The traditional herbaceous border uses perennials to create a show-stopping picture with plants organised to complement and contrast with one another; colours, textures and leaf patterns all play an important part in creating a display that draws our attention. Typically such flower borders are placed in front of a wall or hedge and we look at them from in front, possibly across an open green lawn. Sometimes these perennial borders run along the side of a path and we are encouraged to walk its length and study the individual clumps of plants and discover their relationships with their neighbors.
Such flower borders require skill and hard work to keep looking good. The plants used need rich, fertile soil. They are arranged into distinct groups that must not be allowed to invade their neighbors allotted space and mostly they are plants that need digging up and dividing every few years in order to keep them healthy and growing vigorously.
Some gardeners will revel in this sort of activity as I sometimes can, but few of us have the time anymore for such intensive maintenance. Furthermore, the need to keep a divers group of plants growing so closely together often demands regular applications of fertilisers, regular watering in dry periods and the inevitable competition between the plants causes them to grow tall and need staking and pruning. Such activity may keep us fit, but it will do little to conserve resources such as water nor minimize the garden’s environmental impact.
Naturalistic perennial gardens aim to make a positive contribution to their environment by allowing plants to carpet the ground offering protection to the underlying soil and shelter to a wide range of native animals and insects. The plants are chosen to be those that are adapted to the existing conditions so as to avoid the need for drastic interventions into the environment, the application of fertilisers or demand regular watering in periods of seasonal drought. All of this is supposed to make us feel good about the new lazy approach to gardening we have decided to take.
The traditional border aims to create a spectacle to admire, the naturalistic style aims to develop an idea that may draw us into appreciation of the plants being used as much as their appropriateness to their setting and invoke an emotional response through the associations they trigger.
These two contrasting aims lead to two quite different ways of designing such borders. While the traditional herbaceous border is created as a tableau to be admired from outside, the naturalistic border needs to surround us with the atmosphere it aims to create and therefore it must allow us to enter into its midst. In practice such borders need to stand free, with paths cutting through the middle to allow us to become engulfed by the plants and the atmosphere they have created.