Beyond the Border: How to Use Perennials and Grasses in Landscape Settings

Of all the plants I frequently obsess about, herbaceous perennials and grasses are perhaps my favorite.  Of all the plant categories, they are the most ephemeral, dynamic plants.  One can mark the seasons with these plants; they are harbingers of change.   And as a designer, perennials and grasses are the most expressive plants within my palette.  Rich layers of bold perennial massings can express a site in powerful ways. 
The British border
When it comes to designing with perennials and grasses, however, we have a limited language for their use.  The perennial border—an intricately arranged, delicate frame of flowers—is really the only concept we have for their use.  And while borders can be beautiful, they have limitations.  They are generally high maintenance, fussy, and require a high degree of horticultural knowledge.  As a result, American gardeners and landscapers are often hesitant to use perennials and grasses because we associate them with British-styled borders.  But it does not have to be this way.
Let me propose an alternative.  Instead of limiting our landscapes to two distinctly British genres (the manor lawn and the perennial border), let us take the border and explode it out of its box.  Let’s blanket our landscapes in bold massings of perennials and grasses.  Let’s convert our wall-to-wall carpeting lawns into well-proportioned area rugs surrounded by perennials and grasses.  Let’s drape office parks and civic landscapes in vibrant tapestries of flowers, ferns, and sedges. 
The American landscape—from the great forests of the East Coast, the iconic prairies of the midland, and the mountains, deserts, and forests of the West—should be ample inspiration for a new, distinctly American garden aesthetic.  Like the American landscape, let us use no small gestures.  Let us draw on our country’s rich native palette and patterns and distill them into artful, garden spaces.   The New Style will not merely imitate our natural landscapes, but interpret them into uniquely modern, human landscapes.  
Over an acre of herbaceous plantings added in the right of way in
downtown D.C.  Designed for NOMA BID by Thomas Rainer, Derrick
Wolbaum, & Elliot Rhodeside, Rhodeside & Harwell.

Ok, Thomas, enough with the manifesto.  Is it really practical to use herbaceous plants on such a scale?  Won’t planting huge swaths of perennials and grasses require an enormous effort of weeding, watering, and gardening? 
The short answer is yes in the short term, but in the long term, this style of planting can be very low maintenance—even less maintenance than lawn and shrubs.  The key to successfully planting large scale perennials and grasses is to combine good plant selection with smart massing. 
In the next couple of posts, I’ll get into the nitty-gritty of how to select perennials and grasses for landscape settings.  What types of perennials and grasses are best for larger massings?  How do you arrange them in a way to minimize their maintenance?  How do you make these landscapes full, beautiful, and lasting?
Stay tuned . . . I’m giving away all the secrets . . .
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