How to plant a National Trust style herbaceous border

Colourful summer borders in the gardens at Nymans, West Sussex.

Colourful summer borders in the gardens at Nymans, West Sussex - Credit: ©National Trust Images/John Miller

Joe Whelan, National Trust head gardener at Nymans in Handcross, West Sussex, shares his top tips for cultivating a showstopping summer border in your own back garden 

Nymans lures garden lovers year-round to view its stunning garden set around the romantic house and ruins. In summer, its vibrant herbaceous borders are the stars of the show.  
‘They are a riot of colour, mixing annuals with tender and hardy perennials - a slightly alternative take on the more traditional herbaceous border that was originally created,’ says head gardener Joe Whelan. 

Joe Whelan, head gardener at Nymans

Joe Whelan, head gardener at Nymans - Credit: Toby Phillips

A huge amount of hard work goes into creating the displays but with a some expert guidance, the results will be well worth it.  
'It’s never really a complete picture,’ says Joe. ‘Throughout summer, and well into autumn, we’re constantly adding fillers, cutting things back to promote a second flush and noting what plant combinations do and don’t work. 
Follow Joe’s top tips for recreating a Nymans style herbaceous border... 

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Choose your space wisely. ‘It’s easier to find a wider variety of colourful perennials for a full sun position,’ says Joe. ‘However, you can create an interesting combination in a shady spot too, using a more limited palate with ferns, for example. You can create something in the smallest of spaces, and even a large pot.’ 

Colourful summer borders in the gardens at Nymans, West Sussex.

The summer borders in the gardens at Nymans, West Sussex, are a riot of colour. Head gardener Joe's favourite plants that are featured are Dahlia ‘David Howard’ and ‘Dove Grove’, as well as annuals Spinosa ‘Violet Queen’ and Cosmos ‘Cupcakes’. - Credit: ©National Trust Images/John Miller

Pick varieties that add a wow factor. ‘The summer borders are a combination of annuals, tender and hardy perennials,’ says Joe. ‘Perennials include Veronicastrum virginicum, Heleniums and Echinops. All are easy to source and grow and are a magnet for bees. You can also be creative and give them a Chelsea chop in late spring or allow them to grow naturally depending on your needs. 
‘Annuals include Antirrhinum, Cleome, Coreopsis, Cosmos, Tagetes and Zinnia. Cosmos, Coreopsis and Tagetes are very easy to get going and do well in pots because their roots don’t spread too far.’ 

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Put the work into the planning. You’ll need a paper and pencil at the ready to sketch out a design but Joe says to keep it flexible. ‘What seems good on paper can often not translate brilliantly when it comes to planting,’ he says. ‘We also grow all of the annuals on-site and depending on the seasonal temperatures, some things will do much better than others. The Dahlias form the backbone of the borders with regards to the annual planting and then we add combinations of annuals around them. However, during planting this is when you can start mixing things up further.’ 

Colourful summer borders in the gardens at Nymans, West Sussex

The vibrant summer borders in the gardens at Nymans, West Sussex, have a mosaic effect - Credit: ©National Trust Images/John Miller

Plant for a mosaic effect. Part of the reason why the flowers in the borders at Nymans catch the eye is that they appear to look like they are planted in groups to create a patchwork effect of colour - the secret to this is learning how to scale. ‘Start with your feature plants such as a Dahlias or Cannas,’ says Joe. ‘Next, add perennials or annuals in groups of three, five or seven.’ 

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Master the Chelsea crop to add structure. ‘Traditionally, all the perennials on the summer borders were supported with hazel pea-sticks,’ says Joe. ‘However last year, as a result of the pandemic and with us only having a skeleton crew on-site, we gave them a Chelsea chop instead because we didn’t have time to create the supports. This is where perennials are chopped back by about a third, with secateurs or shears, in late May or early June.  
‘It was something we did out of necessity, but we loved the results and are doing the same this year, albeit with a bit more finesse. The plants are now mostly self-supporting, and they also flower later in the season when the annuals are too. Dahlias and larger annuals can be staked using a bamboo cane and twine.’ 

All that’s left to do is enjoy your National Trust worthy display. To find out more about visiting the gardens at Nymans, see