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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Autumnal Textures over Perennial Colour

Perennials in AutumnMy trial gardens in Amsterdam have teetered on the edge of chaos this year as a result of moving house.

Perennials in AutumnWeeds are under control and wayward growth ruthlessly chopped down, but I long for a clean sweep and the fresh growing season in 2015.

Perennials in Autumn


Perennials in AutumnAlthough colour is everywhere in the garden this autumn from bright yellows, hard reds, glowing oranges and rich browns, it is the textures of the plants that really stands out and dominates.

Perennials in Autumn


Perennials in AutumnThe sense of being overwhelmed by burgeoning vegetation has been emphasised by the tangle that encroaches upon every path and impedes perambulation; frustration is my first feeling, but quickly followed by admiration at the sheer force of growth well chosen perennials can bring to a garden’s dynamic.

Perennials in AutumnNext spring they will have vanished, the borders will be cleared and low, but not for long I hope.

Perennials in Autumn

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Managing Soils

Healthy soil is the foundation of any perennial meadow planting

soil preparation

I have already written about my decision to mulch newly planted perennial meadows following initial planting in order to suppress weeds.

soil preparationTime and again I am amazed just how much work it saves and the fact that we don’t have to walk in amongst the plants to weed means that the soil does not get trampled and compacted; in every way, that initial mulch is a good investment.

soil preparationSurprisingly though most contractors and designers in Europe don’t include mulches in their plans. I suspect the main reason is cost as clients are more interested in plants than wood chips or gravel, but there is also a view that mulches are not natural and so unnecessary; a purist view to hold, especially if you are not the one who is going to have to maintain the planting.

soil preparationBefore we get to the point of planting and maybe mulching, the work needed to prepare the site is even more important. To start with, perennial weeds cannot be allowed to remain in the soil prior to planting. How you get rid of them is up to you and dependant upon what options you are prepared to take. Trying to dig out all of the offending roots will never succeed in eliminating them all unless you are prepared to repeat the digging many times over a period of at least a year. A far better approach, although not much quicker, is to cover the soil surface with black polythene and kill the weeds be excluding light and cooking them in the closed conditions you have created. And finally of course where efficiency is top of the list, systemic weedkillers such as those containing glyphosate are available to us.

soil preparationThe advantage of not digging the soil is that its structure, which may have taken decades to develop, remains intact. Black polythene may not be organic, but it works, and more natural alternatives exist. The famous plantsman, Ernst Pagles, used wide sheets of cardboard throughout his nursery for decades long before eco-friendly gardening was ever heard of.

When ground such as an old lawn is being converted into a planting border there is really no justification for digging it over. The roots of the grasses forming the lawn will have penetrated the soil and over many years died and been replenished to form a natural humus rich layer filled with populations of bacteria and fungi that will aid the growth of your new plants. Think of such situations as underground networks ready to have the plants plugged into them and capable of delivering water and nutrients from far and wide; much more extensive than the discrete root system of your chosen plants.

initial mulchWhen soils are compacted they lack the spaces between their components that will allow the free circulation of air, water and dissolved minerals; all essential for healthy plant growth. In such situations you are forced to dig, but only do it where you know it is absolutely necessary. The worms that live in most average soils will do a far better job of turning your plot and incorporating fallen leaves and debris than any spade and more importantly for me will save much time and effort.

As ever working with nature and gently manipulating it in the direction you as a gardener desire is the way towards a successful planting solution.

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