Mind Gardens 3 – Hortus Conclusus

Gardens are often made to replicate a historic style which may be in-keeping with their situation. And such historic styles of themselves may be a good enough reason to shape a garden space and plant it with appropriate plants.

Islamic gardens have served for centuries as an oasis in the desert to feel closer to ones beliefs. Enclosed by protective walls and served by a water source flowing outwards, every element and individual plant playing a symbolic role in the design of these formal gardens.

Medieval gardens of Western cultures were once created as safe havens in an otherwise hostile world. The high walls of the hortus conclusus offered protection and created a space in which to relax as well as grow plants to nourish both body and mind. Simple geometric arrangements of flower beds allowed useful vegetables and herbs to be grown. The apothecaries garden is a form of such a garden where various medicinal herbs were grown in logically arranged beds around an available source of water. Alongside these in monasteries, cloister gardens occurred, often surrounding a central water well. These uncluttered spaces offering the monks a calm retreat in which to think and to study.

All of these models might be used today to create a garden space that is sheltered, peaceful and focused upon itself rather than any surrounding chaos or outside influences. Their walls bring separation, as do our garden fences, and water is both used symbolically and as a necessity.

In this third Mind Garden design I want to use the elements of enclosure and water, but at the same time not try and reproduce a copy of an Islamic walled garden or a Medieval herb garden. The design idea I have evolved is to place a simple source of water in the very centre of the garden: a small round pool or a large bowl overflowing with water will be enough. The walls will not be the boundary fences, but plants set within the garden using a combination of evergreen shrubs (clipped Taxus hedges) and rows of upright growing grasses.

The grass used is Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ as its height and stiff upright growth habit develops quickly in early summer and prior to this is will bring bands of fresh growth amidst many spring flowering bulbs, especially tulips.

In winter the short Taxus hedges will stand free as upright specimens within the open garden and become surrounded by low-growing perennials and drifts of bulbs in spring. As summer arrives the grasses will grow up between the Taxus hedges and together they will become the enclosing walls of this contemporary hortus conclusus.

It would be tempting to allow the rest of the design to become a formal arrangement of patios and paths, but to both break with tradition and also to dramatise the transition of the informal spring garden into the formal enclosure focused upon its central water feature in summer, I have used organic curving shapes for the off-centre patio and paths.

Two planting schemes are going to be used here: one full and dramatic within the grass hedge and surrounding the patio and one in the space between the hedges and outer boundary.

The outer ring of perennial planting will be low-growing, especially interesting in spring and contain a high percentage of evergreen species such as ferns and sedges. Practically this will work as many of the plants need to be shade tolerant both later in the growing season and at certain times of the day as the sun moves round causing the boundary fencing to cast shade over this outer zone.

In full sun, the central area of this garden could be planted in numerous different ways according to taste. My choice here has been triggered by the central water feature from which I have planned narrow rivers of blue flowered salvias to flow outwards. The rest of the perennials used are chosen to work with this dominant element.

Scheme One –Spring interest and shade tolerant with bold ferns and the addition of large clumps of autumn-flowering, taller-growing perennials.

Theme plants – per square meter ( x 1 )

1 x 2 Dryopteris cycadina (Syn.D. atrata) – fern

3 x 1 Pachyphragma macrophyllum

3 x 1 Luzula nivea

3 x 1 Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae

1 x 2 Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’

Complementary plants: Chelone obliqua in clumps of 6 every 3 meters along fence. Aster laevis in clumps of 3 every 3 meters along fence. Underplanted with snowdrops and daffodils for bold spring spectacle.

Scheme Two – Blue rivers of salvias and dark mounds of Actea surrounded by seasonal flowering perennials and white flowered Pennisetum grassses.

Theme plants – per square meter ( x 1 )

2 x 1 Pennisetum orientale – grass

1 x 2 Actea simplex ‘James Compton’ (Syn. Cimicifuga s.)

1 x 1 Veronica ‘Red Arrows’

2 x 1 Nepeta kubanica

2 x 1 Aster laterifolius ‘Prince’

Complementary plants: Ribbons of Salvia nemorosa ‘Ostfriesland’ radiating outwards with Astrantia ‘Claret’, Geranium ‘Patricia’, Sedum ‘Xenos’, Astilbe chinensis var. taquetii. as occasional complementary plants within the theme plant mix.

The fact that perennials grow from nothing to maturity in a single summer allows them to alter the garden spaces they occupy. The use of upright grasses here changes the mood of this garden completely in just one season. Throughout winter many of the plants used here will remain as interesting silhouettes with seedheads and dried stem skeletons.

More schemes such as those used here are to be found in the Perennial Meadows eBooks together with details of the individual plants used.

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Mind Gardens 2 – Art As Inspiration

Gardens can evolve over time to reflect the interests and character of their makers and eventually a unique atmosphere will develop. Alternatively, they can be designed either by their owners or a professional designer with the aim of creating a specific mood or visual impact. In this series of posts – Mind Gardens – I will try to show how different ideas and dreams can be realised in the gardens we design and plant.

Where do you find a design idea when your garden is nothing more than a square area behind an average house with a view of boundary fences and other similar houses? This is the dilemma of many gardeners who are not fortunate enough to have a garden surrounding an architecturally distinct building or a view across glorious countryside. Many sources spring into my mind, but here I want to look to art for inspiration.

My interest goes towards the work of  abstract artists of the early twentieth century; your own interests may differ, but my process will hopefully suggest a way forward.


Whenever looking at works by artists such as Mondrian, Kandinsky and Malevich I cannot help myself from seeing designs for the layout of garden landscapes on a range of very different scales. Sometimes the patterns in these paintings suggest border layouts, lines can become paths or hedges and colours identify different planting arrangements.


It would be ridiculous to think that you would want to reproduce any of these works using garden components in place of paint and colour, but certain elements can be used to trigger a design process.

Kandinsky’s early work from the Bauhaus period consist of different coloured shapes linken by straight and curving lines. For Kandinsky these works were intellectual expressions of his evolving art philosophy. I am fascinated by their intriguing interrelationships of lines, forms and colours.

Taking the distinctive lines, some curved and some straight and tapering, I have attempted to create an abstract planting design in which a central yew (Taxus) hedge cuts across the garden space and changes in height and width along its length. A curving path to the left and a curving line of tall growing grasses further divide the space. 

Room has to be created in the pragmatic process of a garden’s design for sitting areas and access and these elements have eventually created a number of separate areas into which I have chosen to drop in three mixed meadow planting schemes taken from my Perennial Meadows eBook series. 

On the right, Scheme 3 is tall and robust and will create a sense of enclosure for the rest of the garden; it lies behind a curving hedge of Miscanthus sinensis ”Ferner Osten’. In the centre of the garden a bold mid-height scheme which is dominated by the long flowering  period of Rudbeckia fulgida var. daemii is divided in two by the taxus hedge. This hedge will be over 2 meters tall at the rear, dropping to just 90 centimeters near the patio area. Scheme 1 is the lowest-growing of the three with a fresh blue green colour theme and will demand full sun and well drained soil to thrive.

To link everything together theme plants from these schemes will be added as complementary plants to the others. So, for example, the Eupatorium of Scheme 3 will reappear as a bold block inside Scheme 1. Likewise, the Calamagrostis from Scheme 2 will appear here and there in the other two schemes. The advantage of this calamgrostis is that it grows and flowers earlier in the summer than the miscanthus which will eventually dominate the whole garden.

Scheme 1 – taken from my Prairie Meadows eBook

Theme plants – per square meter ( x 1 )

1 x 2 Baptisia  alba var. macrophylla (Syn. B. leucantha)

4 x 1 Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonbeam’

2 x 1 Schizachyrium scoparium (grass)

2 x 1 Salvia x sylvestris ‘Blaukönigin’

1 x 1 Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Blue Spire’

Complementary plants: Eupatorium maculatum, Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Overdam’

Scheme 2 – taken from my Prairie Meadows eBook

Theme plants – per square meter ( x 1 )

1 x 1 Phlox maculata ‘Omega’

1 x 2 Helenium ‘Rubinzwerg’

1 x 2 Aster umbellatus

4 x 1 Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii

2 x 3 Calamagrosts x acutiflora ‘Overdam’

Complementary plants: Miscanthus sinensis ‘Ferner Osten’ as background hedge

Scheme 3 – conceived for this project.

3 x 3 Eupatorium maculatum (planted as bold clumps)

1 x 2 Aster umbellatus

2 x 2 Vernonia noveboracensis (planted as bold clumps)

1 x 2 Phlox paniculata ‘Utopia’

2 x 1 Monarda ‘Saxon Purple’

Complementary plants: Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, Rudbeckia ‘Herbstsonne’, Phlox paniculata ‘Hesperis’

To understand how these planting schemes are put together and function you should read the early posts in the Meadows 101 section of this web site. Schemes such as those used here are to be found in the Perennial Meadows eBooks with details of the individual plants used.

The garden design presented here could never have been created by simply looking at the site and responding to its setting. By finding inspiration in art (in this case) I have created a ground plan that is both unconventional and exciting to look at. Later in this series of Mind Garden posts I will be looking for other source for inspiration and showing how these can result in a range of very different garden plans and planting schemes.

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Mind Gardens – A new series of blog posts

Perennial Meadow - Michael KingFor a garden to be more than just a comfortable place to sit in to drink a cup of coffee there needs to be some sort of idea underpinning its design. Ideas together with constraints guide the design process and can lead to outdoor spaces that have focus, draw attention to something or evoke an emotional reaction through associations.

Design ideas need not be complex although gardens expressing thoughts on philosophy, scientific principles and religion are all valid possibilities. Sometimes just the need to provide a setting for a treasured pot or sculpture will be enough, or perhaps the need to draw attention to a distant view.

Colours, textures, patterns, smells are all powerful stimuli that trigger associations and can create a sense of place and a mood when incorporated into a design.

Mind gardens will be an occasional series of posts that will try and show how perennial meadow planting schemes can be used in a range of different designs for small to medium sized gardens. The simple garden plans will show how different garden features, including mixed perennial border plantings, can be arranged in order to express a given design idea. 

In each case the emphasis will be upon the different perennial plants needed to create the various planting schemes in the gardens.. The actual arrangement of borders, paths, patios together with the siting of trees and shrubs are flexible and would be different for any given real situation, but it is the principals of how best to use perennials in such designs that I aim to cover here.

A Setting For A Large Ceramic Vessel

The placement of art objects such as sculptures and large pots in garden landscapes needs careful consideration. Scale is a crucial factor not only of the piece itself, but also of the planting surrounding it. Once, I commissioned a large pot for which I asked the potter to give it extra height in order that it could easily stand out within a planting scheme and not be engulfed by it.

Stoneware, 90 cm. tall, Jennifer Jones ceramics

My pot will be the focus of this garden design; a rectangular space some 30 meters by 20m, typical of many domestic gardens throughout Europe.. The pot is just over waist heigh and the planting surrounding it should hover around half this. For this important feature I have a simple perennial meadow in mind – Scheme One, in which ornamental grasses dominate; the pot will sit in a wide sweep of these grasses and draw all the attention.

Across a path, on the other side of the garden, I have designed a long and deep flower border. I could just repeat the same grass-based scheme here for a controlled minimalist look, but instead I envisage a low-growing, colourful flower border that will offer more interest over a longer season to the garden owners – Scheme Two. Note: These are often the sort of choices to consider when designing for either a public as opposed to a private garden setting.

This plan can be drawn equally well with either straight edged borders or curved and that should be dictated by the setting and your own personal preference. The key design point here is that the large pot stands prominently forward in the border on the left with the grass meadow flowing away behind it into the far reaches of the garden.

Scheme One – grass dominated – surrounding large pot

Theme plants – per square meter ( x 1 )

4 x 1 Sporobolus heterolepis

2 x 1 Stachys monierie ‘Hummelo’

2 x 1 Geranium ‘Dilys’

Complementary plants

2 x 1 Gaura lindheimeri

1 x 2 Sedum ‘Red Cauli’

In late summer when the tussled mounds of Sporobolus grass send up their fine, airy flower spikes the contrast with the hard ceramic vessel will be magical. The small, low-growing geranium will fill in the scheme at ground level and the Stachys sends up neat purple, sausage shaped flowerheads that age to dark brown and will punctuate the scheme long into the winter. Gaura is a short-lived perennial that flowers abundantly all summer. It will fill in this scheme in the early years and may self seed. Such a complementary plant is useful here as the Sporobolus grasses are particularly slow to establish and fill out.

Scheme Two – undulating flower meadow

Theme plants – per square meter ( x 1 )

3 x 1 Salvia nemorosa ‘Oostfriesland’

1  x 1 Scutellaria incana

1 x 1 Schizachyrium scoparium ‘The Blues’

2 x 1 Geranium ‘Dilys’

1 x 1 Sedum ‘Red Cauli’

Complementary plants

2 x 3 Stipa orientale

The blue/grey foliage of the Schizachyrium grasses and the late summer flowering Scutellaria will combine with the purple flower spikes of Salvia nemorosa in early summer which later in the season will stand out as brown seedheads against the rounded mounds of colourful Sedums.

A few extra plants of Stipa orientale here will throw up silvery flower spikes throughout the summer to mimic the wispy, pale coloured flowers of the Gaura on the other side of the garden. Additionally, the Geranium ‘Dilys’ and the Sedum ‘Red Cauli’ introduce additional linking elements between these two schemes.

These schemes relate closely with similar schemes detailed in my  Perennial Meadows eBooks, in particular the titles Open and Prairie. There you will find more detail about the plants used,  images whilst also learning how they relate to the other plants being used in those schemes to create viable plant communities.


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New Planting Scheme: Low-growing, for an open, sunny site

design Piet OudolfLaren, the Netherlands, September 2018 design Piet Oudolf

Five theme plants along with up to 25% of so-called complementary plants create many of the planting schemes in my series of eBooks on perennial meadow gardening.

design Ton Muller, Amsterdam

Amsterdam, the Netherlands, May 2018 design Ton Muller

design Ton Muller, Amsterdam

Amsterdam, the Netherlands, August 2018 design Ton Muller

Here is a new scheme, base upon thoughts resulting from seeing two similar schemes this summer; as shown in the images above.

Theme plants:

3 x 1 Sesleria autumnalis

2 x 1 Euphorbia polychroma

1 x 1 Heucher villosa ‘Autumn Bride’

2 x 1 Stachys monieri ‘Hummelo’

1 x 1 Sedum ‘Karfunkelstein (Syn. S ‘Xenos”)

This mixture will create a low matrix of varying textures with flowers appearing in sequence: yellow Euphorbia in late spring, Stachys in summer, Heuchera and Sedum in autumn.

Complementary plants:

2 x 3 Pennisetum orientale

1 x 2 Limonium platyphyllum

1 x 3 Eryngium x tripartitume

Bulbs – Species tulips, Camassia and Allium christophii

Complementary plants bring extra dimensions to planting schemes; sometimes by highlighting a particular spot (perhaps on the corner of a border), and sometimes by introducing a bold contrasting element. In this scheme Pennisetum orientale will be used at regular intervals across the whole planting area to create a summer spectacle as its fine, delicate, arching flower spikes rise above its neighbours.

To learn more about how perennial meadow planting schemes are created please read Meadows 101 of this site and the first Introduction eBook Perennial Meadows.

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Autumn Fades into Winter

Perennials in Amsterdam

Here are the last glimpses of autumn in my Amsterdam trial gardens. As a photographer I can make carefully composed images, but this “walking video” gives you the wider view.

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Indian Summer Reward


Perennial Garden AmsterdamAsters, grasses and autumn tints are the main ingredients that brought my garden to its final crescendo this year.

Perennial Garden Amsterdam

Following a long hot and merciless dry summer in which everything struggled including myself, autumn arrived with just a little rain and everything changed.

Perennial Garden Amsterdam

Autumn tints were early, but many old clumps of Miscanthus grasses were very late coming into flower. This was not from lack of warmth, they are warm season grasses, but because of the 100 consecutive days of drought.

Perennial Garden Amsterdam

Asters took the weather in their stride and because of the endless warm sunny days of autumn, have never flowered for so long.

Perennial Garden Amsterdam

Tough stalwarts of the autumn garden such as Rudbeckia and Chelone have grown well and been flowering for months.

Perennial Garden Amsterdam

But when Kniphofia cooperi eventually flowers, autumn’s end is surely nearby.

Perennial Garden Amsterdam

So far our Indian Summer is continuing. Textures are becoming finer and more detailed, highlighted by the ever lower-angled sunlight that we hope will keep shining .

Perennial Garden Amsterdam

Plans are implemented for next year’s highlights and this afternoon we begin planting as many tulips as we can squeeze in. Savour the moment and dream that next year will be even better. The perennial meadow garden project continues!

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Dutch Perennial Gardens in the Dry and Hot Summer of 2018

RodgersiaBeauty is to be found in the chaos of nature and this year, in the struggle for life amidst the perennials and shrubs in my gardens. A drier than average spring followed by a totally dry summer in which a hundred days passed without any significant rainfall in a country famous for its canals; I was forced to turn on the sprinklers.

Shrubs held onto their leaves for as long as they could, but eventually many just dropped them and I am sure will recover next year. Some perennials like ligularias, Darmera and certain ferns simply disappeared and again I am sure they will all reappear this autumn or next spring.

Park in AmsterdamWhat was interesting was how some plants simply dried up and remained effective after a short flowering period. In late autumn we would be talking about their winter silhouettes, but in July you needed to adjust your expectations to fully appreciate what was happening. In the case of this public planting in the commercial district of Amsterdam I found the result still effective and attractive.

Vlinderhof park in UtrechtMore gardeners are starting to install irrigation systems, but if the trend in climate change is going to continue we would be better changing the pallet of plants we grow. I visited a high profile public park planting here this August which was of course fitted with an expensive watering system, but the lush green that dominated this oasis seemed strangely at odds with the wider landscape which was buff-brown; more typical of the Mediterranean region than temperate Holland.

August befor the rain arrivedWe were allowed to water our gardens this summer as the one thing the Dutch are good at is water management, but in truth it felt wrong. Nevertheless it meant that I was able to keep the garden ticking over with some parts relished the extra heat, sunshine and, for them adequate, water.

September after rainRain has finally fallen and  within a week our parched, buff-brown land is green again. Asters, grasses and Rudbeckias are all thriving in the garden and surprisingly many shrubs are bearing heavy crops of berries.

What this all means for the future is anyone’s guess, but with rain finally falling the garden is awakening and maybe autumn will turn out to be better than it ever has been.

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Shrubs in late spring

Shrub feature bordersIt is in late spring, just after the tulips have ended, that I become delighted by the many flowering shrubs and distinctive foliage colours that seem to dominate the garden.

Shrub feature bordersOf course there are various perennials flowering including Euphorbia, Geum, Geranium and bulbous plants such as Camassia and ornamental onions, but foliage colours and the flowering mounds of Viburnum and Deutzia shrubs attract all the attention.

Shrub feature bordersMy philosophy over shrubs concludes that shrubs are best used in gardens to create highlights and structure amidst a wider field of flowering perennials and ornamental grasses.

Shrub feature bordersEven in my own garden where I trial many different plants, including lots of shrubs, the idea is evident, but ideally the relationship between shrubs and perennials should be far more pronounced. Many Deutzias grow too large for smaller gardens but I have found Deutzia rosea ‘Campanulata’ with D. x elegantisima ‘Rosealind’ (behind) remain sufficiently compact for my needs. The upright shrub on the right is Frangula alnus ‘High Line’. Its distinctive upright form suggest it would work in a variety of schemes, but I find it rather boring and not very elegant, for such an upright design feature I can think of many slim growing conifers that would look so much better, and would be evergreen.

Shrub feature bordersPurple leaved foliage has featured in my gardens far a long time as it offers a strong, season-long contrast with the green foliage and flowers that generally dominate. Prickly Berberis, evergreen Pittosporum and Cercis with its flush of pink flowers on bare stems at the very start of the season have all proven indispensable.

Shrub feature bordersIn my vision of the shrub feature  border, only the most distinctive shrubs, those that have good form, foliage and flowers over a long season, are used. A single specimen in a small border may suffice, but often two or more examples will be scattered across the border with the intervening spaces being filled with my characteristic perennial meadow plantings.

Shrub feature borders

Here is a modern design by Sanne Horn for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam using widely spaced Prunus underplanted with Liriope, Carex and ferns.

My eBook, Shrub Features, goes into the ideas behind this original approach to using shrubs in modern style gardens. I explain how to bring shrubs and perennials together in successful border plantings as well as offering an extensive list of the very best shrubs to use in this way. Creating this eBook gave me a lot of pleasure as well as teaching me a lot about a group of plants I had not been making full use of in the past.

Design & Plant provides garden design education at irresistible prices.

shrub features

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Spring into action

My last post showed the garden three weeks ago just after I had knocked down all the perennials with the question “would you want your garden looking like that?”.

Well, as promised, the perennials have reappeared rapidly to cover the ground level debris and the shrubs are bursting into flower.

Perennial mulchThis is how it was just three weeks ago.

Perennial mulchThe dead remains of last year’s perennial growth will rot down in the course of the year, gradually nourishing the plants in a natural process.

Shrubs and tulips take a leading role at this time of the year.

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Would you want this in your garden?

Perennial mulchNot everyone would want their garden looking like mine does at this moment. However, what I see is a clean slate; the garden’s perennials have all been broken into small pieces and dropped on the ground where they will rot down over the coming year.

Perennial mulchAfter the winter the dead perennial’s stems are brittle and easily broken into small pieces by hand; only a few really tough ones need me to use secateurs. The long grasses I chop into short pieces apart from the really tough ones which I line out lengthwise under hedges where they take a few years to fully rot down.

What looks like a mess at this time will quickly disappear under the foliage of the newly emerging perennials and it will rot down in the course of the growing season to feed the plants.

Perennial mulchThe time I save in not carrying everything I remove to a compost heap, that I later must bring back to spread onto the ground is enormous. It might not look very tidy for a few weeks in early spring, but for me it represents the beginning of the new year’s gardening season.

Interestingly my attitude to this technique is in part influenced by the fact that these trial gardens are not where I live and as such they are not something I look at every day of winter. If this was my back yard I would probably attack the chaos earlier in late winter and introduce more structural planting to offer winter interest to the planting; here it is not necessary.

Cycling across town to these gardens I pass a public space in which a good example of mixed perennial meadow planting has been created. In season it is dramatic and highly effective and in winter the plant’s silhouettes are attractive. However, the city council has yet to find time to tidy it up and what currently is to see there is very ugly. Although perennial meadows can be effective in public spaces and offer significant savings in maintenance cost, their maintenance needs to be timely and rigorous.

As it currently appears this bold planting is a poor advertisement for what is a very good model for public green space planting. In a few weeks time it will again be something the passing public will appreciate, but it should have been tidied using my snap and drop technique many weeks ago.

Perennial mulchSpring is late in Amsterdam this year. Only three weeks ago we were skating on the canals in the centre of the city. Once the bulbs come into bloom and the shrubs blossom the scruffy ground cover will soon be forgotten.

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