Planting a Narrow Border for Spring Colour

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Memories of summer may still linger, but it’s time for us gardeners to be looking forward to next year. There are bulbs to plant, perennials to divide and seed catalogues to browse. It’s like spring, only browner.

For me it’s always a race to get my spring-flowering bulbs into the ground before I head off on my annual buying trip to Asia. This effectively writes off October, which, if you followed a text book, would be fine. Narcissus and many other small bulbs should to be planted in August and September. They like to send roots out into the warm earth before winter sets in. Tulips can wait until November or early December when the ground is cold. This triggers the bulbs to start growing and prevents the bulbs from rotting before they get started.

A dressing of grit and slow-release fertiliser will help bulbs get off to a good start.
A dressing of grit and slow-release fertiliser will help bulbs get off to a good start.

Beside the path leading up to our new house, Polegate Cottage, there is a narrow strip of soil at the foot of a rather characterful wall (read into that description what you will). Long-term I’d like to re-pave the path and widen the border, but not until the builders have finished next year. In the meantime I wanted to make the entrance look more inviting and colourful without breaking the bank.

Now when I say narrow, I mean narrow. The term ‘border’ sounds rather grandiose, but I don’t know how better to describe it. At one end of the 30ft path it’s 4 inches wide, at the other 12 inches. The soil is good, having been cultivated for many years by the previous owner. In preparing the ground for my streak of planting I added horticultural grit and a slow release fertiliser. Being on chalk, we never have to worry about providing the good drainage that bulbs like, but a lighter soil will warm up more quickly in spring.

My bulbs will enjoy the warm, well drained soil at the foot of a wall
My bulbs will enjoy the warm, well-drained soil at the foot of an east-facing wall

So that there will be some synergy with The Watch House, I have chosen a selection of bulbs and bedding plants in shades of gold, copper, bronze, plum and purple. ‘Hot’ colours are a great precursor to the exotic plants that will follow next summer. I am sorry to say they were purchased from the local garden centre and not home grown, but once the greenhouse is up and running I will right that wrong and start growing bedding from seed.

My first step was to unpack and space the bulbs evenly on the surface of the soil so that an attractive rhythm will be created when the bulbs flower. Planting as soon as possible after buying is advisable – any dampness during storage can encourage mould. I chose varieties which bloom at different times so that we will enjoy flowers from February until early May:

  • Tulipa ‘Blumex’ – an orange parrot style tulip flamed with red, yellow, pink, green and blue. Late flowering.
  • Tulipa ‘Early Harvest’ AGM – an indispensible tulip with gold and orange lightly fragrant flowers. I’ve known it to bloom as early as February.
  • Narcissus ‘Professor Einstein’ – large-cupped daffodil. White with a tangerine cup.
  • Narcissus ‘Apotheose’ – a daffodil with luxurious, deep-yellow flowers with orange segments.


Setting out bedding plants before planting allows you to make adjustments to your scheme
Setting out bedding plants before planting allows you to make adjustments to your scheme

Having arranged the bulbs I positioned four Euphorbia ‘Ascot Rainbow’ to act as feature plants. These are drought tolerant perennials from the Mediterranean which will enjoy the tight squeeze at the foot of a sunny wall. The euphorbia will outlive the rest of the bedding and reward us with gold-variegated foliage year-round. As an added bonus the leaves will flush red as it gets colder and when new growth begins in spring.

Gold and orange tones will brighten the garden on the darkest of days
Gold and orange tones will illuminate the path on the darkest of days

In between the euphorbia I spaced pot-grown wallflowers and trays of violas and pansies. Hybridisation has created the ‘Sugar Rush’ strain of wallflowers which flower quickly from summer-sown seed, rewarding gardeners with flowers in both autumn and spring. As I planted them out I was propelled forward six months by their unmistakable scent.

It's best to shop early to get the pick of the crop at the garden centre
It’s best to shop early to get the pick of the bulbs at the garden centre

I am not a great lover of pansies, which usually strike me as over-hybridised, but I couldn’t resist the lushious colour of Pansy ‘Matrix Sangria’. The cheerful flowers are a wonderful damson shade with rich purple and gold markings. Violas are more my cup of tea. I always like the dark-petalled ones, so plumped for ‘Sorbet F1 Blackberry’ which has deep purple flowers that glow in the autumn sun. Like the wallflowers they are perfumed, so by springtime we should be bathed in the scents of the season.

Pansy 'Matrix Sangria' and Wallflower 'Sugar Rush Bronze'
Pansy ‘Matrix Sangria’ and Wallflower ‘Sugar Rush Bronze’

Taking into account multi-buy offers and other discounts, planting the 30ft run cost me under £60. This would have been very much less had I grown the bedding myself from seed. However, there’s no substitute for buying new bulbs every year if you want maximum flower power. Planting now, a little earlier tulips might prefer, will do the bulbs no harm. Residual warmth in the soil will allow the pansies, violas and wallflowers to establish a strong root system. A light sprinkling of slug pellets (apologies to organic gardeners, but not to snails), a thorough watering and the border was complete. I look forward to sharing with you how it grows, enduring rain, wind, frost and maybe even snow before arriving fragrant and overflowing with flowers in spring.

Planting in early October will allow the bedding to establish before the first frosts arrive
Planting in early October will allow bedding to establish before the first frosts arrive


Categories: Bulbs, Flowers, Photography, Practical Advice

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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26 comments On "Planting a Narrow Border for Spring Colour"

  1. 1000 Bulbs! I thought my 50 odd was a lot! Like Claire, you’ve inspired me to finish planting the daffs (Cheerfulness and Thalia) this weekend and then tulips in a couple of weeks. I love the Sugar Rush wallflowers and am trying some in pots near the house this year Also thank you for mentioning (on 4th Oct) that Mirabilis seeds can be purchased as I would love to try these nest year.

  2. Just goes to show what a vast difference imaginative planting can make to an unprepossessing strip. Love the idea of heralding the exotics colour in the spring planting too.

    1. Thanks Kate. I have tried more pastel colours and whites in our seaside garden, but they don’t work as well as the flame colours. In London it’s white all the way – light colours help light up the preponderance of dark green.

  3. It looks great already! I started some Wallflowers from seed this year (they were difficult to find) but I have to wait until next year to see what colour they will be. Maybe next spring when I visit England I will find these new strains of Wallflower seeds to buy and bring them back with me. There are so many things in England that I can not obtain here. Wallflowers are virtually unknown.

    1. Really? They grow wild in the cliffs at home in Broadstairs. They are mainly yellow ones, but they smell wonderful all the same. You may need to bring an extra case with you for all your finds 😉

      1. Oh I plan on leaving lots of room in my luggage to bring home some things. Although the trug that I desperately want may have to go home separately. My mother had better pack lightly too, I am going to commandeer some of her space.

      2. The whole trip is for visiting gardens. We will be staying just outside Ashford and touring around Kent and Sussex. Although if we come across a Highgrove tour we might have to jaunt across the country. Luckily Great Dixter is holding a course on one of the days that we will be in the country, so I will be booking that soon.

      3. How lovely. We are in Kent, so if you need any help with planning or ideas then let me know. I can recommend The Salutation and Goodnestone Park in our area but you will be spoiled for choice. Do check out the National Gardens Scheme website as you may just find you are here when some of the more private gardens are open. I am sure you have it all planned!!

    1. I know, it’s rather ‘in between times’ isn’t it? Do you leave stuff to enjoy its swansong or yank it out in favour of the next big thing? In my garden it gets done if and when I have time.

  4. I absolutely adore those colours together, although I might have to disagree about your ‘Ascot Rainbow’ coming from the Mediterranean. I do get your point, but I’m always amazed to see it popping up in England because it was bred in a teeny tiny village in Australia (funnily enough called Ascot), which I visited last year. You probably won’t find it is all that long lived, but enjoy it whilst you can!

    1. Yes, I read that it was an Australian hybrid, I should have left that bit in! But technically it is Mediterranean in origin. Sadly we don’t have a climate to match either part of the world, but there are clumps of Euphorbia characias on the sea front here that are taller than me. If it survives the building work I will be more than happy 🙂

  5. Thank you, that has inspired me to crack on with my spring planting plans. I love the colours you have chosen and look forward to seeing the result next spring. I have a load of budget bulbs and wallflowers this year and will see how they perform, and like you, I have to use a slug pellet or two or I lose the lot!

  6. It looks lovely! I have the exact same wallflowers flowering away right now. I didn’t realise how much more expensive daffs had become in the UK (I remembered them always being slightly cheaper than tulips). At any rate, the daffodils here have just gone over so it’s lovely to see yours being planted out now 🙂

    1. Hi Matt. This was an expensive way to buy them. 95% of what I plant I buy mail-order at sensible prices, but I didn’t plan for this little border and decided to splash out at the garden centre with vouchers I’d accumulated. Purchased direct from growers in Cornwall narcissi are really good value and there is a huge amount of choice. I am looking forward to spring when the wallflowers will really get going. I bet you are looking forward to summer? Dan

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