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The April Garden 2023

The April Garden 2023

With April here again we are well and truly into spring and one of, if not the most, exciting month of the year. The garden suddenly seems to become more alive and vibrant and even the pulse of the gardener begins to quicken!

Looking back over the April blogs in the archive took me back firstly to the early days of the pandemic in 2020 when I was writing about some ways of enjoying the garden without the benefit of the delights of the local garden centre. The three topics covered were ‘How to take Cuttings’, ‘Sowing Seed for Summer Colour’ and ‘Growing Flowers for the House’.

In 2021 the blog was based on our own west Wales plot and essentially looked at a whole array of great spring plants including:- Brunnera, Ranunculus, Pulmonaria, Helleborus, Viola, Corydalis, Lunaria, Aubrietia, Vinca, Lamium, Chaenomeles, Camellia, Forsythia, Viburnum, Clematis, Ribes, Pieris, Spiraea, Corylus, Sambucus, Prunus, Malus and Magnolia. As always the blog also included a section on ‘Jobs for the Month’ which concentrated on the lawn, beds and borders in general, seed sowing and planting container grown stock.

In 2022 the blog came from Aberglasney which was full of delights, far too many to mention but well worth a viewing either on the blog or for real. In addition to my blog in April 2022 there were two other blogs, one on ‘How to grow Runner Beans’ and the other from the plant area staff with their ‘April picks’ Pulmonaria, Dicentra, Erysimum and Aquilegia.


My main topic for this month’s blog and also the talk on Saturday, April 1st (9-30am in the Tearoom) is ‘Beds and Borders’ which in essence, of course, are the main planting areas in most gardens. To me the basic difference between them is that a bed is within another feature of the garden such as a lawn, gravel area or courtyard and for this reason they are often referred to as ‘Island Beds’. Borders, on the other hand, are around the edge of either the whole garden or another feature within it again such as a lawn, patio or garden ‘room’. As a result borders have some form of barrier to one side such as a wall, fence, trellis or hedge. The other main difference is that a bed can be viewed from all sides and angles whereas a border is viewed from the front or from either end. This is a really important difference when it comes to designing planting schemes. However, having highlighted the differences, form a practical point of view I think it best to treat beds and borders together and just pick out other differences as they arise. After all they are both simply areas of soil in which a combination of plants are raised for the benefit of the gardener, viewers and hopefully also the local wildlife.

Before getting into the different types of beds and borders and the ways to think about the design aspect of them it is worth considering the actual soil in which the plants will spend their lives. When creating a new bed or border it definitely pays to spend some time and effort in getting the soil into ‘good’ condition prior to planting. By ‘good’ I mean reasonably well-drained, aerated and not over-compacted, at a reasonable level of fertility and as weed-free as possible. For most soils simply digging or loosening the top soil with a spade or fork will be enough to improve both drainage and aeration and will enable weeds to be removed by hand. In order to improve fertility and enhance the water and nutrient-holding capacity of the soil the gardener then needs to add some base, slow-release fertiliser such as chicken pellets or blood, fish and bone as well as plenty of organic matter in the form of home-made compost, well-rotted manure, spent mushroom compost (but not if acid loving plants are to be grown), spent potting compost or any peat-free soil conditioner. These can either be lightly forked in or simply left on the surface to act, in the short term, as a moisture conserving mulch and in the longer term as a soil improver as the materials are incorporated into the soil by the gardener’s most valuable assistant- the earthworm! Once complete these processes will get the soil into good ‘heart’ and planting can begin. From then on each late winter/early spring the addition of fertiliser and organic matter is repeated in order to keep the soil in the best possible condition. Also simply the addition of new plants, weeding by hand and/or hoe and the division of older perennials in spring or autumn will help aerate the soil and avoid any compaction problems.

Over the years beds and borders have without doubt changed considerably. Many gardens in the past had beds and borders dominated by one plant or group of plants such as rose, alpine or herbs beds. They are, of course, still used today but to a much lesser extent.  In terms of borders in particular most people perhaps would think of the herbaceous border which became very popular in late Victorian times. Traditionally these gardens consisted of large, rectangular plots usually with a lawn in the centre and long borders on each side leading down to a back border often containing a focal point such as a statue or sundial or a structure such as a gazebo, pergola or summerhouse. The planting was almost exclusively summer and autumn flowering perennials banked according to height with the shortest at the front and the tallest at the back. There is little doubt that in summer and autumn borders such as these produced dazzling displays at a time when the garden was used and enjoyed most but it also has to be said that they proved to be less attractive at other times of the year.

For this reason in most modern gardens which are generally more modest in size the ‘mixed’ border (and bed) provide more opportunity for creating  year-long interest by the addition of small trees, shrubs, climbers, bulbs, annuals and biennials as well as perennials. The addition of climbers is perhaps easier in borders which are backed by walls, fences or trellis but even in borders backed by hedges and in island beds climbers can still be used for extra height and interest with the use of obelisks in wood, cane or metal. The amount of space given to each type of plant varies according to taste but also with the time spent in the garden. A mixed border with a predominance of perennials and just a few non-herbaceous plants usually needs more maintenance than one with a high proportion of shrubs and a small number of perennials. Maintenance of such more permanent plantings can also be reduced by covering the soil with a permeable membrane covered by gravel or bark prior to planting. For a mixed bed or border to provide year round interest a good rule of thumb is to look to use shrubs for one third to one half of the planting, including a good selection of evergreens. A newly planted mixed border also always looks better in the early years if extra bulbs, annuals and biennials are included to fill in the gaps between the young shrubs and perennials.

Once the overall ‘mix’ of plants has been decided upon the next stage is to produce a plan for the layout of the bed or border and a planting scheme which for most people is probably the most daunting part. Fortunately the general principles are broadly similar for beds and borders and although imagination, personal taste and environmental conditions will always influence such plans there are some basic guidelines which are well worth following.

The shape of beds and borders is largely determined by the general style of the rest of the garden. In more formal gardens straight edges to beds and borders look elegant and well-ordered while in an informal garden irregular or curved shapes with a more relaxed and free approach to planting would complement the overall design.

Obviously the size of beds and borders can vary greatly but as a rough guide the larger the garden setting the larger the beds and borders should be. Size and shape should also be in keeping with the house and other important features such as a patio or terrace. Generally 5ft (1.5m) is a minimum width for a bed or border to have an impact in a planting scheme.

Large mixed beds and borders in the Upper Walled Garden at Aberglasney to suit the size of the walls, the area of the plot and the grandeur of the mansion. The borders have straight edges to mirror the walls while the beds are curved and form sections of an outer and inner circle.

As mentioned earlier the height of plants is also a major consideration to bear in mind. In general taller plants are placed towards the back of a border, graduating to the shorter ones in the front to create a tiered effect in which no plant is obscured by another. In an island bed the tallest plants are usually placed in the centre or just off-centre with the smallest around the edge. However, certainly in more informal gardens, this degree of regularity is too restrictive and the occasional plant in the ‘wrong’ place gives more impact and interest. Providing that they are not too dense taller plants such as ornamental fennel, Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’, can be used very effectively in the middle section or even towards the front of both beds and borders. Varying the position of tall, medium and small plants even just a little can also give the whole planting a much more undulating form particularly when viewed from one end.

The Pool border at Aberglasney which illustrates the tiered effect from front to back but which also incorporates height within the border to add interest. The canes supported annual climbers such as Morning Glory, Ipomoea, which later in the season were real eye-catchers.

In all but the smallest of beds and borders it is generally recommended that in order to achieve greater impact small and medium sized plants are planted in groups rather than as isolated specimens. Planting in odd numbered groups with plants placed at random rather than in straight lines creates drifts of plants which gives a more fluid, natural looking effect. Generally the smaller the plant the larger the group number should be. For example Bergenia species and hybrids with their large leaves look effective in threes whereas the more delicate London Pride, Saxifraga x urbium, is best planted in groups of five or more.

The impact of planting in groups in the Stream Garden at Aberglasney with large numbers of Candelabra Primulas, a smaller number of Shuttlecock Ferns and just the one large-leaved Hosta.

Another point to bear in mind when designing any planting plan is the form of the plant itself. Perennials in particular have widely different forms and silhouettes from upright, rounded, arching as well as horizontally spreading and it is always a good idea to create groups of plants next to each other with contrasting forms for extra interest. For example the tall flower spikes of delphiniums or foxgloves contrast really well with the cloud-like cushions of Gypsophila or Crambe cordifolia.

Tall spikes of foxgloves work well with the more ‘frothy’ forget-me-nots and pink campions.

A related feature of plants to form is their texture. Flowers and stems are part of this but so too is foliage and the variation in shape, size and surface covering of leaves can help to create striking contrasts as well as subtle harmonies. Think of a combination of the ornamental rhubarb, Reum, with its jagged, palm-like leaves against the heart-shaped leaves of Ligularia and the softly arching strap-like leaves of an ornamental grass.

Different leaf textures can add great interest. Here the heart-shaped, variegated leaves of Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’, contrast well with more elongated leaves of the hosta, strap-like leaves of a grass and dissected, palm-like leaves of a hardy geranium.

You may well be thinking at this point that I haven’t yet mentioned what many people would think of first when designing a planting plan which, of course, is colour. I have purposely left this towards the end as I think that all too often we gardeners get a little ‘blinded’ by colour and forget about all the other attractions which plants have to offer us. However, there is no doubt that colour is a major consideration in any planting scheme and as you would expect there are a few useful guidelines to help us use colour in interesting and attractive ways. The use of colour in beds and borders can be as daring and experimental or as subtle and restrained as you like- in the end it is all about personal choice. The simplest colour scheme is one based on a single colour as in the famous ‘white’ garden at Sissinghurst in Kent or limited bands of colour for example various shades of pink or yellow which can be really effective. For bolder and more contrasting schemes striking combinations of reds and blues or yellows and purples can be used to great effect. One excellent way of thinking about flower colour and how to use colours in combination is to consider the ‘colour wheel’. This is based on the three primary colours of red, blue and yellow and the blends between them which produce the secondary colours of purple, green and orange. These can be set out in a ‘wheel’ starting with red at the top which is followed clockwise by orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. Colours which are next to each other on the wheel are known as complementary colours which always work well together. The two most obvious examples lead to what to what are known as ‘Cool’ or ‘Hot’ planting schemes. A ‘cool’ scheme of purples, blues and greens with perhaps some pale yellows gives a very relaxed and calm feel and is particularly good in shadier areas with lower light levels. On the other hand a ‘hot’ scheme with vivid reds, oranges and yellows gives an impression of vitality and warmth and looks at its best in a bright, sunny position.


Colours at opposite sides of the wheel are known as contrasting colours- red and green, orange and blue, purple and yellow. When used in a limited way these combinations can produce bold effects which are particularly striking when viewed from a distance. In long borders colour can also be used in another way. When confronted by reds and blues the human eye is always drawn more strongly to the reds and this can be used to make a border appear either longer or shorter than it really is. Red colours placed at the near end of the border and blues placed at the far end will make the border appear longer whereas reds placed at the far end will draw the eye to them and make the border appear shorter. It is also worth bearing in mind at this stage that colour, of course, doesn’t only come from flowers. Foliage colour can be equally important in most planting schemes. Apart from the many shades of green, foliage colour comes from the white and cream of variegated leaves which are particularly good in shady areas and yellow and golden foliage as well as silver and grey leaves which are more suited to hot, sunny sites. Finally on colour as Carol Klein writes in one of her many books ‘When combining colours there are many ‘dos’ but hardly any ‘don’ts’ so her advice is to try things which you think might work, if they do great, if they don’t move one of the plants!

The final guideline for designing planting schemes applies to the mixed bed or border in which there needs to be a succession of planting that changes with the seasons and keeps the bed or border looking good throughout the year. This requires the gardener to think about flowering times, whether plants are deciduous or evergreen and to look for plants which can take over from others almost seamlessly and perhaps even to ‘hide’ the plants which beginning to lose their glory. A good example of the latter is to follow blue delphiniums with monkshood, Aconitum, which both extends the season of blue flower spikes and helps to take the eye away from the yellowing delphinium foliage. Achieving a succession not only keeps the bed or border interesting and attractive for as long as possible but it can also lead to a succession of colours through the seasons. In spring a good combination might be of blues and yellows from primroses (Primula vulgaris), Doronicum, Pulmonaria and daffodils. In summer there is a richer colour palette to choose from as the herbaceous perennials come into their own and beds and borders take on more reds and pinks. In the autumn the perennial season ends with the rich colours of Dahlia, Chrysanthemum and Rudbeckia and the autumn colours and structure of shrubs adds to the effect. Winter is more about evergreen shrubs, the structure of deciduous branches and twigs from shrubs and small trees as well as the seed heads and stems of many of the herbaceous perennials. At ground level Bergenia, Helleborus and early bulbs keep the succession ticking over until spring arrives once more.

I hope that the above will help you either to create new beds and/or borders or to make changes in existing ones which you can be pleased with. If all this planting scheme ‘stuff’ is just too much for you don’t worry, there are plenty of ready-made planting scheme suggestions to be found in books, magazines and on the internet.

Finally I come to the ‘Bee Friendly’ plants for April from the RHS magazine article in the January edition. Unsurprisingly the recommendation for April is Apples, Malus, both fruiting and ornamental. The white or pink flowers are usually single, five-petalled and with conspicuous yellow-orange stamen and anthers which attract a wide range of pollinators. The widespread red mason bee is a particularly frequent visitor and valuable pollinator in orchards although they tend to look yellow rather than red as they end up covered in the yellow pollen! Other suggestions for April are Aquilegia, Ajuga, Euphorbia amygdaloides, Berberis and Prunus.

That’s all for this month. I will be back on line and for the next talk on Saturday, April 29th as the first Saturday in May clashes with the Coronation. The main topic will be on ‘Planting Pots and Baskets for Summer Colour’ but as always there will be other ‘bits and pieces’ about gardening in May. Until then keep well and enjoy your gardening.


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