Thomas Rainer Hits It Out of the Park AGAIN.

I’m sure that my readers are but a small, ragtag subset of Grounded Design readers, but if you haven’t read Thomas Rainer’s new post, “Why the Perennial Border Matters“, please do so. 

In his post, Thomas presents for our consideration the intricately planted (some would say “fussy”) traditional English perennial border.  He compares the study of great perennial borders by the likes of Christopher Lloyd to “training for a triathlon” — in other words, the ultimate planting design challenge. 

Long Border at Great Dixter.

Now, I’ve never been a big fan of English perennial borders — not because the plantings aren’t magnificent, but because they’re always laid out along a flat, straight axis.  Garden paths that resemble I-80 through eastern Nebraska are not really my cup of tea.  Perhaps because of my upbringing in the hills and woods of the Piedmont, I prefer a bit of curve or rise or dip in my garden experience, but whatever.

That is not really the point. 

What resonates with me about Thomas’ post is his assertion that a great perennial border demands profound plant knowledge from the designer.  I love that he is writing about this kind of thing because in my mind it elevates planting design from the way we often see it presented — as a paint-by-numbers exercise — to what it can be, what it should be — high art! 

To create a planting masterpiece, it is not enough to be familiar with basic design principles.  It’s not even enough to be familiar with bloom time and foliage texture, is it?  A great planting designer needs to be familiar with all of the ages and stages of his medium.

This line from his post really gets to the heart of the matter:

“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.”

So this is the kind of knowledge that, if applied, can elevate a planting from merely pleasing to downright exquisite.  For me, knowing that the foliage of  my Deutzia ‘Chardonnay Pearls’ starts to green out around July 4th, or that my Autumn fern turns a glorious tawny orange in the fall but my Southern Wood Fern doesn’t, or that the stems of my Toad Lilies only retain that excellent purple tinge until about June 1st, so that combo with Astilbe ‘Delft Lace’ I was so proud of will only last a few weeks, duh!!– ahem – this is the kind of profound understanding of plants I need to be striving for. 

High maintenance?  Uh, yeah.  But the maintenance is part of the pleasure.  Those guys who love vintage cars hardly ever actually drive them, right?  They fuss over them, polish them, tinker with them – that’s how they enjoy them.  Same with gardeners.  We enjoy our gardens by working in them, clipping, digging, yanking, chopping, nipping, stomping — possibly even flinging, weeping, or cursing.  Sitting in an Adirondack chair with a lemonade gazing upon the flowers?  Yeah, sounds good, maybe I’ll try that one day.

And fussy?  I guess an intricate mixed planting with highly choreographed bloom-time that takes into consideration the changing texture, form, color, and culture of each plant in the design could be considered fussy.  But then, you could say Renoir’s work was fussy, too.  And the poetry of TS Eliot.  Martha Graham’s choreography?  Shakespeare’s Hamlet?  Also fussy. 

So thanks, Thomas, for pointing out that “low-maintenance” should not always be the guiding principle of garden design.  Thanks for reminding us that this is art we’re talking about.

20 thoughts on “Thomas Rainer Hits It Out of the Park AGAIN.

  1. Your post makes a perfect companion piece to Rainer’s! And why, for Pete’s sake, does a fabulous perennial border “have” to be as straight as I-80 through Nebraska??? I think the most gorgeous ones are those that sweep and curve and rise and fall, using bed shape and form as part of the overall design pattern.

    High maintenance? Not compared to a vegetable garden, if you are keeping the weeds out and the mulch on (where appropriate) in the first place. It’s gardening, for Pete’s sake!

    Maybe the key is that good perennial beds are for gardeners, but are too high maintenance for homeowners who only want the living equivalent of furniture and painted walls in their yards.

    • So true…I think these kinds of borders are for folks who 1) simply adore growing and tending plants and can’t get enough of it or 2) those with paid help. And as for the straight path, I don’t know if it’s just tradition or of there was some other design rationale for it, does anybody know?

    • I had never been a fan of the straight formal double or single border until I tried it. I was inspried to try it after a wildfire nearly destroyed by informal garden. I read Tony’s Lord’s ‘Best Borders’ and Christo Llyods ‘Succession Planting for Year Round Interest’. I found that the straight lines allow the plants to be set in groups and build depth into the design by creating “bays” of lower plants that reach into the border with taller plants rising up on the sides. Not that it isn’t done with informal beds, but I found that the contrast of the wide straight path with the masses of plants pushing forward allows you to appreciate the plant combos from the side as you walk up the path and when you view each group straight on. Repetition along the border is very effective to uniting the scheme when you use lots of different plant material, just like Llyod did at Dixter.

      • Thank you, Dave, for this explanation of the straight path. I am definitely going to seek out those books you mention! Especially the Succession book which now several people have recommended…sounds like a must read!

  2. I remember reading how annoyed Gertrude Jekyll would get when people underestimated what was involved in planning her perennial borders.

    • Deirdre, once a friend of mine that I hadn’t seen in awhile came over to my house and I showed her around my backyard and pointed out all my new planting schemes. When she said, “THat’s great. What a nice little hobby, Mary!” I can’t tell you how annoyed I was. I can only IMAGINE how Ms. Jekyll felt!

  3. I agree…this was a HR w/ bases loaded, shown by a great slugger herself. It is a big topic, though not as large as how to design for the realities of budget, client (and choosing good from bad clients), maintenance, climate, scale and how the space is seen, etc. Thanks for pointing me to this, as I somehow missed his post in my blog roll!

    • So true, David, and I read your response over on TR’s post with interest. It’s so much easier (and more fun) to talk about garden design when you’re not thinking about budget, or other distasteful mitigating factors ;o)

  4. Hear hear! and then to make matters worse, no two seasons are the same – I made a note one year that the pink Dicentra specabilis (now renamed, but never mind) and red Chaenomeles speciosa were clashing with the yellow Forsythia, thinking I would move at least the Dicentra. Of course I didn’t get round to it, and the following Spring the Forsythia was over well before the Dicentra flowered – it seems some plants are more sensitive to warmth and light levels in the Spring than others. So it is a real challenge to get it right.

    • Rose, the whims of mother nature make garden design (I think) the most challenging of art forms. You could probably drive yourself nuts trying account for every single weather possibility that is thrown at you! On the plus side, you can always use weather as a scapegoat…as in, “it’s not my fault my peonies look like crap this year- nothing could get through those April rains and still look presentable” etc., etc.

  5. The perennial border always looks so nice in photographs. For real, it’s a huge undertaking and I just can’t seem to get everything choreographed to similar perfection. This post makes me feel a little better about my efforts. 🙂 Thanks.

    • Yes, Grace, and I can’t imagine that most gardeners would have the time or interest in maintaining a true perennial border. I think that mixing in shrubs and even small trees is a great compromise and doesn’t sacrifice the spirit of the border.

  6. Yeah but when I’m talking to potential garden coaching clients, the promise of some level of lower maintenance sure perks up their ears. But more so, talking butterflies and wildlife. And finally, I take offense to your I-80 comment. It’s quite curvy here betwixt Lincoln and Omaha. Now in central Nebraska, it’s a straight shot for hundred of miles. And with construction, it’s even curvier.

    • Too funny. I had a feeling my I-80 remark might get you to comment. I actually love the prairie states…the interstates out there are certainly better than ones like I-95 here on the east coast. And I seriously think that midwesterners/breadbasketers are the THE friendliest people in the country. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to get over the fact that you used “betwixt”.

  7. LOL @ “Sitting in an Adirondack chair with a lemonade gazing upon the flowers?”
    Yeah, perhaps I’ll give that a try someday too 🙂

    Truer words were never spoken: “High maintenance? Uh, yeah. But the maintenance is part of the pleasure.”

    I’ve been working on my own mini border for a few years now so I understand the struggles to make the magic happen. The sentence that summarizes the article best for me was:
    “Lloyd’s border approach does not treat plants as fixed objects, but rather ephemeral moments in time.”
    Yes, plants are indeed moments in time and if I could ever figure out how to represent that in a two dimensional plane I might have a tool that would help me with my mini border 🙂

    • I think that quote about Lloyd was a revelation, too. In fact, thanks to TR’s post and comments by a couple of others, I have just ordered the Succession planting book by Lloyd on Amazon. I had put a moratorium on gardening book purchases, but after reading about Lloyd’s brilliance I decided it must be temporarily lifted!

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