Designing a perennial garden

Designing a perennial garden

Gather information before designing a perennial garden. A perennial garden yields ample opportunity to express your personal style. Whether you have a flair for drama, a penchant for exuberant color, or a quiet passion for understated beauty, you can showcase your preferences using perennial plantings. If you’ve never gardened before, spend time looking through garden magazines, books, and catalogs. Photocopy or tear out pictures that catch your eye, and start an idea file. Visit public gardens and garden centers and photograph plants, combinations, or landscaping techniques that inspire you. Take local garden tours to glean yet more ideas. Consider your own lifestyle interests too. If you’re an avid recycle, you’ll probably find the earth-friendly tenets of prairie, native plant, and xeriscape gardens appealing. If hosting family and other gatherings is a key pan of your life, you may want gardens that enhance outdoor living areas and add beauty to indoor views.

Your home will also offer clues to your garden style. Picket fences and rambling front porches beg for cottage-style perennials, while clean, modern architectural features can be echoed with ornamental grasses and strong textural perennial compositions in the garden. If space is at a premium, perennials in containers arc a logical—and beautiful—solution. Your garden may sprout as a solution to a landscape problem, such as an area where grass won’t grow because it’s too shady or too wet. Consider indoor views of exterior areas, and plan perennial beds to spruce up scenery. You might develop a garden around a theme, such as a wildlife-attracting border, a cutting garden, or a garden for meditation. Your garden may feature unexpected, playful touches, or it may house a cherished collection of items with weather-resistant personalities. Whatever the inspiration, you’ll find perennials to carry out your vision with beauty and ease. Once you narrow your stylistic focus, you’re ready to deal with the realities of your site.

Plant collector’s syndrome

Gardeners are drawn to plants in inexplicable ways. You’re familiar with impulse purchases. In gardening circles, that’s called a passion for plants. A plant catches your eye, and the next thing you know, you’re trying to shoehorn it into your garden. In the best scenario, a garden born through improvisation looks fantastic. At worst, chaos reigns as the good, the bad, and the ugly grow side by side. Make collections work by following these simple steps.

Stick with a plan.

Draft your perennial garden on paper—and use that as the final word on plant purchases. Focus on a plant groups. Gather plants of one type, such as sedums, coneflowers, or grasses. Single-style plant groupings compose wonderful displays.

Choose a color.

Monochromatic gardens are striking. Focus on plants that unfurl leaves, flowers, or stems in a specific hue, and you’ll cultivate an artistic garden.

Set aside a bed.

For all the plants you simply can’t pass up, create a holding bed located away from your main garden. As you tend these plants, you’ll discover their talents and demands, and whether there’s truly a place for them in your garden.

Understanding sunlight is simple:

Either something receives sun or it does not. The intensity of sunlight varies based on time of day, with morning light offering a softer, gentler ray and afternoon sun burning with sizzle. Shade presents a more complex scenario, full of nuances and degrees. There’s the deep shade you find on the north side of a house, alongside a stone wall or privacy fence, or beneath a 70-year-old beech tree, where the sun only peeps from winter through early spring. Dappled shade dances beneath honeylocust trees, where small leaves filter sunlight to cast a filmy, shifting glow. Deciduous trees offer seasonal shade.

Spring sunlight under leafless boughs provides the perfect footing for ephemera’s, plants like bleeding heart or wood anemone, which stage an early season flower show and then quietly disappear as leaves emerge and shade deepens. As the sun heads north for summer in the northern hemisphere, shade patterns shift and shorten, then silently lengthen as summer slips into fall. Observe seasonal light patterns as you plan your perennial garden and choose and situate plants. Shade, shade, go away You can make some shade do a disappearing act If you have a tree with branches that cast dense shade, lighten the scenery below by removing lower limbs. This process, called limbing up, effectively lifts a canopy, permitting sunlight to penetrate the leafy shade.

During late summer and fall, sunlight can slant beneath limbed up trees to lighten deep shade. Selectively thinning can increase light to the ground below. Consider replacing solid fences with vine-covered lattice to increase light. Dealing with dry shade Dry shade under mature trees is one of the garden’s toughest conditions, but perennials can splash color into these droughty, dark areas. For plants to thrive until they’re established, they’ll need frequent watering. Plants will deliver a modest flower show that slowly increases over time.
Sometimes shade comes


Plants for dry shade Some perennials splash color into droughty, dark areas. Water plants until they’re established. Anemone Barrenwort Bear’s breeches Columbine Coral bells Lenten rose Liriope Mondo grass Monkshood Yellow foxglove

Flowers and foliage for shade Different perennials perform in varying degrees of shade. Generally, plants that thrive in deep shade, such as these perennials, will also prosper in part shade. Try some of these flower and foliage favorites to pump up the beauty in shady corners of your yard.

HEART-LEAF BERGENIA Shiny evergreen leaves and pink spring blooms; deer resistant.
HOSTA Foliage plant in an array of hues and variegations.
JACOB’S LADDER Blue, white, or pink blooms in spring; variegated leaf forms brighten shade.
LUNG WORT Silver- or white-speckled, deep green leaves; some forms feature greater leaf variegation.
ROSE TURTLEHEAD Upright, clumping plant with pink to white flower spikes in late summer and fall.
VARIEGATED SOLOMON’S SEAL Arching stems hold cream-edged leaves that turn gold in fall.
YELLOW CORYDALIS Yellow blooms dangle above lacy foliage spring through fall.

Most perennials prefer soil that allows water to drain and offers nutrition to hungry plant roots. There are exceptions to that rule—plants that flourish in lean, dry soil or in water-logged conditions, like those found in bogs or beside ponds or streams. Four components determine whether soil favors a water-loving great blue lobelia or a drought-tolerant sea holly: sand, silt, clay, and organic matter. Combined in the right proportions, these components form loam, the ideal soil for growing most perennials.

Soil components The proportions of sand, silt, clay, and organic matter affects the ability of soil to hold or release water and nutrients. Soil with high clay content retains nutrients, but the tiny clay particles also trap water, creating a drainage issue. Prolonged rainfall causes waterlogged conditions as water displaces oxygen around plant roots. For plants like Japanese iris or sneezeweed, saturated soil and standing water are ideal. But if you try to grow perennials like yarrow or coreopsis, soggy soil is deadly. To tell whether your soil has high clay content, grab a handful of moist soil and squeeze it. Clay soil feels sticky and forms a tight clump.

Smaller than grains of sand but larger than clay, silt particles form soil that drains freely and holds nutrients. Cranesbill geranium, primrose, and black-eyed susan grow in soil with a high silt component. Silty soil feels powdery when dry, silky when wet. Sandy soils drain very quickly and don’t hold nutrients. Artemisia, catmint, and yucca all thrive in sandy soil. When you grab a handful of sandy soil, it feels gritty and, wet or dry, it won’t hold together. Organic matter transforms soil, giving it an ability to hold water and nutrients. When added to overly clay or sandy soil, organic matter transforms it into a soil that’s loose and airy, able to drain and hold nutrients. When you pick up a handful of moist soil high in organic matter, the soil clumps together in your hand, but you can easily break the clump apart. Working with soil Once you know your soil components, you have two choices as you prepare to grow perennials.

You can choose perennials adapted to the soil conditions that you have, or you can change soil by amending it (see the chapter beginning on page 108) or improving drainage (see page 31). If you opt to focus on selecting perennials to match your existing soil, you’ll find some help below, along with the perennial lists on pages 12 to 29. As you study individual plants in the encyclopedia, you’ll discover clues about pairing plants with appropriate soil. Each entry description includes “Site,” which describes the conditions in which the perennial grows best. For sandy soil, look for plants that require excellent drainage. For loam to sandy loam, look for perennials that need well-drained soil. Infertile soil is the same as poor soil. If a site mentions soils of average fertility, that refers to any reasonably fertile soil.


Sediment test To determine soil type, conduct a sediment test. Place a handful of soil in a jar with 1 tablespoon of dishwashing soap. Fill the jar with water, shake, then allow it to sit. Soil components will settle in this order: sand, silt, organic matter, and clay. Larger particles (sand, silt, and organic matter) will settle in a few minutes or hours. Clay particles may take a week or more to settle. When the water is clear and you see distinct layers, measure the height of the total soil and each layer. Divide the height of each layer by the total height to discover which component dominates your soil.

Plants for lean soil Some perennials grow best when the soil dishes up a starvation diet to roots.

BLANKET FLOWER Long-lasting red and yellow flowers in summer attract butterflies.
BUTTERFLY WEED Striking orange blooms in summer and large seedpods in fall; attracts butterflies.
CENTRANTHUS Reddish pink flowers open from early summer to fall; attracts butterflies.
LAVENDER Fragrant purple flower spikes in summer.
PINCUSHION FLOWER Light blue or pink flowers top wiry stems from summer into fall.
RUSSIAN SAGE Tiny blue-purple blooms glow amid lacy, gray-green foliage from mid-to late summer.
STOKES’ ASTER Shaggy blue, pink, white, or rosy purple blooms from summer to fall. .
WHITE GAURA Starry pink or white flowers float on airy stems from midsummer to early fall.

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