One of the regular jobs that we do at Chartwell around this time of year is to cut down a lot of our herbaceous perennial plants. These are plants which persist from year to year for more than 2 years (the perennial part of the description) but have non-woody stems that die back each year only for new growth to grow again from the base (the herbaceous bit). Some have woody stem bases but most die back to below ground level. They survive the harsh Winter weather by using the food stored in their underground root system.
The Herbaceous Border at Chartwell can be found running along one of the walls in Kitchen Garden. It is here that we have recently been working, cutting back and clearing and dead plant materials and then mulching the area with our own compost. This mulch will not only make the border look tidier, it also helps to conserve moisture, suppress weeds and improve the structure of the soil.
Popularized in the late 19th Century, herbaceous borders were traditionally planted only with herbaceous perennials in drifts, with smaller plants in the front and the taller plants at the back. We have been a little more free-form with our herbaceous border as it includes both climbing and shrub roses, grasses and bulbs for instance. Our Gardens & Estate Manager Giles is also currently in the process of replanting parts of the border so you will hopefully notice some changes when you come to view it in all its glory during the coming Spring and Summer.
The time to cut back herbaceous perennials is not set in stone. It can be done in the Autumn as soon as soon as flowering is finished or as late as Spring just before the new growth begins. Here at Chartwell we often retain the ‘dead’ flower and seed heads of some of our plants for a while for a number of reasons. Firstly, for their own stark beauty, secondly for their benefit to the local wildlife as either a habitat for insects or food for birds, and thirdly for their stunning aesthetic when covered in frost. This is especially the case in the Winter Border where we have left the brown, brittle flower heads of the likes of Asters and Sedums for these reasons, as seen below: