-----In 2004 we bought a falling-down house and 30 acres. This blog documents our progress-----

Thursday, June 30, 2005

1859 map of Amherst region

I just stumbled across this when looking for info about aerial photos of Australia... Thought I'd note this because it's a lovely huge map that might be niced to print out and frame. It also shows the rough positions of the "Quartz Reef" which is supposedly the largest in the southern hemisphere! I want to try and overlay this map with modern day ones to work out where it is relative to our property.

Historical map of Maryborough and Amherst region
Originally uploaded by lynetter.

what I've learned about herbaceous borders

Over the past year I've been jotting down learnings for the future garden at Amherst. Here's what I've picked up so far about herbaceous borders and their variants. This includes not only what they are and how you maintain them, but also tips on designing them and ideas from famous garden designers. If anyone reading has any suggestions, please add them in the comments... this is very much a "living" entry for me as I'll be updating it as I learn more.

Because this post has become so huge, I've divided it into sections:
--Style overview
--How to look after borders
--General tips on how to design and plant borders
--Inspiration from Gertrude Jekyll
--Inspiration from Edna Walling
--Inspiration from Vita Sackville-West
--Inspiration from Piet Oudolf


There seems to be two broad schools for designing herbaceous borders. The traditional version from Edwardian times is what you'd see in your typical English country manor house garden, and the kind I first fell in love with. It is sometimes also called "English Arts & Crafts" style too as it was all part of the Arts & Crafts movement. Gertrude Jekyll was the leading proponent, and Vita Sackville-West illustrated it wonderfully it in her own garden at Sissinghurst. In Australia, Edna Walling was of a similar vintage to Vita and interpreted it in an Australian setting. Traditional style borders typically use a lot of cottage garden style plants which require quite a bit of fussing over to keep looking good ... but oh how glorious they look when you do. Here's an example from Gravetye Manor, which was actually designed by a contemporary of Gertrude Jekyll called William Robinson (I only know this as I'm saving up to visit it... it's now an extremely posh hotel!)

gravetye manor border

The modern school of perennial gardening I've only recently discovered. I think it originated in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands - although I believe it also has some connection to the Prairie style of gardening in the US. Here in Europe, the leading proponent seems to be Piet Oudolf. These seem to be called wild or natural style borders. Although broadly-speaking they use plants of the same category as in traditional-style borders (ie: mostly perennials) there's a totally different ethos in choosing and positioning specific plants. They're supposedly lower maintenance too, once established,which is a definite plus! Here's an example:

wild garden border

As you can see, quite a difference. I think the wild style looks beautiful too, just in a less controlled and more natural way than the traditional version. You'd think this would automatically imbue a more relaxed feeling, but I don't think it does.... nature can be quite dramatic, and often I find the sense of having "control" is quite soothing even if it's just an illusion!

I'm not yet sure what we planting style we'll go for at Amherst... I suspect for the sake of practicality we'll mostly go for the wilder look. I think that looks better too when you have big sweeping paddock views as backdrop, as we do, rather than wooded enclosures. Plus it just feels more in line with my natural instinct in gardening which is just to throw things in higgledy-piggledy and let them get on with it! (Which is actually not the way you're supposed to do either style but hey... at least I have "wild roots"!). But, I don't think I'll be able to forgo my visions of Sissinghurst entirely... I suspect I'll keep at least one border area to play around with in the traditional style.


Now, I know I know, this part sounds like it's going to be really dull. But I promise, it isn't long and helps make it clearer... some of these terms get bandied around so much that I think it's assumed everyone knows what they mean. I thought I did too until I looked them up!

Herbaceous means either having the characteristic of a herb or being leaf-like in color and texture. They don't have a permanent woody stem and they die back to ground level in winter. Perennial means that they live for years and years (unlike annuals which live just one year, but which might appear to live longer if they've self-seeded). Herbaceous perennials are thus plants that are both herbaceous and perennial!

A shrub is any woody bushy perennial plant that branches into several stems at the base, but that is smaller than a tree. The woody parts stay permanently above ground. Now I've come across some references online to "herbaceous shrubs"... I'm not sure if this is just sloppy wording but assuming not, then I'm guessing it means herbaceous plants that have a kind of woody stem but it isn't permanent and dyes back in winter. Or, it could mean plants like Penstemon which are technically herbaceous perennials, but when they get old they get woody at the base of the plant? Hmmm...

Herbaceous borders are simply garden borders that are closely planted with only herbaceous perennials. In the US these are more commonly known as a Perennial border. Done well, they look great and also ensure you really notice the passing of the seasons. This is something very important for the garden at Amherst as in Australia where seasons tend to blur more than they do here in the UK, thus why I plan to have a lot of perennials.

Shrub borders are a similar concept to herbaceous borders but they contain only shrubs. A mixed border is a border which has a mixture of shrub and perennial plants, plus often some bulbs, annuals and maybe even small trees too. A double border is simply when you have a path down the middle and plantings in borders on either side. I suspect we will be going for the mixed border as I doubt I'll be able to disciplined enough to restrain myself! (I tend to buy plants on a whim...)


In the traditional style, looking after herbacous borders properly takes a lot of work, besides the obvious weeding, mulching and watering. Every 3-5 years you need to dig up aka "lift" the perennials and "heel" them in elsewhere (ie: put them in a trench and cover roots with dirt for temporary storage). Exceptions to this are plants like Peonies which hate being moved. Then, you need to dig over and enrich the soil of the border as they need a lot of feeding. Then you need to divide the perennials if they're overgrown (which they most likely will be) and replant.

(As a sidenote - the technique for dividing varies by plant I think but the few times I've done it so far it's been obvious - either the plant itself almost fell apart once out of the ground; or the roots were so tightly interwoven that all I could do was hack it into chunks. But a quick search reveals there is a lot more to it, so next time I will be more scientific! )

Supposedly mixed borders are less work but I'm guessing it would be a real pain to have to dig out the perennials from the roots of the shrubs, so perhaps having a shrub border that is separate from the herbaceous border isn't such a bad idea after all. Of course a shrub border is probably even less work but it doesn't give you the same sense of changing seasons that perennials do.

Feeding the soil in traditional style borders is vital as the plants use up lots of nutrients in growing. In an episode of "Gardens through time" they illustrated a technique Gertrude Jekyll used to follow, which seems quite practical... I was surprised I'd never heard of it before. Basically, you dig deep pits in the border. You put compost material like old leaves, etc, it doesn't matter as it doesn't need to be rotted down only mashed up a bit. Put in a few layers of that and then some sand to improve drainage and well rotted manure. Then fill the pit back up with soil. This way, all looks neat and lovely on top but down below there's a stash of food for the plants. I imagine it'd also be quite a practical way of clearing out your compost heap of all those things that take forever to rot down.

You also need to provide supports for many perennial plants in borders so they don't flop over! The ideal is something that the plants can grow around so that the support is hidden. Vita Sackville-West described an interesting way to do this: "in the idle indoor days of winter employ your leisure making large circles of stout wire, criss-crossing them with thinner wire into, say, four sections, meeting in a sort of hub at the middle; then supply a central pole... In the spring start your wire circle a few inches from the ground, raising it gradually up the central pole as the height of the plant increases, and as the plant grows through the sections"

Now that's what's needed for traditional style style. The modern "natural" style of border is quite different. The kind of plants you use in them require a lot less maintenance, so you don't need to do any of the dividing, feeding, staking of the traditional version. They're not entirely maintenance free though - you still have to clear out the dead growth (albeit at the end of winter rather than autumn) and deal with weeding and mulching.

I suspect you need a more ruthless streak for modern borders ... in it's purest form the idea is to drill down to just a narrow range of plants which are the ideal for the conditions you're growing in, and to not be afraid to rip out plants that don't perform brilliantly. You also need a certain confidence which I think probably only comes through practice. In the words of Piet Oudulf: "You have to guide nature or else it gets out of hand, but you have to know exactly when to intervene. It is much more difficult than just clipping". I can see there's still a lot to learn!


To get the full effect of the traditional style, herbaceous borders should be at least 5 to 6 feet wide and 20 to 30 feet long. It's also helpful if they're framed - e.g., by a clipped hedge or a wall - because the strong lines of that will help define the space and are a good contrast with the lushness of the border planting. Mixed borders generally need to be even bigger to accomodate shrubs like roses, etc which take up a lot of space.

The aim in border planting is to have as little bare ground showing as possible. Not only does this help them look good, it cuts down on weeding.

A good rule of thumb when planning the planting for a border is to start with 3 tall "structural" plants at the back, then work forward, relating each layer to the ones behind. Add "filler" plants last (ie: those plants that tend to creep and flow into spaces between other plants) and progressively more at the front. Repeating a structural plant along a border injects a strong sense of rhythm, whereas doing the same with a filler plant is more subtle.

Generally too you put taller plants in the back of the border and small ones at the front. However, shouldn't be too regimented about it; sometimes having a tall plant at the front can be really effective. You just have to go intuitively with what works, and shouldn't be afraid to move things around from year to year.

In choosing plants for the border, you want your structural plants to be extremely reliable, because the success of the border's appearance depends heavily on them.

Ideally you want to choose plants which have good "continuity" - i.e., they have interest over a longer period by virtue of flowering over an extend period, having lovely seedpods, interesting stems, etc. But, there are a lot of wonderful plants with only short continuity. A way to use these is to plant a cycling selection close together so that as one dyes back another is coming into the height of it's beauty.

A way to add instant structure to a herbaceous border is to put in wigwams for clematis to clamour up.

Having plants with purple foliage in a border gives a good backdrop to bright colours.

No colour combinations in a border are wrong, just some will be unfashionable! Plantings which are themed by colour are most effective when used in small regions as part of a wider whole. Colour can be used to inject rhythm into a border even if different plant are used.

Grasses scattered through a mixed border can be very effective because they created a haze and movement that makes a border feel larger than it really is. They also help to extend the season. But, grasses are not part of the traditional scheme so if you're including them then you're automatically moving towards a modern style. Grasses don't usually look that good next to some of the really traditional plants like roses, for instance. Also, you have to be careful planting grasses next to other species of grasses because they can often clash.

A trick for coming up with new plant combinations for the border is to cut a flower off a plant in bloom and hold it up against other plants in bloom at the same time elsewhere in the garden. This makes it easier to see how one plant can enhance or detract from another, and might throw up some new ideas. I guess it's the gardening equivalent to fabric swatches - sometimes colours and patterns that you think would go well together when you see them separately just don't work when you put them close up! And, given that you're going to be lifting and dividing most of the plants anyway every few years, it's a perfect opportunity to rearrange.

A good tip is to envisage your border as if it were in a B&W photo. If it looks bland then it suggests you're relying too much on colour. A good border planting should have enough variety of shape to still look good in B&W.

In wilder style gardens, self-seeding annuals can be great at filling spaces without requiring much work.


Gertrude Jekyll is famous for her garden border designs, which weren't only herbaceous. In one of the TV shows I watched they called her the "Mrs Beeton of gardening" which I think is a nice description! (By the way, the way you pronounce her surname is "jeeeek-el" not "jeckal" as in Jekyll & Hyde. I didn't know this till I watched a TV show called "Art of the Garden" that had a whole episode dramatising her... in one of the scenes "she" was shown correcting a visitor who mispronounced her name! So now I won't look so ignorant at the gardening centre... :-)

Jekyll designed entire gardens but perhaps her most famous innovation was the spectrum border. This is where plants are positioned so that hot colours pave the way for cooler ones and vice versa. She planted in drifts so that the plants all blurred one into the other...starting with whites and pale colours moving gradually through to greens and yellows and red, and then back again, like in the colour spectrum. I like this idea a lot, so I think we shall experiment and attempt at least one "Jekyll style" border. But, no way will be doing it on the scale she did - the border at her house in Munstead Wood was 200ft long and 14 ft wide!

To do it perfectly requires incredible attention to detail and you really have to know your plants. Choosing plant positionings isn't just about colour and growing requirements, you also need to factor in differences in their height and form throughout the seasons - including so that when one plant starts to die back another nearby comes up to take it's place. One of the "Hidden Garden" TV episodes I saw showed how Jekyll had planned it to the extent so that the middle of one plant after pollination which turned pink would contrast with the pale purple tones of the petals of another plant just coming out... Wow.

Of course, you could just cheat and copy one of her border designs - there's a book she wrote called "Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden" which I've just ordered from Amazon. It has detailed planting plans apparently as well as articles. Once it arrives I'll have a look and update this post with some more specific learnings.

But, I doubt we'll be able to copy anything directly from Jekyll's planting schemes simply because the types of plants that will thrive in the Amherst growing conditions are so different to Southern England. Also, the quality of light (and shadow) is a key determinant the overall effect and that differs hugely. In Australia, the light is a lot harsher than in the UK so pastel colours just get wiped out whereas in the UK they shine through. This is why it's so hard to replicate an English style garden in Australia in all it's softness... although it isn't going to stop me trying at least in one well protected and cosseted corner!

I plan to research Australian and US garden designers to learn how they've translated Jekyll style border plantings to the different conditions. For instance, perhaps there are some tricks of positioning, like having pastel colours only in shady areas? I don't know yet... I'll add to this post as learn! Plus of course, Prue will be a font of knowledge, considering that drought-tolerant English-style gardens are one of her specialties.


A designer I thought might have had some useful ideas with regards to translating Jekyll style borders to Australian conditions is Edna Walling, but so far they've proved difficult to unearth. Edna is probably the most famous Australian garden designer and sort of a contemporary to Gertrude Jekyll, in that they were both working around the same time in the 1920's even though they were very different ages. Edna was born in the UK and emigrated to Australia via New Zealand and lived for a long time in the Dandenongs in the outskirts of Melbourne - an area I know and love, it's where I grew up.

Despite this, I'd never even heard of her until we embarked on our Amherst project! I think that's more a sign of how little I was interested in gardening when I lived in Australia than her lack of profile... when I asked my Mum, who's not that into gardening, she not only knew of her but said she'd tried to make the garden at the house where I grew up in the Edna Walling style! From what I've gathered so far, her overall style didn't change much - it was always "formal structure with luxuriant, often rampant, planting", and she loved using stone (paths, walls, etc). But her choice of plants did; she started out using a lot of the English cottage garden species but over time grew to love and champion Australian natives.

I have two books relating to Edna Walling. One is called "The vision of Edna Walling" and includes copies of all her garden plans as well as background. I've only skimmed through it so far but unfortunately the plans don't seem to have anything like the level of planting detail for borders which Gertrude Jekyll's do. So, although it's interesting from the broad perspective of garden design, so far it hasn't been particularly insightful on designing borders for Australian conditions. I'll keep reading, perhaps there will be some tidbits along the way. As a sidenote, I found it interesting to discover that she was influenced heavily not only by Jekyll but also by Geoffrey Jellicoe who I blogged about earlier here and here. This gardening world is a small one!

The second book was written by Edna herself. It is called "Gardens in Australia - their design and care" and is fascinating because it's been printed based on the original edition (published in 1943) with Edna's handwritten annotations about what she wanted to change. It makes it quite personal to read and also poignant because it took 50 years before her changes finally got into print! I still haven't read this properly but it is a lot more like a "how to" guide than the other book, even though it isn't very long by the time you take out all the black & white photos!

Chapter 4 is about herbaceous perennials and there are some she singles out for attention. Various breeds of Achillea (yarrow), Campanula, Asters and Penstemons are mentioned. She also likes Japanese Irises (Iris Kaempferi) and suggests planting them behind a grouping of Aster King George, Penstemon heterophyllus, Erigeron and Campanula rotundifolia (harebell). Other plants she mentions as possibilities but "a matter of personal choice" are Phlox, Lupins, Peonies, Delphiniums and cascade Chrysanthemums. Here are some pictures of those plants she referred to by specific cultivar, click on any for further details. They're not all precisely the exact varieties because a few I couldn't find reference to... (guessing they've changed names or gone away?). But, I've included the closest variant I could find based on her descriptions. I wouldn't plan on sticking too closely to this since I'm sure in terms of spirit she would have moved with the times and we have lots more choice nowadays. But I think it's interesting to see her choices none-the-less.
Achillea grandifolia coloured varieties of Achillea (yarrow) Campanula Glomerata Aster
Aster penstemon heterophyllus Campanula rotundifolia Fleabane (erigeron philadephicus) Japanese Iris

Chapter 17 includes a section about planting borders in hot and dry positions. Plants she refers to are Lavender, Rosemary, Cistus (rock roses), Choisya ternata (mexican orange), Philadelphus Mexicana (mexican mock orange), lemon-scented Geraniums and Cotoneaster. There are also some lovely concepts... the idea of planting enough lavendar and rosemary bushes so there's space "to dry your handkerchiefs on them"; her belief that "you haven't lived until you've lain flat on your back on a thyme lawn"!

lavendar augustifolia lavendar dentata lavandula stoechas rosemary Cistus cyprius Cistus ladaniferus choisya ternataphiladelphus lemon-scented geranium cotoneaster horizontalis

Chapter 32 is about Australian plants for borders. I'm interested in this especially because I'm assuming they'll be better suited to Australian conditions and her picks are likely to be "cottage garden" in style. Some of the plants she highlights which I like are Boronia Pinnata, Thryptomene Mitchelli, Baeckia Plicata, Eriostemon myoporoides, Prosthanthera ovalifolia & sieberi (native mint), Acacia drummondii (dwarf wattle), Acmena smithii (formerly Eugenia Smithii) which is tall and good for screening, Leptospermum keatleyii & rotundifolia and last but not least Grevillea contfertifolia (particularly good for dry conditions)

boronia pinnata
thryptomene baeckia eriostemon myoporoides Prostanthera ovalifolia prostanthera sieberii acacia drummondii Acmena smithii (lilly pilly) leptospermum rotundifolium Grevillea confertifolia

That's it so far from Edna about borders although I'm sure there must be more to learn from her beyond only plant choices, especially considering she used to write magazine articles. I'll keep an eye out and update if I come across anything more

One final sidenote on Edna... this is a link to view a manuscript she wrote about a house she built from scratch in the midst of a hilly bush site near the beach at Lorne in Victoria. It was never actually published but reading it makes you realise what a remarkable woman she must have been. We're talking about the 1940's when Australia was incredibly conservative. Edna wasn't afraid to stand out - she dressed in men's clothes, undertook huge tasks like building a house from scratch and by hand in the bush(!) and most impressive of all was seemingly quite open about her relationship with her female partner. I like her style and attitude. My favourite part of this manuscript is the description of them digging out a level area on the steep slope for the lounge room and finding a big stone... and deciding to leave it in position and use it as the base of an armchair!


In fact, Edna Walling reminded me quite a bit of Vita Sackville-West in terms of not being afraid to be unconventional. Vita, along with her husband Harold Nicolson, created Sissinghurst Garden which is one of the most spectacular gardens I've ever visited. Like Hidcote, I try and go as often as I can. At Sissinghurst, Harold created the architectural framework (a series of "rooms") and Vita came up with the planting schemes.

I have a few books relating to Sissinghurst and Vita. One, which was the first Gardening book I ever bought, is called "Gardening at Sissinghurst". It's full of wonderful images and lots of detail about the planting. It even includes detailed planting schemes for several borders. Two that I particularly like are the Purple Border in the entrance courtyard and the Sunset cottage garden.

The purple border:
purple border plan at sissinghurst

The above is the planting scheme as of 1994 as shown in the book, click on it for a closer view. Supposedly Jekyll had said that purple wasn't a good colour for a border because it could come across as "sullen and lifeless" in sunny weather... so Vita set out to prove her wrong! I'm guessing we'd need to do some judicious plant-swapping to make something like this work at Amherst just due to the different conditions, but it could be a helpful starting point. I also love the way they've drawn up the planting scheme, using watercolours to match the flowers so you can see how it all works together.

Sunset garden:
Sunset garden (1) sunset garden plan from sissinghurst

This is part of the cottage garden room and it's just glorious. It's my favourite part of Sissinghurst. Here's a picture to show you what it looks like as well as the planting scheme. I am hoping we'll have more luck in replicating this at Amherst because the colours - yellow, orange, red - are more likely to work in Australian light. To view details click on the pictures to make them larger.

Vita wrote articles about gardening for the Observer newspaper and these have been published in several books, two of which I have: "In your garden" and "In your garden again". I've not read cover-to-cover for a long while but from memory the focus of most articles was on a particular plant rather than general design or maintenance tips. I'm planning to re-read them so if I come across anything more that's relevant to borders (besides the tip included way up above in the first section) I'll add it.


Unlike the other garden designers I've discussed who are from 50-100 years ago, Piet Oudolf is a modern day designer. He's Dutch and I've not yet seen one of his gardens in real life, but I hope to one day. His specialty is Perennials and designing gardens which are "natural" in the sense that they work with way perennials develop in nature and thus don't require lots of maintenance (unlike your traditional perennial border). A great example of this in the UK is the Millenium Garden he designed in Norfolk at Pensthorpe. In the US, his best example I think is the Gardens of Remembrance for 9/11 that he created at The Battery in NYC.

My favourite book about his style so far is "Designing with Plants". (I also have his book "Dream Plants for the Natural Garden" but this is just a listing of plants and it's not that useful for me as the growing conditions he's basing it on aren't the same as at Amherst). However, the "Designing with Plants" book is a lot more practical in that it describes a new way of categorising plants and gives general principles about how to best combine them. I've summarised what I've learned from this below, but it's not a substitute for the book which explains it better in more detail with wonderful pictures.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Piet's approach and that of the traditionalists is that he downplays the role of colour. For him colour is a secondary consideration - the most important factor is structure. There are two aspects to this: foliage shape and flowerhead form.

Foliage shape takes into account the size and outline of leaves, and the overall pattern of growth. Some general points:
-- Large bold leaves stand out and serve as resting points for your eye
-- Small leaves sink into the background when viewed from afar
-- "Linear" foliage like for grasses is good for adding contrast
-- Anything with a distinctly different foliage shape can be repeated to add rhythm

Flowerhead form is about the structure of the flowers themselves. Rather than the official botanical classification, Piet categorises them into 6 groups:

foxglove Spires add lift and inject a note of clarity in a border. They work best as a dramatic contrast amidst other flower types. It is very hard to make a cluster consisting of only plants with spire-shaped flowers look good

img1011975396 Plumes are like spires but fluffier and looser. They work very well en-masse, imbuing softness. They are also excellent for linking different forms

yarrowUmbels have an upturned bowl shape. Although they often stick out on a stem, they are more gently rounded rather than pointy like a spires. They are made up of lots of little flowers. Like plumes, they add a soft and gentle look. They are also excellent for imbuing a sense of naturalism, since many wildflowers have this shape.

macro-astrantia-m-HadspenBlood Buttons and globes add concentrated bursts of colour. They are especially good displayed against a backdrop of softer shapes like plumes or a muddle of fine stems. They are also very good in winter in standing out well amidst the decay appearing as dark spots

asterDaisies are the familiar shape we all know. After flowering, often the petals drop off and then they convert to being a button shape. Daisies are a reminder of sunshine and add a sense of optimism.

F-115 Screens and curtains are transparent, made up of a network of stems. They bring a new perspective to other plants growing behind when viewed through the "screen". They also help to bring a sense of mystery. You shouldn't include too many of them though as they can destroy the pattern.

In general:
-- Having a variety of flowerhead shapes in a border stops it looking monotonous
-- You can often get away with combining clashing colours if the flowerhead shapes
are the same. (I've seen this done really effectively combining daisies)
-- Spires and umbrels are good counterpoints; plumes are good as filling. Buttons
and daisies are good for adding a sense of definition.

Although structure as described above is the most important consideration in this design approach, there are other factors to consider too.

The texture of foliage adds another dimension, particularly when viewed close-up. There are many aspects to texture - for instance, leaves can be furry, ridged, pointy, glossy etc. Some general points:
-- Plants with leaves that have a very fine texture need to be nearer the front
of a border if you want to be able to appreciate them fully
-- Glossy leaves stand out the most
-- Bright sunlight tends to dull texture so differences aren't as noticeable

Finally, of course there is the consideration of colour. In Piet's design philosophy the choice of colour primarily affects the "mood" of the border. He divides colours into 5 categories and gives advice on how to use each in a border:

Hot colours, which includes reds, yellows and oranges are very strong colours. They're the most dynamic colours so the advice is to use them with caution unless you're deliberately seeking to create a hot-toned border (like the one by Vita illustrated above). They're great for providing a splash of colour in a border. Red is the first colour to disappear at dusk. Dark reds are enigmatic and mysterious, so good to accompany unusual flowers. They're also easier to combine with other colours.

Cool colours, which includes blues and purples, and Sweet colours like pink are more subtle. They appear best in the cool light of early morning. Purple can work well with hot colours as it helps to calm them. Blue is a recessive colour, so is good for adding the perception of depth. Blue and pink are excellent linking colours, but don't overuse the latter as it can be cloying. Pink works best in climates with grey skies and soft light (so not in Australia then!)

Sombre colours are the unusual darker versions of colours, like a very deep dark red or purple. They add depth and mystery and can work well combined with pale colours to startle. However, if you plant too many of them together it creates a very gothic effect... Which might actually be quite fun to experiment with in a tucked away corner! In fact, after a little digging I've discovered there is actually a whole style of "gothic gardens" - this is a good starting point to find out more.

And finally, earthy colours include all the hues of brown and dark greens. This mostly appears only in foliage as there are very few brown flowers. As well the soil is, by definition, an earthy colour! Brown foliage can create magical effects when when lit up by sunlight.


That's it for the time being. I'm going to hit publish at last on this mammoth post at last(!), although I know it's going to continue to grow as I learn. Any other hints and ideas are very welcome!

Monday, June 27, 2005

indoor jungles, shallots & chickens

We've given up planting tomatoes and peppers at the allotment. The third lot were devastated by we don't know what - some insect, slug, cold, who knows. We have just 3 tomato plants remaining, struggling on out of the 20-plus we planted. Luckily we had a fallback - growing them in pots in the conservatory! It is working well so far, although it has turned the room into a bit of a jungle.
peppers growing in conservatory tomatoes in the conservatory

We've had our first harvest from the allotment and here's the proof! Three plaits of shallots, hanging up to dry. I think they'll be dry in a few days as it's pretty hot in the conservatory, then I'll move them to the pantry. I'm proud of them, I think they look quite authentically rustic (except for the wire coathangers!)


I included this picture in big size because if you look out the window you can see our backyard, and the "C's" house. It' s an Eglu which is specially designed to be fox-proof, easy to clean and well-insulated, although we still fuss - putting up a special umbrella when it is hot and covering with clear plastic when it's raining. We used to move it round the garden but they trashed the grass so now they have their own special garden bed which we fill with bark chips... we replace them every week or two and it gives us lovely garden mulch; plus, the C's love scratching in it.

And in case you're wondering if we're mad to be keeping chickens in central London... if we are, we're not alone! Apparently urban hen-keeping is a bit of a craze in the UK at the moment, although I didn't know the extent of it till I read this article: "Thanks to changing work patterns and the preoccupation of children with computer games and television, the number of homes with pets is decreasing. One animal, however, is quietly and improbably bucking the trend. Hen-keeping courses fill up weeks in advance, sales of poultry books and magazines are up, and the waiting time for the designer must-have coop that is partly responsible for the newly fashionable status of chickens has, at times, reached three months". (Yes, the designer coop they refer to is the Eglu! Although ours wasn't a fashion purchase - we bought it back in the early days because we wanted to learn how to keep hens in preparation for Amherst). Apparently they're in negotiation with a US manufacturer so keep your eyes peeled.

Of course, our darling C's don't spend all their time in their coop. Whenever we can be out there to guard them we let them out for a "walk" and they potter round the garden. That's usually at least for half an hour a day. On weekends it's longer, and when it's hot they often come into the kitchen for a nap. Here they are last weekend on the floor next to our lettuce baskets (which sadly they later demolished).

The C's in the kitchencloseup of C1

what's going on

I haven't posted for ages... or rather I haven't published for ages, but there has been much activity behind the scenes. You see, I am accidentally writing a book all about herbaceous borders. Oh yes. Now I never intended to do this, it just kinda built up it's own momentum and now it has become this huge blog post that it seems like I'll never finish! I'm hoping either tonight or tomorrow it will be done and then I'll hit that magic publish button, but no promises...

Why am I doing this? Well, unlike most others at Houseblogs, I currently live on the other side of the world to the house I'm working on. This means that except for a few weeks each year, my version of working on the house is planning. This also entails a lot of learning, because frankly the more I get into it the more I realise I'm relatively clueless. The garden is a hugely important part of the house for me and I want it to have some lovely huge sweeping garden beds... aka the giant borders in old fashioned houses. Thus arose the idea of summarising everything I've learned so far - plus whatever else I can cram in over the course of a few days - about designing and maintaining this kind of garden border.

In other news... we've harvested the first vegetables from our allotment! We got the allotment last year also as part of planning, in this case to learn how to grow vegetables 'cos we'll be relying on them once we eventually move. Yesterday we picked enough shallots to make three plaits and a huge bag full of broadbeans. I have some pictures but I can't post them yet as Dave has annoyingly taken away the cable that connects the camera to the PC. He's promised to bring it home tonight so I'll post again then. I'm so happy with them; the broadbeans taste wonderful (we had some with pasta last night) and the shallot plaits look very "farmhouse-rustic"!

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Hillsdale House block

I got home from work early today as a treat to myself, to make me feel better about yesterday. So I had some time to just muck around online and I ended up delving randomly through the houseblogs sites... I try and at least skim everyone's latest posts now - thanks to Bloglines it's really easy. But this is the first time I've had time to trawl in detail through anyone's back story.

If you haven't already, check out the Hillsdale House blog. Their post today caught my eye about building a garden bench, and then I looked at their "before and after" picture and was blown away by how much they'd done and how wonderful it was looking. Then I browsed their Flickr collection and found this:

Back Porch in Progress
Originally uploaded by Greg_e.

Well, that was it for me... I was hooked. I love this verandah post. It sparked a wave of homesickness too... it reminds me of the front posts on the "California Bungalows" in the area where I used to live in Melbourne (in Australia). To show you what I mean I did a search for houses for sale in the area and came across this... and it could be yours if you have around A$700,000!

California Bungalow
Originally uploaded by lynetter.

The tragic thing is that even though they've done the house up, one of the reasons it's selling at this price is because it has planning permission to build a townhouse at the back. *sigh* This is why I'll never live go back to live in this part of Melbourne ever again - all the lovely old houses and gardens are being destroyed by an influx of little box units and townhouses (ie: a 2 storey boxes) everywhere. I was really shocked the last time I visited at how much the area has changed.

Anyway, back to Hillsdale House... Besides looking at their cool pictures, I went through their archives and read all their entries. I'm in awe of how much they've done. It makes me realise how daunting it's going to be for us when we actually pick up tools and start(!) - but also, how rewarding it'll be in the end.

It was fascinating to read their history sectionabout Bungalows in the Portland area. Early on in our research I stumbled across Gustav Stickley and we briefly toyed with the idea of building a replica of one of his houses at Amherst. We bought a book which has reprints of many of Stickley's houseplans, room drawings and articles. They have such anachronistically descriptive titles - my favourite: "an inexpensive but charming cottage for women who want their own home"! It's interesing to see how others like Hillsdale House are interpreting this style in a modern context.

At Amherst we plan to have elements of Craftsman style (lots of built-ins, detailing) plus a few oddities that we got the idea of from these plans which will be perfect in Australia - namely, a "sleeping porch", probably up on the second level, for those hot hot nights; and a small outside kitchen (in addition to the usual indoor one) for those hot hot days when you have to do things like bottle tomatoes! I can imagine us using the outside kitchen - planned to be on the verandah just outside the normal kitchen - almost as much as the indoor one. Anyway, that's all dreams for now...

I must read more Houseblog archives, you never know what you'll discover!

Life sucks sometimes

I know in the scheme of things this isn't that bad but still, it has made me sad and ruined this evening. Two bad things in a row, now I'm just waiting for the third.

First, this afternoon I was outbid on Ebay for this wonderful armchair. I really really wanted it but I just couldn't justify bidding higher as we have nowhere to keep it here in London and thus it would have to be shipped back to Australia or stored expensively... it would just add up to too much. It ended up selling for 300 pounds, which is around US$600. I don't know why I love this chair so much but I do, there's something about the lines of it that make me just want to curl up in it with a good book. Anyway, I figured if I blogged the photos and the details from the auction then perhaps, one miraculous day when I have all this spare time (ha!) we'll be able to make a replica.

This is the Ebay description: "A wonderful 1920s-30s reclining armchair in beechwood. The chair has been recently professionally reupholstered in calico, all complying with fire regulations. The chair has shaped arms and parallel side slats echoing the curved headrest. A very comfortable lounger, in excellent condition, sturdy in structure and free from any woodworm. The smooth recline-action works perfectly with no damage. Measurements ~ 62cm wide, 54cm height of arms, 92cm high. Overall an interesting recliner that will add style to any Art Deco / Arts and Crafts theme".

fantastic armchair
Originally uploaded by lynetter.

Of course, in light of the second bad thing that happened today, it is probably a blessing in disguise that I didn't buy it. Apparently I owe the IRS nearly $2500. *sigh*. Yes, even though I live in the UK and was born in Australia, because of an accident of birth I'm a US citizen and thus have to file US tax returns. This is because my Dad was American... in fact he's not anymore as he gave it up to take out Australian citizenship when I was a kid but all that counts is that he was when I was born.

The US has this really annoying thing called "alternative minimum tax" which means if you earn over a certain amount, then no matter how much tax you've paid elsewhere (and the UK has *far* higher tax rates than the US, believe me), you still have to pay the US something. Normally it's not too bad but last year all went haywire because the US$ tanked and so it looked like my income, which is earned in pounds, skyrocketed - but of course it didn't since I live in the UK and all my bills are in pounds. I didn't even visit the US last year to get the benefit of the low exchange rate on shopping! Grrr... Anyway, I'd already paid the IRS some money when I filed my tax return in April but supposedly I calculated wrong so I owe them all this extra. I really hope they've got it wrong but I don't want to risk the penalties for paying late so I'm paying up right away.

What makes it slightly easier to bear was when I called the IRS tonight I got put through to a very nice guy who had much sympathy and is going to try and help me work out what I did wrong - so at least we can doublecheck their calculation and I'll know for the future. Even he couldn't figure it out as the special forms involved aren't on their computer system yet, so I've had to fax him my entire return and he's going to look through it manually. This makes me feel better because a) it makes me feel less stupid for getting it wrong if even the experts have trouble calculating it!; b) he said not to give up hope, there was a chance they may have made a mistake; and c) he was just so friendly. I can't imagine any other country's tax office being so helpful... but then, US tax forms are about a thousand times more complicated than in the UK or Australia so I suppose they have to be! Anyway, I'll just have to wait and see, but keep your fingers crossed.

And before you ask... why don't I just give up my US citizenship considering I don't live there or plan to? Mainly because nowadays it's really hard to do. And even if I did succeed in doing so, I'd still have to file & pay US tax for 10 years after giving it up so it wouldn't solve the problem. Besides, I do quite like having it and it would feel wrong to voluntarily give something up that others work so hard to get. I like having the option of moving to the US even if I never take it up. Nationality is a strange concept... I have 3 now (Australian, US and UK) so what does that make me? Hmmm...

Saturday, June 18, 2005

what I've learned about roses

Over the past few months I've been jotting down ideas from various gardening magazines, web sites and TV shows, as learnings for the future garden at Amherst. I didn't want to post them all individually, so have been saving them up till I have enough to warrant a full post on any given theme. Here's what I've picked up so far about roses.

Types of rose
This isn't an exhaustive list of every type of roses as that would take forever, but it covers the main ones I think.
The most common type of rose, the kind you buy in florists, are hybrid tea roses. They are the kind that are very fussy to look after and you have to prune so they look like little skeletons. They've been breed so much to focus on colour that they seldom have any scent left. Although the flowers are OK cut, I don't like this kind of rose very much as a plant - too finicky and quite ugly looking for most of the time. I don't plan on having any of this kind of rose.
Floribunda roses tend to have flowers growing in clusters rather than just one to a stem. Often they seem only to have one layer of petals. They are smaller but they look better in the garden as they generally have the most flowers. There's an even smaller kind that I think are called Patio roses are much smaller bushes, of a kind you could grow in a container. At the far extreme end there are miniature roses, which have been breed to be just like a normal rose plant except tiny, with tiny flowers. These would be good in pots too but I can't imagine them in the garden.
All these types of roses are modern. But my favourites, by a country mile, are the older kinds of roses.
Old roses, also called antique roses, are any class of rose that existed prior to 1867, which is when they created the first hybrid. They still have a wonderful perfume, far more than the modern varieties which were breed mostly for colour, although the downside is that they usually only flower once during a season.
Included in this category are species roses (ie: the kind that grows in the wild). My great-aunt has a hedge of something like this , she calls it Rosa Rugosa, and it's spectacular both when in bloom and without as it has these lovely huge hips that remain after flowering.
Also included in this category are my absolute favourite kind of rose, which is called a moss rose. Moss roses don't have normal thorns but instead an almost fuzzy covering on their stems of tiny thorns (but they don't hurt when you touch them). Other kinds are Bourbon roses and China roses which are apparently some of the few old roses which do have repeat flowering within a season, and Gallica roses which for some reason I just like the name of!
Shrub roses are the kind that I always thought were old fashioned, but apparently a lot of them are modern hybrids but bred to look like the older roses and with different goals in mind, like perfume. Examples are David Austin roses, which I've planted two of already in our backyard here... they're lovely and they look great in borders if you want a kind of wild, informal look. Also, it seems that shrub roses as a category is applied quite loosely so it probably encompasses any rose that grows in a shrub-like way!
And of course there are the climbing roses which grow very tall and you can train on a trellis. Like the other categories there are several classes within this including Rambler roses. These are basically climbing roses that are of an older type, typically with lots of small blooms but in large clusters.

Growing conditions
All roses need sun, and it seems that full sun is better for them than partial, but some roses are more tolerant of shade than others. This is a good summary of cultivars that do best in shade. Full sun means at least 6 hours of direct sunlight. Even the ones that are shade tolerant are not really... they still need at least 3-4 hours of direct sunlight. However, too much sun can be bad too especially if it's really hot because roses aren't particularly drought-tolerant. So, probably the best compromise is to plant roses where they get a reasonable amount of sun but not the entire day, and ideally with shade during the hottest parts of the day.
The hardiness varies by rose type and cultivar. I think, judging from this comparison of hardiness zones in US and Australia that Amherst is in Zone 2 in Australia which translates to zone 8 in the US. It certainly can get extremely cold at Amherst during the winter compared to most of Australia; we've been told down to -5, -10; but it's nothing like in the US with snow! The good news is that according to this in zone 8 we can grow pretty much any kind of rose. This makes sense considering that there was a famous rose garden in Australia created only about an hours drive from our property, at Bleak House in Malmsbury. It's now apparently been converted to a rose nursery, so I suspect we may eventually pay it a visit! I learned about it by reading "Garden of a Thousand Roses" which when the time comes to choose specific cultivars I shall refer back to since at least I can be sure that the ones it refers to will be available in Australia.
When you plant a rose, you should put them in deep enough so that all the stems are coming from below ground. But, if they've been growing in a container, don't put them in too much deeper than the soil level they've been used to. Also, it's good to double dig the soil and dig in a "dollop of muck" in the bottom of the hole, in the words of Monty Don! (Muck = cow or horse manure).
Good rose fertilizers have a ration of Nitrogen: Phosporus: Potassium of 1:2:1. More phosphorous leads to better blooming. If you add too much nitrogen you'll get too much foliage and not as many blooms.
Apparently the ideal soil for growing roses has a pH of 6.5 (slightly acidic) and is well drained with about 50 percent organic matter and the rest an equal mixture of clay, silt and sand. On a Gardener's World episode they planted a climbing rose on a patio in a container and used a mixture of "equal parts soil from garden, mushroom compost and peat free potting compost". That said, however, there are some kinds of roses that tolerate poor soil. For instance, Gallica roses in general are meant to be extremely hardy and "tolerant of poor soil and neglect" so I expect we'll have a lot of them!
If you're growing climbing roses against a wall, like for any climber that's going to live for ages and get big, you should build a strong frame in the beginning. This means use proper eyelet screws that you run wire through, and put a tensioner at one end of each wire strand so that it can always be kept taut. When tying in the rose, as with any climber, tie the twine to the support first, and then tie in the stem but not too tightly. Another good idea is to cross the twine once it was tied to the support, before tying in the rose stem in what is called a "figure of eight" knot... this helps cushion the stem and gives a little extra room to grow before it needs retying.
Also, you want to train climbing roses by curving the main stalk over, as in this picture. This way you'll get lots of blooms that cover the wall closer to the ground rather than letting it grow naturally upwards. how to train climbing roses
A good idea for climbing roses that are going to get very tall is to underplant them with smaller growing varieties of clematis. This way you still get some flowers at eye-level

Pruning roses
You shouldn't be afraid to prune roses hard as they'll throw out new shoots. But with old fashioned shrub like roses don't prune too much because you'll destroy their "wildness". You want to keep good air circulation around the plant so cut out any shoots that are crossing, etc. Update: Be careful with floribunda roses since the more foliage they have the better they grow, so don't prune them too hard.
When pruning, the first step is to remove any dead or diseased wood. Make a cut into healthy wood, close to a bud or shoot, which slopes so that water to run away from the bud (otherwise it can encourage disease). Choose also where you cut based on the direction that the new shoots will grow, to encourage a healthy shaped plant. The direction the bud is pointing indicates the direction in which the new shoot will grow.
Then, remove any other stems which cross or rub together. Again this is apparently to stop the spread of disease. I have some really old rose bushes in my garden here, I can already see some drastic action is required to address this in particular!
Climbing roses are also important to prune as if you don't they can easily get out of control with all the flowers at the top. Again, I know only too well about this... our climbing rose in London has gotten so out of control that Dave has scheduled a 'climbing rose massacre' for later this year. It will be good for the rose, but I think also Dave is looking forward to it as revenge... this particular rose has sharp thorns and he often gets caught by them; it has earned the moniker from him of "the b*stard rose"!
For old climbers which are overgrown the BBC suggests you do something called renewal pruning. Each year you remove one of the oldest and unproductive main stems, making the cut close to ground level or back to a healthy shoot. Then, you reduce all flowered sideshoots by about two-thirds of their length, cutting just above a healthy shoot or bud. Finally, where stems have grown beyond the bounds of their support, you should cut back to a healthy shoot or bud and then tied in to the nearest part of the trellis or wire.

Other tips for looking after roses
You can encourage ongoing flowering in those roses which have it by deadheading. You don't just take the flower part off, you also cut off part of the stem. The "1st node" is where the first leaf joins the stem below where the flower is, the "2nd node" is where the next lot of leaves joins. Cut just above the 2nd node. Also, when you cut, make it sloped towards the heart of the plant. I'm not sure precisely why this is but it's something to do with helping the rain get in.
Update: I just watched another TV show who interviewed the head gardener of the Royal National Rose Society in the UK. He said they'd recently changed their advice about how to deadhead. Apparently now you don't cut down to the 2nd node. Instead, there's a little swelling just before the 1st node where you can just snap off the dead flowerbud. Snapping off rather than cutting gives a clean break at the point which is best for the plant.
When watering avoid wetting the leaves as this can encourage diseases like blackspot. Blackspot is the most common problem with roses. As the name suggests it causes black splodges to appear on the leaves then they turn yellow and drop off. Supposedly if you catch this early you can just break off the infected leaves (and then burn them, don't put on the compost). Otherwise there are sprays... but I don't plan on using any of them. We have roses in our backyard here and some get blackspot but I just let them and cut off the worst parts. They've survived fine the past 5 years so obviously blackspot is more unsightly than life threatening!
If you underplant roses with plants from the onion family (e.g., chives) that will help to ward off aphids.
Supposedly, you should dig the soil every season, turning it over with a fork more than 1ft away from the base of the plant. Closer to the plant you're supposed to "loosen the roots" with a garden fork in Spring - not sure quite what this means, but I'm guessing stick a fork in and rock it about in a few places! This is to aerate the soil apparently. This sounds like an awful lot of fussing, I suspect we won't be doing this, but it's good to know! Instead I think we'll be relying on the worms to do the job of digging for us.
After pruning, it's suggested to give each rose bush several generous shovels of compost and checking to make sure the mulch is still several inches thick over the root zone.
My favourite rose cultivars - suitable for Amherst
As I come across new ones I shall add to this list so hopefully by the time it comes to choose rose plants I'll have a long list. I'm also going to be ruthless and limit myself only to the kind that will grow OK in Amherst conditions and without much pampering - because frankly, even though I like roses, I suspect I'm going to have my hands full just keeping the basics ticking over in the garden. Any suggestions welcome - please add them in the comments!
Rosa rugosa - this is the kind of rose that my Aunt Marion has in a hedge. The flowers are nice but the hips are glorious and what I love most about it. This gets huge, the hedge at my Aunt's is taller than me and around a metre wide. It can be pruned so it looks like a hedge but of course it's a little wilder than your typical box! There are different versions of this but my favourite is the one that looks closest to the species (aka wild) version - pink with a yellow centre and just a single set of petals, simple but lovely.
rosa rugosa
Rosa Alba Maxima - this is tolerant of poor soil and is one of the oldest kinds of roses apparently. It has lovely white flowers and grows like a shrub
Rosa Alba Maxima
Rosa Jayne Austin - this is one of the David Austin style roses. It grows quite tall (up to 7ft) but narrow so would be good for towards the back of a border. It apparently has wonderful scent and lots of repeat flowering. But, best of all, according to [an article I read online] it is extremely resistant to black spot.  [UPDATE: I've removed the link to the article and the photo because the site owner was unhappy]