Friday, 16 August 2013

Bordering on the Sublime

With the exception of hairy bittercress, seeds take time to grow into plants. To wait several years for a plant to grow to flowering stage is relatively short, considering the decades that one must wait to see many trees even enter their adolescence. Many gardeners who know the excitement of growing from seed will also recognise the impatience and uncertainty that accompanies the early stages... When you have sown a quarter of an acre of seed in a public garden, that uncertainty could turn to outright terror!

Professor James Hitchmough sowing the Merton Borders in March 2012
Sown in the autumn of 2011 and spring of 2012, the Merton Borders have been designed by Professor James Hitchmough of the University of Sheffield. James has established several other plantings using these techniques, notably at the Olympic Park. In preparation for our project we made a visit to RHS Wisley in the summer of 2011. Here we saw a beautiful planting that had been sown three years before. We knew it could work. Nevertheless, we were watching for the first signs of life with a mixture of excitement and trepidation!

An Eremurus shoot emerges through the jute netting
Weather conditions in 2012 seemed to be conspiring against us. The first emergence of many seedlings coincided with unseasonably hot and dry conditions. The free-draining layer of sand in which the seedlings were sown had to be kept moist. A summer of heavy rain followed and by autumn the river Cherwell had escaped its banks and the greater part of the border was under water.

This water didn't quite have time to drain away before it froze. We wondered if young plants would survive all this!

There certainly had been some damage and in the spring we noticed that several species which had germinated well had been severely reduced. But this is no ordinary planting! The mix of seed contains about 100 taxa. This diverse population will find its own balance in response to the conditions of the site. Where some plants struggle, others will thrive.

The borders were showing some promise in the spring of this year. When James Hitchmough visited in early May some species already needed pre-emptive thinning. Some species were already in flower. But the borders were still looking rather sparse.

Professor Hitchmough and the Merton Borders in May 2013

The transformation over the following months has been extraordinary. Basking in the summer warmth, these delicate seedlings have erupted into an ever-changing mass of colour and life. Clouds of golden Stipa gigantea float over dense stands of electric blue Eryngium planum 'Blaukappe'. Countless bumblebees buzz through brightly coloured stands of Penstemon spp. Echinacea paradoxa and Silphium laciniatum scatter sparks of yellow across the border. Peacock and Comma butterflies have joined our human visitors in showing their appreciation. It has been worth the wait and the Merton Borders still have many surprises in store!

More information on the Merton Borders can be found on our website.


  1. I've enjoyed seeing the transformation! Here are a couple of photos I took in July: and

  2. Love that <3 Maybe you will be interested in my online shop you can create here unique flower pot :)