Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Beyond the Border: How to Use Perennials and Grasses in Landscape Settings

Of all the plants I frequently obsess about, herbaceous perennials and grasses are perhaps my favorite.  Of all the plant categories, they are the most ephemeral, dynamic plants.  One can mark the seasons with these plants; they are harbingers of change.   And as a designer, perennials and grasses are the most expressive plants within my palette.  Rich layers of bold perennial massings can express a site in powerful ways. 
The British border
When it comes to designing with perennials and grasses, however, we have a limited language for their use.  The perennial border—an intricately arranged, delicate frame of flowers—is really the only concept we have for their use.  And while borders can be beautiful, they have limitations.  They are generally high maintenance, fussy, and require a high degree of horticultural knowledge.  As a result, American gardeners and landscapers are often hesitant to use perennials and grasses because we associate them with British-styled borders.  But it does not have to be this way.
Let me propose an alternative.  Instead of limiting our landscapes to two distinctly British genres (the manor lawn and the perennial border), let us take the border and explode it out of its box.  Let’s blanket our landscapes in bold massings of perennials and grasses.  Let’s convert our wall-to-wall carpeting lawns into well-proportioned area rugs surrounded by perennials and grasses.  Let’s drape office parks and civic landscapes in vibrant tapestries of flowers, ferns, and sedges. 
The American landscape—from the great forests of the East Coast, the iconic prairies of the midland, and the mountains, deserts, and forests of the West—should be ample inspiration for a new, distinctly American garden aesthetic.  Like the American landscape, let us use no small gestures.  Let us draw on our country’s rich native palette and patterns and distill them into artful, garden spaces.   The New Style will not merely imitate our natural landscapes, but interpret them into uniquely modern, human landscapes.  
Over an acre of herbaceous plantings added in the right of way in
downtown D.C.  Designed for NOMA BID by Thomas Rainer, Derrick
Wolbaum, & Elliot Rhodeside, Rhodeside & Harwell.

Ok, Thomas, enough with the manifesto.  Is it really practical to use herbaceous plants on such a scale?  Won’t planting huge swaths of perennials and grasses require an enormous effort of weeding, watering, and gardening? 
The short answer is yes in the short term, but in the long term, this style of planting can be very low maintenance—even less maintenance than lawn and shrubs.  The key to successfully planting large scale perennials and grasses is to combine good plant selection with smart massing. 
In the next couple of posts, I’ll get into the nitty-gritty of how to select perennials and grasses for landscape settings.  What types of perennials and grasses are best for larger massings?  How do you arrange them in a way to minimize their maintenance?  How do you make these landscapes full, beautiful, and lasting?
Stay tuned . . . I’m giving away all the secrets . . .


  1. Very nice post, I am still into the 'short term' but I hope you are right and the garden will require less and less maintenance after the first years. I'm always tuned around here, so I'm looking forward to read your next posts.


  2. I like the image you paint with the word "expode"! As a prairie gardener, I can't wait to hear about the secrets!

  3. Hi Thomas,
    I can't agree more, with so much emphasis on hardscaping and shrubs in our American landscapes, we need more perennial plantings on a large scale. I think Piet Oudolf has done some amazing work with many of our North American natives.

  4. Alberto,

    I enjoyed your site today. I, too, am in the process of starting a new garden. It's hard to be patient. The reality has not caught up with my crazy visions. Thomas

  5. Janice,

    I'll try not to disappoint. I've learned mostly the hard way about what works and what doesn't. The last few years I've been designing with prairie style plantings for public sites. It's humbling, but it's still possible.

  6. Heather,

    I totally agree with you about what Oudolf is doing for public spaces. It's fantastic. I hope we get more designers using perennials and grasses at that scale. And even smaller scale gardens. Less lawn, less evergreen shrubbery, more richly layered native (and beneficial non-natives) perennials and grasses.

  7. I cannot wait to hear all those secrets from someone who has actually tried to make this style of planting work in public spaces. Maintenance is the biggest challenge and when reading about Oudolf's projects in the US I hear repeatedly about the huge amount of time spent on weeding and cutting back throughout the growing season. I suspect that this is over kill in many cases, but I would like to hear what you think about the use of mulches as a means of reducing watering and weeds.

  8. Because of extremely high maintenance, it appears that landscape architects will often avoid the soul that perennials contribute to the atmosphere of a garden.

  9. I love that line about wall-to-wall carpeting becoming area rugs. Love it. Thanks for such good information and good writing.~~Dee

  10. Interestinting idea i as a small farm owner 100 acres would love to see a return to native grasses and flowers in pastures and feild edges as weel as landscaping in turf areas. Good for us and the wildlife

  11. Being the person I am I think that there needs to be more balance in a landscape with turf and bedding plants. We shouldn't turn the bedding plant into the carpet. In my case the turf in my yard is white clover and it will never get high then 5 inches, plus it's a natural fertilizer and my honey bees love it. More of my perennials and annuals are herbs and vegetables. I think the key to a perfect landscape is balance, one is never better than the other. Everything is equal.

  12. Stephanie LomanJune 18, 2012 8:42 PM

    I like the idea of bringing perennials into the landscape to break up the sea of turf. Sometime the turf gets boring. If you coulld find a happy medium I think this would be a wonderful idea for the modern homeowners landscape.


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