Mixed borders: A brief history
The term “mixed border” first came into use and such beds began to be planted in the early 1900’s when gardening broke free from large estates where labor-intensive, single season beds filled spaces labeled “Spring border,” “Summer parterre,” and “Fall cutting garden.” More people were gardening on smaller properties where a single area had to have longer interest. Those gardeners wanted a little of everything but with more organization than in the old cottage garden plot. During the world wars, there were few developments. Then during the 1950’s influential writers revived the term and since then some of the best designers in the world have been fine-tuning the mixed border style.
Advantages in a good mix
Those post-war designers were intrigued by the mixed border’s potential for four-season interest, flowers, and structural plants all in a small space.
Historically, herbaceous gardens were four-month wonders dominated by annuals, and could look very sad in the off-season. Adding perennials, some with bloom seasons beginning very early and others that didn’t flower until the very end of fall, stretched that four months of color to eight. Including evergreens and woody plants with fine form could round out the year.
The mixed border style answered other needs too. Woody plants purchased large could provide significant mass, which was an immediate relief and eventual balance between the garden and background buildings or scenery. This helped to satisfy the current age’s urge for instant gratification. Promoting equal use of all plants also meant that nurseries—producers of trees and shrubs—and greenhouse operations could grow together rather than compete. Developing into garden centers and riding a 50-year wave of gardening popularity, these businesses now make it possible to buy almost anything even as they stimulate demand with displays that feature “having it all” in one garden.
Mixed beds for prolonged interest
“…early and late perennials have to be included when borders are designed for extended interest, but many people prefer to augment sparse displays of these with temporary or permanent plants from other groups—such as annuals, shrubs and bulbs. They then become mixed borders rather than herbaceous borders…”
—From The Complete Book of Gardening, edited by Michael Wright