New Look Perennial Plant Borders

There is a lot more to the idea of a perennial meadow than simply the random arrangement of a group of compatible plants to create a matrix of vegetation to replace an old lawn. In the series of posts – Meadows 101 – I have explained the concepts and practical steps to take in creating such meadows. In this, the last post in the series, I want to highlight the most important underlying principle, that is the development of a concept that controls and establishes the mood of a garden space filled with such a meadow.

What follows is a post that first appeared as a guest posting on the influential gardening blog – allanbecker.gardenguru, and for anyone interested in learning more the new eBook series is available. These books will introduce you to the ideas and the plants appropriate to enable you to create your own “new look” perennial gardens.

Looking back into my old collection of gardening books on the subject of planting design, the emphasis is very much on contrast. The classic books from the nineteen eighties and nineties written by English plant specialists such as Beth Chatto and Penelope Hobhouse talked endlessly about leaf shape, pattern and texture. After the garish colour schemes of the 60s and 70s the emphasis shifted to subtlety of form and combinations that drew our attention to it. Colour was of course the other topic that dominated these books and no one more than Rosemary Verey encouraged us to seek gently harmonies and carefully chosen contrasts – the pastel tinted borders awash with silver foliage became the new black long before black became “new” if you understand my meaning.

Looking back it is really quiet surprising how much has changed, especially when we hear repeatedly how backward garden design is in comparison to other areas of the creative arts and architecture in particular.

Focussing on planting design, the perennial plant border of today looks very different to its namesake of only a few years ago, but understanding why is not all that easy to grasp. Of course many of the plants that are popular today where not common twenty years ago, but there is far more happening in today’s perennial planting schemes than this.

Bramdean House, mirror borders

Bramdean House, traditional mirror borders

To understand the core underpinning contemporary planting designs one must understand that the emphasis now rests upon ideas rather than visual impact; colour borders are out and concept borders are in. Plants are not used simply for their physical attributes but because they in some way communicate an idea – the lost prairies of our homeland, the vanishing European wildflower meadows, our childhood memories of foreign holidays or our concerns for nature, plants and the animals that we yearn to conserve.

Big ideas seem to need large scale borders to make their point. Looking at the landmark schemes of the last ten years or so, few have been made in small domestic scale gardens. Rather, today’s gardening magazines are awash with horizon-filling schemes that have transformed the atmosphere of public parks and extensive private estates – naturalistic is the key word. Those of us with smaller gardens may well be inspired to embrace the new styles we admire but find it difficult to adapt the examples we encounter to the confines of our less generous plots. All to often I have seen such attempts fail and have myself been responsible for some wooly attempts, but once you understand the underlying principles it does become possible to adapt the new approach to even the smallest of garden spaces; however, some compromises along the way are inevitable.

Once one understands that the key is in creating an overall image rather than concentrating on finer detailing, progress becomes possible, but it does need the plant collector within us to show restraint. If one word characterises new, so-called, naturalistic perennial plantings it is repetition. The same plants are repeated throughout a planting scheme to both emphasise the idea that a plant represents, but also to strengthen its visual impact – a few red flowered clovers (Trifolium rubens) are pretty, but you may need fifty or more plants across a field of deschampsia grasses to communicate the idea of an open meadow. The corollary here is that the more you repeat a plant the less room remains available to introduce other different plants to the scheme.

Scampston Hall, perennial meadow

Scampston Hall, perennial meadow, design Piet Oudolf.

In developing my ideas for the perennial meadow it is this dilemma which has lead to the concept of theme plants. I restrict myself to a maximum of five, but do sometimes bend the rule by using different species or cultivars of the same genus. I have a grassy meadow in my own garden using low growing molinia grasses, but have ended up using three different cultivars to increase the diversity without diluting the idea. In another place, I have adjacent borders using the same planting scheme, but in one I use a tall growing pennisetum grass and in the other, another, more arching, cultivar. These theme plants are randomly planted at intervals across my schemes to create a matrix within which the other theme plants are spread to create a block of vegetation that as a whole represents my main idea.

If perennials have one weakness it is that they are dynamic and this, of course, is one of their strengths as well. In spring they start growing, later they flower and when this ceases they tend to slip into a decline. If carefully chosen we can extend the period our schemes look presentable by including plants that not only look good in flower but both before this starts and, later, when maybe they make seed heads. Inevitably perennials die back and this means as structural elements within a garden’s design they are weak. This weakness was shared by the traditional herbaceous border, however, these were typically presented within a strong framework, often created by a wall or hedge as background. However, our new-look perennial borders with their need to draw us into the ideas they foster need to be entered and not presented as an abstract tableau set within a picture frame.

To overcome the weaknesses I see in perennials I follow a number of strategies to create year round structure. Firstly, I select some plants that stand up throughout the winter months such as miscanthus grasses and eupatoriums. Secondly, I organise the meadow into a series of crisply defined beds separated by bold purposeful paths. And, finally, I create a framework of some sort, perhaps with shrubs, hedges or fencing that define the internal structure of the garden.

Such beds can be arranged into a labyrinth that leads visitors on a journey amidst the plants they contain and even in small gardens this can be made to work. Admittedly, these scaled down schemes lack the grandeur of the parkland meadows we seek to emulate, but when the plants are well chosen and grouped as I have described they are more than capable of presenting a clear idea that can exert a powerful influence upon the garden spaces they occupy.

Perennial meadow crossed by gravel paths

Perennial meadow crossed by gravel paths, design Christopher Bradley-Hole.

To learn about my style of perennial meadow gardening and start designing your own please take a look at the new series of eBooks. The Introduction – book one – gives the background and practical steps to follow in creating a perennial meadow. The five other titles give planting schemes for a wide range of different settings and styles – prairie, dry steppe, open meadow, wet meadow and shady sites.

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6 Responses to New Look Perennial Plant Borders

  1. Michael Haywood says:

    I have enjoyed your e-books very much. I am about to begin preparing an area near my house about 20 metres by 30 meters for planting as an open meadow. It borders on a smaller area which is very wet in spring, and I am working through an idea to plant that with plants that can handle the soggy soil, but will flow well with the plants in the drier area. The area is surrounded on three sides by hedges and stone walls. The fourth side will be left open, with a mountain view that I want the meadow to draw a viewer toward.
    Thanks for the inspiring ideas! Do consider a book on wet meadow gardens.

    • Michael says:

      Thank you Michael for your comments.By the way, one of my eBooks does look at meadows for wet locations and also the book on Shade may be of interest to you. Two perennials to consider in your plans are Lythrum and Lobelia, both thrive in the conditions you mention. Yours, Michael

  2. Steven thomas says:

    Dear Mr King
    I have a garden 500m from the north cornwall coast near Port Quin, near Port Issac. the soil is well draining and stoney. I was not sure which of your books I should buy in order to get going with a pararie garden on what is now mainly grass.
    Thanks for your advice
    Steven

    • Michael says:

      Dear Mr Thomas, The schemes in my books tend to overlap as there are no absolutes; every garden is different. For open sunny, well drained situations my Steppe schemes may be just what you need, but also you will find many appropriate suggestions in the Open Meadow book. The Prairie book uses many plants for open sunny sites, but tends to focus on taller growing species which seem to typify the prairie look. Do be sure to also consider getting a copy of the Introduction book as here you will learn to understand the system properly.
      Do let me know how you get on. Best wishes, Michael

  3. mary beth says:

    your gardens are beautiful and your info is great thanks I am installing a boarder along a wall 100 feet long 5 feet wide with a wall of blue hydranga above which is about 3 feet tall i have raised the bed about 2 feet because it is along the road any info or ideas would be appreciated also is live in zone 5 i have lots of day lilies tall sedums shasta dasies is can use i like the grasses u use thanks

    • Michael says:

      Dear Mary, It sounds like many of the schemes in my Open Meadow and Wet Meadow books will work in the situation you describe. Much depends on the soil and how wet or dry it is during summer. The Introduction book gives examples of both and will teach you how to create your own unique schemes; no two garden situations are alike. do let me know how you get on and thank you for the kind comments about the blog. Regards, Michael

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