Herbaceous Borders

Over the years, the very ornamental herbaceous border drifted away from the functional cottage-garden-style borders, where edibles like fruit, herbs and vegetables were mixed with garden flowers in no particular order. It became instead a symbol of prestige in English country gardens, and was designed and planted up by master gardeners flaunting their ultimate gardening skill in creating masterpieces of shapes, colours and textures on a large scale.

What is a herbaceous border?

A herbaceous border is a collection of perennial herbaceous plants arranged closely together. ‘Herbaceous’ means that the plants have non-woody stems and take less than one year to reach their full height and produce flowers and seed before dying back over winter to have a repeat performance in the following spring.
The perennial, on the other hand (and this includes all plant types, woody or not), might be deciduous or evergreen, but will live for more than two years without going fully dormant.

The classic herbaceous border

The classic herbaceous border is wide and deep, in order to accommodate a variety of foliage and flower colours, which are planted in bold groups and layers from low to intermediate to high.

A classic herbaceous border is also very long, in order to allow for repeat plantings of the same plants in order to prevent the ‘fruit salad’ look in a border and to add depth. It is high maintenance and expensive to keep in prime condition from spring to late autumn – especially if annuals have to be added all the time to maintain the colourful effect. This requires a great deal of planning and knowhow, too. However it is a complete joy to the eye in three seasons, but mostly dormant and bare through winter.

Our key words for good border design

Perennial – plants that will stay around and swiftly increase in size in order to allow propagation.

Evergreen – no sticks when the show is over, no neurotics and no disappearance unless needing a cut back in spring to encourage fast new growth. We demand something of interest in all seasons!

Drought hardy and heat resistant – we need plants that will enjoy a year of good rain and a hot summer, but will
not succumb if the hosepipe has to stay switched off for periods of water scarcity.

Easy to propagate – we want plants willing to make offsets or pups, willing to be divided, and willing to grow from leaves, stem cuttings and even unrooted stem cuttings.

Crasulla capitella ‘Campfire’

Crassula capitella ‘Campfire’ is a magnificent plant for a mixed, looking-good-all-year border. It will set the winter garden alight with its propellor-like leaves that mature from bright lime-green with red tips to a fiery orange-red the colder it gets. It will tolerate frost, but not a hard freeze. You will be treated to masses of tiny white flowers borne on tall, stout stems. It roots easily from stem nodes even before touching the ground and over-grown patches can be divided.

Common name: Red flame
Plant type: Perennial, evergreen, succulent groundcover
Indigenous: Yes
Flowering time: From early to late summer
Aspect: Full sun, light shade

Sedum nussbaumerianum

Sedum nussbaumerianum has unusual copper-coloured rosettes made up of fleshy pointed leaves on slender spreading stems. The flowers are clusters of small star-shaped flowers with a soft fragrance. It is adaptable to harsh growing conditions, which means shallow poor soil, exposed sites and winter cold. It can be propagated with leaf or stem cuttings or division of the root system by digging up a mature plant.

Common name: Coppertone stonecrop
Plant type: Perennial succulent shrub
Indigenous: No (Mexico)
Flowering time: Late winter to spring
Aspect: Full sun, partial shade

Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’

Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’ creates drama, movement and strong texture, and combines well with many plant types. It will grow into a sturdy tuft of about 1m high and wide with a fountain-like habit. The curving, strap-like leaves are a rich burgundy colour and reed-like stems carrying soft pinkish-purple plumes remain on the plant for months on end. It is semi-cold and frost hardy and should be cut back in early spring to rejuvenate and encourage new growth, when overgrown tufts can also be divided to get more plants.

Common name: Purple fountain grass
Plant type: Perennial grass
Indigenous: No (Parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East)
Flowering time: Summer to end of winter
Aspect: Full sun, partial shade

READ MORE: Take a look at these Border Charmers

Senecio barbertonicus

Senecio barbertonicus is a dense and bushy plant that can reach a height of 0.5 – 1.8m. The finger-like leaves are bright green, slightly curved and narrowing to a pointed tip. The lovely deep yellow flowers appear at stem tips and are sweetly scented, attracting butterflies. The plant is mildly frost-tolerant. Propagate it from softwood cuttings in late spring to summer and trim back the plant lightly to maintain a tidy appearance as the stems can become woody.

Common name: Barberton groundsel
Plant type: Succulent perennial shrub
Indigenous: Yes
Flowering time: Winter
Aspect: Full sun, partial shade

Sedum rubrotinctum

Sedum rubrotinctum has short fat leaves that resemble jelly beans on thin, brittle stems with a low, spreading growth habit. In nature, the leaves turn from green to bright red during summer as a protective adaptation, which means it should be planted in a sunny spot to intensify the interesting colour hues. It produces dainty sprays of bright yellow flowers. This plant is not frost-tolerant. Propagate it from leaves laid on soil, or stem cuttings.

Common name: Jelly beans
Plant type: Succulent perennial groundcover
Indigenous: No (Mexico)
Flowering time: Mid-spring
Aspect: Full sun, partial shade

Curio talinoides var. mandraliscae

Curio talinoides var. mandraliscae is a sprawling, mat-forming succulent shrub with upward pointing pencil-like, silver-blue leaves that supply an interesting colour contrast in a mixed border. The sparse flowerheads on slender stems are mostly white but can be cream or yellow too. Can be propagated from stem cuttings.

Common name: Blue chalk sticks
Plant type: Succulent perennial shrub
Indigenous: Yes
Flowering time: Early summer
Aspect: Full sun, partial shade

Cotyledon orbiculata

Cotyledon orbiculata can be very variable in form with either grey, green or red-margined large succulent leaves arranged in a cup shape on fleshy stems. The flowers are bell-shaped on 1m-tall stems and can be yellow, orange or red. Very drought hardy and will also tolerate moderate frost. It can be propagated by stem cuttings.

Common name: Pig’s ears
Plant type: Succulent perennial shrub
Indigenous: Yes
Flowering time: Late summer to winter
Aspect: Full sun, light shade

Kalanchoe pumila

Kalanchoe pumila has a clumping, upright growth habit and powdery-grey scalloped leaves with a lilac tint. It produces clusters of lilac to pinkish-purple flowers. Although kalanchoes are tough, they are not suitable to regions of heavy frost and that are very cold. It can be propagated from stem cuttings or offsets.

Common name: Flower dust plant
Plant type: Succulent shrub
Indigenous: No (Madagascar)
Flowering time: Late winter
Aspect: Full sun, partial shade

Ruschia lineolata

Ruschia lineolata has fleshy, serrated blue-green leaves and produces masses of pretty striped pink to cerise and white flowers throughout the year. It is easily propagated from cuttings, which knit together to form a neat carpet. Thickly growing carpets can also be dug up, divided, and replanted.

Common name: Carpet of stars
Plant type: Succulent perennial groundcover
Indigenous: Yes
Flowering time: Peak time for flowering is autumn and spring
Aspect: Full sun

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Aristida junciformis

Aristida junciformis forms thick tufts of soft grass appearing pale to bright green in spring and summer with mauve plumes that slowly mature to yellow with the onset of winter. Bold patches of this grass, which will also tolerate heavy clay soil, make an unforgettable appearance in the landscape. It is frost hardy and will tolerate periods of drought. Can be propagated by division in spring or from ripe seed.

Common name: nGongoni grass
Plant type: Perennial grass
Indigenous: Yes
Flowering time: November to May
Aspect: Full sun, morning sun

X Graptoveria ‘Fred Ives’

X Graptoveria ‘Fred Ives’ is a delightful succulent forming spreading clumps of large rosettes up to 30cm wide. The leaves are fleshy and pointed, in bronze with pink undertones. Long, branched flower stalks bear pale yellow flowers with red-orange centres. Easy to propagate from leaf or stem cuttings or offsets.

Common name: None
Plant type: Perennial succulent
Indigenous: No (Garden hybrid)
Flowering time: Throughout summer
Aspect: Full sun, partial shade

Aloe vanebalenii

Aloe vanbalenii quickly forms a mat of creeping stems with rosettes of long, twisted and recurved leaves. The foliage turns copper red in full sun. Flower racemes in shades of yellow, orange, or red appear on 1m-high stems. Can be propagated by stem cuttings.

Common name: Van Balen’s aloe or crawling octopus
Plant type: Aloe
Indigenous: Yes
Flowering time: June to August
Aspect: Full sun

The Gardener