Man does not live by herbaceous perennials alone, even if his name is Bloom, and neither does a well-rounded garden. Like stage performers, they need to play off some scenery.
This is where shrubbery comes into the picture. Consider the typical “foundation planting,” a common sight in the Americas but not Great Britain. Almost all-new homes in North America have some such set of shrubs installed. The idea is to “tie” the house to the ground – that is, provide a visual connection between the structure and its land, so the house does not appear to have suddenly plummeted out of the sky into a field of newly planted and struggling lawn.
Let’s be positive. Even the most rudimentary and unimaginative of such plantings can provide you with a starting point. Shrubs and conifers, in conjunction with your “hardscape” – rocks, walls, trellises, and so forth – form the structural points of the border. These constants define your space. Think of them as the garden’s skeleton, a frame which you will flesh out with your flowering plants. Surround it with a collection of other plants for year-round interest.
If you are starting from scratch and selecting your own ‘bones,’ or adding some to an established stand, I strongly urge you to consider some conifers. Most of us haven’t room for great towering firs and spruces, but there are smaller and slower-growing forms, which will still provide a colourful shrubby backcloth against which your flowering plants will show to their best advantage. As a bonus, they will also help protect other plants from harsh winter winds.
Besides the common foundation planting, the North American landscape is remarkable for another unifying element. It embraces the majority of your homes, great and humble, from the East to the West Coast. I speak, of course, of your vast areas of manicured lawn.
Nowhere else in the world does one find anything approaching this love affair with the lawn, except of course for your love affair with the automobile. These two obsessions merge in the suburban pastime of mowing the lawn on a riding tractor. Add a set of headphones and the right music, and it virtually becomes a form of meditation – a synergistic harmony of man, nature and the internal combustion engine, though nature is the minority member in the triad.
At Foggy Bottom, I have the luxury of experimenting in plenty of space – six acres, to be precise. Since most gardeners work in somewhat tighter quarters though, I have a keen interest in working out practical solutions for the plant enthusiast who gardens on a smaller scale as well. A small garden has a charm and an intimacy uniquely its own. With proper care in plant choice and placement, even the most compact of borders can encompass an astonishing diversity in form, colour and long-season fanfare.
If such continuous colour is important to you, there are ways to achieve it. You can carefully select a range of perennials to bloom early (Aquilegia, Helleborus, Bergenia and Myosotis, for example), another for midseason flowering (Achillea, Campanula, Gaillardia and a cast of thousands) and a final lot to carry you through autumn (Sedum, Aster, Anemone, Dendranthema, etc.). Thoughtfully arranged amongst one another, such a troupe will perform admirably – a classic perennial border.
Another course of action is to use only those perennials which will bloom, continuously or with occasional brief rests, over a long period (e.g., Hemerocallis ‘Stella d’Oro,’ Blooms Fragaria ‘Pink Panda’, Scabiosa ‘Butterfly Blue’).
Inevitably, in strategy number one, one of your groups will cease blooming just a bit before the next is ready to take up the torch. Strategy number two will be rather a disappointment, as there simply are not yet enough such plants available. Also, if you insist on this method, you will deny yourself the company of some of the loveliest plants in the gardener’s repertoire.
Whatever strategy you favour, there are several constants to bear in mind. One is the need to consider plant form as well as colour and bloom season. Do the situation and the surrounding plants call for a vertical accent, or a horizontal or more rounded shape? Will the plants harmonize well?
Where strong colours clash, a good dodge is often to intervene with a neutral plant some Ornamental Grasses, perhaps, or something silver like Artemisia, to offer the eye a buffer and ease the transition between two hues which might otherwise jar the sensibilities. Blooms Achillea ‘Anthea’ is an excellent plant for this use, too. And remember conifers: For year-round colour and ease of care, you need look no further.
So far I have assumed that you have, or are planning, a perennial garden. Your actual case may be quite different: Let us explore the options available to a gardener who has grown only bedding plants and who wishes to bring some perennials into the picture.
If this describes your situation, take heart. There are many fine, easy-going perennials that will reward minimal effort with handsome results. Fragaria ‘Pink Panda’, for example, is as easy a perennial as you are apt to find. It resembles a pink-flowering strawberry plant, and is in fact a relative. ‘Pink Panda’ is as lovely in a patio pot, window box or even hanging basket as at the front of the border. If you go the container route, do remember to replant in the ground well before the first frost!
One begins where one is. If you have a garden already, perhaps courtesy of your home’s former occupant, then you probably will gradually write your own signature on that picture. If you have no garden, you are to be congratulated and envied. Your task may be a daunting one, but the future is limited only by space, imagination and budget. It is not beholden to some other mind’s conception of what your garden ought to be.
Your chosen methods, and your garden, will likely evolve over a period of years. This is as it should be. The best relationships usually do. So you needn’t be in too great a hurry to stuff a garden full, sacrificing quality for quantity. At Foggy Bottom I often leave a gap for as much as a year while I locate just the right plant to fit. Also, if a certain plant doesn’t perform as you desire in a given site, you can always move it.