Mind Gardens – A new series of blog posts

Perennial Meadow - Michael KingFor a garden to be more than just a comfortable place to sit in to drink a cup of coffee there needs to be some sort of idea underpinning its design. Ideas together with constraints guide the design process and can lead to outdoor spaces that have focus, draw attention to something or evoke an emotional reaction through associations.

Design ideas need not be complex although gardens expressing thoughts on philosophy, scientific principles and religion are all valid possibilities. Sometimes just the need to provide a setting for a treasured pot or sculpture will be enough, or perhaps the need to draw attention to a distant view.

Colours, textures, patterns, smells are all powerful stimuli that trigger associations and can create a sense of place and a mood when incorporated into a design.

Mind gardens will be an occasional series of posts that will try and show how perennial meadow planting schemes can be used in a range of different designs for small to medium sized gardens. The simple garden plans will show how different garden features, including mixed perennial border plantings, can be arranged in order to express a given design idea. 

In each case the emphasis will be upon the different perennial plants needed to create the various planting schemes in the gardens.. The actual arrangement of borders, paths, patios together with the siting of trees and shrubs are flexible and would be different for any given real situation, but it is the principals of how best to use perennials in such designs that I aim to cover here.

A Setting For A Large Ceramic Vessel

The placement of art objects such as sculptures and large pots in garden landscapes needs careful consideration. Scale is a crucial factor not only of the piece itself, but also of the planting surrounding it. Once, I commissioned a large pot for which I asked the potter to give it extra height in order that it could easily stand out within a planting scheme and not be engulfed by it.

Stoneware, 90 cm. tall, Jennifer Jones ceramics

My pot will be the focus of this garden design; a rectangular space some 30 meters by 20m, typical of many domestic gardens throughout Europe.. The pot is just over waist heigh and the planting surrounding it should hover around half this. For this important feature I have a simple perennial meadow in mind – Scheme One, in which ornamental grasses dominate; the pot will sit in a wide sweep of these grasses and draw all the attention.

Across a path, on the other side of the garden, I have designed a long and deep flower border. I could just repeat the same grass-based scheme here for a controlled minimalist look, but instead I envisage a low-growing, colourful flower border that will offer more interest over a longer season to the garden owners – Scheme Two. Note: These are often the sort of choices to consider when designing for either a public as opposed to a private garden setting.

This plan can be drawn equally well with either straight edged borders or curved and that should be dictated by the setting and your own personal preference. The key design point here is that the large pot stands prominently forward in the border on the left with the grass meadow flowing away behind it into the far reaches of the garden.

Scheme One – grass dominated – surrounding large pot

Theme plants – per square meter ( x 1 )

4 x 1 Sporobolus heterolepis

2 x 1 Stachys monierie ‘Hummelo’

2 x 1 Geranium ‘Dilys’

Complementary plants

2 x 1 Gaura lindheimeri

1 x 2 Sedum ‘Red Cauli’

In late summer when the tussled mounds of Sporobolus grass send up their fine, airy flower spikes the contrast with the hard ceramic vessel will be magical. The small, low-growing geranium will fill in the scheme at ground level and the Stachys sends up neat purple, sausage shaped flowerheads that age to dark brown and will punctuate the scheme long into the winter. Gaura is a short-lived perennial that flowers abundantly all summer. It will fill in this scheme in the early years and may self seed. Such a complementary plant is useful here as the Sporobolus grasses are particularly slow to establish and fill out.

Scheme Two – undulating flower meadow

Theme plants – per square meter ( x 1 )

3 x 1 Salvia nemorosa ‘Oostfriesland’

1  x 1 Scutellaria incana

1 x 1 Schizachyrium scoparium ‘The Blues’

2 x 1 Geranium ‘Dilys’

1 x 1 Sedum ‘Red Cauli’

Complementary plants

2 x 3 Stipa orientale

The blue/grey foliage of the Schizachyrium grasses and the late summer flowering Scutellaria will combine with the purple flower spikes of Salvia nemorosa in early summer which later in the season will stand out as brown seedheads against the rounded mounds of colourful Sedums.

A few extra plants of Stipa orientale here will throw up silvery flower spikes throughout the summer to mimic the wispy, pale coloured flowers of the Gaura on the other side of the garden. Additionally, the Geranium ‘Dilys’ and the Sedum ‘Red Cauli’ introduce additional linking elements between these two schemes.

These schemes relate closely with similar schemes detailed in my  Perennial Meadows eBooks, in particular the titles Open and Prairie. There you will find more detail about the plants used with images whilst also learning how they relate to the other plants being used in those schemes to create viable plant communities.

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New Planting Scheme: Low-growing, for an open, sunny site

design Piet OudolfLaren, the Netherlands, September 2018 design Piet Oudolf

Five theme plants along with up to 25% of so-called complementary plants create many of the planting schemes in my series of eBooks on perennial meadow gardening.

design Ton Muller, Amsterdam

Amsterdam, the Netherlands, May 2018 design Ton Muller

design Ton Muller, Amsterdam

Amsterdam, the Netherlands, August 2018 design Ton Muller

Here is a new scheme, base upon thoughts resulting from seeing two similar schemes this summer; as shown in the images above.

Theme plants:

3 x 1 Sesleria autumnalis

2 x 1 Euphorbia polychroma

1 x 1 Heucher villosa ‘Autumn Bride’

2 x 1 Stachys monieri ‘Hummelo’

1 x 1 Sedum ‘Karfunkelstein (Syn. S ‘Xenos”)

This mixture will create a low matrix of varying textures with flowers appearing in sequence: yellow Euphorbia in late spring, Stachys in summer, Heuchera and Sedum in autumn.

Complementary plants:

2 x 3 Pennisetum orientale

1 x 2 Limonium platyphyllum

1 x 3 Eryngium x tripartitume

Bulbs – Species tulips, Camassia and Allium christophii

Complementary plants bring extra dimensions to planting schemes; sometimes by highlighting a particular spot (perhaps on the corner of a border), and sometimes by introducing a bold contrasting element. In this scheme Pennisetum orientale will be used at regular intervals across the whole planting area to create a summer spectacle as its fine, delicate, arching flower spikes rise above its neighbours.

To learn more about how perennial meadow planting schemes are created please read Meadows 101 of this site and the first Introduction eBook Perennial Meadows.

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Autumn Fades into Winter

Perennials in Amsterdam

Here are the last glimpses of autumn in my Amsterdam trial gardens. As a photographer I can make carefully composed images, but this “walking video” gives you the wider view.

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Indian Summer Reward


Perennial Garden AmsterdamAsters, grasses and autumn tints are the main ingredients that brought my garden to its final crescendo this year.

Perennial Garden Amsterdam

Following a long hot and merciless dry summer in which everything struggled including myself, autumn arrived with just a little rain and everything changed.

Perennial Garden Amsterdam

Autumn tints were early, but many old clumps of Miscanthus grasses were very late coming into flower. This was not from lack of warmth, they are warm season grasses, but because of the 100 consecutive days of drought.

Perennial Garden Amsterdam

Asters took the weather in their stride and because of the endless warm sunny days of autumn, have never flowered for so long.

Perennial Garden Amsterdam

Tough stalwarts of the autumn garden such as Rudbeckia and Chelone have grown well and been flowering for months.

Perennial Garden Amsterdam

But when Kniphofia cooperi eventually flowers, autumn’s end is surely nearby.

Perennial Garden Amsterdam

So far our Indian Summer is continuing. Textures are becoming finer and more detailed, highlighted by the ever lower-angled sunlight that we hope will keep shining .

Perennial Garden Amsterdam

Plans are implemented for next year’s highlights and this afternoon we begin planting as many tulips as we can squeeze in. Savour the moment and dream that next year will be even better. The perennial meadow garden project continues!

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Dutch Perennial Gardens in the Dry and Hot Summer of 2018

RodgersiaBeauty is to be found in the chaos of nature and this year, in the struggle for life amidst the perennials and shrubs in my gardens. A drier than average spring followed by a totally dry summer in which a hundred days passed without any significant rainfall in a country famous for its canals; I was forced to turn on the sprinklers.

Shrubs held onto their leaves for as long as they could, but eventually many just dropped them and I am sure will recover next year. Some perennials like ligularias, Darmera and certain ferns simply disappeared and again I am sure they will all reappear this autumn or next spring.

Park in AmsterdamWhat was interesting was how some plants simply dried up and remained effective after a short flowering period. In late autumn we would be talking about their winter silhouettes, but in July you needed to adjust your expectations to fully appreciate what was happening. In the case of this public planting in the commercial district of Amsterdam I found the result still effective and attractive.

Vlinderhof park in UtrechtMore gardeners are starting to install irrigation systems, but if the trend in climate change is going to continue we would be better changing the pallet of plants we grow. I visited a high profile public park planting here this August which was of course fitted with an expensive watering system, but the lush green that dominated this oasis seemed strangely at odds with the wider landscape which was buff-brown; more typical of the Mediterranean region than temperate Holland.

August befor the rain arrivedWe were allowed to water our gardens this summer as the one thing the Dutch are good at is water management, but in truth it felt wrong. Nevertheless it meant that I was able to keep the garden ticking over with some parts relished the extra heat, sunshine and, for them adequate, water.

September after rainRain has finally fallen and  within a week our parched, buff-brown land is green again. Asters, grasses and Rudbeckias are all thriving in the garden and surprisingly many shrubs are bearing heavy crops of berries.

What this all means for the future is anyone’s guess, but with rain finally falling the garden is awakening and maybe autumn will turn out to be better than it ever has been.

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Shrubs in late spring

Shrub feature bordersIt is in late spring, just after the tulips have ended, that I become delighted by the many flowering shrubs and distinctive foliage colours that seem to dominate the garden.

Shrub feature bordersOf course there are various perennials flowering including Euphorbia, Geum, Geranium and bulbous plants such as Camassia and ornamental onions, but foliage colours and the flowering mounds of Viburnum and Deutzia shrubs attract all the attention.

Shrub feature bordersMy philosophy over shrubs concludes that shrubs are best used in gardens to create highlights and structure amidst a wider field of flowering perennials and ornamental grasses.

Shrub feature bordersEven in my own garden where I trial many different plants, including lots of shrubs, the idea is evident, but ideally the relationship between shrubs and perennials should be far more pronounced. Many Deutzias grow too large for smaller gardens but I have found Deutzia rosea ‘Campanulata’ with D. x elegantisima ‘Rosealind’ (behind) remain sufficiently compact for my needs. The upright shrub on the right is Frangula alnus ‘High Line’. Its distinctive upright form suggest it would work in a variety of schemes, but I find it rather boring and not very elegant, for such an upright design feature I can think of many slim growing conifers that would look so much better, and would be evergreen.

Shrub feature bordersPurple leaved foliage has featured in my gardens far a long time as it offers a strong, season-long contrast with the green foliage and flowers that generally dominate. Prickly Berberis, evergreen Pittosporum and Cercis with its flush of pink flowers on bare stems at the very start of the season have all proven indispensable.

Shrub feature bordersIn my vision of the shrub feature  border, only the most distinctive shrubs, those that have good form, foliage and flowers over a long season, are used. A single specimen in a small border may suffice, but often two or more examples will be scattered across the border with the intervening spaces being filled with my characteristic perennial meadow plantings.

Shrub feature borders

Here is a modern design by Sanne Horn for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam using widely spaced Prunus underplanted with Liriope, Carex and ferns.

My eBook, Shrub Features, goes into the ideas behind this original approach to using shrubs in modern style gardens. I explain how to bring shrubs and perennials together in successful border plantings as well as offering an extensive list of the very best shrubs to use in this way. Creating this eBook gave me a lot of pleasure as well as teaching me a lot about a group of plants I had not been making full use of in the past.

Design & Plant provides garden design education at irresistible prices.

shrub features

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Spring into action

My last post showed the garden three weeks ago just after I had knocked down all the perennials with the question “would you want your garden looking like that?”.

Well, as promised, the perennials have reappeared rapidly to cover the ground level debris and the shrubs are bursting into flower.

Perennial mulchThis is how it was just three weeks ago.

Perennial mulchThe dead remains of last year’s perennial growth will rot down in the course of the year, gradually nourishing the plants in a natural process.

Shrubs and tulips take a leading role at this time of the year.

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Would you want this in your garden?

Perennial mulchNot everyone would want their garden looking like mine does at this moment. However, what I see is a clean slate; the garden’s perennials have all been broken into small pieces and dropped on the ground where they will rot down over the coming year.

Perennial mulchAfter the winter the dead perennial’s stems are brittle and easily broken into small pieces by hand; only a few really tough ones need me to use secateurs. The long grasses I chop into short pieces apart from the really tough ones which I line out lengthwise under hedges where they take a few years to fully rot down.

What looks like a mess at this time will quickly disappear under the foliage of the newly emerging perennials and it will rot down in the course of the growing season to feed the plants.

Perennial mulchThe time I save in not carrying everything I remove to a compost heap, that I later must bring back to spread onto the ground is enormous. It might not look very tidy for a few weeks in early spring, but for me it represents the beginning of the new year’s gardening season.

Interestingly my attitude to this technique is in part influenced by the fact that these trial gardens are not where I live and as such they are not something I look at every day of winter. If this was my back yard I would probably attack the chaos earlier in late winter and introduce more structural planting to offer winter interest to the planting; here it is not necessary.

Cycling across town to these gardens I pass a public space in which a good example of mixed perennial meadow planting has been created. In season it is dramatic and highly effective and in winter the plant’s silhouettes are attractive. However, the city council has yet to find time to tidy it up and what currently is to see there is very ugly. Although perennial meadows can be effective in public spaces and offer significant savings in maintenance cost, their maintenance needs to be timely and rigorous.

As it currently appears this bold planting is a poor advertisement for what is a very good model for public green space planting. In a few weeks time it will again be something the passing public will appreciate, but it should have been tidied using my snap and drop technique many weeks ago.

Perennial mulchSpring is late in Amsterdam this year. Only three weeks ago we were skating on the canals in the centre of the city. Once the bulbs come into bloom and the shrubs blossom the scruffy ground cover will soon be forgotten.

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Light Up The Winter Garden

HakonechloaWinter has really arrived here in Amsterdam. It is cool and wet and I am glad that I have finished my replanting projects. Last week I weeded here and there, tidied away broken or flopped stems, and topped up the wood chip paths.

Perennial gardenThe garden is quite tidy now if you can appreciate the look of dying perennials and their silhouettes, but in truth, without light they look drab and dreary.

Autumn tints

The coloured leaves of deciduous shrubs are falling, but a few that remain hang like jewels when caught by low-angled sunlight.

Autumn tints

When the sun shines there is a great deal to enjoy especially in the knowledge that there is nothing more to be done this year apart from sweeping up fallen leaves.


Garden books give you a list of tasks to work on in the winter, but I will do nothing more than enjoy the sunlight, when its there, until February when I spring into action and tidy away the dead and brittle perennial debris and start to anticipate the arrival of spring.

Grasses in pots


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Grasses in early Autumn

Ornamental Grasses

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Vorläufer’

Ornamental grasses bring excitement and interest to the garden throughout the year when we take advantage of their exceptional qualities, but it is in early autumn that they can steal my heart.

Perennial Meadow Amsterdam

Molinia caerulea Subsp. caerulea and Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Overdam’

In soft light their fine details are set against the courser foliage-patterns of well chosen companion plants.

Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Overdam’ with Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Alba’

However, it is when the sun does its best to shine from its diminished angle in this season that the show really begins.

Ornamental Grasses

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Graziella’ and Miscanthus sinensis ‘Grosse Fontäne’

When in flower, what had been a group of plants that together we referred to as grasses, suddenly their different flowering patterns become apparent. Yes, they are still all recognisable as grasses, but now everyone stops to admire their different flower heads dancing in the sunlight.

Ornamental Grasses

Hakenochloa macra ‘All Gold’

Perennial Meadow

Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Cordoba’

Ornamental Grasses

Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Poul Petersen’


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