THE MODERN MINT BLOG
In Part One of How To Make A Flower Border From Scratch we told you a little about our first forays into making a flower border – the curiosity we had at the start, the sheer numbers of questions and time we spent asking people just ‘how do you do it?’
This follow on blog explores soil dynamics and how it encourages a different way of looking at a border, seeing what is derived from nature and how it could reduce the number of plants you lose…
Starting with the part of the garden you want to plant up, you decide you want something absolutely amazing, full of flowers and giving you as few hours of hard work in the garden as possible.
How do you go about it?
Look at your soil dynamics – the fertility of your soil, or how well plants will grow without you helping them. Most books on designing a flower border tell you to check the type of soil you have – clay, sandy, loamy, stony, silt… and that is important.
But the Modern Gardener will look further into that – for example, if we have clay soil, it means there will potentially be lots of nutrients, a higher water table, and some of the finest growing conditions we can imagine. If we can make the texture a touch lighter, this clay soil could give us the best flowers we can possibly hope for. But…
… a clay soil will have a high soil dynamism. Because it holds water and lots of nutrients, the most robust (aggressive?) plants are able to tap into that and enjoy the conditions far easier than something a little more delicate and graceful.
If you were to plant a huge range of different plants you will find that these tough, vigorous choices will oust the little ones, reducing the diversity of flowers and foliage you had spent ages planning and deliberating over.
In nature, an example of a dynamic soil is the soil along a river bank – lots of water, lots of nutrients, means it becomes a home for nettles, rosebay willow herb, bindweed, brambles, willow, thistles and a few non-native plants as well. The ground is also churned up, the soil constantly disturbed, by animals, people, boats, flooding, bank erosion… the instability of these conditions means plants that take a little longer to get established never have the chance…
Leaving us with the most brawny and durable in huge patches. You will see it for yourself next time you are by a canal or river – count how few different types of plants there are, how few fragile beauties sit amongst the huge leaves and tall stems.
What can you do about your soil dynamics?
For a wider range of flowers you need to reduce the dynamics of your soil – if you garden on clay, then this means creating a sterile seed bed in which to sow the plants you want and LEAVING THE SOIL UNDISTURBED.
At the Olympic Park Meadows in 2012, they laid sand in order to create that sterile border and then sowed into that. This meant that no weed seeds had been turned over in the soil and exposed to the light, which means they could not germinate, enjoy conditions and then take over the huge array and diversity of flowers that had been designed and sown.
It was a very smart move and all stemmed from what the creators – James Hitchmough, Nigel Dunnett and Sarah Price – had seen happen in nature. In areas of low fertility, like chalk downland, which heats up quickly and has very little goodness to share around the plants, it reduces competition and so you get a higher diversity of flora. This plant, this plant and this plant can all grow together in a tiny space, because none has a bigger advantage.
What this means for designing the border in your garden…
Before trying to decide which plants you want and what colours match, check the soil dynamics of the area you wish to plant and allow that to guide your plant choices.
Is it a shallow, hot border with poor soil? Fantastic, you can mix and match plants that don’t mind the dry conditions to your hearts content!
Or is it a wet piece of land that the dog and children keep playing hide and seek in, constantly stepping on plants and creating bare soil with their footprints? In that case, get the robust plants of the daisy family and the knotweeds in!
This is another way of looking at how to start a flower border from scratch, of thinking a little deeper about what it is you want to plant – by looking at how to design a landscape inspired by the plant conditions derived from nature, which in turn reduces maintenance (and plant failure!)
An added bonus for your border!
Making a new topiary out of the large, dull facade of a Taxus blob… My work was to change it up from a ‘jelly drop’ shape and give it texture, open it out and let the light through, and make it a sculptural feature in the background of the garden in summer… yet a major part of the garden in winter. A few more years before it becomes something special, but there was far more leaf and growth inside the plant than I thought and so it will not take too long for it to gain in character and become …
Two weeks ago I was invited to teach topiary at the garden of Griselda Kerr, the author of The Apprehensive Gardener. I love teaching and sharing skills, but I was placed on the spot in the afternoon and asked to show how I would make a new topiary from an existing shrub. So below is a speeded-up video of me creating a cloud-pruned topiary from an old boxwood tree. I particularly love the ending when the class get involved….! See the video here. One hour was all it took, and though it needed a little tidying-up, it was made by …
Charlotte Molesworth, my topiary mentor, and I are running our popular topiary workshop again in 2022. You can email me for details – or go here for information, your ticket and to find out about dates. Book A Spot On A Topiary Workshop, September 2022