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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Transparent Perennials in the Flower Garden designers use plant forms the way a painter used brushstrokes. In their book, Designing with Plants, by Piet Oudolf with Noel Kingsbury, six forms that are basic to flower compositions are identified. One of them is called screens and curtains. This double concept refers to the transparency of some plants whose form is mostly air. Unlike others that have a solid shape, transparent plants have an open network of either stems or very narrow flower spikes. These open spaces, also known in the study of design as negative spaces, allow one to look through the plant to admire flowers growing behind. According to Mr. Oudolf, such plants create ….effective combinations of color and form as well as an atmosphere of mystery and romance. In their book, the authors suggests eight such plants but I have found two more that work well in small gardens.

The two perennial that belong in this category are Dianthus carthusianorum and Allium schoenoprasum, two underused, and hard to find plant. These flowers are among my favorites because of the intensity of their pink color. Before discovering the concept of transparency I had difficulty combining these plants with other perennials. Now, I understand that they must be used as atmosphere, as open clouds, to subtly punctuate the garden design.

While engaged in online research for a previous blog on the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, I came across the above photo that imperfectly demonstrates how these two perennials may be used as screens to enchant the plants growing behind. It’s not the most effective example, but it is the best that I have found to date.

In  pre World War Two movies, leading ladies would sometimes wear a hat, with a net veil that screened their face. The net created a feeling of mystery and transformed female screen actors into more fascinating characters. Transparent perennials serve the same purpose in the garden. The beauty of other plants is enhanced when they are veiled with curtain plants. According to Mr. Oudolf, the trick for successfully using a transparent plant is to give the illusion that it is planted everywhere, when in fact it is not. Over planting it adversely affects the overall composition.

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Reader Comments (4)

I am going through Mr. Oudolf's book, not an easy task to digest all of the information.

I love see-through plants, one of my favorites is Gaura but I am never successful having it come back even though it is classified as a perennial in zone 5. I have also used Centhranthus and Macedonia for this effect.


March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEileen

Hi Allen,

I have been to several Oudolf gardens including his own in the Netherlands. In terms of the screen and curtain type planting it generally refers to all plants that have 'thinner' flowering stems where the main plant and their foliage remains just above ground. The best examples; Verbena Bonaires, most of Umbelliferae family, Thalictrums and my favourite, the Phlomis Tuberosa etc. You can find all these in Oudolf's splendid book.

March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterOxonian Gardener

Allan, I confess that I haven't read Designing with Plants yet, although it is definitely on my (too long) list. I like this idea of plants that are "transparent." I think I tried to do something like this with Linum perenne at the front of my blue and yellow border, but it's not very successful -- and reading this makes me think that I just need much more of them to create an effective "cloud" of airy flowers or a screen of their foliage. Thanks, once again, for providing principles of design that help me better understand why what works does so and why what doesn't work doesn't. -Jean

March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJean

Beautiful picture, and of course if Mr. Oudolf suggests it, it must be good! I'm still in that young-garden stage when I'm happy if anything gets higher than a foot or two. Someday I'll finesse with look-through plants, I hope.

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVW

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