Round Robin: Winter Ideas for Garden Borders

DENVER, Colorado–Winter is a dangerous time. It gives us too much time to think about the garden. Why isn’t this area working? What plants have failed to perform to expectations? Should they be moved or composted?

I’ve come to believe that a good gardener is a ruthless one. I can’t believe how some of us keep making the same mistakes. When it comes to planning and planting, I try to remember that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. A friend of mine has a neighbor who plants a 10-foot Austrian pine in the same spot each spring. It dies in the waterlogged clay soil during the summer and is replaced the next year. This is the most expensive annual I’ve ever heard of. I used to think that the people who insisted on repopulating their hybrid tea rose ghettos after the annual winterkill were the craziest. Before I get a bunch of letters from indignant rose lovers, let me state that I have several friends who grow lovely hybrid tea roses. They weave them into the fabric of the garden with annuals and perennials rather than segregating them into a desolate “rose garden” that requires more labor and chemicals than a heavy metal rock tour. But I digress.

Compiling a “hit list” is almost more important than making a “wish list”. I’ve targeted several dozen plants that aren’t cutting the mustard for various reasons: poor flowering, overly aggressive growth, bad posture or susceptibility to disease. It sounds severe, but there are a million plants I’d like to grow, the clock is ticking and space is finite. Anything that needs a broom handle to stand up is unlikely to add one bit of grace to my garden.

As for disease-prone plants, I haven’t got time for the pain. I’ll put up with a little bit of mildew (“Oh, you’re not familiar with the silver-leaf form of mo­nar­da?”), but enough is enough. When people ask me for advice on mildew, I tell them to alter their watering schedule to morning only, dust with sulfur (which is as ugly as the disease it’s supposed to prevent), and then pull out the plant and put in something that will bring them pleasure.

One entire 10-by-40-foot border is on my hit list. Though there are some very nice plants in it, it’s a mess. The bed runs next to the patio close to the back door, and it holds the most commonly used herbs. The challenge was to make it both useful and beautiful, and I’ve failed. I’ve stewed about it all winter.

What it needs is structure. As soon as the soil can be worked, I’m digging up all the perennials and potting them temporarily. I’ll dig in a few inches of compost, then–the big step–I’ll hedge it. I’ve considered a number of plants for a low hedge, such as rue, lavender cotton, and germander. Boxwood wouldn’t fare well in this exposed, south-facing site, but Lodense privet might. In the end, I’ll probably settle on Crimson Pygmy barberry. I’ll keep it trimmed to about 18 inches and edge it with a favorite silver-leaved dianthus that was a chance seedling in my old garden, which I’ll propagate from cuttings.

Inside the maroon frame of barberry, I’ll replant some of the herbs, such as sage, Powis Castle artemisia, chives, salad burnet, lavender, Origanum laevigatum and feverfew. Some of the other lower-growing plants will become edging for the vegetable garden. Then I’ll indulge myself, finding pleasing complements to the herbs, especially plants with silver and bronze leaves. The silver is important to make a strong contrast with the barberry. The additional red-leaved plants will provide unity, relating back to the hedge; I’m thinking of Hylotelephium telephium ‘Atropurpur­e­um’, bronze fennel, Lysimachia ciliata, red orach (Atriplex hortensis ‘Rubra’), and Perilla frutescens–that gorgeous Chinese basil with which Elisabeth Sheldon has such a love-hate affair.

Deep red and maroon flowers have a place here as well–Knautia macedonica, drumstick allium, and Asiatic lilies such as Beowulf, Red Knight or Vulcan. And I’m contemplating a shrub rose or two within the barberry boundary, such as the old Gallica Duc de Guiche or the recent David Austin introduction, The Prince. Both have those wonderfully fragrant, velvet-red blossoms with murky undertones of purple and charcoal.

Winter is such a dangerous time. I may be seriously close to making a border that is overly dramatic and overdesigned. A year from now, I may ask myself, “Whatever became of that simple little patch of herbs?” Oh, well, I can always get out my notebook and start another hit list.

Rob Proctor is a delightful blend of artist, photographer, writer and gardener who lives and plies his trades in Denver, Colorado.

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