Friday 21 September 2012

H is for Herbaceous Border

The Red Borders at Hidcote
Think of the Edwardian country house garden, of tea on the lawn, or The Importance of Being Ernest and like as not your mind’s eye will see a manicured garden with long, double herbaceous border. The herbaceous border is the feature that epitomizes the Arts and Crafts vernacular garden of the late 19th and early 20th century English garden.  However, contrary to popular belief Gertrude Jekyll did not invent said feature - although she certainly did improve and perfect it.

In fact the history of the herbaceous border is much older, and its origins can be traced back to the beds and borders of ‘old fashioned’ of hardy herbaceous plants that made the country cottage garden such an attractive garden form.  

Credit: The Flower Garden at Nuneham Courtenay, Oxfordshire,
1777 (w/c), Sandby, Paul (1725-1809)
 Private Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library
From these humble origins, beds of herbaceous perennials were used in a number of ways down the years.  In the 18th  century William Mason predated Alan Bloom by some 180 years by creating island beds at Nuneham Courtenay in Oxfordshire.  And in in his 1200-page epic Encyclopaedia of Gardening (1822) John Claudius Loudon prescribed that plants be arranged in rows, tallest at the back, shortest at the front, with much earth showing between them.  

The Twin Herbaceous Border at Arley Hall. Credit: Nick Turner
One of the earliest (twin) herbaceous borders as we know them today was planted at Arley Hall in the 1840s, but it was the pro-naturalistic writings of William Robinson and Miss Jekyll’s innovative use of informal drifts of plants arranged according to painterly colour theory that made the herbaceous border so popular in the early 20th century.  

Munstead Wood's herbaceous border by Helen Allingham
Perhaps the most famous of all herbaceous borders was Miss Jekyll's own in her garden at Munstead Wood, which is in excess of 300 feet long. 

The Sundial Garden at the Lost Gardens of ME!
Back in 1996, I, together with Chris Gardner, had the opportunity to research and recreate an early 20th century herbaceous border in a Jekyll-esque style in the Sundial Garden at the Lost Gardens of Heligan.  It was a fascinating project and lovely to see that it is still thriving. 

Unmistakably Oudolf
Herbaceous borders remain perennially popular, but recently the ‘perennial meadow’, an idea first put forward in the 1930s by the German nurseryman nurseryman Karl Foerster and developed by designers including James van Sweden and Piet Oudolf, in which fewer species are planted in large drifts, has re-emerged.


  1. Strange reading this. Just completed revamp of centenary border ( double borders) at Hilliers.
    Retained central axis but created angled cross paths to encourage visitor interacation with the planting. 240 m long
    and open this summer. Mix twiggy, herb perennials + lots of grasses. We'll see!

  2. Strange reading this as just completed double borders at Hilliers - re vamp, widened and mix twiggy, herb perennial and lots of grasses. Opened this summer.

  3. Toby
    You would enjoy reading Nathaniel Swinden's Beauties of Flora Displayed from 1778. He provided elegant little diagrams to show how to group your plants in beds and borders - and indicated which cases of his seeds (all listed in the book) to buy to achieve the recommended effect! A copy of the book survives in Chiswick Local Studies Library and is available as a print-on-demand publication (alas, not beautiful as it copies a microfilm) here I've written up the family and included his title page at
    Val Bott