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Sustainable Border Design – a study course at Beth Chatto Gardens

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

This is based on an article I wrote for the Hardy Plant Society Journal in Autumn 2023, Vol. 44 No.2, reproduced with kind permission.

I live in northwest Hampshire and one of my jobs is as a seasonal employee at Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants, where I’m used to seeing plants thrive in our chalky, flinty upland soil and in Rosy Hardy’s gravel garden. But a visit to Essex to see what can be done with different weather and soil? Yes please! I was fortunate to be a recipient of a bursary from the Kenneth Black Bursary Scheme (KBBS) to facilitate this.

I am a professional gardener and garden maker. I trade as The Garden Editor because this better describes my work, which brings me into contact with a wide range of people and gardens. My customers generally don’t need a maintenance gardener, nor a full-on garden redesign, but elements in between – they often include people who are suffering from garden ‘overwhelm’ and/or want to make their garden a welcoming and enjoyable space in an environmentally friendly way.

My career history has involved legislative aspects of climate change, and my horticultural agenda is one of gardening in the context of nurturing the environment and sustaining biodiversity. The Garden Editor’s recent work has included helping clients build dead hedges for wildlife, incorporate more hardy perennials into their gardens, and design for all four seasons. Among my customers I find a clear and growing awareness of the responsibility we have in our gardens to contribute more to nature than we take out.

I don’t take on complete garden transformations with hard landscaping etc, but I have wanted to embrace my inner artist and incorporate more design-led elements into my planting designs. So often, people equate ‘environmentally friendly’ gardening with a lumpy mess of greenery. I wanted to debunk that myth.

"So when the opportunity came up for a two day study course at the Beth Chatto Gardens on sustainable border design, I leapt at it. A further element of this course was an assessment of a local housing development, Chattowood, which has been designed and planted by staff from the Gardens."

The Garden

Many Hardy Planters will have visited The Beth Chatto gardens before, but this was a first visit for me, and it left me wanting to come back again and again. Even on a relatively overcast March morning the care and thought that permeates the whole site was in evidence. From the bug hotels to the rainfall and temperature chart in pride of place at the entrance, it was clear that living in tune with the seasons and the changing climate is innate to the philosophy behind the Garden.

And of course, at its very heart is Beth Chatto’s mantra of right plant, right place. Our first day started off with a full garden tour led by Lucy Redman, our tutor. Lucy has vast experience in design, plants, teaching and art – an amazing combination of skills including keeping us students on the right track!

A quick tour

Even on a brisk March morning the gravel garden was awash with early bees hoovering up the nectar from carpets of Anemone blanda. Shards of sunlight caught the last stems of miscanthus by the lake before their early spring chop. Resilient clumps of Leucojum aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant’ nodded in the strong spring breeze. Right plants, right place.

Once inside and warmed up with coffee, I and the other 20 students shared our garden conundrums. In turn we described a wide array of garden sizes, soils and conditions: from those needing a revamp after 20 long years to new builds and what passes for ‘soil’ after extensive building work. We had clay, chalk, bog, drought and gravel. We had travelled from Derbyshire to Dorset and many places in between. Some of us had gardened for years; others were considerably less experienced. Quite a few had been gifted a place on the course as a birthday or Christmas present. What an excellent idea for the beloved gardener in your life!

Delightfully to my ears, a lot of participants wanted to reduce the size of their lawn – often because their children had grown up and less space was needed to kick a football about. Reducing your lawn area and introducing more diverse species can improve soil health, increase biodiversity and support pollinators by providing overwintering habitats.

Design theory with pollinators in mind

We spent the first afternoon learning a good solid stint of design theory. We covered forms, shapes, textures and colours. For perennial plants we looked at the importance of using a diversity of forms – for design purposes but also to provide food for a wide variety of pollinators. Different pollinators need flat landing pads (daisies and umbels) or deep tubes (present on many spire-shape plants) for nectar. Lucy broke down the possible flower shapes into the following, with some examples:

· Spires: digitalis, veronicastrum and actea

· Buttons and globes: echinops, Knautia macedonia, Phlomis tuberosa, alliums, Trifolium rubens

· Plumes: Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’, Thalictrum aquilegiifolium, Persicaria polymorpha

· Umbels: achillea, Angelica gigas

· Daisy-like: echinachea, rudbeckia, helenium and symphyotrichum (asters)

· Screens and curtains: Stipa gigantea, Miscanthus sinesis, Thalictrum delavayi.

I’m sure you can think of more from your own experience but it was useful to think through the shapes from a design as well as a pollinator’s-eye point of view.

What do your senses experience in a garden?

We also covered the senses. Smell, taste and sight are our primary guides to choosing plants, but what about sound and touch? Greater quaking grass (Briza maxima), hairy canary clover (Dorycnium hirsutum), beech hedges and bamboo can bring to the garden a range of rustling sounds. As for touch, we covered the textures of hairy (ballota, phlomis, stachys and hairy canary clover again), smooth and rubbery (hylotelephium, bergenia), spiky (berberis, ilex, echinops, yucca), papery (bay, honesty) and ferns (Dryopteris).

How to build a border

We then moved on to building an example border in the classroom. To make it as real as possible we had to specify the setting: it was to be an island bed on clay, in full sun, with flowers of pink, purple and white. Not a bedding plant in sight, but plenty of key deciduous perennials and shrubs. Watching Lucy design in ‘real time’ was quite a sight – her encyclopedic knowledge of plants and combinations was impressive. We crammed in the bergenias and viburnums, and dotted and echoed the planting in various areas of the bed to give a sense of repetition and harmony.

Year-long interest was a key theme we addressed. Lucy encouraged us to think beyond just having something in flower all the time. Interest can come in a variety of ways: from sunlight catching phlomis seedheads during the winter; the evergreen ground cover of hellebores in spring and summer; to the emerging cardoons (Cynara cardunculus), with their painterly grey, prehistoric-looking leaves. “Let the plants do the talking” she said. Not just the flowers, but the whole plant.

We were also encouraged to borrow from the surrounding landscape. Beyond the local church spire or similar focal point for the fortunate few; some of the greatest ever-changing vistas are clouds. How do clouds interact with your garden? A very taut, tightly clipped hedge can be at odds with the flow of the skies. A more fluid, organic hedge form – with undulations echoing distant hills or clouds – can draw the eye away from the near view and out to the wider landscape. And of course in sustainability terms, a less orderly hedge that doesn’t require as much clipping means less disturbance of nesting birds.

Designing in four dimensions

I always think that plant selection is a form of creativity in four dimensions. It requires us to think about the eventual height and spread, habit and annual cycle of the plants we choose. Added to that are form, texture and, of course, how the plants will interact. Which will self-seed and therefore may require fewer plants initially (and fewer pesky plastic pots too)? Which are going to thread through other plants – eg Camassia leichtlinnii subsp. suksdorfii ‘Alba’ poking up and through a duvet of Geranium phaeum ‘Album’? And which plants might need more space and time to really get going?

Evidence of this selection process was easy to see in our walks round the garden, led by Lucy. In the woodland garden for instance, Vinca minor f. alba ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ meandered through the undergrowth, and the fuchsia-flowered gooseberry, Ribes speciosum, was about to burst into bud before the deciduous canopy closed in. Looking ahead to the summer months, the lime green hit of Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae would light up this darkened understory.

On the second day we worked on our own borders and plant selections in the classroom. We got busy with paper, pens, pencils, coloured sheets and all manner of creative licences! While our drawing skills were varied, what did come through for all was the need to think seasonally and holistically.

Sustainable design for new builds

I also took time to visit Chattowood. This is a new housing development beside The Beth Chatto Garden, which previously was part of the Beth Chatto estate. However, there are no rows of ‘amenity’ shrubs such as Photinia × fraseri ‘Red Robin’ to be seen here. Innovative planting has taken place, with the Garden’s horticulturalists providing expert insight and involvement in its design and execution. The plants are grown in about 30cm of sand and gravel, which is derived from a local aggregate. The advantage of this mix is that it quickly forms a “crust” on the surface which reduces weed establishment. Further down there is still moisture in the mix which encourages strong root growth. Typically, they expect the plants to take longer to put on top growth, but this is sustainable planting for the long haul.

It was early in the season when I visited, and much of the planting was only done in September 2022. But the gravel-front communal areas were already filling up nicely with hardy rosemary (which I noted had survived the winter cold of 22/23), hylotelephiums, bergenias and calamagrostis. What struck me was how this approach took plants we might normally use in any form of sunny, well-drained perennial border and placed them in a new context.

And the gravel mulch is attractive in itself, reflecting the sunlight and echoing the stone used in the surrounding buildings.

Back on the the course, Lucy shared with us the data on Chattowood. Dr Chris Gibson, a naturalist, was commissioned by the Garden to carry out a survey of the development, and an adjacent more traditionally planted development. The headline summary was that 120 insects were recorded during the study period at Chattowood, compared to just six in the adjacent estate.

So what did I learn?

1. Continue to think of hardy perennial plants for all the seasons;

2. Combine them with shrubs for texture, shape, height and mass;

3. Don't be afraid of repeating plants and plant combinations;

4. Embrace the use of gravel mulch where appropriate;

5. Take steps – even the smallest such as drilling holes in wooden poles for nesting bees – to encourage biodiversity;

6. Think holistically about the interest provided by the whole plant, not just the fleeting flowers.

If you'd like me to design a sustainable border for you, or want help bringing your plans to life, just get in touch.

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