Painting with Perennials
Amateur Gardening|March 27, 2021
Recreate the soft, romantic ‘chocolate box’ styles of the Victorian era by planting your perennials in a more ‘painterly way’ as suggested by Anne Swithinbank
Anne Swithinbank

LONG stems of campanula strung with shimmering pastel bells, the towering secondary flower stems of mauve delphiniums and hovering primrose plates of Achillea are the painterly flowers of dreamy herbaceous borders. Pretty cottages surrounded by billowing beds are often referred to as ‘chocolate box’, perhaps because from the 1860’s, watercolours by artists such as Myles Birket Foster (1825-1899) were used by Cadburys to decorate their chocolate box covers.

Looking back to a sentimental, rural idyll of the countryside was a backlash against a high Victorian fashion for formality. Gardens dominated by terraces of gaudy bedding plants were criticised by the likes of William Robinson whose book The English Flower Garden, published in 1883, encouraged covering the soil with a matrix of longer-lasting plants with a relaxed, natural habit. Many were herbaceous perennials; nonwoody plants that die back in winter but grow again in spring.

This nostalgic style remains popular and many a gardener has stood back in awe at the softness and texture their planting has produced, almost by accident. Robinson worked with the artist Alfred Parsons (1847-1920) who influenced some of the planting at Robinson’s home, Gravetye Manor in Sussex and believed artists were well placed to design gardens. Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) was a painter and watercolourist before turning her talents to gardens and planting plans.

Creating useful corner beds

Designers of the Arts and Crafts and Edwardian periods understood the need for solid backdrops of honeyed stone, mellow brick or clipped hedges to offset their palette of plants. To copy this in smaller plots, make use of existing walls, sheds and gate pillars, perhaps adding squares of paving for a sundial or large terracotta pot.

To create useful corner beds, try running trellis or hedging at right angles to the boundary. Critics of traditional herbaceous borders complain of nothing to see in winter, but I’ve never minded this ebb and flow of growth and in any case,1 most gardeners now leave stems and seed heads in place until February to benefit wildlife and maintain outlines. Where year-round interest is a must, use perennials in mixed borders where shrubs, bulbs and perhaps even a few bedding plants add to the show.

9 perennials for billowing borders

Calamintha nepeta subsp. nepeta ‘Blue Cloud’ This catmint makes rounded clumps of aromatic fragrant foliage topped with clouds of mauve-blue flowers from summer to autumn, attracting plenty of bees and butterflies. H x S: 18in (45cm).

Sidalcea ‘Elsie Heugh’ AGM The false or prairie mallows are old-fashioned border flowers, loved for their midsummer spikes of saucer-shaped, papery-thin pink flowers. Sun, well-drained soil and early support ensure a good display. H: 3ft (1m) S: 18in. (45cm).

Achillea ‘Moonshine’ AGM A sun-loving yarrow whose feathery greygreen foliage makes the perfect foil for flattened flower heads up to 6in (15cm) across from June to September. Their soft lemon shade seems to shimmer at dusk. H x S: 24in (60cm).

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