When Being Shallow Is a Virtue

In a previous post, I tongue-in-cheek referred to one of my latest gardening efforts as the creation of a “M.E.B.”, short for Modified English Border. But even though the acronym is pretty silly, the intent behind my efforts is less so.

From a professional perspective, I really am convinced that more people would incorporate beautiful perennial plantings in their landscapes if they had some assurance that such an undertaking wouldn’t consume all of their gardening resources (and leisure time). And from a personal perspective, I intend to age in place, and don’t want to create high-maintenance garden beds that I’m less and less able to care for as time goes on.

So the challenge I’ve put to myself is whether I can borrow from the great English tradition of creating beautiful, flower-filled borders packed with variety and seasonal interest — but use a planting approach that reflects more contemporary sensibilities, acknowledges the considerable differences in climate between England and the mid-Atlantic U.S., and doesn’t require constant maintenance.

Where to begin? Step One was to decide where to put my border and how big to make it. I initially toyed with the idea of putting it up against the back fence – until I realized that I’d have to travel a ways to admire it (and why would I want to do that, especially if mobility ever becomes an issue?).

So I decided instead to create a lawn patio right off the house and use the border to separate the patio from the larger landscape. To deal with a change in elevation caused by sloping terrain, the border is backed by a low stone wall broken by large radial flagstone steps that lead to the rest of the yard. I decided that this configuration would help create a sense of enclosure in what is otherwise a pretty open area, and would also enable the flower border to be admired from the south-facing windows in the house.

Back Yard Blank Canvas

The Back Garden:  Before

Since experience has taught me that large perennial beds = more maintenance, I then thought long and hard about how big to make my new border. Lots of English-style borders are very long and very deep, and in part it’s that scale that creates the sensation of over-the-top beauty. I decided to start at the opposite end of the spectrum and initially laid out a border that was just 4 feet wide (what I’d been taught was the bare minimum for a mixed perennial planting). It was pretty long (about 100 feet total length) but pretty narrow.

That didn’t last too long.

It soon became apparent that 4 feet simply isn’t enough space to plant an interesting border. It’s hard to create interlocking layers with plants of any size, and I knew that using lots of small, dainty plants wasn’t going to produce the visual impact I was looking for.

So last year I sized up to a depth of around 6 feet, and the improvement was immediate. On the low-maintenance front, this slightly-larger-but-still-relatively-narrow depth not only has helped to limit the number of plants I use; it’s also ensured that I can readily reach the back of the border when work needs to be done. And the addition of just a few more feet has allowed me to play with plants of different sizes and create some interesting and fun combinations.

Back Border July 26 2015 East Side

The Back Garden:  After

Back Garden 2015

The Back Garden:  After

The Back Garden July 2015

The Back Garden:  After

The Back Garden 2015

The Back Garden:  After

Would such a (relatively) shallow border work just anywhere in the landscape? Probably not. If I wanted a double border backed by tall yew hedges in the middle of a large space, a planting depth of 6 feet would probably seem puny and out of scale. But I’ve discovered that a 6-foot-wide border around a patio and (more recently) on either side of a front path can look perfectly proportioned and provide a strong visual statement — while requiring far less maintenance than a grander planting would demand.

And isn’t that just like some people we know: striking in appearance — but pretty shallow?


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