What is perennial garden design?
Perennial garden design refers to a type of planting, but also a way of ensuring your garden looks great all year round, and hopefully for years to come. It should please you and the wildlife by mimicking wild plant structures and species – it’s not wild, but it looks wild – it’s wild.
This is written in the hope that it will inspire you to grow things. We knew very little about plants and gardening a few years ago (and still do much to learn) – understanding that it is a process, trial and error, visions and failures – until finally getting that right plant in the right place. The fact that you have to wait a year to see if it works is amazing – slow motion design.
What do you like?
A lot of inspiration and knowledge has been gathered from books and Instagram (and amazing gardens). Some of the leading proponents of the New Perennial Garden Design movement Are listed below. This is where you can start developing your personal design aesthetic and choosing the direction you want to go. Our inspiration comes from:
They all capture the spirit of wild perennial plants, but with some structure – the plants are the stars, and nature is embraced.
There’s one more book that really influenced our thinking, especially creating and blocking lines of sight. Everything in the garden is arranged so that it can be framed either from a seat or from a view from inside the house. We got it all from a book called Imagine the garden by Robert Mallet.
2020 was an odd year of starting a new business, then locking it down and working from home for months. It was also a great year having a garden and spending time in it. Give some love to the garden and get a lot more back in terms of a project to focus on, the thrill of seeing a design come together, and the joy of just sitting on a sunlit morning and listening to birds sing and bees buzz – without traffic noise.
Another nice thing that happened through locking is the rediscovery of Diarmuid Gavin. He started doing a one-hour live show on Instagram every night at 7 p.m. It’s brilliant, fun, educational, and inspiring. He does it with his colleague Paul Smyth who brings all the plant knowledge.
Then there was the little problem of buying plants in lockdown. But after a little research, a few phone calls and working with my buddy James we managed to find out who else was open and delivered and got some great plants.
How to start a garden plan
It started in late winter / early spring by cutting out new beds and preparing them for planting. As predicted in the last post about the garden, the beds have grown in size and number 🙂
Winter perennial garden design
Building on the design ideas we started a few years ago (you can see that Video of the transition on Youtube). Winter has become a key consideration. If all thought is put into the design of the summer garden, the beds can look bleak and the garden look joyless in winter (Piet Oudolf made a brilliant film called Five seasons which extols the virtues of winter plant structure).
Our winter structure consists of the Cornus Midwinter, Juniper, Pinus Mugo and five Irish Yews trees. Combined with all of the tall seed heads and grasses, the garden looks fabulous all winter long. This is important as it is five months in Yorkshire where spring is slow to arrive in February.
Then everything will be cut back in February and March, ready to do everything again from mid-March.
Until slowly but surely the plants come to life and grow up to their summer peak.
List of perennial garden design plants
The main plants are all herbaceous perennials and grasses – Calamgrotsis X Karl Foerster, Verbena Bonariensis, Cephalaria, Thalictrums, Verbascums, Veronicastrums, Persicarea, Dierama, Monarda, Eupatorium, Echinops, Agastache, Acanthus, Honesty, Teasel, Foxglove – and a whole Echinaca Row of Geraniums and Pontentilla crawling through the higher plants with Nepteta, Lythrums, Salvia, Verbena Bampton and other smaller grasses. Plus succisa pratensis, Molinias Poul Peterson and foxtail barley surround the water tanks.
This all comes together to create a magical, backlit haze of color and texture.
Wildlife and ecology
Sitting in the middle of it all while the bees buzz, butterflies dance and bats flutter around is a brilliant feeling. We live just 2 miles from Leeds city center in a very built-up area. Still, we all get birds … finches and tits, jays and wood pigeons, red kites and tawny owls. We even have our own Sparrowhawk. This year our first real dragonfly came to visit.
To give you an idea of what it looks like overall, here’s the view from the back alley – check out our hedge plants on the other side of the wall too:
Quite a change from moving in – this photo is 5 years ago:
Not just perennials
And finally we started with other parts of the garden – the large front yard in front of the tires now has the beginnings of a ‘zen garden’ with an acer and some stones 🙂 This is made bigger – although the lawn looks okay, it is under our big beech tree so that it is difficult to grow – so perfect for more stones and pebbles.
The “stumper” has more stumps and ferns. That wasn’t a focus this year, but someone posted an ad on our local community Facebook page that three very large tree stumps are free for anyone who wants them – they’re huge and heavy. More ferns were added to accommodate them in their new home. Earlier stumps came from our garden, but a neighbor also had two hollow, large, rotten tree trunks, which they got rid of after the tree was felled six years ago.
A stumpery was a very fashionable Victorian garden wear. Large tree stumps were planted with exotic ferns. It restores the appearance of fallen forests. Prince Charles has a fine example at Highgrove. It’s a haven for wildlife and peaceful and magical using a difficult area in the garden.
“Think of a stumpery as a marriage between the more formal parts of the garden and the wilder areas or landscape that surrounds it.”
Yorkshire Post January 5th 2014 Chris Beardshaw
The farm an update …
The farm is getting better, now all plants are at least three years old. This year it has both suffered and benefited from the fact that the neighbors cut down a large sycamore maple which loaded more light which meant things grow better – the only problem is a lot of the plants are shade lovers because that is anything that would grow – we’ll see what happens.
Where to buy?
The right plants are an important factor in the right design. The big “garden centers” tend not to do this stuff or only half-heartedly. So we hunted down quite a few local small (and large) kindergartens. Our favorites are:
- Dove Cottage – Up in the Pennines near Halifax, no online sales – but the best curated selection of perennials in the north. Not cheap, but the quality is very high. http://www.dovecottagenursery.co.uk/
- Vertigrow – Large kindergarten in York, no online sales. If you want it, you will have it. Stock changes according to the seasons, also ideal for trees. http://www.vertigrow.co.uk/
- Stillingfleet – Again close to York, with beautiful gardens with a large nursery of perenials, no online sales. Helpful organized by shady and not shady. They have weird opening times so check before you go. https://stillingfleetlodgenurseries.co.uk/
- Beth Chatto – In the south we get ours online. Really wide range, great for specific plants or problem areas like dry shade. https://www.bethchatto.co.uk/
Hopefully that has inspired you and made you think. All we have learned is that you have to try things, the way the sun changes over the year, feel your soil and add dirt, look at the plants and understand what they do all year round about doing, then researching, reading, introducing and digging!
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