If you read a lot of gardening books and magazines you’re probably familiar with the term mixed border. If not, don’t despair, it’s simply a term used to describe an elongated plot of land filled with flowering plants mixed with shrubs, possibly grasses and maybe small trees.
The issue of Fine Gardening magazine published several years ago featured the article Design a Border with Strong Plant Shapes by Sydney Eddison, that I think does a nice job explaining the visual impact of combining these plants and how one might begin go about putting together a mixed border.
A before photo of the author’s garden depicts a sea of daylilies in full bloom. Though the area is awash with color, the garden lacks definition. And what will that space look like a month later when the lilies have bloomed out?
The after photos show a far more interesting scene, a garden packed with glorious blooming flowers framed with fountains of grasses, mounds and pillars of purple foliaged shrubs and a variety of interesting shaped evergreens. The added contrast of these strong shapes and lines turned a pretty garden into a fabulous garden that will carry the landscape through the four seasons
As I looked over the plant list Sydney Eddison provided I realized that, as is often the case, some of the recommended varieties will not work in many Michigan landscapes.
The gorgeous thread leaf Japanese Maple that thrives in Eddison’s Long Island, New York full sun border, that provides a large and graceful mound of mahogany colored foliage, could not handle that kind of exposure here in Michigan. And even if it could, it’s far too large for most yards. Flower lovers tight on space are not about to give up large chunks of plantable land to a tree, no matter how lovely it is.
But all is not lost. With a little detective work it’s not hard to come up with substitutes, downsized shrubs that are hardy and offer a stunning array of shapes, textures and colors for use in mixed borders.
For instance, let’s just take a look at some possibilities for globe and mound shaped shrubs.
When we think of globes, Arborvitaes quickly come to mind. But common varieties burgeon to 5 to 6 feet in but a few years. However, Thuja occidentalis ‘Danica is a true dwarf Arb that grows to only ten to fifteen-inches in height. ‘Golden Glove’, with its soft yellow foliage will stay within the 2 to 3-foot range and is hardy to a frigid zone 3.
Boxwoods are another classic choice for evergreen globes and they are on the list of deer resistant shrubs. Buxus ‘Green Velvet’ at 2 to 3-feet in height won’t require shearing to keep it from overtaking the garden.
Repetition of shape and color provide continuity that helps tie the mixed border together. And there are many deciduous shrubs that will not only repeat the globe or mound shapes, while adding season long color and interesting texture as well. The deer resistant Barberry ‘Rose Glow” with its lovely rose and pink mottled foliage that matures to a deep purple, is a colorful choice that might be used like book ends to anchor at the ends of the border. If you prefer green go with the 3 to 4-foot ‘Lime Glow’ Barberry. Burgundy colored Barberry ‘Crimson Pigmy’ will only rise to 18 to 24-inches. At the rear of the border repeat that globe shape and color with deep purple-leafed Weigela ‘Wine and Roses’. As a bonus, this stunner will produce oodles of intense rosy-pink flowers in June and flower sporadically on current season’s growth. At maturity ‘Wine and Roses’ will reach 4 to 5-feet in height, but it can be easily pruned to reduce its size after the initial blooming. And those prunings make fabulous foliage fillers for your cut flower arrangements. If you’ve a passion for purple, repeat that shape and yummy color in the front of the border with the low growing Weigela ‘Midnight Wine’.
Shrub roses also fall into the roundy moundy category. Conard-Pyle’s brilliant red ‘Kockout’ will flower non-stop from June through frost and make a stunning companion to those burgundy leafed plants. The dainty pink polyanthus ‘Fairy’ rose is another possibility.
If bright lights turn you on, the glowing golden thread like foliage of Chamaecyparis ‘Sungold’ at a mature height of about 3-feet will give the garden a year-around shot of color. Bright yellow C. ‘Vintage Gold’ that holds to a height of 18 to 30 inches is another little treasure that will color up a full sun or part-sun border.
If you think of Spireas only in terms of the brilliant yellow harbingers of spring, get thee to a good garden center. ‘Dakota Goldcharm’ is a 12 to 15-inch dwarf gold leaf with bronze tips and pink flowers. ‘Pink Parasol’, topping out at 3-feet combines blue green leaves with big fluffy pink umbrella-like blossoms. Than there’s the vivid red 3-foot Spiraea ‘Neon Flash’. Keep these pretties dead headed and they too should re-bloom sporadically through out the summer.
When planning your new scheme, be sure to leave room for the vertical shapes in the form of grasses and shrubs.