The Sunny Border

Spanning the entire length of the terraces the Sunny Border has evolved over a known period from 1928 to the present day. The chief colour scheme of blues, purples, yellows, silvers and whites developed simultaneously with it.

It was redesigned in 1985 by Preben Jacobson (1934-2012) a Danish-born Landscape Architect. Prior to his redesign, the border had all but stood still since the death of Dorothy Elmhirst in 1968, simply being tended to but not developed or altered.

Jacobson modernised and enlivened the border, bringing order and repetition; introducing two Lutyen style benches, replacing the simple midway ‘monks’ style seat that had been before.

Jacobsen created two planting schemes, A and B which make up four repeat units. Pattern A, begins at the opposite end to the twelve apostles, and pattern B begins after the first buttress. The patterns are then repeated along the border.

Sketch of Pattern A layout, Sunny Border
Sketch of Pattern A layout, Sunny Border

All gardens have their successes and failures, and this border is no different. The western end is hot and dry with the roots of the great Lucombe Oak behind drawing away all moisture, whilst at the eastern or (Buddha end) it is shaded by the Twelve Apostles (row of trimmed Yew trees opposite).

It is the middle-ground, perhaps, were the plants can be seen growing strongest and at their best.

Great efforts are taken to maintain the colour scheme. The Spiraea Japonica (‘Golden Princess’), for example, is planted here for its beautiful lime yellow foliage, but needs regular trim several times a season to keep the pink flowers from making an appearance.

Dorothy Elmhirst – wife of Leonard and founder of Dartington Hall from 1925 – lovingly worked this border, taking guidance from garden designers H A Tipping, Percy Cane and Beatrix Farrand, up until her death in 1968.

H A Tipping, a garden designer influenced by the naturalistic style of William Robinson, was enlisted to landscape the grounds immediately around the main buildings, and was instructed to raise the height of the sunny border wall, thus making safe the grounds above.

It was at this same time that Stewart Lynch became the Gardens Superintendent, and set about laying out a path and planting up the border.

Dorothy began to garden. Her diaries and detailed sketches of the border, showed how she learnt year on year what colour combinations worked and what didn’t.

During these early stages the Sunny Border contained annuals, shrubs and herbaceous perennials. The walls were clothed with Roses, Mandevilla and Clematis armandii.

Pinks and reds resided here too – in the form of Escalonia, crimson snapdragons and Monarda ‘Cambridge Scarlet’, as Dorothy notes: “Border surprisingly good – effect of yellow & mauve & white – touches of red”.

Later in the same piece she states: “Browssa (Verbascum) is still an amazement – with yellow Antirrhinums clustered around it – like its offspring – the effect is enchanting”.

1943 extract from Dorothy Elmhirst's garden notes
1943 extract from Dorothy Elmhirst’s garden notes

Dorothy’s passion for the border was remarkable in light of her high society background. It is unlikely that before Dorothy came to Dartington that she would have ever gardened or got her hands dirty.

It is clear from all Dorothy’s records that she loved this garden and in particular the Sunny Border. She passionately stated what she felt worked and what didn’t – and as all passionate gardeners do, planned for the year ahead, ever learning:

“Too much Achillea ‘The Pearl’… Dictamnus suffocated – anyway wrong in colour… extend lilies to where Larkspur is and put Santolina in front of Nepeta.” (Extract: Dorothy Elmhirst, garden notes)

So, as the border continues to evolve, the gardens team will carefully look at areas where the pattern has broken down and re-plant, remove plantings that have all but died out and introduce colours that are lacking where others dominate.

Feeding and mulching to help combat the challenging conditions of the sun-baked soil over shadier spots, and overall enhancing the beauty of the border for all to enjoy.

More Gardens history