Garden designer, garden photographer, and published author Michael King offered to write a guest post for my blog and I was humbled by the honor. [As a big fan of his new blog, Perennial Meadows, I posted my recommendation for it on this site several weeks ago]. Book titles to Mr. King's credit include Gardening with Grasses [written with Piet Oudolf], Gardening with Tulips, and Perennial Garden Design. Mr. King’s next work will be published as an eBook.
New Look Perennial Plant Borders by Michael King
Looking back into my old collection of gardening books on the subject of planting design, the emphasis is very much on contrast. The classic books from the nineteen eighties and nineties written by English plant specialists such as Beth Chatto and Penelope Hobhouse talked endlessly about leaf shape, pattern and texture. After the garish colour schemes of the 60s and 70s the emphasis shifted to subtlety of form and combinations that drew our attention to it. Colour was of course the other topic that dominated these books and no one more than Rosemary Verey encouraged us to seek gently harmonies and carefully chosen contrasts - the pastel tinted borders awash with silver foliage became the new black long before black became "new" if you understand my meaning.
Looking back it is really quiet surprising how much has changed, especially when we hear repeatedly how backward garden design is in comparison to other areas of the creative arts and architecture in particular.
Focussing on planting design, the perennial plant border of today looks very different to its namesake of only a few years ago, but understanding why is not all that easy to grasp. Of course many of the plants that are popular today where not common twenty years ago, but there is far more happening in today's perennial planting schemes than this.
To understand the core underpinning contemporary planting designs one must understand that the emphasis now rests upon ideas rather than visual impact; colour borders are out and concept borders are in. Plants are not used simply for their physical attributes but because they in some way communicate an idea - the lost prairies of our homeland, the vanishing European wildflower meadows, our childhood memories of foreign holidays or our concerns for nature, plants and the animals that we yearn to conserve.
Big ideas seem to need large scale borders to make their point. Looking at the landmark schemes of the last ten years or so, few have been made in small domestic scale gardens. Rather, today's gardening magazines are awash with horizon-filling schemes that have transformed the atmosphere of public parks and extensive private estates - naturalistic is the key word. Those of us with smaller gardens may well be inspired to embrace the new styles we admire but find it difficult to adapt the examples we encounter to the confines of our less generous plots. All too often I have seen such attempts fail and have myself been responsible for some wooly attempts, but once you understand the underlying principles it does become possible to adapt the new approach to even the smallest of garden spaces; however, some compromises along the way are inevitable.
Once one understands that the key is in creating an overall image rather than concentrating on finer detailing, progress becomes possible, but it does need the plant collector within us to show restraint. If one word characterises new, so-called, naturalistic perennial plantings it is repetition. The same plants are repeated throughout a planting scheme to both emphasise the idea that a plant represents, but also to strengthen its visual impact - a few red flowered clovers (Trifolium rubens) are pretty, but you may need fifty or more plants across a field of deschampsia grasses to communicate the idea of an open meadow. The corollary here is that the more you repeat a plant the less room remains available to introduce other different plants to the scheme.
In developing my ideas for the perennial meadow it is this dilemma which has lead to the concept of theme plants. I restrict myself to a maximum of five, but do sometimes bend the rule by using different species or cultivars of the same genus. I have a grassy meadow in my own garden using low growing molinia grasses, but have ended up using three different cultivars to increase the diversity without diluting the idea. In another place, I have adjacent borders using the same planting scheme, but in one I use a tall growing pennisetum grass and in the other, another, more arching, cultivar. These theme plants are randomly planted at intervals across my schemes to create a matrix within which the other theme plants are spread to create a block of vegetation that as a whole represents my main idea.
If perennials have one weakness it is that they are dynamic and this, of course, is one of their strengths as well. In spring they start growing, later they flower and when this ceases they tend to slip into a decline. If carefully chosen we can extend the period our schemes look presentable by including plants that not only look good in flower but both before this starts and, later, when maybe they make seed heads. Inevitably perennials die back and this means as structural elements within a garden's design they are weak. This weakness was shared by the traditional herbaceous border, however, these were typically presented within a strong framework, often created by a wall or hedge as background. However, our new-look perennial borders with their need to draw us into the ideas they foster need to be entered and not presented as an abstract tableau set within a picture frame.
To overcome the weaknesses I see in perennials I follow a number of strategies to create year round structure. Firstly, I select some plants that stand up throughout the winter months such as miscanthus grasses and monardas. Secondly, I organise the meadow into a series of crisply defined beds separated by bold purposeful paths. And, finally, I create a framework of some sort; perhaps with shrubs, hedges or fencing that define the internal structure of the garden.
Such beds can be arranged into a labyrinth that leads visitors on a journey amidst the plants they contain and even in small gardens this can be made to work. Admittedly, these scaled down schemes lack the grandeur of the parkland meadows we seek to emulate, but when the plants are well chosen and grouped as I have described they are more than capable of presenting a clear idea that can exert a powerful influence upon the garden spaces they occupy.
Click here to Read Michael King's blog Perennial Meadows.