Strategies for Designing with Plant Beds that Grow, Peak, and Die Back Every Year
Nine times out of ten, if you’ve seen a perennial bed, it was a photograph of the border at the peak of its floral glory. There are many people who assume a perennial bed looks colorful year-round. That word “perennial” can be misleading. Editors don’t publish pictures of perennial beds the other eleven months of the year. Showing only peak bloom gives a flattering, but false impression of gardening with herbaceous plants. The majority of the year, a traditional perennial bed will be only foliage or bare ground. As a designer, you need to plan floral borders in the landscape with the understanding the plants you choose will have a time for monochromatic, vegetative growth, a time for color, a time of declining vegetation, and a dormant season when much of the plant material is cut back.
It is best to create separate borders for the differing seasons of the year. Perennials don’t bloom from early spring to late fall. If the flowers are organized to bloom in concert, the color lasts only a few weeks. Consolidating all the early spring bloomers in one bed, the late spring bloomers in another, the early summer flowers in another, and the late bloomers in yet another plant bed is the way experienced garden designers use perennial beds to transform the feel of the landscape with seasonal transitions.
It is very important to remember when you design a landscape that herbaceous perennials die down completely after a hard frost. Annual color offers winter-blooming options, but the soft stems of herbaceous plants are made from watery cells that burst and die when exposed to freezing temperatures. A perennial bed should not be located in areas that receive year-round, high traffic. Groom spent beds, and they will be, essentially, invisible in the landscape until next year’s “moment in the sun”.
Composing a perennial bed requires an understanding of color theory. Tossing everything that blooms in early spring into a single bed results in clashing color. Put together harmonious combinations based on your knowledge of plant material. It may take a few years for you to develop the knack of an orchestrated display. One way to learn how is to gather blooms that occur simultaneously into a bouquet and take a photograph as reference for next year’s designs. Group your bouquets in pleasing combinations and make a scrapbook of the best combos.
A good perennial bed designer will love plant material enough to learn how each plant changes at different times of the year. Some bloom according to the weather, and some according to the length of daylight. It can be tricky to time displays just right. Being observant will help you develop the experience to know which plants bloom reliably during the calendar’s schedule.
Create beds with both aspects in mind—color and phase of the growing season. Highlight different areas of the landscape at different times of year, with each separate bed drawing attention away from those that are still maturing toward their peak or those that have gone dormant. Most public gardens limit plant material to woody ornamentals to avoid the empty spots. They also want to avoid the high maintenance perennial beds demand.
Owners with unlimited funds and spacious landscapes can build floral borders hidden from view, providing stems for floral arrangements throughout the year as cutting gardens, without worrying about how the beds look. Without the luxury of special floral crop areas tucked out of sight, the majority of us are forced into more complex, artistic options. Sophisticated gardens worth experiencing on a human scale, with delight through the seasons, will incorporate the dynamics of bursts of herbaceous bloom mixed with dormant inactivity into their design configuration. The added challenges this presents are what make landscape design exciting and fun.