A glorious mixed border is one of the most beautiful but daunting sights in gardening. The British make it look so easy, a shrub rose here, some tall foxgloves there, flowers and foliage in just the right mix of color and height. None of it dying, apparently. (The one above is in Scotland, to be precise and ancestry-allegiant.)
In real life, mixed borders often devolve into a row of unrelated plants, each standing stick-straight like guests at a miserable party where bark ground cover plays the ubiquitous bad party host.
But if you start simply, you can enjoy a more congenial version. Here’s my experience.
Way back when we remodeled, 22 years ago, we also redid the landscaping. Eventually. After receiving a ticket from our little city for weeds of a “noxious and downy habit.” Thanks, neighbors. As part of the project, our brilliant landscape guy insisted on a border of fleabane and lavender.
Fleabane? Yes. Scientifically known as Erigeron, or in one of its guises, Santa Barbara Daisy – if you want to get fancy. I have to admit that I prefer common plant names to the Latin, despite the risk of misidentification. Since I can’t remember Latin pronunciations, I always read the names as follows: “*Glyph* is a lovely flower to be sure, but remember that *glyph* cannot tolerate drought,*” and can never remember them.
Fleabane grows like a weed, looks like a daisy. Needs very little water, tolerates all kinds of abuse, even small people’s flying soccer balls, and mothers in a hurry to Cut Back The Garden Before Carpool.
Lavender, on the other hand, is one of the world’s best-loved flowering plants. I would define world to include both elite French perfumers and the at-risk honeybee. Plant for the hive, everyone, the global hive. Because lavender is so beloved, it’s available in many varieties. People seem to agree that the English sort is the most resilient. It doesn’t much like the damp, so would probably be tough to grow in the tropics, and terribly cold winters will kill a plant or two, but don’t let a lot of talk about soil and climate requirements scare you off one of the most beautifully scented plants on the planet.
So, we planted the border as directed. It was nice. Then, maybe 5 or 6 years later, an elderly neighbor came by with some seeds from his Rose Campion, also known as Lychnis Coronaria. Or Bridget-in-her-bravery, which how great is that? We planted them.
And then the border was great. Multi-color, multi-height, a different look from every angle. Now, another decade later, it’s got a life of its own. Over time, the Rose Campion comes and goes. It’s a self-sower, which means it grows, dies, sows seeds, grows again. I never quite know where it will show up. And it’s easy to pull out, so if I get pouty over placement, I can fix it.
The Fleabane just keeps on growing. Gets ratty, gets cut back. Grows outside its boundaries, gets yanked out.
And I’ve had to replace the lavenders, at least once, maybe twice, I can’t remember. Originally I believe we planted Hidcote, then perhaps Augustifolia. In any case, you can see that there’s now one plant that’s taller than the others, with fewer flowers. That’s because it’s too close to the lawn sprinklers. The rest of my front yard is on drip irrigation, so I can water the roses but let the various dought-tolerant souls dry .
At the end of this bloom season, I’ll probably dig out that overly-green lavender and replace it with a shorter Hidcote. A few of them remain from years gone by, so it should work. Well enough. And my approach to gardening is all about the Well Enough. The “Hey, It Smells Good Whether It’s In The Perfect Spot Or Not.” The “Don’t You Dare Intimidate ME With Specimen Talk.” The “I Know This May Not Even Count As A Border But It Feels Like One To Me.”
See, I figure that gardens are private. I know this one happens to sit in my front yard, but that makes it part of my house. And in my culture, as I have said, house is home and therefore not for burnishing unless one is so inclined. That’s one of the difference between gardens and wardrobes; your clothes are public, worn out and about in situations with social context, and therefore the Appropriate matters.
At home, it’s all about the pink. And the astringent, tongue-tingling, vanishing scent of a lavender bud crushed between finger and thumb. Almost piney, the fragrance, but not.
What is this border not good for? Cutting. Fleabane gets very ratty, Rose Campion flowers are nearly always raggedy, and Lavandula’s native symmetry means it can only spare 5 evenly-spaced stalks per plant. Is this border replicable? We can’t forget geography. If you live somewhere humid, these plants may be tough to grow. But I know you’ve got the moral equivalent available, and probably some of you know what it is.
I planted these in 1-gallon pots. These days, I might be brave enough to try seeds, or rooting a cutting of the lavender, which is apparently possible. But that’s only because I’ve got time to spare. In any case, I plant organically grown for the sake of the bees. Turns out that plants grown at the big box stores may be so flooded with pesticides that for the rest of their days they are poisonous.
For online sources, Amazon offers organic seeds, so do other companies, in the USA and in Europe. Otherwise, let’s all visit our local small nurseries and dawdle in the aisles, sniffing, looking, poking around. I like to go early in the morning, when the air is full of promise, mist, and oxygen.