Planting a Narrow Border for Spring Colour


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