Laying out beds and borders in a new garden — or maintaining the existing, often ‘inherited’ ones — is rarely given the consideration it needs. It is not simply a matter of deciding that a square bed, elongated, narrow border or whatever shape they happen to be, fits the available space. There is — or should be — much more to it than this.
Good drainage is an absolute essential for all beds and borders irrespective of whether or not they are at ‘ground level’ or in raised constructions of some kind. The provision of such drainage — be this via correctly placed and regularly maintained pipes / channels or by the under-soil placement of suitably graded stones / coarse gravel — when a bed / border is first made, is the easiest way to install it; but if this has not been done, you will undoubtedly find out during any rains, then it can be quite a task to put a drainage system of some kind into the already completed — maybe even heavily planted — beds / borders. It must, however, be done otherwise water-logging will adversely affect plants, plus, overly wet soil provides the perfect breeding ground for potentially lethal — think ‘dengue’ mosquitoes and countless other — nasties.
Then there is soil — and not just any old soil which happens to be lying around. If filling up newly constructed, raised beds, avoid, no matter how strong the temptation, tossing all manner of excess / broken building material into the base as a handy way of disposing of it and then hiding the mess with soil / compost on top as it is highly unlikely to release plant nutrients of any kind and may even be toxic!
As discussed in recent columns, good soil / organic compost and keeping the mix in tip-top condition, is essential for healthy plant growth — be they of the edible or ornamental variety. Unless correctly and even lavishly maintained, soil will not nurture plants forever: it must be replenished on a regular basis and this is best done organically. Continually adding chemical fertilisers, using chemical sprays, etc. does not — even though it may provide temporary sustenance to plants — benefit the soil one iota and, in time, actually kills it.
Create beauty around your house by well thought of flower beds
It is also a misnomer to adhere to the oft related ‘fairy tale’ that vegetables need far superior growing conditions than trees, shrubs and flowers. All manner of garden plants, from huge trees to miniature roses — be they perennial shrubs, flowers or of the purely seasonal variety — must have regular care, water and food if they are going to put on the beautiful, extremely rewarding, display you no doubt expect. And none of them — with, perhaps, the exception of cacti and succulents — are going to do this unless growing conditions are prime.
The orientation — north / south / east / west — of beds and borders is another, often completely overlooked factor; as are the daily amount of direct sunshine, exposure to wind, the amount of shade and the closeness of trees whose water-seeking, food-hunting, roots can wreck havoc with bed / border foundations and drainage. They will also compete with whatever you plant for essential water and nutrients.
Actively constructing beds / borders around the base of trees can — unless you really know what you are doing and understand the requirements of individual plant species — be a complete and utter disaster. It’s much better to either construct a useful wooden seat / bench there or use the area to rotate arrangements of suitable pot plants if you desire living, ornamental, colour and texture.
Narrow borders require planning / Photos by the writer
It is also important to remember that the visual aesthetics which may be so pleasing to the human eye are not, necessarily, enjoyed by the plants that are routinely expected to thrive in a growing space contrary to their natural requirements. Sun-loving, creeping, sprawling, spreading plants will refuse, for example, to put on a wonderful show in the shade and, if receiving the necessary amount of sunshine for happiness, they are not going to remain within the confines of a narrow strip of border but will ‘escape’ on to whatever is adjacent — be this a lawn or a footpath —where they will get either cut back or walked on. The same applies to the flowering shrubs and creepers that people have a habit of expecting to do as they are ‘told’ in spaces — often against walls — that are just too narrow to accommodate them. Prior to rushing out and purchasing, for instance, a few dozen petunia seedlings to brighten up an otherwise ‘dull’ bed / border, it is essential to work out if the selected bed / border offers the growing conditions the plants need otherwise you are heading for major disappointment.
Beds and borders, when properly thought out, meticulously created and well maintained, can provide the perfect growing conditions for an extremely wide variety of both edible and ornamental plants. Design them well, carefully chose suitable species for the growing conditions provided and enjoy the result but do not expect miracles to happen of their own accord as, in the gardening world, that old adage ‘You only get out what you put in’ is 100 per cent correct!