Plant Recipes for Perennial Meadows

A single plant portrait can seduce us into wanting to own and grow it, but it is only by mixing, matching and contrasting different plants in our garden borders that we can fully appreciate their subtleties and characters. This is the underlying principle of the perennial meadow that uses the best perennial plants in exciting combinations to create satisfying planting solutions for the many different parts of our gardens and public spaces.

The word meadow suggests the use of ornamental grasses and my experience and knowledge of this group of plants leads me to automatically include them in my planting schemes. However, the principle of repetition that is fundamental to all naturalistic planting, including my perennial meadows, need not always require grasses to work; think of the many different schemes in my Shady Perennial Meadows eBook, for example.

Nevertheless, ornamental grasses are some of the most evocative perennials we can use in our planting schemes and it is therefore, my plan to present, over the coming weeks, a series of plant recipes using grasses as their chosen starting point. Today we are going to start with tall-growing molinia grasses.

Purple Moor Grass – Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea

I was recently asked to create a planting scheme for a slope adjacent to a low-lying pond that would be low in maintenance, bold and effective from spring through to autumn. The pool is viewed from above and in order not to obscure the view of the water surface I decided to use the tall growing form of purple moor grass – Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea. These grasses tend to throw up tall thin flower spikes in mid to late summer that although impressive they are open enough to allow one to look through and beyond them. Green when new and in flower, this veil changes to a rich glowing gold in autumn long before collapsing into an untidy tangle around Christmas time. Earlier in the year these grasses form characteristic rounded mounds of soft green foliage that can act as a gentle background to early flowering perennials.

1 x 1 Molinea caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Windspiel’

1 x 1 Nepeta kubanica or N. subsessilis

2 x 1 Persicaria amplexicalis ‘Orangefield’

1 x 2 Trifolium ochroleucum

1 x 2 Geranium ‘Anne Thomson’

To understand how these plant recipes work please look at the Meadows 101 section of this site and my Introduction to Perennial Meadows eBook. Put simply, when I write 1 x 1 I am suggesting one theme plant per square meter/yard, 2 x 1 means two plants per square meter/yard and 1 x 2 means one plant per every two square meters/yards.

Normally, I aim for 8 theme plants per square meter, but here the grass and persicaria will quickly grow large and therefore can be used more thinly. However, it is important to quickly cover the ground with vegetation and for this reason I would add to this scheme Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae to function as one of my complementary plants. This euphorbia is often recommended as an effective groundcover perennial, but it is not. In the first couple of years it works well and starts to spread, but thereafter the older plants start to die back leaving a patchy cover by the third year. Here this is exactly what we want as it will grow out and away leaving the more vigorous perennials to fill in the space.

The persicaria used is a fairly new cultivar with rather odd coloured orange/pink flower spikes. This is not an easy colour to place, but massed amidst the tall grasses it will be stunning throughout its long season of summer and autumn. Earlier in the year the bold white flowered clover (Trifolium) and the blue mint (Nepeta) will reign above the soft mounds of grasses. The geranium has a very long season from early summer till autumn and is vigorous enough to hold its own within this scheme; the foliage is yellow green and the flowers magenta purple. This is a smaller growing version of the better known G. ‘Ann Folkard’; it is far better and more easily grown, but will take one growing season to fully establish itself and become effective – Ann Folkard, in comparison, would probably die!

As I have already said, the grasses will keep the scheme going until Christmas, but for an early spring display of colour I will probably add a mass of tulips as part of the complementary component of the recipe – a temptation I can rarely miss.

These recipes are going to appear without any photographs as I want my readers to think about how the plants work together rather than be attracted to flower colours or whatever. Next time I will talk about another scheme using one of the lower-growing molinia grasses which I intend to use on an adjacent site next to the same pond.