Non-plant focal points
Designing with perennials begins with plant form and texture, then considers leaf color and finally,
takes into account which plants will be blooming, when.
This is sensible for perennials since each is in flower for only
2 to 4 weeks. We can extend bloom time for some by
removing spent flowers -- deadheading -- but it's smarter to rely
on the plant's non-flowering qualities to carry the load.
For more on design, there is our
Your Gardens and Landscape.
It's quick, fun to read and practical.
combination: Form first, then bloom
Here's how-to, using four plants which combine well because
between them they have a variety of features that provide favorable
- One is large, coarse textured and mounded (peony);
- Another is a fine mound of medium height (sea lavender);
- The third is columnar, coarse and gray (mullein);
- The fourth has a spreading shape, rises above all the others,
is medium in texture, and has gray-green foliage (butterfly bush).
All are long-blooming, do so at varied times of year or offer
multiple seasons of interest. So even when none of the four is
blooming, there's visual interest in the garden through contrast in
shapes, textures and foliage colors.
In love with flowers? To this solid combination we might add one
or two plants that are glorious in bloom but a bit shabby afterward
-- daffodils or columbine (Aquilegia) come to mind. When
the initial group exhibits good form, texture and foliage color it
can make up for other plants' slack time.
To begin: Our large
coarse mound, a peony (Paeonia hybrid)
Few plants take charge in a garden like peonies do. The bloom
season may be short, but if the peony can resist its species' leaf
diseases its neat mounded form and substantial foliage can act as
companion, backdrop to other plants all summer. (Below,
left.) If it's a variety that can develop nice fall color
(below, right), that makes for a grand finale.
Many of the hybrids between tree peony and herbaceous peony fit
the bill. These intersectional hybrids (such as the 'Itoh' types)
have great bloom, healthy clean foliage, and at least a fair record
of significant fall color. In more traditional peonies, we keep a
look-out for the rare varieties that provide all three features.
One is a late blooming single white flowered 'Krinkled White;' it
can be a showy yellow in autumn. Another is an early double pink,
'Estafette,' which can develop burgundy tones in fall.
"Coarse" and "fine" describe
the pattern that light creates on the plant surface. Plants with
substantial leaves or crisply variegated edges tend to be visually
segmented into large blocks because of the leaf edges and the
leaves' bold shadows. Plants with smaller leaves or ferny small
parts have less pattern, and so look more solid. Below, from most
coarse on the left to finest on the right: Acanthus
(bear's breeches), hardy Hibiscus, ornamental Salvia
nemerosa, and willow leaf Amsonia. (Read it:
Lenten rose/ Helleborus offers a further lesson in
Next, a fine mound:
Sea lavender (Limonium latifolium)
Its foliage is large, but entirely basal so it's completely
hidden from bloom time until fall by flowering stems which create a
dense, fine dome. This is a relative of statice, described in bloom
as "a lilac-pink baby's breath." We often pair it with a coarse
foliage plant such as peony, or something of a different shape such
as columnar gayfeather (Liatris spicata).
Below, left: The leaves (arrow) are basal -- at ground level
only. Below, right: In bloom, and until the spent flowering stalks
are cut away, the foliage is hidden.
Below: Sea lavender is such a dependably mounded form that
we're confident of it in any combination with a columnar plant such
Below: If several plants offer equally good form and
texture, we can look at how they fulfill additional objectives and
choose the plant that offers the most. For instance, sea lavender
is not only fine and neatly mounded from bloom time until fall, it
is low care because it's neat into fall as its lilac-colored bracts
remain intact even in seed (below, left). It is also attractive to
beneficial insects. Its abundant nectar satisfies the likes of
cricket catcher wasps.
mullein (Verbascum hybrids) for gray
Ornamental mulleins are underused. They're great for sunny dry
places and foliage effect. We add their gray-green large leaves to
this group for contrast. The spike form flowers are an additional
accent, but only for a few weeks. Varieties such as 48-inch,
apricot-flowered 'Clementine' (right) can be kept blooming
longer than others, if spent flowers are removed. Another long
bloomer is a 12-inch dwarf hybrid 'Blue Pixie.'
With perennials, it's best to accept the reality of spent blooms.
Either look the other way as they go brown, or step in and clip
them off in time to promote a second flush of flower.
Finally, height and
spread: Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii
A dwarf such as Buddleia 'Nanho' is the right size (5'
rather than its species 6-10') for most perennial combinations.
There are even smaller selections, such as the 36-inch 'Lo and
Behold' series in blue-violet, lilac, white and purple, and the
'Flutterby Petite' series that includes the best blue we've seen in
'Blue Heaven.' When we add the gray green spreading arms of
butterfly bush to a peony-mullein-sea lavender combo, we seal the
deal on drama right through summer. There will always be a pleasing
contrast between one or more of the plants. As a bonus, the
butterfly bush brings bloom and the delightful presence of
butterflies and hummingbirds in late summer.
Above: Butterfly bush in bloom is colorful for many weeks in
late summer and fall. However, a main player in a perennial design
should be an addition to the garden even before its bloom time.
Above, right: Even before bloom, it can be deliberately placed as a
contrast in height and foliage color. (More of this translation of
living plant to basic-feature caricature in the perennials list Great Perennial
Add it up, see the perennials live up to the plan
Below: It's not bloom that carries this design where lenten
rose (Helleborus), blooms in April and butterfly bush
(Buddleia) blooms with Clematis viticella in
August. Consistent good looks come from the contrast in foliage
colors and textures and plant forms and heights.
Some other plants in this bed: Boxwood 'Winter Gem',
variegated Liriope, lungwort (Pulmonaria), false indigo
(Baptisia australis), oakleaf Hydrangea (H.
quercifolia), big betony (Stachys micrantha).
Deadhead or cut back if brown isn't your color
Flower is fleeting even on the longest-blooming perennial such
as threadleaf coreopsis. Even if a plant's in flower for six weeks,
it must occupy its space pre- and post bloom for 3 or 4 times as
long each year.
So if we rely on flower or use plants with big blooms that age
to big brown, cutting is important. Fortunately, it's simple to do.
Look for brown, cut it down!
Examples: Blanket flower
(Gaillardia) and big betony (Stachys
One last trick: Use
non-plant focal points
It's tough to maintain a single focal point in a garden full of
constantly changing plants. Yet gardens need that kind of direction
to keep the eye happy. We often position a bird bath, bench, arbor
or path among the plants as a focal point.
Take a look here as we use a path as a focal point, framing it
with non-plant features (tree trunk sculpture and bench).
Below: The meters and emergency generator are not pretty but
neither can they be eliminated as we work out a pretty way to take
the gardens around this corner. Look for the line we draw by
extending a bed edge and creating a path. That line's meant to
swing the eye along a track that will draw attention away from
Below, left: We add vertical interest to the left that will
age to match the vertical spruce trunks on the right of the path.
Like bookends tending the books between, they keep the eye centered
on the path between them. A bench made of the same material helps
with the bookend effect until the wood weathers gray, and gives the
eye a place to stop on the far side of the path, the uncluttered
Below, center and right: Another non-plant focal point of
the same material, after aging for two years.
King Creek Timber Products in
Linden, Michigan harvests these gall-affected spruces and cedars as
complete trunks, strips the bark and seasons the wood like fine
lumber. Homestead Timbers in Mame, Michigan has whole tree logs,
Metal sculpting studios such as Bad Axe Ironworks in Bad Axe,
Michigan and Altra Design in Huntington, Indiana make the tree-like
trellises you see here.