is the plant equivalent of laddered tights. Worse still, garden maintenance, which is key to successful gardening, will prove to be an impossible task. The sensible way to go is to create seasonal highlights and extend the planting.
Summer-flowering plants favour brighter positions and that’s why they flower in summer. Many are aromatic or silvery. The oily covering is “plant sunscreen” and the pale foliage helps, too, as it absorbs less heat.
This may be a consideration when selecting roses for garden hotspots, because paler-coloured blooms are far less likely to frazzle than darker reds and pinks.
Those “silver shadows” rely on a deep-root system that can stretch downwards for several feet. The fine roots will take a season or two to develop, so bear in mind that “drought-resistant” lavenders and salvias will have to be watered during their first growing season. Once their roots are down and deep, though, they will cope.
Summer-flowering perennials tend to come in soft pastel shades of blues, pinks and whites because many are cultivated forms of native European flora. Blue bellflowers, campanulas and hardy geraniums are typical examples.
Most summer-flowering perennials can be cut down from mid-autumn onwards, once they have finished flowering. However, less hardy plants, such as Mediterranean aromatic plants and penstemons, should be lightly pruned in the spring.
You can also take the top third of growth out of roses once they have finished flowering. This will make them less prone to wind-rock and the risk of the plants destabilising. If they are tall enough to move and sway, a gap will open up by the main stem and this will allow water to funnel down to the roots.
Extend the season
Japanese anemones will happily plug the gaps among summer-flowering plants. The August-flowering hupehensis var japonica ‘Pamina’ combines ebony stems and the semi-double pink flowers emerge from seed-pearl buds. Annual cosmos will go on very late into the year.
Position your autumn border so that it’s bathed in warm afternoon sunlight, slanting in from the southwest. The September light creates a jewel-box richness and there will be an abundance of daisies. These will lure in colourful butterflies.
Wait until the worst of the winter is over before cutting this border back in late January, or early February, otherwise you’ll lose the winter tracery and silhouettes.
Extend the season
Tall, late-season grasses add movement and texture and the autumnal light captures the ostrich-feathered ones and the beaded beauties. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberfeder’ (silver feather), will deliver by late August. If you like beaded veils, seek out a tall molinia (‘Transparent’).
Woodlanders, ferns and spring-flowering bulbs form a low spring carpet. They will need a woody canopy above them, for scale and protection. Witch hazels, early-flowering viburnums and ornamental cherries do the job well.
Spring borders can be thoroughly tidied in early September, before any bulbs begin to spurt into life. You can also add more bulbs, although tulips need planting once there is a nip in the air.
Extend the season
Hydrangea paniculata begins to flower in late summer. Lime-green and white panicles fade to shades of Neapolitan ice cream and then turn to parchment and paper by winter. The modestly-sized panicles of ‘Kyushu’ and ‘Limelight’ slot into borders better than the giants.