Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Why the Perennial Border Matters

Why mastering this high maintenance style will make you a better gardener.


The British perennial border has been out of vogue in the last decade. Cast off as high-maintenance relic of old estates, the perennial border has never really found a place in the American landscape. Our yards are too small. And so many of the great British examples have full time garden staff to take care of them. But the final blow to the perennial border has been dealt by bold visionaries like Piet Oudolf ( the Dutch “New Perennial Garden”), Oehme, van Sweden (“New American Garden”), Dan Hinkley, Beth Chatto, and many others who have busted perennials out of the border and spilled them into the larger landscape. This new aesthetic eschews high maintenance dead-heading, watering, and transplanting required by a perennial border and instead embraces plants’ natural forms, patterns, and ecological succession.

I consider myself a devotee of this new approach to herbaceous planting. I even wrote a series about getting beyond the perennial border. But this past spring I have had a revelation: the old-fashioned, high maintenance, not-particularly-American perennial border matters. Not only does it matter, but mastering the perennial border will dramatically improve your skills as a gardener and designer. This is particularly valuable for all you naturalistic and native gardeners. Let me tell you why.

Sissinghurst
My wife and I began a garden in a new house last summer. We bought a rather generic-looking midcentury ranch house and decided that the best way to make the house look better was to drape it in gardens (distraction is our only hope). We planted a perennial border in our sunny side yard. The idea to plant a perennial border was not so much because we love the look; instead, it was more a strategy to deal with my obsessive plant collecting. Quite frankly, I needed a place in the yard that could absorb my manic garden energy. What better than a fussy, British-style perennial border? Other parts of the garden will be more intentionally serene and restrained, but the sunny border is meant to be an over-the-top riot of color and texture.

So when I started last year, I approached designing the border the way I do with larger landscape plantings: I selected a bunch of voluminous, ground-covering, filler perennials. While filler perennials—that is, vigorous perennials that spread quickly and “fill-in” the ground—work well in larger landscape settings, the end result of my border was a rather soft, hazy blob. It was like looking through a blurry camera—there was nothing sharp or distinct to give the garden focus. In larger landscapes, big masses of filler perennials create contrast and variety from the sheer scale of the massing. But in this smaller border, it was monotonous.

Frustrated by my initial attempt, I decided I needed to expand my education. I’ve arranged perennials for years, but I’ve never really studied a British-style border. How do they get pop week after week? I knew exactly the source to turn to: Christopher Lloyd.


The late British plantsman Christopher Lloyd is the undisputed king of the mixed border. His garden at Great Dixter, including his iconic Long Border now expertly maintained by Fergus Garrett, continues to be one of the most colorful, whimsical, and delightful moments in any garden in the world. The Long Border is a horticultural masterpiece. It is one of the most influential and innovative stretches of planting on the planet. Lloyd rocked the traditional border with his brash arrangements of color and his complex layering of bulbs, perennials, shrubs, annuals, and tropicals. Lloyd and Garrett were fervid experimenters, but they placed every success they had into the Long Border. Garrett described the process as “pure innovation.” He said, “Everything was considered, and if it didn’t work, it was changed.” The Long Border is the magnum opus of succession planting. Succession planting was Lloyd’s technique of layering plants with one wave of color after the next. The border changes almost daily, but that change is choreographed so that there is never a down moment in the garden.

After my miserable first year, I knew I needed to focus on plant succession. But it wasn’t until I read Lloyd’s Succession Planting for Year-Round Pleasure that I realized how complex and brilliant this technique is.

Lloyd and Garrett are master mixologists. No one in the world is as skilled in integrating plants of different reproductive cycles—bulbs, self-sowers, woody perennials, herbaceous perennials, and shrubs—and weaving them together into a glorious tapestry. Mixing tulips, for example, among various perennials is incredibly tricky. Their leaves can easily smother newly emerging perennials. But Lloyd and Garrett understood exactly what perennials can co-exist with hundreds of tulips. They rely heavily on temporary fillers such as annuals like the Queen-Anne’s Lace look alike, Ammi majus, to carry down moments between certain perennials. They understand what plants are year-round anchors (Cynara cardunculus), what plants provide a sweeping moment of color (Poppies), what plants are dramatic punctuations (Verbascums), what plants carry the border for long stretches (Persicaria orientalis), and what self-seeding plants knit it all together (Verbena bonariensis).

Suddenly, I began to think about plant composition differently. Before, I always understood one plant as inhabiting one place. But this new succession approach meant that multiple plants can inhabit the same space; they just emerge at different times. Some plants last, while others disappear entirely.

And then it hit me: this is exactly the way plants grow in nature. The great irony is that this absurdly artificial, fabulously fabricated border style more closely resembles the way plants compete in nature than my supposedly naturalistic style of planting. Lloyd’s border approach does not treat plants as fixed objects, but rather ephemeral moments in time. To do succession planting well, one must be intimately familiar with the plant’s reproductive strategies. The timing of when a plant flowers has everything to do with how the plant reproduces itself in a competitive environment. And I can’t imagine a more competitive environment than Lloyd’s border. While the end result of the Long Border is entirely artificial (non-stop bloom), the means to achieving that goal rely on understanding the plant ecologically through time.

Of course, the perennial border itself has limited applications. But the principles used to arrange plants successionally have endless applications, particularly for designers and gardeners interested in naturalistic and native plantings. It requires you to think of your plant not just in its moment of glory, but the way it changes week by week. It requires you to understand how to mix plants of different competitive strategies into a harmonious whole. Creating a border is the most intellectually challenging task a gardener could ever master.

Want to stretch yourself as a gardener or designer? Designing a border is the planting design equivalent of training for a triathlon. It is the purest distillation of all the principles of planting design. Whether your garden style is modern or old-fashioned, whether you like perennials or are more comfortable with shrubs and annuals, learning to understand how a plant emerges and blooms within a complex community of plants is among the most valuable planting skills you will ever have. Master the border, and you will be a master.

To learn more about succession planting, check out any of Christopher Lloyd’s excellent books.

48 comments:

  1. I think a really impressive border is of a scale that most of us don't have in our suburban yards. To have a proper border you need a big farm lot or grand country estate. Right now I have a border along my driveway that is 18 feet wide and 40 feet long which sounds pretty big but really isn't. I suppose the entire front of my yard could technically count as a border as it is basically one 80 foot long border but I have broken it up with different planting styles so it doesn't really count as it doesn't really read as one continuous garden (right now at least...who knows how it will evolve).

    At any rate my gardens are new plus I live on the California coast where succession planting is almost a cheat because things bloom so long here it makes combinations easier. But a really good English style border should have a mix of perennials, annuals, bulbs, and shrubs, be very long (several hundred feet where possible), and have a shrub backdrop (clipped yew hedge please!), and a succession of seasonal garden "moments".
    Off the top of my head the only impressive border I can think of in the US is the one they did at White Flower Farm a few years back (which was of course designed by Fergus Garrett). I only saw it when it was about a year old but I was already impressed with it. I'm not sure what state it is in now.
    In England aside from Great Dixter I saw quite a few impressive borders. Clivedon, Lyte's Cary, Wisely (a bit too well manicured), and Wakehurst Place all stood out but there are many more. If you haven't read Tony Lords book "Best Borders" it is worth checking out. It is definitely a favorite of mine.

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    1. Great comment! You are quite the student of the border. I had no idea the White Flower Farm border was done by Garrett. It is interesting to think of borders in different parts of the country. Climate makes a huge difference. I wish our mid-Atlantic humidity was more amenable to perennials, but you do what you can.

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    2. Kaveh-
      When I've been working in CA, I think (especially in certain microclimates)--now this is the spot for a romantic border--everything just blooms and blooms. I think the borders at Digging Dog Nursery in Albion, CA are good--they have beech hedges, among other lovely things. The Mendocino Botanical Gardens also has some stellar moments. See my posts if you're interested: http://landfieldgardendesign.blogspot.com/2011/09/digging-dog-nursery.html

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  2. An intriguing post. It leaves me feeling a little unsettled (even terrified?). What about soil preparation and maintenance? I know you'll probably say it goes with the territory, in any kind of garden, but I've made my country garden choosing only plants that thrive, or at least look good trying, in soil that has no improvement at all except for a gradual accumulation of organic matter over the years. Now in my city garden I'm faced with a garden requiring extensive soil work. What to do is well documented, of course, but don't you find that that added element of labor makes the traditional perennial border a lot of work, to say the least?

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    1. James,

      You make excellent points. Perhaps in my enthusiasm for the lost art of the border, I neglected their obvious faults: high maintenance, high input, and permanently dependant. I think the "new style" as practiced by you in your New Jersey home is the perfect antidote. More relaxed, more suited to the site, and more in harmony with a plant's native habitat. My point about the border is not that we should forsake the benefits of the more modern "new style," but that we can learn so much from them. In many ways, the classic British border is the Ur discipline of all perennial gardening. I've personally gotten lazy in my use of "new style" perennial design, and have found that a study of the classic border to be the perfect exercise to sharpen my horticultural thinking. Before we new style gardeners rebel against the excesses of the British border, it may benefit us to better understand them. Are they high maintenance? Absolutely. But in the words of Lloyd, "I find low maintenance gardens to be the most boring kind.".

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    2. I think "high maintenance" is in the eye of the beholder. If you love gardening and have a purpose to what you're doing (I like the idea that your garden is a big experiment in progress) then it's not burdensome. I like going outside and deadheading, for example. :)

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  3. Posts and comments are fascinating reading. I'll certainly be back to follow you.

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  4. But those borders look a real mess!

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    1. Anne,

      I was secretly hoping you would reply! I am quite curious about your comment. Are all borders a mess, or are you referring to specific ones? I am generally very interested in a serious British gardener's take on the border today. In America, the border has never had any importance (or gardening generally, for that case). We were too busy taming the wilderness. We have no horticultural tradition like the border to love or rebel against. So for me, an appreciation of the skills required to maintain this style would take us light years forward in terms of our thinking. So what do think? Is all this an American's fascination with an out of date British invention?

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    2. Thomas, it could well be your different perspective. These plantings look overfussy and tiring to the eye for me (though having started years ago I have some things very similar I'm rather sorry to say.It's not how I plant now)

      And they seem curiously old fashioned and nostalgic - which might also be significant: Michael King has made an interesting response to your comment on thinkingardens about that:
      http://thinkingardens.co.uk/articles/naturalistic-planting-is-anything-but-by-michael-king/

      Hope you respond to that!! And is there a thinkingardens piece in the contrast between the US view and the UK I wonder?

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  5. Wonderful read!!!! Borders are my passion and I feel people are missing the boat by not having the beauty of borders all around them. Yes, they are work but anything worth having is work. Every morning, my day starts with a walk through my garden. It brings me great joy to see what is blooming. My borders are not huge by estate standards but I keep packing them with whatever catches my fancy. Thanks for a great read. Sincerely. Ro King

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    1. "AnyThing worth having is work". Here here!

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  6. Thomas,
    What a thought-provoking post. I think the Succession book is a masterpiece. Many of my public and private gardens I have designed and worked on are modeled after this concept. One public garden, the Boccelli garden in Peterborough, NH was directly inspired by an article Fergus Garrett wrote in a now-defunct magazine that White Flower Farm published called The Gardener. My experience has been that a mixed border like this can be less labor intensive if it is carefully planned. If you start with well-chosen small trees and shrubs underplanted with snow drops and early anemones, half the garden is filled up and requires very little work and looks great the much of the year. Next fill in with perennials with excellent textures and leave some holes for annuals and you have a garden that actually is not that time consuming if you have the know-how. The labor intensive part at Great Dixter is all the multi-season bedding out but if you limit the bedding out to a few spectacular annuals you get a lot of reward for actually little effort.

    I don't see why this concept of a mixed border couldn't be used in a more natural way with native or more natural looking plants. To me, subtract the annuals and a permutation of this concept is what Oudolf has done in much of the High Line. It is all about mixing trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs and some biennials and annuals for a desired effect. Isn't the woodland edge a kind mixed border with a particular intention?

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    1. Exactly! Yes! You said it better than I. My experience designing native woodland floor gardens uses exactly the same techniques of succession as Lloyd did at Dixter. Totally different looks and goals, but the process is remarkably similar.

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  7. Thank you for another great post. It was very refreshing. I am from San Diego originally but fell in love with flowering perennial borders while living in and visiting England over a 10 year period. I like the way you describe how you have come to study and use them. And the following discussion is great. I think to be a good designer it is important to study, see and plant all kinds of gardens. I love books on the history of gardens. I think you might enjoy a favorite book of mine "A Gardener's Life" by The Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury A wonderful story of her life as a gardener and how she came to design gardens for others.
    I may use your post to share with potential clients too! I live in a neighborhood with lots of bungalows and I am often asked to design a cottage garden. I would love to but that is followed by and I want no or little maintenance : ) I gently try to explain that cottage gardens do take time and attention. But absolutely worth it! I do think the idea of color and year round interest is catching on. With two years of hard frosts here in Houston I am finally able to get clients to consider more and more deciduous plant, shrubs and trees as we move away from depending on tropical plants for color as we are also in a long drought. I feel part of my job is to broaden peoples concepts of what is possible. Happy Gardening all!

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  8. Laurin,

    The promise that garden designers give to clients of "low maintenance" gardens has produced so many miserable landscapes. It's not that there's no such thing as a low maintenance garden. In fact, many established gardens can be quite low input. But with clients, I've changed my tact entirely. I still plan for as low maintenance a garden as possible, but I raise their expectations of how much maintenance it will require. The bottom line is that everything looks better with care and editing--even low maintenance gardens. I'm glad you encourage more "time and attention" from your clients. The more they are invested in the place, the better it looks. And that's good for them and us.

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  9. Another great post Thomas. I agree this can apply to native gardening too - especially in woodland gardens. Plant early ephemerals under ferns and add later season flowering plants for succession. It's just keeping an original planting design static and attractive is the toughest part. Native landscapes evolve at break-neck speeds and even the most seasoned gardener can become overwhelmed as the nicely designed border does it own thing and quickly loses its design.

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  10. I love this post so much I want to marry it. In fact, I have written an homage to it over on my blog. :o) You rock!

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  11. Heather,

    Thanks. I was curious to see how a native gardener would respond to my fawning over ridiculously contrived gardens like British borders. But from what small experience I've had designing native gardens, I find the process to be remarkably challenging thinking about plants as they change every week. The process described by Lloyd's succession planting was the closest thing I've come to that yet. With natives, part of the process is letting go of control and with the border, one never lets go. But whether we design exotic or native gardens, both are pieces of human artifice that require great knowledge of how the plant changes and interacts with its neighbors in order to be successful.

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  12. Mary,

    I'm not worthy! Thank you for the post! It made my day.

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  13. Thomas,
    I couldn't get the "reply" function to work, so I'm commenting again way down here. I agree with you about the beauty of perennial borders and the many lessons to be learned planting them. In fact, your last post on your plans for your new perennial border still haunt my imagination. I want to copy it, use all your plant selections (but I won't, I think...?). So no disagreement. By exploring old, more traditional concepts, you're in a sense opening new ground. Maybe setting a new trend? It will be interesting to see if we've grown tired of the naturalistic, "new perennials" look, and see a return to more traditional practices, perhaps with a new twist. Of course, as you make clear, in this country there really has never been a mature tradition of the perennial border, not in way it's been done in the UK.

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  14. Growing up when and where I did; Seattle in the sixties, I can't imagine doing a perennial border, EXCEPT as an exercise. There's something so unnatural to me about a border without trees and shrubs. I shudder to think of what they look like in the winter. To each his own.

    Deirdre

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  15. James,

    The 'reply' button never seems to work. Someone should do an American twist on the British border. Seems like its asking for reinterpretation . . . Perhaps the Lurie Garden is somewhat of an Americanized border. Spilled out over an entire park. Once your done with your NY home, you should do one!

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  16. Deirdre,

    It's true there's nothing very natural about the border. It is a place for horticultural showmanship. I'm not sure why a border can't contain shrubs. The Long Border at Dixter is surrounded by a yews and contains many shrubs within it. And I've seen many look stunning in winter. In fact, winter with herbaceous plants can be quite poetic--all frost-covered and backlit by the sun.

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    1. In Seattle, I can't count on frost or sun in the winter. Gray and rain are all I can count on. Bright bark and berries work best for winter interest here. Those are rarely found in a perennial border. I guess it's a regional thing. I'm sorry. I didn't mean my comment to sound as dismissive as it did.

      I do remember reading how annoyed Gertrude Jekyll got when people underestimated how much art and knowledge went into her borders.

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    2. Bark and berries could be great in the border. And dried grasses and seedheads look great in the rain.

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  17. There are so many good quotes in this, including the comments, that I'll have to sort through them another time!

    I especially cannot wait to hear Anne W's elaboration, as I might be agreeing with her and your last question in reply.

    Here in Abq, it is different. We are the victim of tired Rocky Mtn horticulture (Midwestern, with a montane touch) forced onto the desert for 80 years, and a few think the perennial border is the apex of design...how that's interpreted is of the person's feelings for or against design principles, favorite or hated plants. Our dominant horticultural old guard (HOG is a great acronym for them) hate lawns, roses and structured design more than they love gardens, the dry climate, conservation, xeriscape, or whatever they claim they are "for".

    The knowing of plantsmanship and seasonal successions is right-on...all seasons, tho.

    Great topic for more thought!

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  18. David,

    As always, your point of view is much appreciated. I read your most recent post after writing this one, and I had much the same reaction after reading James Golden's latest post. Perhaps any endorsement of the British border for American gardeners is silly at best and irresponsible at worst. Of course, a perennial border would be entirely inappropriate in much of the desert southwest. But here on the east coast, it's less of a jarring contrast.

    Perhaps I am lusting for a piece of British exoticism that has no place in the American landscape. Americans have imported all kinds of European garden ideas (the lawn) over the centuries and replicated them on ridiculously small scales. It is indeed silly.

    However, I will stick by my assertion that the exercise of creating a border--which is essentialy mastering succession planting--is one of the most valuable horticultural skills possible. Particularly for designers committed to using a native palette. No matter what region of the country you are in, successful native plantings require more attention to how the plant's reproductive strategies works within its community. And that is the heart of succession planting. So even a tired and exotic garden form like the British perennial border could have applications in the driest deserts.

    Always love your comments and blog. It STRETCHES me.

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  19. Thanks for this post. I started Succession Planting as a library copy but had to return it and then moved. It was a wonderful book and I'm glad to be reminded to go get a copy and finish it.

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    1. All of his books are filled with gems. He was a real innovator.

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  20. This is what I am trying to do with a lot of trial and error. Yearlong bloom (or at least interest)--that's the holy grail, no?
    I'd love to see the photos documenting your progress!

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    1. It IS the holy Grail. If you get close, you will be able to do almost anything with plants.

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  21. Well stated and true Thomas! I have been researching the EDIBLE FOREST concept which of course uses similar principals but hadn't gotten to the place where I saw the perennial border in a similar light.
    Your statement "liken to training for a triathelon" is the feelign I've gotten when I attempt to wrap my head around succession planting...ouch! My brain!
    Thanks again for another great article, Nancy

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    1. At least you already understand color. That's a big part of my learning curve.

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  22. Thomas,
    You have a phenomenal blog.

    I take care of a few gardens in the DC area, one I've been working in for (I can't believe) almost 9 years, once a week. The client gives me a lot of latitude to change, replant, etc, and I'm much more comfortable "designing" when I've worked in a garden and have come to know the conditions -- moisture levels, light, soil, etc. There is an area in this garden that I think of as a “mixed border” and I always thought of C Lloyd's long border as that -- i.e., it's got shrubs and even a small tree or two (doesn't it?) which carry it through in quieter times with structure, and, of course, the bulbs and annuals. So it doesn't rely exclusively on perennials, which seems key to providing interest for a long period of time. Maybe I'm pointing out the obvious, but to me the success of the Great Dixter -- or any border -- (I've never seen GD in the flesh, but read some of CL's books and I own the Succession bk) -- is the mix of different types of plants. Expanding my repertoire of bulbs was a good lesson in how to keep the sparkle going at different times of year, including tropicals, finding "ground cover" perennials, and pruning perennials (e.g., cutting back asters until July 4th so they won't flop, for instance) and simply learning the cultural requirements of plants can sometimes mean less work and a garden that looks better longer. Having seen some grasses standing tall in dry CO, I realized they look much better with less water, and many bulbs are much happier with little or no summer irrigation because the come from areas with dry summers. (No, I’m not a fan of irrigation systems, though one of the gardens I care for has one.) I've certainly killed my share of plants, or done some stupid combinations, but as the regular care taker, I've also come to know things about my clients' gardens I could never know otherwise. So sometimes there’s no substitute for actual gardening. We don’t have the same tradition of intensive gardening, I don’t think, that the British do……(not to say there aren’t some fabulous gardens and gardeners here.) I know my clients’ generally appreciate what I do, but at the same time, I have those moments when I think “they haven’t got a clue what I do” and I fantasize about how lost they’d be if I quit or just disappeared. But that’s another story….. Anyhow, your blog is one of the best I’ve come across (I discovered it via Chris Upton’s blog, which keeps me abreast of what goes on at the USNA, where I used to be a part-time gardener.) cheers, sarah

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    1. Sarah,

      I so enjoyed hearing about your process. It reminded me that the best gardens are made by gardeners not designers. It takes that long term relationship with a piece of property to know it and constantly tweak it. Tim Richardson wrote a great article on the fact that gardeners, not designers, are responsible for most of the great gardens in the world, validating your point. If you're interested, there's a link on the website thinking gardens. Thanks for the comment! Maybe we could meet up sometime.

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  23. 8:42am

    I love this post, not only because it is interesting and insightful, and the comments are equally enlightening, but also because it highlights a dichotomy in residential landscapes I have found difficult to reconcile. I feel as though there are three general ways residential landscapes get organized in America, at least where I live -- by default, by design, and by gardeners. I am ignoring the default category since it's hard to say much about something no one really thought about. I see the second and third categories as two spheres in a venn diagram with only a sliver of overlap. Landscapes designed by designers are not usually designed for gardeners so they must then, by necessity, be easy to maintain. That eliminates the possiblity of a mixed perennial border because that cannot be maintained by an affordable lawn care crew, it must be maintained by someone with quite a bit of skill and who is invested in the land enough to treat it like a member of a family (figuring out proper nutrition, maintaining space, taming aggressive playmates, finding new homes for offspring, administering medicine, ha! I could go on and on with this metaphor) This sort of pushes design in the direction of clean lines, large massings, trees and tidy shrubs. I think this also appeals to the American aesthetic of viewing the landscape from the street, at a distance, not from the stoop. Generally speaking, we want to show the world that we are in control, our lawns are tidy and weedfree. A few clean lines are pretty enough. In the other sphere we have residential spaces organized by gardeners, who are driven by a love of nature and plants, rather than a larger aesthetic. I think a lot of gardeners have a bug's eye view of beauty - up close, who cares if a particular plant clashes with another? It's all in that one plant, or bloom, and its ability to thrive. I think a lot of designers occupy that sliver of overlap although the designers I know almost always make excuses about their own yards to other designers (opting to prioritize their love of plants over a higher aesthetic when organizing their own space). To make a mixed border a new American aesthetic, don't we have to make the overlap of these spheres bigger first? But what true and gifted gardener do you know who would abdicate the organization of their space to a designer? And how can you ignite the passion necessary to maintain a mixed border in a nongardener? I feel as though that sliver of overlap in America will always be just a sliver - reserved for highly disciplined designer/gardeners (your readers?) or for magnificent spaces like the gardens mentioned in the blog and comments (which all appear to have been designed by designers but then maintained by true gardeners).

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    1. I very much agree with your thoughtful analysis. I hope this blog is aimed at that sliver you describe: the hybrid designer-gardener who wants more than the typical American designed landscape. We may not always be successful, but at least we try.

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  24. Mike@HortConceptsMay 02, 2012 11:59 PM

    While this style of design does have it's merits in certain settings it is likely too much for most gardeners. There is a way to blend this style with the more American 'organized' design concepts that will not only create a perennial border that is stunning but, one that will likely be more managable as far as maintenance goes. It will also create a more calming and peaceful environment.

    Regardless of the style, successful gardening always begins with the soil. Create a good soil environment and the garden will thrive. Work the soil from the get-go and the 'work' becomes
    'enjoyment and relaxation' and definately less stressful.

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    1. Mike,

      I certainly did not mean to imply that more Anericans need perennial borders. I am more than aware of their faults: high maintenance and not terribly sustainable. However, I do think Americans obsession with "low maintenance" has produced a country of banal landscapes and lifeless yards. My goal is not to sell the border, but to sell richer horticultural thinking, deeper investment into our garden spaces. Your point about soil is very good. It is the first step in that deeper investment.

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  25. Thomas-
    Thank you for this thoughtful take on the traditional perennial border. It doesn't matter how much my design aesthetic evolves and I become more inclined to retrained mass planting--I am a sucker for a brilliant perennial border (part of it is my obsessive plant collecting!). They engage my first love of gardens--they spill with verve and hope and surprise. Done well they are indeed the acme of planting design--done poorly, they reinforce the "hot mess" perception of gardeners' gardens by our neighbors. In Atlanta, we have a protracted season of heat and humidity that requires some clever tricks to succeed with a border.

    I so appreciate the connections you've made in this piece; specifically, you make the link between this contrived creative expression and its dependence upon intimate knowledge of plants throughout their life-cycle: under competition, given their reproductive idiosyncrasies, and in the given border site.. It's my sense that garden design should interpret the natural world--that a garden is the interesection between contrivance and nature. A lively perennial border--very heavy on the contrivance--requires a strong dose of natural empathy. I had the pleasure of hearing Fergus Garrett illuminate some of their succession planting method. His gracious way of describing their process (re)sanctioned the border for me as a designer. I felt some permission to admit my love of the border without being total design anathema. Practical for everyone? Certainly not...En vogue at the publishing house? Not so much...A sumptuous pleasure for the devotee of plants and of design? Most definitely.

    Thank you again--and for your reference to native schemes in this context!

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  26. Kristin,

    Thanks for the comment--I very much enjoyed it. In fact, I think you said it better than I did. I've had more experience doing landscape designs with native plantings than border plantings, but the process is eeirly similar. Both are absolutely contrived, but both take an intimate awareness of how a plant reacts in time within a community of other plants. For me, studying the border was a way to give more discipline and rigor to my more 'landscape' scale work--something I probably needed anyways.

    I checked out your blog after reading your comment and it is lovely. I am now a fan and subscriber! I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama so I am familiar with how difficult it is to garden--particularly with perennials--in the humidity of the Deep South. Not impossible, of course, but definitely more challenging than say Maine or some other more fortuitious gardening climate. I look forward to following you more.

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  27. I am sure you have a great fan following out there.
    Tree Doctor

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  30. Fantastic blog! and beautiful photo's. We moved onto a very bald property 24 years ago and my husband who is a Certified Arborist with his own tree care business proceeded to plant 130 different trees. We now have very beautiful shade trees and a nice cool house in the summer. However, as you can imagine, we have little space for perennials that require sun. Any information on a shady English perennial border would be wonderful!! Thank you for this sweet blog!

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  31. I am pleased to hear from another American who has discovered the joy in the pursuit of excellent succession planting.

    The the progression of gardens and plants through the season is the missing element in most gardening literature! I find it more challenging to focus on a small area and do it well, all season.
    -Julie in PA

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  32. Concrete kerbing - and Ipswich for over 20 years, Brisbane Kerbing Services offers a wealth of knowledge. We travel far and wide and offer all modern designs with old fashion service.

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