Shrubs with Perennials

Flowering ShrubsShrubs are at their most useful when they bring height and flower colour to those gardens dominated by perennials. This is the case in my own gardens in early summer.

Flowering ShrubsI try to select shrubs that will sit high and command the borders in which they grow.

Shrubs in early summerBy late summer those that once drew all the attention may vanish into the background  behind tall-growing, bulky perennials, but in spring and early summer they are indispensable.

Flowering ShrubsInspired by the dominant leaf colour of my neighbour’s purple leafed hazel I have also added to the garden a number of other shrubs with bold purple foliage.

Purple leaved shrubsThe two Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’  on the left will eventually rival the hazel tree in stature whilst the various forms of delicate maples add variety to this purple foliage theme in other areas of the garden.

Purple leaved shrubs

If you want to learn more about my ideas of how to combine shrubs and perennials please check out my eBook on Shrub Features which I put together a couple of years ago for gardeners interested in naturalistic planting.


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A small geranium to complement your planting schemes in a big way

Geranium tuberosumI have just discovered that it was back in 2012 when I last wrote about Geranium tuberosum. Inspired by what I have just seem in the garden, my plan was to write something similar now, but having reread my earlier effort, I have decided to save time and repost it below.

You may ask, “why all the fuss about a low-growing ephemeral perennial that only flowers for about three weeks and then shrivels up and disappears until the following year”? Well the point is that it flowers now, earlier than the others and before doing so has furnished the ground with a soft green blanket of foliage for many weeks. Geranium tuberosum is a good example of the plants I add to my planting schemes to bring interest at those times of the year when the leading theme plants are not at their flowering peaks; this is mainly in spring, early summer and/or autumn.

Geranium tuberosumThis week the little geranium is popping up everywhere amongst mounds of fast growing perennials filling the borders with the colour blue. Yes, I could have forget-me-nots, bluebells or brunner, which I do in other placed, but they all come with drawbacks; this geranium simply vanishes when its job has been done, leaving the area free for other plants to take over the space.

Geranium tuberosaFor those who missed it the first time here is the original post. And maybe some of the other plants that appear in the Top Perennials section of the web site will be of interest to you as well.



Geranium tuberosum

Geranium tuberosumOver time we all develop a list of plants that we know we can rely upon and which will grow well in various situations. Some designers end up using the same plants in every garden and proudly call them their signature plants!

The characteristics often stated for a top perennial are not the only ones to consider as it should be their usefullnes within a total design that counts. Top perennials are said to be those that look “good” before they come into flower, flower over a long season and then remain looking good when going to seed or even when dead. It is these features that characterise the plants I like to call theme plants.

Hopefully anyone following this blog for a while will have worked their way through the Meadows 101 section and know that theme plants alone cannot make a successful perennial planting scheme; we need complementaries to extend the scheme’s season of interest and to break up the monotony that can too easily develop in repetitive mixed perennial meadow schemes.

Geranium tuberosun does not qualify as a top perennial when considered using the standard criteria. It is low-growing and the flowering season is short; three weeks tops. And when Geranium tuberosum finishes flowering it dies back to remain dormant for the rest of the year. However, it is one of my top perennials as it flowers at just the right moment in my flower borders.

Geranium tuberosum with Euphorbia pallustris

Geranium tuberosum with Euphorbia pallustris and Thermopsis

The foliage of this humble perennial appears early in spring and can make an effective setting for spring bulbs if present in sufficient numbers. But what matters for me is that just as the last of the tulips fade and the early euphorbias come into flower, its lavender blue flowers pop up randomly in between its neighbours. In what I call the patio border this coincides with the flowering of Thermopsis, another valuable complementary plant that resembles a delicate lemon yellow lupin. The geranium’s flowers contrast with the yellows surrounding it and it is a perfect match for the cascade of Wisteria ‘Caroline’ hanging overhead.

Wisteria 'Caroline'

Wisteria ‘Caroline’

If Geranium tuberosum flowered in summer it would not be worth bothering with, but for late spring it is definitely one of my top perennials – and, yes, I would probably go on to call it one of my signature plants.

If you found this interesting, you might also appreciate what I wrote about so-called ephemeral perennials here.

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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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Colours in the Autumn Garden

Perennial Meadow garden in AmsterdamColours are the spectacle in my autumn garden. They need sun to glow and when the wind blows the tall ornamental grasses start dancing to its tune.

Perennial Meadow garden in AmsterdamMuch of my planting plans are to do with building the picture up to the final curtain call in autumn with the summer flowering perennials simply holding my hand and leading me carefully forwards to the real show.

Perennial Meadow garden in AmsterdamAmsterdam has had a terrible gardening year with a dry and cold spring and summer, followed by a dry heat wave in mid summer and, most recently, heavy, relentless rain. Now it is autumn and everything is forgiven.

Perennial Meadow garden in AmsterdamWhen the sun shines and the late flowering perennials, ornamental grasses and the senescing shrubs combine their medley of warm tints to create a show that hides the ravages of a challenging gardening year.

Perennial Meadow garden in AmsterdamThe tulip bulbs are in the ground, the compost heap has been turned and the hedges trimmed; next year promises to be a lot better!

Perennial Meadow garden in Amsterdam

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Grass Hedges

Grass Hedges
In contrast to naturalistic mixed perennial plantings, I like to place blocks of a single species of an ornamental grass for bold architectural impact.

Planted in lines, tall grasses can make seasonal hedges and when the grass remains effective for most of the year they form part of the garden’s permanent planting design.

Grass HedgesIn my own garden hedges of Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Overdam’ are used both along boundaries as well as within the massed mixed plantings. Their impact is enhanced when other plants are lined up with them for added interest.

Grass Hedges

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Looking good after 6 years – one perennial meadow example – 2015

Perennial Meadows by Michael KIngSix years ago I planted eleven demonstration borders at Lianne’s Siergrassen; a nursery specialised in ornamental grasses, in the north of the Netherlands. I returned this month after a three year gap to see how they were faring and came away satisfied and also informed from what I had seen.

Lianne Pot is the perfect client who has maintained the borders well and only made minor changes to the various schemes over the six years. Perennial meadow schemes are developed as simplified plant communities in the hope that they will develop as a whole and evolve over time. Looking at the schemes together we could see how a few plants had die out over the years and others arrived spontaneously from nearby plantings. Lianne has managed these changes sensitively, but only in a couple of borders felt the need to introduce or replace individual plants within the mix.

The first of my borders you encounter when entering the extensive “Prairie Garden” designed by Lianne Pot is the lowest growing of all and could easily function as part of the design in a small domestic garden; it has an area of 35 square meters.

Theme plants form the backbone of all my perennial meadow schemes and in this case included:-

Saponaria x lempergii

Salvia verticillata ‘Purple Rain’

Stachys officinalis ‘Rosea’

Sporobolus heterolepis

Gaura lindheimeri

Complementary plants are introduced into these schemes in small numbers to bring variety and extend the scheme’s season of interest. In this case a few specimens of the grass Festuca mairei and in places along the edges of the border Sedum ‘Red Cauli’ were used, together with drifts of spring flowering bulbs which feature throughout the entire “Prairie Garden”.

Perennial Meadows by Michael KIng

Here is the border, the crescent on the left, being planted in June 2009.

And just three months later it was awash with the flower colours of Gaura and blue Salvias, but the grasses were hardly to be seen.

Perennial Meadows by Michael KIng

Festuca mairei grows quickly to make bold rounded mounds, but the other ornamental grass, Sporobolus heterolepis, is painfully slow to establish, and as you can see in the pictures took more than three years before it became fully effective in this scheme. The Gaura linheimeri was used in this scheme in the knowledge that it would probably die out within three years, but in that time compensate for the slow establishment time of the grasses. Surprisingly after 6 years a few plants are still alive and make a valuable contribution to the mature scheme – should these die out in a very harsh winter we would probably replace them as their long flowering season and airy habit contributes a great deal.

Perennial Meadows by Michael KIng

One year old and the Festuca grasses were dominant, but the sporobolus was only noticeable when in flower later in the summer.

Perennial Meadows by Michael KIng

Three years on (below) the smaller and larger growing grasses had knitted together to form a pleasingly undulating matrix and the setting for the Stachys both in flower and later with its distinctive seed heads.

Perennial Meadows by Michael KIng

This border today has matured and the one plant lost from the initial planting is the Salvia verticillata ‘Purple Rain’. Perhaps we could introduce a few Salvia verticillata ‘Hannay’s Blue’ as a more robust replacement, but in principle the scheme hardly needs them now.

Perennial Meadows by Michael KIng

If you get the chance to visit Lianne’s Siergrassen in the north of the Netherlands another ten of my borders are there to study along with the rest of the “Prairie Garden” designed by Lianne Pot and other selected planting designers. And if that is not possible, this scheme, together with many others, is described in detail in my series of eBooks on Perennial Meadow gardening.

Lianne's Siergrassen

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