THE best two pieces of advice I’ve ever read about designing borders came from Beth Chatto – if you want success, look at the size of your leaves.
If there’s nothing bigger than a privet leaf, it will look bitty.
The second – use vertical plants in your layout.
Both these ideas will make your border 3D – it will jump out and grab you. The eyes will pause at these ‘full-stop’ plants before carrying on to take in the rest.
I know it can be tricky to introduce big-leaved plants but be brave.
I absolutely love them, to the point that I may have too much punctuation and not enough words in my borders!
Here’s my top 10 – all herbaceous perennials, apart from the Angelica and Verbascum, which are biennial:
•Rheum palmatum (ornamental rhubarb) – From a brown crown in spring, the green leaves with purple undersides sprout from purple buds to produce a cream flower spike 8ft tall by June. Very impressive, especially near water, but plant something in front as the lower leaves get raggy as summer progresses.
•Rodgersia: Green/bronze pinnate leaves grow from a spreading crown. Elegant spires of cream/pink flowers in early summer. Goes well with the ornamental rhubarb.
•Gunnera manicata: A really folly purchase. I’m restraining it in an old turf stack. It grows to 8ft tall by 13ft or more if you let it. Leaves with diameters in excess of 4ft are common. The underside of the leaf and the whole stalk have spikes on them. Totally prehistoric looking.
•Acanthus mollis (bear’s breeches): Handsome shiny green leaves that are almost evergreen, except in bad winters. Leaves copied to form the capitals of Corinthian columns in antiquity. Purple and white hooded flowers, growing to approx 5ft.
•Globe artichoke/cardoon (Cynara cardunculus): The pair are closely related and look much the same, with large dissected, silvery foliage, rising to large, thistle-like edible flower buds/heads about 8ft high.
•Angelica: Large bipinnate leaves, growing from 3-9ft, depending on variety. Most usually grown is bright green herb Angelica archangelica, from which the young stems can be candied. A. atropurpurea, the purple form, is also popular. Umbels of white/green/pink flowers in summer. biennial, but self seeds.
•Bergenia (elephant’s ears): Probably the shortest plant here at 1ft, but invaluable throughout the year. My favourite variety is Admiral, whose large green leaves turn purple in winter, bear pink flowers in spring.
•Verbascum bombyciferum (giant mullein): Its silver, furry leaves form a rosette 3ft across and in its second year, a huge flower spike erupts, carrying a yellow candelabra of blooms up to 8ft.
•Hostas: They range in size but I love Daddy (30”), large corrugated blue leaves (15”x10”), cupped and almost round with off-white flowers.
•Ferns: My favourite is the shuttlecock, or ostrich fern. In spring, lance-shaped, sterile fronds are produced in regular ‘shuttlecocks’ up to 5ft tall, followed in mid- and late summer by smaller, more erect, darker, and longer-stalked fertile fronds, which persist over winter.