This section is from the book "Beautiful Gardens - How To Make Them And Maintain Them", by Walter P. Wright. Also available from Amazon: Beautiful Gardens: How To Make And Maintain Them.
Let us clear the way by wrestling with the word "herbaceous," which we all use glibly nowadays, but do not understand, just as we talk of mechanical motor valves and turbine engines without knowing what they really are.
Herbaceous is the adjectival form of herb, and a herb is a plant the stems of which die every year, as distinguished from a shrub, which retains its stems (and also its leaves if an evergreen) throughout the winter. Some word-jugglers try to drag common annuals such as Clarkias into the list of herbaceous plants. But a Clarkia does not die to the roots every year in this sense. It dies outright - root as well as stem. You cannot speak of a plant dying down every year when it has only one year of life. Plants of its species may die every year, but not one individual plant. It would need the nine lives of a cat to do that.
Herbaceous - stem losing; shrubby - stem retaining. Here we have a clear distinction. In the name of common sense let us adhere to it. Both herbaceous and shrubby plants have perennial rootstocks, which live few or many years, according to circumstances.
Herbaceous borders will be low in the winter. The leaves and flower stems will die away in autumn, but the roots and underground crowns or buds, though dormant, will remain alive, and will throw up fresh stems in the spring.
In modern flower-gardening the herbaceous border plays the part which beds of zonal Pelargoniums, and "ribbon borders" of yellow Calceolarias, blue Lobelias, and scarlet "Geraniums" played half a century ago. The herbaceous border is the mainstay of the garden. With the great variety of plants which it accommodates, its immense range of colours, its long period of beauty, its diversity of height and form, its generous production of material for house decoration, it possesses a powerful claim on our regard.
Not the least of the attractions of the herbaceous border is the scope which it affords for beautiful combinations of flowers. Like the artist with his palette and pigments, we can devise pictures, disposing our plants as he disposes his figures, so as to secure rich and harmonious effects. It is this which appeals so strongly to cultured minds.
Fig. Scope For Beautiful Combinations Of Flowers 1.
Fig. Scope For Beautiful Combinations Of Flowers 2.
Of all classes of flowers herbaceous plants respond the best to cultivation, and the idea that they need no treatment is a pernicious one.
People apparently think that coarse vegetables need rich manure, but that herbaceous plants will "grow themselves." For the author's part, he works on opposite lines. His palate has no taste for Celery and Lettuces gorged with dung, but his eye rejoices in the noble proportions which his herbaceous plants assume when the stuff that is saved from the kitchen garden is dug deeply into the flower borders. Manure for herbaceous plants! Aye! Manure of the richest and best, and double digging to boot, in order to deepen the rooting area.
Yet another thing he demands - one more great item in the routine of cultivation. This is frequent lifting and division. Old, extended root-stocks have weak central crowns, which dwindle to nothing in the impoverished soil. Divide the stocks, throw the centres away, plant the strong-crowned outer portions in enriched soil, and lo! strength follows weakness, beauty barrenness.
Pleasure and interest unspeakable lie in designing herbaceous borders. We set ourselves a task of many parts. We want: -
(1) Fulness without overcrowding.
(2) A continuous display month by month.
(3) Abundance of flowers for cutting.
(4) Beautiful colour harmonies.
(5) Borders beautiful in parts, and also as a whole.
Fig. Suggestions For Mixed Borders
A, a large herbaceous bed for a lawn side.
B, a mixed herbaceous border.
C, a border mainly of crimson, pink, white, and lavender blue flowers.
While the biggest and tallest plants must go to the back, and the smallest and dwarfest in front, there must be no attempt at regular tiers, so that the mass rises by fixed stages from front to back. That is apt to look stiff. Some fairly tall plants should be grouped near the front, yet not so that they obscure a beautiful dwarfling. Guard, too, against putting plants of a similar fixed flowering season in one block. Rather strive to spread over the border a nucleus of good plants which bloom successionally, or which are in flower a very long period.
Study the association of plants which form a good foil one with another. Few builders of borders have regard to the manner in which contiguous plants will harmonise. Thus colours which kill each other find themselves together, and a few yards away are flowers that would blend with each. The plans that are given in the illustrated insets will prove useful as a guide to arrangement.
A knowledge, not only of the best plants, but of the dimensions to which they attain in fertile soil, and of their flowering periods, is essential to the proper planting of a herbaceous border. Without the former, errors in the distance of planting might lead to either bareness or crowding. Without the latter, we might have a block of colour in one part of the border at a particular season, and no flowers at all in another. In the lists of plants presently to be given, information on both points will be provided, as well as on the colour of the flowers.