Community Planting

Mixed PerennialsHere is the small border at the entrance to my trial gardens in Amsterdam. It has been the same for more than ten years and requires less than an hours maintenance per year.

Plants live together in communities sharing the same space and resources. Over time conditions change and when this happens, it will favour one of them more than the others. The community adapts and maybe one species becomes more evident than others, but together they coexist, each finding a niche within the total community by taking advantage of a specific aspect of the available resources and thereby maintaining their position within it.

Mixed PerennialsWhen designing a so-called naturalistic planting scheme, our aim is to create a community of plants in which the balance between its different components is retained over time. Over time maybe one species will grow strong at the expense of its neighbours and, as designers, we will realise that our original mixture of plants was not so perfectly balanced as we had hoped. We have just two choices here: either we replant the weaker species each year to maintain the visualised design, or we accept the adapting mix of species and follow its progress for as long as it still fulfils our general design objectives.

Mixed PerennialsMy entrance border has been used over the years for trialling many plants. I also added some trees and large growing shrubs which over time have dramatically altered the available growing conditions there. Today this border has reached a sort of equilibrium in which what grows there can grow there as long as I, as the gardener, take certain steps each year to maintain the look I find acceptable.

Mixed PerennialsIn this specific case a mix of tough ground-covering perennials and bulbs have found their niche in the dry soil amongst the roots of the shrubs and trees, but there is one exception. A wild aster had seeded itself into this border many years ago. In flower this aster is tall and airily attractive, but it is an aggressive spreader, both by seed and root. In a fertile garden border such a plant would become an intolerable weed, but here it must fight for its existence. Inevitably though it is stronger growing than its neighbours and this is where I as the gardener come in. In mid summer I walk through the border and remove by pulling most of its stems, leaving just a few at the rear of the border to flower. Again in early winter I give this border its annual tidy-up and rigorously pull up every one of the aster’s stems; what remains are the roots which facilitate its reappearance the following spring.

Naturalistic garden borders are not wild plant communities, but rather artificially conceived evocations of nature. As designers and then gardeners the ways we manage them will determine their aesthetic appeal. In the case of my entrance border, were I to allow the aster its freedom it would come to dominate the ground layer at the expense of its more attractive neighbours.

Mixed PerennialsUnderstanding how plant communities adapt and evolve over time is crucial to establishing successful naturalistic planting schemes including both mixtures of perennials and also trees and shrubs.

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Red Tulips when needed

Red Darwin tulipsNaturalistic planting and especially the prairie planting variant can look very flat and green in spring. Often these schemes are filled with perennials that flower in summer and look wonderful with ornamental grasses, but in spring they are green.

Red Darwin tulipsRed is the complementary colour to green and tulips are one of the ways to introduce it into the spring garden. The strong contrast of these two colours means that a few red tulips go a long way to adding that wow factor to a mixed perennial meadow scheme in spring that might otherwise look overtly green.

Red Darwin tulipsIn my earlier post I showed how my trial garden needed an extra boost at this time of the year following repeated attacks by mice and voles- here .

Last autumn I planted groups of twenty, widely-spaced tulips in some of the garden’s borders. Had mice not eaten some, the effect would be better, but even so, they have made an impact.

Red Darwin tulipsCrown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis) are said to deter rodents and in the few places I have combined them this year, it seems to have worked. This is far from a conclusive trial as there are also borders where without the Crown Imperials the tulips have been left alone and are now flowering. But next year I will press on with the trial and hopefully extend the area planted.

Red Darwin tulipsI love other colours of tulips, but for this time I have used only red. Darwinhybrid Group tulips are the most persistent and bold. ‘Red Impression’ is an exceptionally early flowerer in this group and these were planted in the same hole as ‘Parade’ which is almost identical, but flowers two weeks later. Other borders contain finer tulips such as rich crimson ‘Jan van Zanten’ and the maroon and gold stars of ‘Aladdin’, but these are not likely to return and will need to be replanted each year.

Red Darwin tulipsIf I can solve my mice/vole problem I will return to the full range of tulips in many colours from the very early, jewel-like flowerers through to the dramatic, tall Single Late Group, but for now just a few bold red flowers have made a great improvement to my spring garden.

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Time to tidy up the Mixed Perennial Garden

Perennial meadow garden in winterThis was my garden ten days ago wearing its late winter clothes of dead grass “stems” and perennials with their seed heads. Normally I try and tidy the garden in late winter (February) as it catches precotious cool-season grasses and other perennials before they starts growing. Such an early start is also important as it allows me to walk over the borders without standing on emerging spring-flowering bulbs. This year’s cool wet winter made entering the borders, so early, impossible , however, the perennials are slow to start growing as a result, so no harm has been done.

Perennial meadow garden in winterI try to avoid carrying all the bulky dead stems to the compost heap. Instead I break the stems with my hands into short sticks and allow them to fall to the ground around the crowns of the plants. Just a few plants have tough stems and need cutting into pieces with secateurs. The long tough stems of mischanthus grasses I line out under the garden’s boundary hedges. All of this dead material decomposes naturally, nourishing the plants and inhibiting weeds.

Perennial meadow garden in winterSome might find the result of my efforts untidy, but within a few short weeks all of the debris is hidden under the emerging foliage of the densely planted perennials in this meadow garden.

Perennial meadow garden in winterBulbs are the saviours of the season in the perennial meadow garden especially daffodils in this early period. Dotted here and there around the garden they make pleasant incidents, but by concentrating some in one border a more eye-holding display can play an important role in the overall appearance of the garden space.

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Winter was just one cold week

winter foliage

One week of frosty weather seems to be all that our winter in Amsterdam is going to be this year. A year in which every weather record has been broken and ended unusually warm and wet.


The forecasts suggest that I can start tidying the garden next week. I see that some of my neighbours are already busy, but the soil is very wet and I need to wait for at least a week of dry sunshine before scrambling about in the borders chopping and hacking at the dead stems.

winter foliage

When the winter tidy-up finally starts it is always a moment of despair and hope. The textures of so many perennials continue to enrapture me, but they must go to make way for the new year’s growth. This year I will have a bold display of red tulips throughout the entire garden which is something special to work towards.

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Melancholy in Early Winter

Perennial Meadow Amsterdam

Winter has started; it is warm and wet, calm and mellow, but with a hint of melancholy.

Were the sun to shine the garden would sparkle, but when it doesn’t the line between order and chaos is finely drawn.

From now on until the end of winter we tidy away anything that flops or hangs untidily, but otherwise leave things standing. With the arrival of crisp sunny weather in February the dried skeletons of dormant perennials will be cleared away or broken up to fall as a mulch around their crowns. Hopefully a dusting of frost or snow will appear to lift my spirits before then.


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