Looking back at a Perennial Meadow Scheme for Christmas

There is a small perennial border in the centre of my garden where for many years I grew a random mixture of plants – all interesting, but as a whole chaotic. Finally, I decided to bring order and a sense of design back to this section of the garden; a garden which is essentially a trial garden and where all design rules can be broken for the sake of trying out a new plant.

Gardening with GrassesThe aim was for an open, relatively low planting scheme over which the eye can travel, but which nevertheless is interesting without screaming for attention. Why not lay a simple lawn you might be thinking and indeed that would serve the same function, but there are far more interesting plants to grow and I am not interested in mowing grass.

Gardening with GrassesThis border is already very beautiful in spring as it contains a collection of early flowering daffodils which are a precursor to a display of purple/blue tulips. The challenge wase to replant it without digging up all of these treasures. My trick was to mark the spots where the existing plants were removed from and replant in these same spots without disturbing the nearby soil. It worked, and I only unearthed a handful of bulbs during the exercise.

Gardening with GrassesThis scheme reuses plants already growing in the garden with the aim of creating a long season of interest. No sooner had I decided that the border must be low than I discovered that the only place in the garden where I could place a magnificiant cultivar of purple moor grass – Molinia arundinacea subsp. arundinacea ‘Cordoba’ – was here. This tall grass creates a wide arching flower display that all too easily hangs over any nearby paths. In its current position it was spectacular by always in the way and this new border – some 4 meteres by 3 meters – was big enough to contain it.

Gardening with GrassesCompromise is a normal part of life and so my new, low, simple border would have to have a dramatic centrepiece! Fortunately this grass is totally transparent even though it grows over head-height so there would not be a real problem. The methodology I have developed for creating perennial meadows is nothing more than a starting point and must not be allowed to become a dogma. If it is to be successful it must be flexible and easily adapted to any given situation and circumstance.

Gardening with Grasses MoliniaThis year the molinia grew tall and arched out magnificently above its neighbours.

The name, perennial meadow, suggests schemes for open sunny situations, but the idea of mass planting a restricted mixture of perennials to create a coherent block of vegetation can equally be applied to the shadier parts of our gardens. In face, some of the most satisfying schemes I have designed using this approach have been for precisely such situations.

Gardening with GrassesSo with the bold arching grass at its centre, the planting scheme was filled in with a random mixture of epimediums, hostas, astrantias, low-growing grasses and aruncus; let me explain what I did:

Gardening with GrassesEpimedium rubrum is a tough early-flowering ground cover that quickly develops spreading carpets of pale green foliage beautifully traced with dark ruddy toned patterns. Its small neat foliage would provide the setting for the larger-leaved collection of hostas I had been hiding away in an odd corner of the garden for some time. In design terms it would have been better to have restricted myself to just one hosta cultivar, but I had five – some plain green and some variegated – these would have to do and none proved too distracting the following year.

Gardening with GrassesThe Astrantia major ‘Buckland’ was already growing in this border. It is a white flowered cultivar which also reflowers for a second time in autumn most years. The grass I have used is a new form of Calamagrostis – ‘Cheiju-do’ – This low-growing grass has yet to win my heart but it has grown well here and will bring variety to the broad leaved plants surrounding it.

Gardening with Grasses CalamagrostisMy good friend Ernst Pagels introduced a number of interesting hybrid goat’s beards – Aruncus sp. – some are tall and indispensable such as ‘Horatio’, but some others, such as ‘Sommeranfang’, make low mounds of fine foliage and flower in early summer. I have planted these near to the edges of this new border as yet one more texture to bring interest to the scheme when viewed up close.

Gardening with GrassesTo guarantee a long season of summer colour to this rather green border I added one of my favourite easy perennials – Chrysogonum virginianum. This lowly perennial starts producing its small, star-like, yellow flower in late spring and will continue to flower on into autumn – never dramatic, but totally worthy and perfectly in tune with my intentions here.

So there we have it, a random mixture of simple perennials that should work together to cover the ground and open up this central, semi-shaded area of my garden.

Planting took place just before the end of October 2012 during an interval in the persistent rain that had been a feature of our European summer and winter that year. Everything established well but it wasn’t until this year that the large molinia at the centre of the border was settled and flowered well. This restful area has since become the home of a couple of my growing collection of viburnum shrubs so over time it will change, but for now it has the simple open character that I was aiming for. Such are the games we gardeners can play in our own private spaces.

Happy Christmas to all my followers and merry gardening in 2015.


Michael King

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Gardening with Shrubs

Books For Christmas 2014

There are not many books around that will actually teach you to use shrubs effectively in your garden. Too many shrub books are written by experts and focus on the plants at the expense of design; how many magnolias, rhododendrons or Judas trees can the average person fit into their home garden? In my case possibly one of each; and although their flowers might be magnificent, the plants need to earn their keep all year round to justify a space in a small garden.

Writers such as Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd have given us a lot of good advice particularly in their explanations of how they have set about combining shrubs into their planting schemes. Some of the most useful books specifically on gardening with shrubs I have read are by Andy McIndoe. His “The Hillier Gardener’s Guides – Shrubs” and the new “The Creative Shrub Garden” focus on the latest assortment of good shrubs to use in gardens of all sizes. His experience shines through and this is where you will find the very best recommendations of which species and cultivars you need to create your schemes. His ideas on combinations with other types of plants are also very well considered.

andyFrustrated by the lack of good design guidance I set about formulating my own ideas based upon trials in my garden and extensive reading of everything I could find. The result was the publication of Shrub Features as an eBook earlier this year. To date reactions to my efforts have been positive, but many find it a challenge not to be presented with a book filled with pretty pictures.

Shrub Feature BorderTo focus attention on my ideas I have only used simple sketches and drawings to show how shrubs might be placed in garden designs. Also, one of the greatest challenges I find in using shrubs is estimating how large they will eventually grow. To illustrate the size, the shape and the textures of the shrubs I know and grow, I have attempted to sketch their sihouettes as they near maturity.

Recommended Shrub FeaturesMy ideas are still evolving on gardening with shrubs and not everyone will agree with everything I have written, but, hopefully, it will make some gardeners think, and stimulate a more original approach to the use of this very important group of garden plants.

Happy Christmas reading.

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Form and Structure within Perennial Planting Design

Perennials are by their very nature loose and informal especially when combined into contemporary naturalistic planting schemes.

Naturalistic Planting

The traditional herbaceous border was created as a tableaux to be viewed from outside and was given structure by being given a framework of formal hedges and fronted with neatly mown lawn.

Traditional herbaceous borders

Perennial meadows as an example of today’s interest in naturalistic planting invite their visitors inside, amidst the plants, to become engulfed and enraptured by their loose, expansive nature.

Naturalistic Planting

Bringing structure to such informal arrangements of plants is of paramount importance in order to avoid the whole collapsing into a tangled mess. Simply by placing a few solid points of interest in their midst we can bring focus and direction to their design.

Naturalistic Planting

Ground patterns and the construction of walls and seating units is yet another means of imposing structure to larger schemes.

Naturalistic Planting

Repetition is the key to the creation of visually powerful perennial meadow planting schemes and these can be given structure by using plants of different form or height to contrast with those that surround them.

Naturalistic Planting

One approach I use often is to include into the design blocks or rows of a single species of perennial such as a river of persicaria or ornamental grasses.

Naturalistic Planting

Further, I have tried many shrubs and trees over the years to introduce such structural incidents into my plantings and the most useful have turned out to be slim pencil-shaped conifers. These plants are so out of vogue that their use becomes original and exciting; my current favourite is Irish juniper – Juniperus communis ‘Hibernica’.

Naturalistic Planting with conifers

It is often better to break up a perennial meadow into a series of separate beds or borders with contrasting schemes or types of plants. This not only allows you to enter into their midst it also facilitates easy access for maintenance.

Perennial Meadows by Michael King

This need for structure in a perennial meadow is just one of the practical points I cover in the final lesson of my course for My Garden School entitled Naturalistic Perennial Meadow Planting Design. The online course covers the principles covered in my series of eBooks which have been available to you for some time now, but brings my thinking up to date and includes a host of new and exciting images. These online courses offer students the chance to share their thoughts and ideas with both their tutor and other students in the virtual classroom. Each week for a month, there is a small assignment to undertake which provides the basis for discussion. I must say this as well as my course on ornamental grasses has proven to be highly stimulating for both myself and, I believe, my students. Perhaps this winter is the time for you to plan your own new perennial meadow.

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Chasmanthium grasses tolerate shade

Grasses are mostly used in our gardens in sunny sites to bring texture, contrast and movement to our planting schemes, but in shade their are few that will thrive and offer us the same qualities. Instead we tend to use similar looking alternatives such as sedges (Carex sp.) and woodrushes (Luzula sp.). Whilst very useful, these are generally low or rounded forms which are not the most dramatic for setting up contrast within a woodland floor situation which tend to consist of a low and flat perennial layer punctuated by understory shrubs.

There are of course grasses adapted to shady situations such as the Wood Melic (Melica nutans and other species) and Wood Millet (Milium effusum) but these tend to be either short growing or light and whispy in appearance, and whilst there are taller-growing species of Bromus which are happy in shade, my experience is that they are aggressive seeders that you will long regret ever having introduced into the garden.

For something upright and interesting to use in a shady scheme there is one grass that I could not be without, the American native, the Wild-oat or Wood-oat:

Chasmanthium latifolium

This grass forms upright, vase shaped clumps of distinctive wide leaves and when in flower the form is afforded greater presence by the large flattened infloresences and subsequent seed heads which dangle like earrings above and around it.

Chasmanthium latifolium

This clump of Chasmanthium latifolium has been growing in the same place for at least ten years, but it still makes a bold contribution to this shady border along with ferns and ivies.

Lets use it to make an interesting perennial meadow scheme for partial shade. The scheme I have in my mind would work in what we tend to call a woodland edge situation – partially shady thus and not excessively dry.

To make the most of the upward arching form of the grass we need to surround it with a lower, fairly uniform matrix of vegetation which sets up interesting foliage contrasts both within itself and with the grass. Flowers are therefore of secondary consideration and can probably be introduced by adding additional complementary plants to the scheme.

Five totally reliable theme perennials make up this scheme:

2 x 3 Chasmanthium latifolium

2 x 1 Pachyphragma machrophyllum (see post in Top Perennials section of this site)

3 x 1 Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Lilafee’

2 x 3 Dryopteris erythrosora

3 x 1 Omphalodes Cappadocica ‘Starry Eyes’

The pachyphragma, the epimedium and the omphalodes are all spring flowering in white, puple and blue, respectively; each with very different leaf colours, shapes and sizes. The dryopteris fern is unique with metalic bronze tinted floliage arranged horizontally whilst the upright, pale green grass not only contributes form and texture, but also goes on to develop interesting autumnal tints.

The flower colour in spring could be augmented with any number of spring flowering woodland bulbous plants such as snowdrops and winter achonites to name just two. A fine addition to this scheme for a summer splash of colour would be the intense blue flowered Gentiana asclepiadea. These and all of the plants used in this new planting scheme are included in other schemes presented in my Shady Perennial Meadows eBook together with descriptions and photographs. As you can see, meadow style gardening has applications in many different parts of our gardens and not only open sunny meadow sites.



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Gardening with Grasses

_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.

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