|The same rules that create impact and drama in art can be applied to perennial planting.|
My last post set up my proposition that perennials and grasses—the most dynamic plants a gardener can use—ought to not only be used more often, but used in as a larger percentage of our built landscapes. It’s time to liberate perennials from the confines of the British border and embrace a new aesthetic inspired by the patterns and palettes of our native vegetation.
This post will ground my lofty rhetoric with some practical how-to advice. How do you design for long term success with plant material that is inherently ephemeral? To achieve lasting, low-maintenance perennial gardens, there are two areas one must master: composition and plant selection. This post will focus on the first, and most important, rule of composition: massing.
First, let’s understand the context we’re discussing. Perennials in a landscape setting (parks, civic landscapes, large residential) are inherently different than a flower border. They are larger in area, typically set farther away from the viewer, and are not gardened as intensively. So the rules of composition must address this context.
More than any other strategy, massing perennials and grasses together is the golden rule for landscape perennials. Why? We group several of the same plants together in order to make them more legible and give them visual impact. A single flower in a half-acre planting disappears; but a block of 100 (residential), 200 (small park), or 500 (large park) has dramatic impact even from a distance. Massing perennials together draws attention to their ornamental characteristics. It amplifies their color, form, and texture. More importantly, it also helps relate the scale of the plantings to the scale of a house, building, or park. A mass of 20 Echinaceas, for example, can look paltry next to a monumental building. Massing plants together gives the planting proper proportions to their context.