I knew when setting out to do the perennial planting for a client that what I wanted to achieve was a big undulating plateau of colour and texture between about 800 and 1200mm, punctured by taller and strongly upright ‘aberrants’ or incidents. There’s nothing original in that idea. Nearly all practitioners of the style would be aiming for something like that, though everyone writing about it uses their own jargon to describe their intentions.
It’s almost impossible to get the balance between the plateau and that which punctures it exactly right, and then it shifts from season to season and year to year. The planting will be too solid and unbrokenly amoebic if it’s all ‘plateau plants’, or too diaphanous and ungrounded if it’s all uprights.
The plateau was going to be mainly made up with plants that either present their colour in horizontal or domed plates like sedums or yarrows, along with plants of other floral forms that flower consistently above their foliage and therefore would, if placed in a large enough group, naturally create a solidish mound or flat plane of colour, such as Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’ or Rudbeckia ‘Goldstrum’.
These plants being fast to establish, I knew that the plateau would be achieved first, and in the first year (as shown above). This didn’t stop me being apologetic to anyone who saw it, and had me, in typical style, diving in with an explanation in order to avert criticism. Even now, I’m feeling awkward about showing pics of it in that stage, and have realized that I never, ever take a pic of this planting now without including some of these uprights, as they’re intuitively necessary to any decent photo composition. In a pic like that below, taken four months after planting, all I’m aware of is the screaming need for them.
It’s kind of curious that most of the plants that you’d use as uprights are relatively slower to establish, or at least do little in their first season. The closest thing to an explanation is that I was depending very largely on grasses like Miscanthus, Panicum and Stipa, (which all take a year or two to bulk up to put on the show we’re expecting of them)…
…or biennials like Verbascums that, like all biennials, spend their first growing season bulking up and their second bolting into flower.
The only plants that did their ‘puncturing’ job in the first year were hollyhocks, which happened to be something of an afterthought. From memory they were something that the client had acquired, and that I tickled into the scheme.
Of course once the grasses have achieved their mass, you’re never without them. Uprights provided by biennials are much more erratic in both number and placement. You’re never sure if, or where, they’re going to pop up. It’d make a lot more sense to grow some from seed every year and place then where they’re needed. But who’s organized enough for that?
Interested in talking further about planting design? Join our ‘Mastering the Art of Gardening – The Plants’ masterclass. Our March 17 course has sold out, but we’ve just opened up another on May 19 (Click here for more details). If you’re interested specifically in learning more about working with perennials, we’ve got a full Focus on Perennials day coming up in late winter, and we’re planning a symposium on Designing with Perennials with Matt and Mike from Antique Perennials early next year. Send an expression of interest to firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like more details of these events as they emerge.