Most gardens that I visit have a few borders which are really narrow, some perhaps just 30cm (1’) to 45cm (18”). This may be because modern houses tend to have smaller gardens and many clients need (often if they have young children) as big a lawn as possible – so borders get rather squashed between the lawn and the fence. In front gardens, often the gap between the drive and the boundary is a narrow strip of border. Or clients want to grow plants in narrow planting gaps by house walls or up a section of trellis that is screening the shed.
Often the issue is how to get a nice plant coverage up to a certain height in order, for example, to soften a boring run of fence, but without the planting taking up too much horizontal space and growing all over the lawn, drive etc.
Most people automatically look to climbing plants such as Clematis or Honeysuckle to provide the solution to this planting dilemma. The problem with this is that many climbers don’t actually give a very good coverage, and more fundamentally, they need quite a bit of water to thrive – and many narrow borders, particularly by house walls, can be very dry.
Some Ideas to Explore
In my experience, a more satisfactory solution can normally be found by planting suitable shrubs, and training them if/as required. Yes, this might take a bit of maintenance, but no more than a climber would need, and the results can be stunning. Plants such as Viburnum x burkwoodii, Osmanthus x burkwoodi, Rhamnus alaterna ‘Argenteo Variegata’, and Choisya can all be grown as simple wall shrubs and pruned to keep them the right size and shape.
The large leaved evergreen Cotoneasters such as ‘Cornubia’ and ‘Exburyensis’ can also be grown in this way, as can plants like Garrya, but will need a few anchor points to help them stay close to the fence. Better still, grow them as informal fans or espaliers (with wires on the fence if needed), which will highlight their attractive leaves and showcase their berries (or tassels) in winter. Some plants can be purchased already part-trained on frames/trellis (e.g. Garrya, Euonymus japonicus), although plants like the Cotoneasters grow quite fast, so there is no need to go to the expense of buying one on a frame.
Another option is to plant a hedge and keep it narrow. Plants such as Beech and Hornbeam can be kept very narrow, although of course, you do need to remember to trim them. If there is space, a few Cyclamen or Hellebores could be planted at the base of the hedge. And some plants are just naturally upright and narrow (fastigiate) e.g. Juniperus ‘Skyrocket’ and some Pittosporums. If you really want climbers, well how about letting a Clematis viticella scramble through (and be supported by) a Viburnum or Pittosporum, or…
And lastly, of course, plants are not the only possible solution. Boundary and house walls and fences can be all adorned with ornamental trellis, or wall features, or indeed water features.
So, narrow borders by walls and fences are perhaps not as challenging as you might think!
Image credits: MartinThoma, Wikimedia, Wouter Hagens, Wikimedia, Myrabella, Wikimedia, Salix, Wikimedia, Scott Zona, Wikimedia, Derek Harper, Geograph, JJ Harrison, Wikimedia, Rasbak, Wikimedia, Martin Hinner, Wikimedia, Monika Wiedemann, Wikimedia