Perennial Meadows – Design Principles

The two things we always and regularly do with gardens is look at them and walk within them. Of course there are more possibilities: we drink and eat there when the weather is fine, we play, we entertain and maybe use the ground for growing vegetables and herbs for the kitchen. But most often we look( even more so, from within our homes) and we walk around to gain a better look at their contents.

What this means is that they need to look good for as much of the time as possible and that is where a good structural design must be created before we start adding ephemeral flowers. Perennials alone cannot make a complete garden, but they can contribute dramatic garden features. However, unless your garden is so large that you can afford to ignore a part when it is not interesting, you will want any area dominated by perennials to look good for as long as possible.

There are various design strategies to follow.:

  • use plants that flower early and then disappear to leave room for others to take over the space e.g.. Geranium tuberosoum or oriental poppies.
  • use plants that flower for a very long time such as some heliopsis cultivars and Gaura lindheimeri.
  • find plants that look good prior to a later flowering season such as the dramatic foliage of ligularia which flower in late summer.
  • use plants that form distinctive seed heads that are worth looking at long after their flowering period is over, for example, veronicastrums and some salvias.

By putting plant combinations together that use these strategies and including plants that flower at different times we can create schemes with a very long season of interest. The corollary to this is that the fewer species you can find to achieve this aim the greater will be their impact within a mixed planting where through repetition their numbers will be greatest. I seek schemes with no more than five main players; plants I call my theme plants.

Perhaps you feel that only five different plants repeating across a border of thirty feet long or more will look boring and monotonous. You are probably right, but this will depend upon the scale of the whole perennial meadow in question. My let-out-clause is the plants I call the complementaries. These can be almost anything that you like so long as:

  1. they do not compete or overwhelm the main theme plants, and
  2. they do not displace more than 25% of the total numbers of plants used in the scheme.

I have written a lot about complementary plants within perennial meadows in the Meadows 101 section of this site and will no doubt make more reference to them as this series of posts develops. Depending upon your terminology and whether you consider a plant as a theme plant, a complementary plant, a matrix plant or a scatter plant, the way you distribute them throughout a meadow will, more often than not, have a significant impact upon the total image. For this reason complementary plants are probably the most difficult component within the design process to get right. I have my failures, but most revolve around a complementary plant I become attached to that eventually needs to be taken out of a border usually in the first season when its inappropriate behavior shows itself. 

Complementary plants can be used to extend the season of interest of a scheme, they can also introduce variety to an otherwise uniform matrix of planting and thereby offer a reward when we come closer to a scheme and we discover that there is more there than originally meets the eye. Further, they can serve to introduce a theme that elsewhere within a meadow is fully developed – for example, the occasional patch of salvia that further along a planting area becomes a dominant theme plant. Whereas theme plants tend to be used to create bold uniform strokes of vegetation the complementaries can serve to introduce counter rhythms, contrasting textures and punctuation to our schemes.

Designing perennial meadows goes further than just identifying a range of plants to put together to fill a planting area within a garden’s design; this will be the subject of my next post in this short series.