Why the Perennial Border Matters

Why mastering this high maintenance style will make you a better gardener.

The British perennial border has been out of vogue in the last decade. Cast off as high-maintenance relic of old estates, the perennial border has never really found a place in the American landscape. Our yards are too small. And so many of the great British examples have full time garden staff to take care of them. But the final blow to the perennial border has been dealt by bold visionaries like Piet Oudolf ( the Dutch “New Perennial Garden”), Oehme, van Sweden (“New American Garden”), Dan Hinkley, Beth Chatto, and many others who have busted perennials out of the border and spilled them into the larger landscape. This new aesthetic eschews high maintenance dead-heading, watering, and transplanting required by a perennial border and instead embraces plants’ natural forms, patterns, and ecological succession.

I consider myself a devotee of this new approach to herbaceous planting. I even wrote a series about getting beyond the perennial border. But this past spring I have had a revelation: the old-fashioned, high maintenance, not-particularly-American perennial border matters. Not only does it matter, but mastering the perennial border will dramatically improve your skills as a gardener and designer. This is particularly valuable for all you naturalistic and native gardeners. Let me tell you why.

My wife and I began a garden in a new house last summer. We bought a rather generic-looking midcentury ranch house and decided that the best way to make the house look better was to drape it in gardens (distraction is our only hope). We planted a perennial border in our sunny side yard. The idea to plant a perennial border was not so much because we love the look; instead, it was more a strategy to deal with my obsessive plant collecting. Quite frankly, I needed a place in the yard that could absorb my manic garden energy. What better than a fussy, British-style perennial border? Other parts of the garden will be more intentionally serene and restrained, but the sunny border is meant to be an over-the-top riot of color and texture.

So when I started last year, I approached designing the border the way I do with larger landscape plantings: I selected a bunch of voluminous, ground-covering, filler perennials. While filler perennials—that is, vigorous perennials that spread quickly and “fill-in” the ground—work well in larger landscape settings, the end result of my border was a rather soft, hazy blob. It was like looking through a blurry camera—there was nothing sharp or distinct to give the garden focus. In larger landscapes, big masses of filler perennials create contrast and variety from the sheer scale of the massing. But in this smaller border, it was monotonous.

Frustrated by my initial attempt, I decided I needed to expand my education. I’ve arranged perennials for years, but I’ve never really studied a British-style border. How do they get pop week after week? I knew exactly the source to turn to: Christopher Lloyd.

The late British plantsman Christopher Lloyd is the undisputed king of the mixed border. His garden at Great Dixter, including his iconic Long Border now expertly maintained by Fergus Garrett, continues to be one of the most colorful, whimsical, and delightful moments in any garden in the world. The Long Border is a horticultural masterpiece. It is one of the most influential and innovative stretches of planting on the planet. Lloyd rocked the traditional border with his brash arrangements of color and his complex layering of bulbs, perennials, shrubs, annuals, and tropicals. Lloyd and Garrett were fervid experimenters, but they placed every success they had into the Long Border. Garrett described the process as “pure innovation.” He said, “Everything was considered, and if it didn’t work, it was changed.” The Long Border is the magnum opus of succession planting. Succession planting was Lloyd’s technique of layering plants with one wave of color after the next. The border changes almost daily, but that change is choreographed so that there is never a down moment in the garden.

After my miserable first year, I knew I needed to focus on plant succession. But it wasn’t until I read Lloyd’s Succession Planting for Year-Round Pleasure that I realized how complex and brilliant this technique is.

Lloyd and Garrett are master mixologists. No one in the world is as skilled in integrating plants of different reproductive cycles—bulbs, self-sowers, woody perennials, herbaceous perennials, and shrubs—and weaving them together into a glorious tapestry. 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. They rely heavily on temporary fillers such as annuals like the Queen-Anne’s Lace look alike, Ammi majus, to carry down moments between certain perennials. They understand what plants are year-round anchors (Cynara cardunculus), what plants provide a sweeping moment of color (Poppies), what plants are dramatic punctuations (Verbascums), what plants carry the border for long stretches (Persicaria orientalis), and what self-seeding plants knit it all together (Verbena bonariensis).

Suddenly, I began to think about plant composition differently. Before, I always understood one plant as inhabiting one place. But this new succession approach meant that multiple plants can inhabit the same space; they just emerge at different times. Some plants last, while others disappear entirely.

And then it hit me: this is exactly the way plants grow in nature. The great irony is that this absurdly artificial, fabulously fabricated border style more closely resembles the way plants compete in nature than my supposedly naturalistic style of planting. Lloyd’s border approach does not treat plants as fixed objects, but rather ephemeral moments in time. To do succession planting well, one must be intimately familiar with the plant’s reproductive strategies. The timing of when a plant flowers has everything to do with how the plant reproduces itself in a competitive environment. And I can’t imagine a more competitive environment than Lloyd’s border. While the end result of the Long Border is entirely artificial (non-stop bloom), the means to achieving that goal rely on understanding the plant ecologically through time.

Of course, the perennial border itself has limited applications. But the principles used to arrange plants successionally have endless applications, particularly for designers and gardeners interested in naturalistic and native plantings. It requires you to think of your plant not just in its moment of glory, but the way it changes week by week. It requires you to understand how to mix plants of different competitive strategies into a harmonious whole. Creating a border is the most intellectually challenging task a gardener could ever master.

Want to stretch yourself as a gardener or designer? Designing a border is the planting design equivalent of training for a triathlon. It is the purest distillation of all the principles of planting design. Whether your garden style is modern or old-fashioned, whether you like perennials or are more comfortable with shrubs and annuals, learning to understand how a plant emerges and blooms within a complex community of plants is among the most valuable planting skills you will ever have. Master the border, and you will be a master.

To learn more about succession planting, check out any of Christopher Lloyd’s excellent books.
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