Thoughts on planting an SFA garden

Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

Layout

Consider how many borders can realistically be maintained in the garden not only now but in the future.  Maybe start with one if there’s nothing rather than plant up every side from the off!  Curved edges, such as half-moon borders backed by fences are more mower-friendly than 90degree angles that create hard to mow corners, as well as providing a softer contrast to the hard straight lines of the house and fence.  Are you north, south, east or west facing?  Where does the sun fall?  Where is it shady?  Inevitably this impacts on what you need to plant that will thrive.  How will a non-gardener who may move in after you cope with your design?  Where will footballs be kicked and dogs poop?  Even if these are not your consideration bear in mind you are planting for a generic population.

There are some useful tips to planting a scheme which will look good all year around. 

  • Plant in 3s and 5s, either in clusters to form a mass of one thing or spaced along a border.  This gives visual rhythm and structure. 
  • If the border is against a backdrop, e.g. fence, plant the tallest shrubs at the back of the border, unless it’s something like a chain link fence and this is essentially your neighbours view too in which case consider the bigger plants in the middle of the border and mid-level plants at the back so your neighbour also has a mixed herbaceous view.
  • A rule of thumb is to keep the height of the background as tall as the bed is deep. 
  • Put plants with similar requirements near one another, i.e. don’t put a drought loving lavender next to a moisture loving hosta.

Soil Type

The type of soil you have will effect what you can plant and how plants grow. Look around at local gardens to see what’s successful and talk to local gardeners / garden centres. 

Plants

Consider the proximity of the plants not only to your garden but to your neighbours.  If you plant a tree in the corner, will the shade in 5 years fall across someone else’s garden being the blight of that SFA?  Consider planting predominantly low-level, fast maturing and hardy shrubs and perennials.  Things that will be as high as the house in 20 years will already be too big for the garden in 5 years and there’s a risk no one will be able to take it out!  Also, will your plants survive a brutal prune, especially at the wrong time of year when new flowering buds can be chopped off?  We can’t plan for every worst case scenario but bear different factors in mind when selecting which plants to use.

Aim for year round interest with minimal weeding.  Remember the aim is reduced maintenance with maximum floral / leaf impact.  So, mostly herbaceous plants with a mix of evergreen and deciduous.  Grasses can be a great addition for year round structure, mix with flowering plants and those with interesting leaves to give year round interest. These will grow into one another to block out light below, thus provide interest from above and minimise weed growth underneath.  If you can, under plant with bulbs and intersperse with seeds.

Remember to allow plenty of space between plants when you first put in a border.  Consider their finished size, even if it looks ‘spotty’ now, they will all grow in time so too many plants too close together means more maintenance later.

Some plants can be dug up and split as they grow, thus creating free plants.  Good to know when planting up the world is the end goal!

Seeds are an incredibly cheap way of adding flowers to a garden, and beloved of children as they cover the windowsills in pots and watch the fruits of their labours. 

Bulbs

If you normally buy bulbs for your pots this is an excellent place to start; spend the same amount of money and put them in the ground.  If you can stretch to a couple of herbaceous plants on top then you have started gardening with minimal additional cost!  Bulbs work well in SFA because they can’t be chopped down (famous last words!) but beware planting them straight into lawns because if they are mown over too quickly after flowering the nutrients do not reinvigorate the bulbs to flower next year. 

Weeding

The aim is to end up with a minimal weed scenario.  Therefore, herbaceous borders where the plants grow together and block out light on the ground below will mean there’s much less weeding in the future.

If you are able to get hold of wood chip from your local DIO contractor, this is an excellent weed suppressant and holds moisture in the earth over dry summers whilst slowly breaking down to add nutrients to the soil.  Compost can also add good nutrients but remember compost has to have gotten really hot to kill off weeds and seeds you don’t want to spread on your flowerbeds.  Lots of councils have cheap compost and you can’t leave a compost bin in your SFA so maybe veer away from trying to make it at home. 

Veggies

One of the perks of an early-years border is the space between plants where you can plant veggies or other annuals.  If you think veggies and plants look odd together consider the French style of gardening called ‘potagers’ which is essentially this; planting vegetable patches that look like borders!  It’s about the colour of leaves and flowers…and the joy of gardening!

DE Gardeners encouraging the development of allotments so if you want to explore growing veggies more, make enquiries about what’s available in your area.

What not to plant in an SFA

This is a suggested starting point, not an exhaustive list.  There may be local DIO restrictions and changes to national guidelines on illegal plants. 

Illegal plants (goes without saying!)

Giant hogweed, Japanese knotweed, Himalayan balsam

Common UK plants banned in EU since 2016: (www.plantlife.org.uk)

American skunk-cabbage (Lysichiton americanus), Carolinea Watershield (Cabomba Caroliniana), Curly Waterweed (Lagarosiphon major), floating pennywort (Hydrocotyle ranunculoides), Parrot’s Feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum), water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), Water Primrose (Ludwigia grandiflora & ludwigia peploides),

Advisory plants

NameReason
Herbaceous aconitesPoisonous
LeylandiiGrows too fast and sucks all the goodness from the ground
Giant HogweedToxic sap
RueToxic sap
LaburnumPoisonous seeds
BambooGrows too fast and spreads too far, incredibly hard to remove

Climbers

Avoid vigorous cllmbers such as Polygonum, Virginia creeper, any Clematis with ‘montana’ in the title!  Although people want to cover fences ASAP the reality of this program is that someone is going to have to battle the rabid growth of a vigorous plant in years to come so anything too vigorous will get out of hand in the future, whilst probably not covering the fence fast enough for the initial occupant.

Excessively big trees

In limited space, avoid large park trees such as sycamore, oak, lime, ash, horse chestnut, willows, wild cherry, sweet chestnut etc. The rationale is to prevent shading and leaf drop.  However, if you are lucky enough to have a huge garden (or can sneak a lovely tree into an amenity space) the world needs more of these!

Example Planting Schemes

Plant what you love and garden for the love of being outdoors in nature.  Local soil conditions will effect what works for you. 

As an example this is a list of the plants the initial pilot proposed to make up boxes of ‘starter garden packs’.    These are chosen for being low-level, fast maturing, hardy and easy to grow which, when mixed, provide year round form, colour and smell.  This is not to restrict you in any way, just to get you started if you don’t know where to start!

Plant NameSizeProperties
Phlox Paniculata    H90cmImposing border plant flowering Jul-Sep
Catmint (Nepeta Faassenii)  H 60-80cmDwarf & compact with light purple-blue flowers in summer.  (Cheaper, hardier & lower maintenance than lavender)
Festucca (Glauca Elijah Blue)  H40cmGrass; Blue foliage with brown plumes
Miscanthus (Indian summer)H1.5mGrass; bright orange and yellow feathery stems last through summer and autumn  
Philadelphus (Virginal)  H2.5mScented double white flowers
Sedum (Autumn Joy)  H&W 60cmPink flowers in summer turning red in autumn
Hebe (Dwarf evergreen veronica)  H&W 60cmEvergreen
Geranium (Magnificum ‘Rosemoor’)  H&W 50cmDense carpet of violet flowers in mid-summer.  Can be split after a couple of years.
Hellebores (Niger)  H30-40cmFlowers Dec-Mar, evergreen after first year.
Choisya (Tenata Goldfinger)  H&W 1.5mEvergreen.  Finger shaped fragrant foliage of bright yellow, orange scented white blossom late spring & again late summer
Salvia Nemorosa  60cm flower spikesUpright border perennial flowering profusely Jun-Sept
Heuchera (Lime Marmalade)  H40cmMasses yellow-green foliage, evergreen.  Flowers May-Sept.  Can be split.
Heuchera (Palace Purple)H37cmWhite flowers, deep purple to bronze leaves.  Compact.  Evergreen.  Can be split.  
Verbena Bonariensis  H 2mClusters of purple flowers on tall stems Jun-late oct.  Fabulous throughout border, growing up between denser shrubs to provide light touch of colour floating above the border. 
Lavender (Hidcote)  H 60-80cmCommon blue variety
Sage (Purple)  H80cm W1mEvergreen, with early summer  lilac-blue flowers.  Appropriate in border as well as dedicated herb bed.
Rosemary  H1.5mEvergreen herb with small purple flowers in summer.  Scented leaves.  Can grow huge, respond well to pruning. Excellent structure in border as well as part of herb bed.
Thyme   Low bushy evergreen, scented leaves, small white / blue flowers in summer.  Good ground cover in border as well as part of herb bed.

Happy Gardening!