A planting scheme that’s low maintenance but high impact is Jane Moore’s latest challenge, but how do you make a selection from such a variety of planting options?

It’s not very often that I get to design and plant a complete border from scratch, but this spring I’m doing just that. What a lovely thing to do, you might think, but it is surprisingly difficult as you have such a free choice, aspect and location permitting. It’s made me realise just how much even one single plant can inform or suggest a particular thought process or colour scheme and without that it’s literally a blank canvas. Here are some ideas to set the scene.

The blank canvas

This border, borders really, are not at The Bath Priory Hotel but at a Cotswold property in the chocolate box village of Lower Slaughter. Nestled against the east-facing mellow Cotswold stone of the Slaughters Country Inn, these two beds had been lined with membrane and backfilled with gravel to reduce maintenance. There were two plants, a Cotoneaster horizontalis and a badly pruned Pyracantha, both past their prime and not worthy of such a pretty location. Out came the gravel, along with the two shrubs, and the dilemma began.

The practical considerations

The two beds are backed by the inn wall and are about 1.5m wide by 8m long, divided by a doorway and with three windows overlooking the beds at a height of around 1.2m. While the beds face east, they are sheltered by an L-shape in the building and are sunny for much of the day in summer. An east-facing aspect is pretty good – the beds will be bright, particularly in the morning, but shouldn’t dry out too badly.

So I have a pretty free rein with the planting as long as I don’t go for anything too tender and exotic. I won’t because my other practical consideration is the location – these beds are right next to a busy bar, terrace and lunch venue for walkers, weddings and what-have-you. On any day in summer there are multitudes of kids, dogs, ramblers and miscellaneous others running around so the planting needs to be robust, low-maintenance (as the gardeners won’t be able to get near it, apart from first thing in the morning), and with a long season of interest.

The perfect planting scheme

There are a few essentials for any border. Height is a must and in an ideal world I would have roses or wisteria framing the doorway but I don’t want to give the gardeners there the grief of annual pruning and tying in, let alone setting up wires and vine eyes in the beautiful but crumbling stonework. So I’ve opted for a pair of dainty flowered, multi-stemmed Amelanchier. Admittedly they have a short season for flowering but they have a fetching ‘wafty’ shape with pretty round green leaves on dark stems and a fabulous autumn colour.

There are a few things that would work just as nicely and top of my list would be Cercis ‘Forest Pansy’ with large, heart-shaped, purple leaves. The down side is that both the Amelanchier and the Cercis will set you back £50 to £100 for one of a decent size. Having said that, smaller plants do grow swiftly or you could opt for a cheaper ‘height’ plant such as Cotinus.

Structure and form

I’ll need a few key shrubs to ‘anchor’ the scheme, giving it a structure and form even through the winter months. Obvious choices for this are clipped evergreen balls of some sort, not box, sadly, as the area is prone to box blight, but perhaps Pittosporum, yew or Ilex crenata. I think it’s a little formal for the inn, however, so I’ve chosen the sturdy Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’ for its architectural shape and attractive leaves which turn beautiful shades in the autumn. Yes, it’s deciduous, but I’m not worried as I don’t think many people will be sitting outside on the terrace during the winter months. Besides which it has a great ‘naked’ shape in winter and, coupled with a few handfuls of grasses I’m planting there, should provide enough winter interest.

The middle storey

It’s the mid-sized shrubs and perennials that invariably do the most work in a planting scheme – they’re the ones that catch your eye and fill in the bulk of the border. I’m going for a classic country garden scheme of pinks, blues and silvers, which will suit the property and give me a broad range of plants to choose from. Top of this list are roses and I rarely plant anything other than repeat flowering varieties these days. Admittedly deadheading and keeping them clear of black spot and so on can be a bit of a pain, but I’ve gone for sturdy, disease resistant varieties such as ‘The Mayflower’ and ‘Hyde Hall’, both good rose pinks.

You can’t beat Penstemon for long flowering and a bit of evergreen interest, plus there are so many to choose from in all shades but yellow that it’s a job to know where to start. I love the dainty flowered varieties such as ‘Garnet’ and ‘Blackbird,’ but for the border I need something a bit more flouncy and full-on. The Pensham series all fit the bill nicely with their larger, more open flowers. I’ve grown ‘Laura’ with pink flowers and ‘Czar’ with mauve-purple blooms before and can testify to their floweriness – these will fit my colour scheme well.

Geranium ‘Rozanne’

The ground floor

The lower plants of the scheme need to be equally reliable, plus they need a certain bushiness, a mounding habit that will clothe the base of the other plants and spill charmingly onto the paving.

Must-haves include Geranium ‘Rozanne,’ simply the best hardy geranium known to mankind. I just wish plant breeders would come up with it in white and pink. ‘Rozanne’ is a beautiful clear blue and it flowers all summer long. Second on my list is Sedum ‘Brilliant’ – while it only flowers in late summer, it looks wonderful as its succulent grey-green leaves grow out from tight little ‘cabbages’ in the spring.

I’ll finish off with a little splash of sunshine in the form of golden marjoram, a lime green herb with dainty pink flowers which looks adorable at the front of a border and is no trouble at all.

In my mind’s eye these borders are already a vision of loveliness, perfect for summer sun and Cotswold country days. But only time will tell if the reality lives up to the dream.

Jane Moore is an award-winning gardening columnist and head gardener at The Bath Priory Hotel. Twitter: @janethegardener
Featured image: This attractive border includes Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ (against the back wall) and Sedum ‘Brilliant’ (to the right of image)