Theme Plants for Perennial Meadows

How do we select the theme plants that together make up the dominant look of our perennial meadows? Well, I shall try and set out my thoughts in the order I should logically develop a planting scheme, but in reality personal preferences can often be a starting point. That said, if a plant cannot grow where I would like to use it then it will have to be avoided – or at least it should be!

  • The idea for a scheme is paramount; will it be inspired by a prairie, a meadow, a woodland or a seascape? Through association, certain plants will start to suggest themelves – crambe and thrift growing along the shoreline, poppies and grasses making a meadow etc.
  • Growing conditions are inescapable. Yes, you could alter the soil and eliminate shade to grow a certain group of plants, but contemporary gardening is far more in touch with environmental impact and should be trying to adapt to what already exists and minimise the waste of valuable resources such as water. Plants can be found for almost any conditions that will be encountered in a garden and these should be the starting point far any plan. They will not only grow better, they will more than likely look at home which is for most contemporary gardeners equally important.
  • Create a scheme that will look good for as much of the year as possible. A selection of good theme plants that look fantastic when flowering together in high summer may not add up to good scheme. I look for plants with a long flowering period, I then try to make a selection which will flower in a sequence starting in spring and ending in autumn; hopefully the flowering periods will overlap to some degree. A plant that makes attractive foliage in early spring, flowers well in summer and then develops attractive seed heads and/or autumn tints is the ideal, but few can live up to this. Balancing the strengths of one plant with the weaknesses of another will eventually lead to a satisfying combination.
  • Colour, shape and scale are all factors to consider when combining plants. Tall and upright plants bring drama and a sense of enclosure, while low and rounded plants are used to bring calm and fill space within the schemes.
  • The proportions of each of the different theme plants making up a scheme will effect its feel and appearance. Some plants are more dominant perhaps through their size, their colour or through the strong associations we attach to them. A large grass such as Stipa gigantea will only need to appear in every third or fourth square meter/yard of a scheme to make its mark while a perennial such as low-growing Coreopsis verticillata may need to be planted at the rate of 4 to 6 plants per square in order to create an effective colorful background for a scheme.
  • Having arrived at a scheme we need to assess its weaknesses and find ways of overcoming them. For example, a scheme that totally fills a garden space runs the risk of becoming monotonous and a scheme that starts to flower late in the growing season may need something added to it that is effective earlier. Such issues we can address by adding complementary plants to our schemes, but the golden rule is that these must not be used to such an extent that they dilute the impact of the main theme plants.

When planning a scheme I typically look for five different theme plants, but if three will do the job that will be just fine; creative design should not be tied up with to many rules and limitations, but as a starting point five plants flowering consecutively from spring through to autumn is recommended. With the theme plants taking the leading role, the complementaries are added to extend the season of the flowering meadow and in large schemes add diversity and interest to avoid any monotony.

In the scheme below the theme plants are repeated throughout, but the yellow heliopsis in the middle is a complementary plant that adds diversity and also links this scheme to the ones in the background.

perennial meadow, designed by Michael King
Perennial meadow, designed by Michael King