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.
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.