A new perennial meadow border in front of the Schutterstoren in Amsterdam was planted in mid April this year. Now, five months later, it is beginning to show its design concept. A mixture of perennials creates a central meadow that is surrounded by blocks of ornamental grasses. The ornamental grasses enclose the colourful perennial meadow in order that the border fits into the natural waterside setting. From within the adjacent parkland only the green of the grasses is visible; the flower meadow being revealed only at street level and when viewing the border from above.
Two cultivars of Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea are used: ‘Poul Petersen’ encloses the meadow and ‘Moorhexe forms a circular “column” in the middle that relates to the round appartement tower behind it.
Salvia nemorosa cultivars flower in early summer after a display of early flowering tulips that are accompanied by low-growing Euphorbia polychroma. Throughout the summer months Amsonia, Saponaria and Stachys flower in sequence. Finally, in autumn, low-growing Asters come into flower to complement the grasses that by this time are beginning to develop warm autumnal tints in their leaves and flower heads.
The next step in the creation of this perennial meadow grass border will be to add the bulbs needed to complete the design. This task will be carried out next month. The species tulip Tulipa praestans will be the first to flower between the clumps of grasses. The main tulip display will be the early to mid-season flowering Fosteriana tulip ‘Orange Emperor’. A sophisticated orange and green tulip cultivar that should be able to reappear year on year.
Summer flowering bulbs will include a range of different species onions namely Allium atropurpueum, A. cernum, and A. carinatum. The bolder, taller growing ornanamental onion cultivars Allium ‘Powder Puff’ and A. ‘Violet Qeeen’ will stand out dramatically above the early, blue-flowering Salvias in the perennial meadow surrounding them. Bulbs such as these are complementary to the main theme plants in my schemes, but essential for extending their season of impact as well as adding detailed interest.
Naturalistic style planting is a modern approach to creating pictorial perennial meadow planting schemes. These schemes combine garden plants into stable plant communities. Mixtures of herbaceous perennials, ferns and flower bulbs are put together that will grow well in existing garden conditions. Fore example, we consider shade, sun and soil type as factors that will need to be matched before combining them in a planting scheme.
What Is Naturalistic Planting?
In nature plants grow together in communities. What grows where is not only determined by physical conditions such as exposure to sun, shade, moisture and soil type, but also to what else is growing nearby. Plants compete with one another for the available resources in a given site and only the best adapted to local conditions thrive. Likewise, naturalistic planting schemes combine garden plants that are well adapted to available conditions. However, for a scheme to be successful the plants it contains must also be of equal vigour. If one plant spreads aggressively it will overwhelm the others.
A traditional garden border, in contrast to a perennial meadow, uses plants as individuals selected on the basis of what looks well together. By placing plants far apart, improving the fertility of the soil, watering and staking the plants in a mixed border present a carefully composed picture. Maintenance involves weeding, watering and staking together with division and replanting to control the more aggressive plants used in the planting scheme.
The communities of plants found in nature have evolved over time and can adapt to changes in their environment. Visually there is a subtle harmony within the patterns and colours they present to the world. And each community is responsible for creating the atmosphere and mood of each specific natural habitat: a windy sea cliffs, a water meadow, woodland shade and open heathland are just a few examples of this.
A naturalistic perennial meadow takes garden plants and combines them in ways that try to capture the mood or feel of a natural setting. We use plants well suited to the available growing conditions and which will co-exist with their neighbours without out competing them.
Capturing the look of a natural plant community
Naturalistic planting learns from nature. The irregular patterns we find there can be used to guide us in the way we set out the plans in our new style garden borders. The dominance of certain plants can be visually exciting and their repetition throughout a community is a way of giving certain plants impact in our schemes. A perennial meadow scheme uses a limited pallet of plants in loose arrangements across the whole area of a garden border to reinterpret such naturalistic patterns.
Is Naturalistic Planting The Same As Native Plant Gardening?
Native plants are defined by geography, but nature does not recognise boundaries drawn by humans. Plants grow where they do for many reasons. Climate and growing conditions limit what will be found anywhere, but that does not mean that other plants could not grow there if given the chance.
A, so-called, native plant will be well adapted to where it is found growing and as gardeners we should use them where appropriate. But gardens are not native plant reserves, but rather emotionally charge artificial living spaces. There will be other plants, equally well adapted to local conditions, that can be considered for inclusion in naturalistic schemes. Pictorial meadows is a perfect term coined by Nigel Dunnett in his recent book “Naturalistic Planting Design”. Pictorial means “forming a picture of”, and such planting schemes are made for us to enjoy by bringing us closer to nature that we recognise. To limit our planting pallet to just a few native species may fail to enable us to recreate the natural atmosphere we are searching for.
Naturalistic perennial meadow planting schemes are pictorial evocations of nature and do not need to be limited by using just local native species, but that is not to say that it cannot be done.
What Is A Perennial Meadow?
An example of a perennial meadow for an open sunny site would start off by using just five carefully chosen plants. These are the theme plants and they must be reliable, tough plants that will thrive in the site in question. We will fill the whole area with them, using perhaps fewer of the larger-growing species and more of the lower-growing ones. The aim is to cover the ground with a carpet of interlocking plants that will form a stable community that will resist invasion by weeds. If the theme plants are well chosen, they will bring flowers and interesting foliage to the site throughout the whole growing season. Some of them may even be effective in winter by retaining skeletons of dead foliage and seed heads.
Just five theme plants repeated over and over again will give a clear look to a border but this can quickly become monotonous. The trick is to substitute some of them with what I call “complementary plants”. For example, if our theme plants flower abundantly in spring and summer, maybe we need a few bold clumps of autumn-flowering asters and Vernonias to reinforce the scheme. Likewise, early spring-flowering bulbs can be added to kick start the perennial meadow’s impact before the main theme plants get into their stride.
What Are The Advantages Of Naturalistic Perennial Meadows?
An established perennial meadow contains plants that grow happily together. Some will be larger than others in the community, but each will survive by exploiting its own separate part of the ecosystem; its so-called ecological niche. The taller plant might need a lot of sunshine while its lower-growing neighbour may benefit from the shade it casts. And each may have root systems that occupy different levels in the soil below them. In this way they happily co-exist. For weeds to invade such a scheme is far more difficult than when plants are set out in well spaced groups in traditional garden borders.
Maintaining naturalistic perennial meadows takes far less time and effort than working with traditional garden borders. In a community plants compete in order to survive and they tend to be more compact and healthy. You will rarely need to stake anything and weeding will become less and less as the scheme matures. Typically such schemes are cut down completely in late winter and thoroughly weeded.
Because naturalistic perennial meadows use appropriate plants for the available growing conditions, such traditional practices as feeding, mulching, watering and spraying against pests and diseases are simply not needed. Plants are generally healthy and generous in their contribution to the insects, birds and other animals that visit them. Nature as a whole benefits.
Rules To Follow When Making A Naturalistic Perennial Meadow.
Step 1 Design Concept
What mood, atmosphere, memory or association do you want to realise in your garden design? Without a clear design aim gardeners tend to use plants they like without considering how they will relate to one another or the location in which they are going to be grown.
Here is an earlier Meadows 101 post on the background to this new style of planting.
Step 2 Garden Plan
Naturalistic perennial meadows are introduced into garden designs as borders, strips or blocks that fit together within the total ground plan of a garden. I try to make each of these planting areas as big and deep as possible. This allows the repetition of the theme plants to occur and thereby guarantees their impact. If you can walk between borders filled with naturalistic planting schemes they will embrace you and the mood will be intensified.
Step 3 Site Preparation
I always work with the existing soil conditions. No mater how poor the soil, there will be plants that will be able to grow in it. However, if the ground is seriously compacted then you need to break it up to allow for planting and the development of healthy plant root systems.
The most important thing you need to do, however, is to ensure that the ground if free from the roots of perennial weeds. Unless the planting area is weed free during the first year of establishment, your perennial meadow will be invaded by undesirable plants at the expense of your chosen theme and complementary plants.
Step 4 Plant Spacing and Planting
Pictorial meadows consist of specimen shrubs, trees and isolated groups of feature perennials surrounded by mixed perennial meadow plantings. These discrete feature plants need to be set out first.
I then place the complementary plants where I feel the scheme needs them. Sometimes this will be randomly dotted across the whole planting area, but often I will concentrate them into just one part of the total design. The theme plants are then arranged fairly randomly in the remaining spaces of the planting area.
Eventually the whole area will be covered by an even mix of plants with an average planting density of around 8 perennials per square meter or square yard.
nb. It is best to work with small pot grown perennial plants. In this way the intermingling of the different species is better, these small plants establish quicker than larger examples and also, importantly, they cost less.
Step 5 Establishment and Maintenance
Water newly planted schemes regularly during their first growing season and keep an eye out for any invading weed species.
In the second year there will be less weeding and watering needed.
Perennials are cut back or mown off in late winter. If the debris can be chopped up into small pieces it can be left lying around the crowns of the plants and will serve to gently nourish them in subsequent seasons as it decays.
Learning All About Naturalistic Perennial Meadows
This web site has everything you need to know about how to put the ideas of naturalistic gardening into practice. For those who want to go further and study detailed examples of naturalistic perennial meadows for different garden conditions, situations and design objectives my series of eBooks is available as shown here in the side column.
Additionally, at Learning with Experts I run two month-long courses. Gardening with Grasses is focused upon designing with ornamental grasses which as a group, will play an important role in the creation of many naturalistic planting schemes.
The grasses course serves as a good introduction to my second course specifically on Perennial Meadow Gardening. Here, as in the eBooks, I give detailed information about how to put together viable planting schemes, accompanied by examples of successful meadows I and others have designed.
In both course you will undertake short assignments and have the opportunity to discuss and analyse these with me on a one to one basis.
Winter in Amsterdam is wet and warm. Bulbs are rising out of the ground and many grasses that should have turned to straw are still green. Clearly there is nothing to do in the garden but wait for crisp cold weather and then maybe start thinking about clearing away last year’s debris.
Looking around the garden in winter there are always things that catch your eye. Snowdrops are appearing and looking very happy and the little shrub Ruscus aculeatus has formed more berries this year than I have ever seen here before.
One thing I did tidy was back in December as Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea always collapses just before Christmas no matter what the weather does. The other, lower-growing molinias – M. c. subsp. caerulea don’t suffer from the same weakness and are all looking crisp and upright elsewhere in the garden.
One group of plants that have enjoyed the mild winter and are all looking splendid at the moment are the ferns. The Dryopteris affinis ‘Crispa’ above is usually deciduous, but not so far this winter in my garden.
Let’s enjoy the moment before work resumes in the coming months.
I am enjoying the new border in front of my home. It has yet to get really cold in Amsterdam this winter, but now the plants are dormant. I am drawn to the repeating patterns and complex textures it contains, with its muted tones blending with the parkland in the background. Can you appreciate the beauty I find here or perhaps you see disorder and chaos in this garden border?
In the winter number of the Dutch garden design magazine OET (Onze Eigen Tuin) I wrote a short article, as did a number of other professionals, over how I deal with chaos, change and maturation in my own garden space. Here is the English text for you to read over Christmas.
We experience chaos when, what we see we do not understand; the things before us are not under control or are they out of control? Such impressions are based upon our knowledge and experiences and are often misplaced. For centuries gardens have been created bringing order and offering refuge from the wildernesses beyond their boundaries. Wild nature comes about through the interactions between microbes, plants and animals and the physical and climatic conditions that occur locally. We often don’t. understand why, and simple see disorder, chaos, but in truth it is far from that.
Were you to visit my garden, a garden I would never make for another, it would definitely feel chaotic. This is not a garden to impress others, but rather a place that has evolved over years. I know every plant there, why it is growing in the place that it is and why it remains welcome even though your logic would say that it should be moved or even removed. My plants chart an ongoing journey of study and experiment. More plants have died or been consigned to the compost heap in my garden, but what remains records my passions and informs my designs.
My garden’s layout is logical, straight edged borders offering room to asses plants and their associations with others. Some plants have thrived, others have died and most have had at least one journey in the wheelbarrow. New plants that arrive must find a place in this board game and often start off in the only place available at the time; chaos is almost guaranteed.
Plants that survive and that I like might move in an attempt to bring order and logic to the garden’s overall look, but often that simply doesn’t. happen.
One of the most noticeable characteristics of natural plant communities is the repetition of certain plants that give them their visual appeal, and it is this repetition that has become the tool I use to bring some order to my chaotic garden. I use certain plants with a strong visual impact throughout my garden to introduce a unifying theme. One such is Veronicastrum sibiricum ‘Red Arrows’, one of Coen Jansen’s introductions. It is not too tall, it flowers earlier than most others of its type and the thick, dark brown seed-heads remain a feature through into winter. Likewise, tall-growing grasses unite the garden in late summer and are later joined by a wash of blue aster flowers.
I don’t. plant garden borders, but rather attempts at compatible plant communities in which repetition of a limited plant-pallet gives them their visual impact. However, plant communities evolve over time responding to variations in growing conditions and the individual plants they contain. Sometimes a border in my garden will remain appealing for years, but inevitably there comes a moment when one plant has become too dominant and others have died. In truth, nature has intervened bringing order to my chaos and then the question is, for how long I find the results acceptable. Each year I probably tackel one such area in the garden, resolving conflicts and adding interest and diversity.
I have such a border at the entrance to my garden. Schemes, including hellebores, ferns, epimediums and other gems have resolved themselves into just a spring spectacle of a white flowered carpet of Pachyphragma macrophylla and Narcissus that fades to a simple green ground-cover in early summer, but this is eventually relieved by the flower colour of a spontaneous seedling of Persicaria amplexicaulis and a wild aster creating a pleasing picture as summer mellows. Maybe it could be more exciting, but maintenance here is minimal and, anyway, the rest of the garden has plenty more to offer.
My annual pilgrimages to nurseries such as Foltz, Jacobs,De Hessenhof and Coen Jansen (Ed. Dutch nurseries specialising in perennials) will never stop and no doubt continue to add to the chaos in my garden, but, hopefully, with a little help from Nature, chaos will never totally overwhelm my private space.
This year I am trialling a number of different species and cultivars of asters and they have brought real beauty into my autumn garden.
Aster scaber is spreading too rapidly, but it is very attractive both in leaf before flowering and then when actually flowering very late in the season. Such plants are useful in the garden where they have to fight for survival in difficult situations, but give them the chance and they can easily become a problem.
Fuschia magellanica is late this year having been cut to the ground in late winter last year.
Replanted last autumn, this shade border is developing well.
Chaos abounds in the garden during autumn, but there is a lot of beauty in the details. Probably this is my favourite season and my job is to edit the rapidly changing scene to bring these into focus.
Cercis canadensis signals the arrival of winter, but hopefully for a week or two longer.
As well as tidying the garden wherever need arises, this is also a very good time to replant new borders and move things around. The only exception to this is the ornamental grasses that are best left where they are until spring.
After a gap of more than eleven years I returned to this unique garden and was delighted to find it still had its powerful character. Henk Gerritsen is no longer there, but the volunteers and sponsors who aim to keep his philosophy alive are doing a fantastic job.
A summer restaurant – De Tuinkamer – is now housed in an industrial style greenhouse there and makes full use of a wide range of crops growing in the garden, including rare flowers and herbs.
It was October and summer colours had faded, but not the spirit of its creators – Henk Gerritsen and Anton Schlepers.
Dogmas are broken and humorous quirks catch you by surprise in this garden. The plants in the vegetable garden are allowed to flower within its tightly trimmed hedges, for example.
The ethos of this garden is to embrace nature and its processes within a structured framework. The whole “Dutch Wave” movement stems from this garden and landscape architects from around the world are still visitors and admirers of what is still managing to be preserved here.
Grasses flop when wet which is why it is best not to plant them too close to narrow paths.
However, today, fine rain turned this border in front of my home into a glistening spectacle of textures and light. The fine flower stems of Sporobolus heterolepis arched under the weight of a thousand water droplets whereas the stiffer form of Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Moorhexe’ did their best to resist gravity.
Two days ago under the influence of warm morning sunshine the mood was completely different.
Traditional planting schemes set blocks of perennials and shrubs next to one another in order to develop harmonious or contrasting effects that build a picture comprising forms and colours.
The contemporary trend for informal, naturalistic planting schemes uses plants in ways that mimic the natural patterns that occur in native plant communities. Such patterns typically occur over extensive areas and appeal by way of the patterns and rhythms that occur by repetition of a few characteristic species.
In the planting scheme described in my previous post I have repeated blocks of salvias through a matrix of Euphorbia and Sporobolus grasses and here and there a smaller number of Echinacea pallida. Repetition is what gives this combination of just four plant species its visual impact.
We set out the plants for this new perennial meadow border exactly one year ago.
The cylindrical residential tower on the outskirts of Amsterdam is in a natural green parkland setting. The planting scheme uses grasses to link the residence with the adjacent park.
Ribbons of the stiffly upright grass Molinia caerulea ‘Moorhexe’ bring structure to the design linking the convex perimeter of the round tower with the concave edge of the pavement at the front of the building.
The intervening areas are planted with a mixture dominated by the arching grass Sporobolus heterolepis. Euphorbia and Echinicea occur throughout with small blocks of salvias and asters each in their turn bringing seasonal colour.
By the end of the first summer the flowering grasses and asters were dominant and remained effective throughout winter.
Tidied up in late winter the border became effective from April with the flowering of the first tulips. Gradually they were joined by Euphorbia polychroma which continued to be effective long after the tulips finally faded.
Allium and Salvia are currently flowering and these will shortly be joined by Scuttelaria and Echinacea throughout the summer.
When the grasses flower, starting next month they will bring a mellow, natural atmosphere to the scheme mixing with the remaining seedheads of alliums, euphorbias, salvias and echinaceas.
The scheme is still developing and it will be at least one more year before it begins to approach maturity. To date the results are pleasing and maintenance is moderate. As the grasses grow together this will become progressively less and less.
This tulip,Tulipa sprengeri, is the exception to the rule. It will grow and flower well in semi-shade unlike any other and when it does it brings the tulip season to an end. This year it is early in my Amsterdam garden, but often it will not be in flower until June.
Its colour is strong and up close it screams refinement.