Border patrol: What looks good in the dog days

Once upon a time in the  garden in winter,  borders were put to bed, plants neatly clipped back to ground level and there was loads of bare shiney turned-over earth.  A shrub or two, carefully chosen for seasonal merit, would break up the lovely monotony of the tilled soil.  Nothing wrong with this at all except that it makes for a static scene that hangs on for the first of the spring bulbs to burst through the tilth and herald seasonal change.  It also has to meet the reproach of being somewhat ungreen on the conservation front:  if all your plants have been hacked back where can the ladybirds go?

For a different winter take, visit Wisley Gardens, HQ of the Royal Horticultural Society, and head for the far end of the grounds, to the Glasshouse Beds. Below the Fruit Mount are borders where sharp silhouettes and forms of plants take on the look of a musical score.  There are a pair of vast matching beds, each over 11 metres wide and stretching the eye from a viewing mound down to the new glass house, a la Kew.  These have had their planting designed by  Piet Oudolf.  (I asked a  Dutchman how to pronounce it – Piet as in unfashionable use of peat and surname like someone falling over when saying ‘outdoors’).

So who is this man?  He is Dutch, of course, and a veteran plantsman with his own nursery in the east of the Netherlands at Hummelo.  He has developed and bred a strain of perennials  that do not need high maintenance staking and tieing up.  Perennials are herbaceous plants that die back into their rootstock to overwinter – what most of us call flowers.  Oudolf plants them in enormous drifts, with flowering grasses romping through.  The style is distinct and is now much copied as ‘New Perennial’ or ‘New Wave’.   He is both designer and  plant breeder – I read somewhere that he cycled round the country lanes, taking plants from the wayside and then cross breeding them to come up with strong sturdy offspring.  His eye is very sure – the man originally trained as an architect – and the plants are put together in groups that tantalise and make you drool with the excellence of their harmony.  Better still they prop each other up physically too.

These borders in late October reveal artistry: compelling to look at at a dog-day time of year.  The recipe is simple –  the choice of perennials with big seed heads and none have been chopped back yet so that fabulous blackened silhouettes pierce through a backdrop of flowing shimmering grasses.

Grasses have been done to death and sometimes get over-used as the 21st century equivalent of the heather bed,  that dull reminder of the 1960s.  Forget the charge of cliché:  grasses give the borders height, movement and interest amongst the strong verticals of the black and rust coloured flowerheads.  Contrast and foil with the added   bonus that many are cool season growers – they reach their apogee round about now.

The visitor, with an eye on edgy plant ideas for their own garden  should go armed with a camera and a scrap of paper to scribble down plant associations to copy.  Here are just a few  pairs to inspire – Echinacea purpurea ‘Rubinglow’, is a great plant with large daisy heads for late summer interest, the cones hang on to long stems and make a strong vertical statement seen in front of the fluffy white plumes of the grass Calamagrostis brachytricha. At this time of the year  Astilbe chinensis  ‘Purpurlanze’ leaves rust brown flower stalks which are perfect foil to the ghostly whitish bloom on the stems of Perovskia atricifolia ‘Little Spire’.  Make a note of what goes well with its neighbour.  This is the real secret of good plant design and remember to think big – wide flowing streams or blocks of plants.  Keep numbers of varieties down – less is definitely more.


  1. Donna says:

    Really lovely natural beds and home to insects and wildlife. Grasses are often left for winter interest, but leaving the whole bed looks great as well when soft snow begins to fall.

  2. Emma says:

    Hi Catherine, really enjoying reading your blog and particularly this article. Ashamed to say I’ve never set foot in Wisley, but after reading this I am determined to go!

  3. Tatyana says:

    Hi Catherine! My garden is too small for having “wide flowing streams of plants”, but it certainly can have some of the lovely combinations that you described. Thank you!

  4. Edith Hope says:

    Dear Catherine, I must confess that I am not usually a fan of ‘prairie style’ gardening but these borders do look wonderful. Wisley is always, I find, full of surprises and these borders are certainly that for October!

  5. Sara says:

    Hi Catherine, I visited Wisley at the start of last week and these beds did indeed look stunning. Sadly my pictures didn’t do them justice, but you have captured them well. Lots of good information too – thanks! Sara

  6. radha says:

    Lovely blog you have here. And varied topics, so well written.

  7. debsgarden says:

    That third photo is inspirational! There really are some great combinations here. Thanks for the info!

  8. Alice Joyce says:

    Hi Catharine
    Dare I admit to not having yet visited Wisley!
    On the home front here in California, I’ve yet to cut back any perennials.
    Coneflower, Eupatorium, grasses… there are seedheads for wildlife, with a few blooms here and there to draw the hummingbirds. In the front — outside my office window — the low-water garden is coming to life now that the rainy season is upon us with fresh blooms on Australian and South African plants!

  9. I specially like the top border. I specially like this kind of planting!

    As for using it as an inspiration in one’s own garden . . . I think it probably only works if you have a large one. Otherwise it can look unintended rather than dramatic. The other is that, for that very reason, it probably needs to be put in all at the same time, rather than be built up over the years as more traditional borders can be – and that has cost implications.

    Despite all that – I still like it. (I like long rows of lavender bushes too!)


  10. I think this is the season when Oudolf-inspired gardens really shine, all the glorious shapes, textures and subtle colors. It’ll turn anyone into a lover of the shades of brown that are as vibrant as a manically blooming late-spring garden.

  11. Scilla says:

    Hi Catharine,
    A lovely post in a great blog – I’ll be back! Piet Oudolf is really like a garden guru – I love his work!

    Have a nice day!

  12. Scilla says:

    Hi Catharine
    Lovely post in a great blog I’ll be back! Piet Oudolf is like garden guru – I love his work! Thanks for your warm welcome to Blotanist.

  13. great post, there is an art to cutting back judiciously, so that the borders look cared and nurtured for rather than bedraggled and abandonned and yet attractive seed-heads are left for us to admire and for the birds and insects to enjoy…such is the art of the gardener at this time of year..i am glad we are all moving to a more natural way of looking at things….

  14. Christina says:

    Catherine, thank you so much for sharing your visit to Wisley. I’m often asked what I miss about England and I always say (to non comprehending Italians) that it is visiting inspiring gardens and also just being able to see gardens all around. I attended a lecture, given by Dan Pearson, in Rome last week. He uses similar planting combinations and I do believe that it is a way of creating a garden full of colour, movement and wildlife with minumum input from us once established. Have you seen Piet’s wonderful garden at Pensthorpe in Norfolk? That too is wonderful. Christina

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