Kew Gardens’ bold new borders lure record visitors

Newly planted edges put the ‘garden' back in Kew — but for true success the design needs to evolve
Image of Robin Lane Fox

I am delighted to report that the longest and boldest new borders to have flowered in Britain this year are at Kew. For decades, Kew Gardens seemed to have forgotten how central the word “gardens” is to its existence. Conservation, science and protocol hijacked the garden’s priorities, but in this era of “entry charges” the public is not too keen to pay to see them. This summer, the number of paying visitors to Kew has beaten previous records. One reason is The Hive, the temporary installation which evokes the lives of ever-popular bees. Another is nearby: the pair of new herbaceous borders which run for more than 300m down either side of Kew’s famous Broad Walk.

Strolling slowly and critically, I checked out progress with the borders’ mastermind, Kew’s Richard Wilford. About 30,000 new plants had to be assembled for the design. Planting began no earlier than October 2015 and many plants were only put out this spring. Wilford observes that most of them were planted from 9cm pots, a size which impatient shoppers spurn on garden centres’ herbaceous stands. They have already begun to knit into thick swirls and drifts, a tribute to Kew’s preparation of the soil. Before any plants went in, tonnes of animal manure were carted in through Kew’s contacts with nearby London zoos. Maybe there was a dropping of cheetah in the mixture but the growth has been astonishingly profuse. The new borders are a cheering lesson to anyone beginning a new garden or revitalising an old one. Within four months a newly planted herbaceous border can look wonderfully dense. Go, look and resolve to prepare your soil as well as you possibly can.

When the borders were agreed, Kew’s trustees considered suggestions that external garden designers should be invited to compete for the job. I am pleased they rejected them and decided to let their staff do their own thing. The design of the borders was already fixed and there was little a landscape architect could add. By using homegrown talent, Kew had the chance to come up with something “new and Kew”. It will, I hope, develop in that direction.

“I had never planted herbaceous borders before,” Wilford assures me, “but I did travel to look and make up my mind.” He travelled to some of this column’s recent favourites in Britain, especially the wide borders at the Hillier gardens near Ampsfield, Hampshire. Like those, his site has no natural backdrop and so the planting has to impose its own graded height without looking patchy. As his confidence grew, Wilford opted for loose circular sweeps of planting, guided by leading lights in the herbaceous trade. He also decided that each side of the Broad Walk border should exactly mirror the other except where shade intervened. He then took a deep breath and prayed that he would have a first-class show for the public in the first year.

I applaud him and his team, Lucy Bell and Maija Ross, for what they have contrived from a blank, unframed canvas. Obviously some items have outgrown others. I would certainly have used their tall yellow-flowered silphium as a back-row plant but, oddly, it looks too dominant in its section of the planting. Visitors view the borders from the most photogenic angle, a view down its entire length. After swirling groups of tall spiky veronicastrums and flat-headed achilleas, the rampant silphium stops the eye as it looks down the bed. Wilford agrees that not every combination of colours has worked as planned. Generous groups of blue-flowered willow gentians have not asserted themselves. Clumps of a vigorous tawny-flowered Alstroemeria called Indian Summer have landed rather stiffly in one part of the front row. Borders are never designed in one go, the great myth of books on “design” and planting plans. Unlike carpets or table lamps, herbaceous plants die, run around or refuse to turn themselves on at the right moment for the general colour scheme.

Achillea Walther Funcke © Jeff Eden, RBG Kew

“I have remembered that Kew is Kew,” Wilford says, “and so I have given a distinctive Kew imprint.” I hope it may continue to evolve and emerge. The plants were agreed with Britain’s major online supplier, crocus.co.uk, and behind the choice stands the stock of top UK wholesalers, Orchard Dene Nurseries near Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, being the most evident. These specialist nurseries are well used to supplying designers who aspire to a more open “Continental” style of planting and so their lists reflect the demand for plants with see-through shapes and flowers in shades of lavender and off-pink. Looking closely at Kew’s first-year borders, I feel like a food critic asked to admire a fine display of fruit and veg from the gas-cooled chambers of a major British supermarket. Rightly, Kew’s visitor-conscious new directorate was adamant that the public must have plenty to see in year one. At present, the new borders are planned with July and August in mind.

The Kew imprint is visible less in the planting, as all the plants were bought in, than in Wilford’s notice-panels at points down the borders’ length. They give very basic facts about “seed dispersal” or the “cultivar”. “We are a scientific garden,” Wilford assures me, but I do not think these boards do the right thing in the right place. “Seed dispersal” is irrelevant to herbaceous borders of salvia and heliopsis. The boards are a throwback to the days when Kew Gardens had not much clue about gardening as beautifully practised outside its walls. “Science” belongs, if at all, on a placard at the start of the ornamental walk. If present, it ought to address the challenges of a herbaceous border.

Dianthus carthusianorum © Photographs: Jeff Eden, RBG Kew

The “Kew imprint” could then be different. For years now, Kew has been one of the world centres of the Millennium Seed Bank, a project which aims to store seeds of the world’s flora, ensuring a vital “heritage” is not lost. I continue to wonder when, if ever, much of the seed bank will ever be sown and grown. In its deep freeze, surely, are seeds of herbaceous plants which our commercial nurseries do not even know. Over the next 10 years, please can the Seed Bank be interrelated to the new borders, allowing Kew to excite us by growing its own. The borders will then delight and challenge us with new surprises, not more of the same.

They have been funded by £1.5m raised from donors. It sounds a fantastic sum, as even 30,000 wholesale plants should cost about £60,000 maximum. However, it includes a long-term resurfacing of the entire Broad Walk without a visible trace of tatty tarmac. It also includes the capital fund for hiring two new gardeners. Public gardens cost money, and Kew is showing it knows how to use it well. So here is another suggestion. In her first 100 days, our new prime minister has not been in the least afraid to kill outdated Cameroons and white elephants. She should now cull the most conspicuous, the gratuitous plan for that Garden Bridge, first proposed by a little-known landscape designer, Joanna Lumley. As letters to the FT have admirably proposed, the capital funding, or what remains of it, could be given to strengthen Kew Gardens instead. Lumley can still enjoy a new role, She can be filmed walking down Kew’s new double borders. “Absolutely Fabulous” in a proper context.

Photographs: Jeff Eden, RBG Kew

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