Perennials Prevent Weeds

Late Summer Sensations In the Perennial Meadow Garden

Perennial Meadows Although I have had to neglect my trial gardens on the edge of Amsterdam this year following a decision to move house and all that involved, it is surprising just how well they have grown and how little work it has been to keep them looking good.

King_140827_13743The key to successful perennial planting is not only choosing the right plants but planting enough of them. My borders were planted densely in the first instance as these gardens are where I trial the plants I write about and design with, but as the borders mature the planting densities become even higher. The result is that there is little room left for weeds to become established.

Perennial MeadowsThere are some borders in my garden that have not changed for more than ten years and every year they seem to become easier to maintain; we are talking about less work than an hour per year in some cases.

Perennial MeadowsFour years ago I planted up two similar long borders and in the first year the mulches were essential to keep down the weeds. This year with no time to spare they have had to fend for themselves and apart from the occasional towering example of nettle or willow herb that seemed to have appeared overnight, there has been little else to deal with.

Perennial MeadowsEstablishing a balance between the various plants we include in our planting scheme is never easy and involves a lot of trial and error, but when it works life becomes a lot easier. That is not to say you have nothing to do. The new double borders contain a fine umbellifer, Cenolophium denudatum, which after a slow start has now decided to set seed possibly too enthusiastically. I need to watch it and this summer decided to remove all the seedheads before they matured – it was actually beginning to look untidy so the borders looked better after the half hour I found for the task.

Perennial MeadowsPlants compete with one another and we as gardeners need to referee. Sometimes I favour the thugs and allow them to take over, but in other cases some plants need to be controlled by reducing their spread every year or so – Inula hookeri is a case in point; I wouldn’t be without it, but it is a strong competitor.

Perennial Meadows with shrubsThe shrubs I have been adding to my borders in recent years are beginning to play a role; in some cases too much of one and this is again something I will eventually teach myself to understand and work with. Without the weeds, nature becomes something fun and enjoyable to play with.

Shrubs and perennials

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Maintaining Perennial Meadow Plantings

Amsterdam trial gardenMy trial gardens on the edge of the city of Amsterdam have taken a back seat in my life this year following the decision to move house. After months of viewing properties, packing and unpacking boxes of possessions and endless trips to furniture showrooms it is finally time to return to gardening and assess how well, or not, things have faired.

King_140827_13721Gardening this summer has taken on more the form of a series of kamikaze raids than the leisurely pursuit that the hobby magazines would have us believe in. Visits to the gardens have involved a dash around with the watering can followed by frenzied  snatches at towering weeds and ruthless attacks with secateurs at anything encroaching on a path be it flower or flail.

King_140827_13743Regular rain in the second half of summer following a mild spring and none existent winter has meant that everything in the garden has grown larger than our gardening books and nursery catalogues would lead us to expect. To say my gardens are full to overflowing would not be an understatement, but surprisingly things are just about under control and I am sure that by next year I will feel more relaxed.

King_140827_13781Faced with serious limitations upon the time I had for gardening this year has made me focus on what is really important and necessary to keep up a decent garden display. Yes, there are more weeds around the edges of the borders and paths than I would like to see but there were ways of dealing with them that did not involve hours of kneeling, nor have I felt the need to resort to weedkillers. Understanding how plants grow in garden situations and focussing on the essential tasks of managing them should allow us all to create extensive perennial planting schemes that are possible to maintain over the changing patterns of our lives. Sometimes compromises will have to be made and acceptance of inevitable natural processes, but in the end, a more satisfying gardening experience should surely be possible.

In the following series of posts I will endeavour to summarise my thinking following my summer of neglect.


This was the garden in the previous summer:


And this is the same area this year:

Panicum 'Northwind'


King_140827_13691All in all the differences are not that great apart from a few weeds around the edges that have been carefully excluded from my camera’s view.

sedum roof and perennial meadowsAnd, here is the situation in front of my new home where the wrong plants have been used and not managed properly. The perennial borders are overrun with perennial weeds and the sedum carpet over the garage roof is infiltrated with weeds. The contractors plan to kill everything with weedkiller and cover it all with lawn; one mistake to follow another – it could have so easily been so much better.


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Grasses – the current state of play

_DSC8224The introduction of ornamental grasses into planting plans was one of the most significant changes to occur within garden design in the past twenty years. Through their inclusion amidst an evolving planting pallet of perennials, contemporary gardens took on a naturalistic feel, far removed from the stiff block plantings of traditional herbaceous borders; grasses introduced an informal air with strong associations with wild nature.

grass_scan105The distinctive characteristics that set grasses apart from the other plants that we grow in our gardens results in them having a powerful influence wherever they are used and this brings with it both advantages and dangers. Their presence within your planting schemes will never go unnoticed and invariably leads to powerful associations and significant contrasts.

grass_scan114Most of us associate grasses with the countryside and therefore their presence in our planting schemes triggers a sense of informality. This suggests that to use grasses in a formal arrangement is going against their true character and will lead to problems. As a rule this is true, but it can also be a rule to break when exploiting their other qualities of distinctive forms, textures and foliage colours.

Designing with grasses requires an ability to balance these somewhat conflicting characteristics and being aware that every single grass in your designs must be placed with extreme care.

_DSC7464From a position of total obscurity in the 1980s to their heyday as the most trendy plants in the 1990s grasses are now finding their rightful place in our planting designs. Used with sensitivity they can be used to weave together mixed perennial planting schemes into evocative perennial meadows, but often just a few plants in a scheme will be enough to develop the appropriate emotional response.

King_110818_157Contrasts in planting design are fundamental, but need balancing with areas of harmony. When grasses are planted in masses or used as the dominant theme in a mixed planting scheme, their characteristic shapes introduce zones of harmony. Alternatively single specimens of bold grasses can stand out within their settings making striking contrasts with any broad leaved plants nearby.

_DSC5897One mistake too often seen is a designer lining up bold upright grasses to form barriers in their landscapes. When deliberate such arrangements make bold design statements, but without care can also introduce disruptive elements that divide up garden space that do not call for such organisation.

King_110712_038Many ornamental grasses both short and tall are capable of bringing impact to contemporary planting schemes and learning how best to use them in a variety of different situations and for different reasons needs to be mastered by both keen gardeners and professional garden designers in equal measure.

My online gardening courses at MyGardenSchool offer students the opportunity to work directly with me in discovering the secrets of gardening with grasses. The four video lectures are followed by weekly assignments that give us the opportunity to discuss your own projects and address some interesting design challenges. In this way, by tackling real assignments you will learn far more than simply reading a book. My last online horticultural course for this summer begins on June 7. Since grasses should not be divided or planted in the autumn or winter now is perhaps the time to introduce them into your own planting schemes.

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Chelsea Show Gardens – teach us nothing

I have just finished watching the BBC’s daily reports on the Chelsea Flower Show 2014 and I must say that the new presenter, Monty Don, has significantly improved the standard of debate and analysis of the various plants and gardens featured.

2_thumbThe one interview he conducted with Thomas Heatherwick really struck home with me when they discussed the need to curate the show garden exhibits. The point Thomas Heatherwick made was that individually they had merit but together they offered no message or theme.

DSC_0173_thumbI have visited the Chelsea Flower Show on and off for more than thirty years and can hardly remember more than a handful of gardens that were shown. Because the gardens are the product of a single designer working with their sponsor they are all different; the variety this produces is entertaining, but as isolated examples of individual expression they are quickly forgotten by we onlookers.


A curated exhibition investigates a theme and shows how different artists interpret it. If instead of a free for all, the Royal Horticultural Society were to choose a tangible theme for each show, the show gardens could display a range of different approaches to the challenge and together provide a platform for informed debate and analysis.

By using the show gardens in this way the RHS could inform and inspire both designers and visitors and thereby move the possibilities offered by garden design forward. At the moment every designer needs to invent a theme for themselves upon which to base their design, but as we often see, the best designs come about when a challenge or restraint is imposed to which the designer must respond.

The gardens made for Chelsea are five day wonders with little afterlife. If instead they all conformed to a given theme, they could come together, perhaps in the form of a book, that would analyse the design challenge and show how different designers had responded to it. But for this to work the annual themes would need to be tangible and practical rather than intellectual and obscure: water and fire, contemporary formality, naturalism, four season planting schemes, commercial front gardens, outdoor living, roof gardens, vertical gardening etc..

At the moment it seems that sponsors determine what we see at the Chelsea Flower Show; isn’t it time that the RHS took control and allowed their show gardens to move forward the boundaries surrounding gardens and garden design?

Thank you to MyGardenSchool for the use of the photos in this post. And if you would like to see more about this year’s Chelsea be sure to check out their own blog posts here.

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Colours Gather Strength in the Perennial Meadows Garden

In my previous post I celebrate the colour green; now others are challenging its supremacy.

Geum and Geranium King_140503_12751 King_140503_12811

Here and there shrubs now rise above my perennial meadows bringing exciting new forms and contrasts to the looser plant material that surrounds them.

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Complementary plants form part of my perennial meadow planting schemes and are there to serve an number of important functions; one of these is Geranium tuberosum which covers the ground in early spring with low, finely divided foliage and then a few weeks later adds a wash of blue to the borders. It vanishes shortly after flowering, but by then it has done its job by extending the border’s season of interest. In summer this border will be an oasis of green amidst the surrounding colours of the rest of the garden. At ground level hostas and epimediums will eventually cover the surface and above them will float the flower heads of tall-growing Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea grasses.

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Euphorbia palustris makes a bold contribution and creates the perfect setting for the alliums which have seeded themselves throughout this long established border. My neighbour’s Tamarix shrub makes a short but welcome background to the composition.

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