A perennial garden w/out annuals/woody plants is a gruesome thing

rusty_blackhaw(6a)January 15, 2007

This is more or less a direct quote from Allan Armitage, who is not a fan of the all-perennial garden.

I think "gruesome" may be pushing it, but I reserve space in the perennial garden every year for annuals and subtropicals (tender Salvias, cannas and experiments not quite ready for prime time in the main temperennial bed have been fun to play with). Shrubs (including several varieties of Itea and Fothergilla major and Cotinus 'Golden Spirit') provide multiseason interest, while tall ornamental grasses (such as Miscanthus 'Cabaret', M. 'Variegatus' and Panicum 'Dallas Blues') and woody perennials that generally overwinter well (i.e. dwarf crepe myrtle and Caryopteris 'Worcester Gold) also provide dominant themes and contrasts throughout the growing season.

I suppose they add winter structure as well, but since my usual gardening activities in this season involve the fluorescent light garden and reading seed catalogues, I don't pay much attention to what is standing tall above the snow and/or mud.

So, do you agree with Armitage? And if so, what non-perennials help make your gardens special?

The Itea in the above photo ("Henry's Garnet") traveled with me to Ohio from Texas. The foreground plant is Brunnera macrophylla.

Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
mxk3(Zone 6 SE MI)

Well, "gruesome" is a strong word, but I do agree with his principal. IMO a garden/beds/foundation planting needs "bones" for structural interest, not only in winter but year-around, and it is of particular importance in winter.

Yes, winter interest can be had from certain perennials, I'll agree, but only until they get schlopped on by snow or ice. Good example is ornamental grasses - beautiful for winter interest, but as soon as wet snow or ice hits the clump - fuggedaboutit, and they don't recover. Shorter height winter interest perennials get buried in the snow.

Aaah, but shrubbery and trees can save the day (er, season). The bright red berries of Winterberry hollies are gorgeous, especially against the stark white snow; red-twig dogwoods liven up the dreariness; the bark of rugosa roses is interesting/intriguing in its craginess; evergreens add a shot of green; dried hydrangea flowerheads add a reminder of season past and a promise for the season to come.....and the list goes on.

Folks mumble about how blah winter is, but if a garden is well planned the winter season can actually be quite beutiful in its own serene way. Beauty doesn't only come in the form of greenery. I've stood gazing in amazement the morning after an ice storm - simply breathtaking!

    Bookmark   January 15, 2007 at 7:02PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Well, Eric, I've created several really guesome gardens that contain shrubs and annuals as well as perennials; while this doesn't disprove Armitage's statement, it may qualify it a bit.

Certainly shrubs *can* add interest and structure, but so can striking, tall perennials. And annuals can add color and texture, or they can just be loud; they tend to have less interesting flowers, as a group, than many perennials - tender perennials are another story.

I find it difficult to choose shrubs for mixed border, and often have to remove them because they don't play nicely with their neighbors. The wigela is too sprawling, the foliage of the sambucus grabs too much attention, the form of the cotinus is just not right with its relatively diminutive surroundings, oakleaf hydrangea spreads out and takes over the entire bed ... the list of mistakes goes on and on.

Then there are shrubs that don't want their roots disturbed, which becomes a problem when it's time to divide nearby perennials.

Still, when I plan new beds, I start with shrubs, and fill in the design with groups of perennials. The annuals are always added on the spur of the moment, often because there's a space for them in a new mixed border and no space anywhere else, or because an area that's full of spring flowering shrubs and perennials suddenly looks boring when the flowers are gone (so much for foliage effects).

Some of my better mixed beds have foreground shrubs, like the little Pia hydrangea, lowbush blueberry, and heath, because they're easier to integrate into the design. Taller shrubs that work for me include crape myrtle, hydrangea Tardiva, daphne and nandina - they all seem to behave themselves really well in mixed company.

Maybe I'll go re-read Lovejoy's American Mixed Border - she may know what it takes to get this right.

    Bookmark   January 15, 2007 at 9:47PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I don't know about "gruesome" but they are certainly boring, at least for 4-6 months of the year, depending on location.

I have always been an advocate of the mixed border, preferring an assortment of plants of various types in a more naturalistic setting, than a planting dedicated to a single plant type as in a perennial border, a rose garden or even a bedding out of seasonal annuals. While my very mild climate encourages a lot more evergreen perennials than other areas, I still include a lot of woody plants in my borders, from small trees to deciduous and evergreen shrubs and lots of dwarf conifers. And of course vines, grasses and bulbs in addition to more common herbaceous perennials. The mix gives the garden structure ("bones" in design parlance) and interest throughout the year.

The only caveat I have for preferring a mixed border is that a successful one needs a pretty deep planting area - a 6' border is not going to cut it as there is not enough depth to allow for adequate development of trees and shrubs in addition to the perennials.

    Bookmark   January 16, 2007 at 10:21AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
laurelin(z5a/4b Upstate NY)

I don't know that I'd use the word "gruesome" for an all-perennial bed/border. I might use descriptive phrases like "difficult to successfully design for a succession of bloom" or "better for a warm climate than a cold zone." Or "works better in theory than in practice," just in my opinion.

If I didn't have shrubs and small trees, I'd have very little structure in the garden between December and March. A few perennials look good all winter (taller sedums, shorter asters, some astilbes, some grasses), but most of them look pretty bedraggled after a couple heavy snows. In this very warm, atypical northeast winter, I have had many perennials that looked much better longer than usual, but that's the exception, not the norm.

I enjoy using many non-perennials to make a splash in the garden. Tall bronze-leaved cannas look bold and tropical amidst my hot-colored daylilies. I plant 'Alaska' nasturtiums every year for their variegated foliage and tidy habit (they don't "run"). Alyssum and nigella 'Miss Jeckyll Blue' are good softeners/minglers in many spots. Gladiolus bulbs from the dollar store were the surprise highlight of my front border for a few weeks last summer.
Acidanthera are lovely in an understated way, and their fragrance up close is well worth planting them for. Nicotiana 'Lime Green' is one of my favorite filler plants, because the color goes with EVERYTHING, and they're easy to grow from seed. (I winter sow, and I'm planning on growing all my annuals from seed this year.)
I plant 'Trionfo Violetto' pole beans on a trellis for their ornamental value as much as their tasty beans - the whole plant is flushed purple, with violet purple flowers leading to deep purple beans. And every year I buy fuchsia 'Gartenmeister Bonstedt' for its bronze foliage, pendant orange flowers, and the way it attracts hummingbirds.


Nasturtium 'Alaska' with unknown daylily, white liatris, white dwarf zinnias.

Nicotiana 'Lime Green'

Fuchsia 'Gartenmeister Bonstedt'

I could go on and on. I can't imagine having a "perennials-only" border in my climate. I have seen some wonderful examples of perennials-only borders (usually in gardening books from the UK, of gardens owned by people who can hire other people to help design and maintain them, in a climate much milder than mine). But I think calling an all-perennial garden "gruesome" is a bit strongly worded, even though it makes a point.


    Bookmark   January 16, 2007 at 10:23AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
mad_gallica(zone 5 - eastern New York)

'Fear of design' often seems to me to be the real problem. You can easily have winter structure in a garden of only perennials, *if* you are willing to have planting beds that look like something. Refusing to have any geometric lines in a garden is fine so long as you understand what you are giving up.

This area is home to an abundance of estate gardens which are currently publicly owned in some manner. Most of them were professionally designed in the 1920's and 1930's, and are done in a style closely related to the Jekyll-Lutkyns gardens of about the same time period. It could be described as formal garden designs, informally planted. So the 'bones' of the garden, are the underlying formal design. It's largely hidden during the summer, but puts in a dramatic appearance when the plants die off. In the local examples, this is sometimes accentuated by evergreens, or grasses, but they aren't necessary.

    Bookmark   January 16, 2007 at 11:26AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

With mild winters here, I prefer to have something to look at instead of bare barren earth. I also like the punch some annuals and tender plants can give. Some of my non-perennial contributers are:

- Lespedeza 'White Fountain' (but a challenge to plant around)
- Duranta erecta 'Golden Edge' (tender woody)
- Spirea 'GoldMound'
- Salix purpurea 'Nana'
- Roses
- Canna 'Pink Sunburst' (some winters it's perennial, some winters it isn't)
- Consolida ambigua (larkspur...reseeding annual)
- Perilla fructans (reseeding annual)
- Petunias
- Melampodium
- Coleus
- Zinnia augustifolia
- Portulaca
- Angelonia
- Alternanthera 'Purple Knight' (really impressed by this, but so were the deer)
- Lantanas
- Abelia 'Sunrise'(in a container)
- Dwarf conifers (typically in containers)

    Bookmark   January 16, 2007 at 1:37PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
david_5311(Z 5b/6a SE Mich)

Well, I am glad Eric that you didn't use the word "gruesome" yourself, even though you may agree more than disagree with Armitage's statement. I find he is often very opinionated and I don't always agree with him. In an article about Caryopteris divaricata 'Snow Fairy', he made the statement that the 'straight species was hardly worth growing', or something to that effect. Hogwash -- it a fine though very different garden plant in its own right, much more lovely in flower than its showy variegated but sparing-of-flower sibling. Enough about that, off topic, but even though Armitage has credentials, that doesn't mean he always speaks the truth.

As I garden longer and longer, woody plants, not just shrubs but lots of smaller trees as well, have gradually become more important in my garden. They are lower maintenance, provide structure and form, add height, expand the range of seasonal interest -- many things. For me, they also represent a change in the whole approach to having a garden. I have myself virtually abandoned the idea of a "border" (aka "flower bed") in favor of diffuse mixed planting of all kinds of plants that you walk through rather than look at from one side. The shrubs that are part of sunny planting most for me are roses, roses, roses (real shrubs, not HTs or grandifloras), viburnums of many kinds (I like the plicatums and dilatatums for mixed borders best), philadelphus, sambucus, willows (Salix nigra purpurea is an excellent, '1st shrub' to add to a perennials planting), cotinus. I don't personally like dwarf conifers in mixed borders much, and maybe for no good reason though in my blowsy plantings they don't thrive and don't look right. Deciduous shrubs in general tolerate and adapt to crowded conditions better.

I think that large scale perennials can take some of the place of shrubs, and I use both liberally. I think one of the problems newer gardeners have is that they make their beds too small, understandably, and that they do not use enough large scale perennials. The other critical part of a mixed border for me is the use of vines, in sunny borders anyway, and especially clematis. They knit together the whole, add height and block and frame views, and make the whole garden look more naturalistic and fit into the landscape better than a 'flower bed' where nothing is more than 4' tall.

I love tender salvias and have used some "annuals", mostly these tender salvias but some others too, at times. I really do not think that "annuals" have to be included in a planting to have a wonderful garden with a long season of interest. In fact, I think that gardeners can learn faster how to make a long season planting by not using annuals at first, and sticking with more permanent plants. I personally do like to use true annuals primarily in containers, where they can provide focal points, be moved around as needed, and be changed completely from one year to the next.

    Bookmark   January 16, 2007 at 1:53PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

So how long-flowering are Nigella in upstate New York? (I have one variety of N. hispanica and Anagallis monelli tabbed for experimental bedding this year, hopefully to get some long-lasting blues in the garden).

Reseeding annuals or biennials are good fill-in material for the lazy. There's a purple-leafed blazing red Amaranthus I can count on to find just the right spot every year. Chinese forget-me-not and Verbena bonariensis also are adept at finding bare ground.

I agree that some otherwise fine shrubs get too big for certain mixed border settings. Smaller shrubs I enjoy (in addition to those already mentioned) include Spirea 'Lemon Princess', dwarf barberries and Nandinas (which are surprisingly hardy in my area).

I wonder if Armitage finds the classic English long perennial border gruesome? These typically don't include annuals or woody plants, unless you count the yew hedge in the background.

Here's an attractive perennial border that similarly seems to get by alright (an attractive or at least functional backdrop and sense of enclosure easily making up for lack of internal "bones").

    Bookmark   January 16, 2007 at 2:17PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Eric, the brief description of your garden startled me:
every plant you mentioned is a part of my garden ! So, yes,
I agree with Armitage in principal - but "gruesome"? How
about "less than ideal"?

Like any of us, I cannot help but admire examples of "walls
of perennials" we have all seen (in my area, certain examples in the New York Botanical Garden and Chanticleer
come to mind, as well as many English estate gardens).....
but to me, these are exquisite DISPLAY gardens, and I'm not
fooling myself that I live in them. For most of us, then,
it's a question of LIVING in our gardens, 24/7, which means
a mix of all kinds of plant material.....

I am particularly fond of junipers, which can tend to get
out of hand in a smaller garden, but after lots of experimentation, I have found that J. chinensis 'Old Gold' really does stay smaller than 3' in all directions, and
it looks lovely in the spring with its green/gold plumes
backing a stand of daffodils, or later surrounded by
Rudbeckia 'Golstrum' - another has a small clematis scrambling over it, while still another foots a handsome
stand of Miscanthus 'Morning Light'.....

It was delightful to read that someone else uses blueberry
bushes in their mixed border: not only do you get to "feed"
off your flower beds in summer, but the fall color of
Vaccinium angustifolium is terrific! The Berberis thunbergii 'Crimson Pygmy' has worked well for me, with
its neighboring stand of brilliant orange Asclepias tuberosa; any of the smaller grasses and sedges provide
endless possibilities - Pennisetum 'Hameln' and Carex stricta 'Bowles Golden' are favorites - while the northern
sea oats, Chasmanthium latifolium, blends splendidly with almost any perennial under 2'.....

This sesaon I experimented with moving a couple of Viburnum
'Winterthur' into the back of a border, and was pleased with the "sturdier" background they provided than the tall
perennials they replaced (...which found other homes -
nothing wasted!) And let me add a plug here for what has
become one of my all-time favorite "blending shrubs",
Diervilla sessilifolia (Yellow Bush Honeysuckle) - all by
itself, this is a 3' shrub with pale yellow trumpet blooms that might induce yawns; but blended into a perennial
border that low-key color is a fantastic foil for all kind
of combinations. It gets better: it is drought-tolerant,
takes full-sun down to almost full-shade, and can be handily pruned back at any stage to accommodate emerging
plants around it.....

As for annuals: the name says it all - if it doesn't work
this year, you can always try something else next year!
You know how much we love to see Verbena bonariensis, say,
or Allium sphaerocephalon poking their heads up through
the perennial beds - there are dozens and dozens of annuals
that will be happy to do the same thing, as well as offer you years of future experimentation!

Finally: perhaps this is bizarre behavior on my part, but
virtually EVERY day of the year, regardless of the weather,
I make a determined tour of my garden, and almost always
sit down one place or another to contemplate.....when the
perennials are gone, I rely on their supporting players -
the grasses, woody plants and evergreens - to remind me of
their summer places and their anticipated return.

Here's to the "total garden". . .


    Bookmark   January 16, 2007 at 3:21PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
grammabonnie(z5 Ohio)

Thanks to all of you who have posted all your thoughts about what would work well in a mixed border. I'm pretty new to gardening and this forum has been such a great help, especially with all the beautiful pictures and the names of plants that are always included in the posts.

If you're reading this and you're planning on putting in some borders or flower beds, please take time to read all the above posts before you start designing your beds. The posters know what they're talking about and I only wish I'd read more and known all this before I started a few years ago. This spring I'm taking down a fence, expanding my beds in the back of the border and planting shrubs and woody plants for all the reasons that were mentioned in the previous posts. I'm doing it backwards, I know, but my beds need backbone, winter interest, and structure. I'm copying and pasting all these suggestions. Thank you so much for all your ideas and thoughts.

    Bookmark   January 16, 2007 at 9:09PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I agree with Gardengirl, as advocating the mixed border. And I agree to make the borders really deep, so you can have a good assortment of height. My borders consist of mainly perennials, with grasses, deciduous trees and shrubs, and evergreens. Bulbs for the spring mainly. I plant absolutely no annuals, but have something flowering at all times. My smallest border is 30' X 90'. Even a very small yard needs some depth to the borders.

    Bookmark   January 17, 2007 at 12:28PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
david_5311(Z 5b/6a SE Mich)

Well, I learned tonight, in reading sections from Armitage's "Native Plants for North American Gardens", that the 'gruesome' quote above is indeed a quote, part of Armitage's dislike of 'theme' gardens, including perennial gardens. It comes directly from that book. It's one of those statements that I agree with, on some level, but still find distasteful in the manner in which it is stated. Like Armitage's quote from the same book that New England asters are 'weeds' (I would reserve that term myself for non-native plants that colonize disturbed areas, not natives that are adapted to them....), and that Boltonia 'Pink Beauty' is "inferior to other forms unless pink is wanted" (hogwash, it is a wonderful plant, floppy yes, but that just means you have to know how to use it to advantage.....). I find Boltonia 'Pink Beauty' a lovely plant, a shimmering lavendar pink which glows in morning and evening light, and one which looks like so many fireworks growing into Molinia 'Windspiel', one of the most 'transparent' of grasses and a great scaffold for 'floppy plants'.

I prefer Carl's endorsement of the "total garden" to Armitage's description of perennial gardens as "gruesome".
Maybe, Carl, you should write a book.......

    Bookmark   January 17, 2007 at 9:18PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
laceyvail(6A, WV)

In my garden Papaver rhoeas (the red corn poppy) reseeds and provides great contrast in the late spring and early summer garden. I also plant Dolichos lab lab (Hyacinth bean) around a tripod of saplings. And every year I order a few plants of Salvia elegans and S. 'Indigo Spires'. That's it for me for annuals. But those few sure make a great show.

I also have a wide range of grasses and shrubs, and now, at 62, I am actually removing perennials and replacing them with shrubs--evergreen and otherwise. This year for the first time, I will experiment with heaths and heathers as low maintenance, evergreen plants. My gardens are very large--and I also depend on a good sized vegetable garden for most of my food--and I just can't do it all anymore. So, in the process of trying to make the work a little less, the woodies are becoming more and more. Still plenty of perennials though!

    Bookmark   January 18, 2007 at 7:32AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
laurelin(z5a/4b Upstate NY)

Eric_oh - Nigella in Upstate NY - they bloom for about a month in midsummer (June-July), then form their balloon-shaped seed pods. They reseed freely, and their seedlings form a fuzzy green carpet in the fall, overwinter without trouble, and grow on in the spring. Their foliage and seed pods look scruffy (totally dry) by September, so I pull them out then, and sprinkle the seeds where I want them (or harvest them to share).

I have three mixed borders in my yard (suburbia, but a nice little lot bordering a wooded ravine). The widest border (full shade under hemlock trees for half its lenghth) is about 12 feet deep by 75 feet long. The others are both about 9 feet deep by 30 feet long. I wish they could be deeper, but then I'd have no lawn and the kids would have no place to play, LOL - they were unhappy when I took over part of the back yard for an island bed the last two years, so I'll be shrinking that bed this year to give them a little more room.

SO, the point of this is that I've had to keep the shrubs in proportion to my smaller mixed border depth. I can only dream of a border that's 30' by 90' - that's almost my entire yard, LOL! In a small yard I have different issues than if I had a large lot. For instance, I can't use a full-sized lilac by the sidewalk (it would block the line of sight down the road from the driveway - a safety issue), so I planted lilac 'Wonderblue,' a "dwarf" that should max out at 6 feet tall. Nice plant, gorgeous flowers. And, my neighbor might not appreciate having a forest planted on the property line, so I have to be respectful of her view, too. Fortunately, she likes looking at my garden, and doesn't mind the border shrubs at all.

The backbone of that front border is a mix of five shrubs: a tall lilac nearest the house ('Krasavitsa Moskvy'), which I'm training to be more tree-like and vertical than bushy and spreading; a butterfly bush ('Plum Purple,' dies back most years, stays 4-6 feet tall/wide), rose of sharon 'Blue Bird' (very vertical, self seeds like mad though), philadelphus/mock orange 'Virginal' (again, more vertical than spreading), and then the 'Wonderblue' lilac by the sidewalk. In front of those is a mix of perennials and annuals: peonies, tall bearded and siberian irises, daylilies, white echinacea, a spiny acanthus, pennisetum alopecuroides, culinary sage (makes a nice shrubby, furry texture), chrysanthemum 'Emperor of China,' Stokes asters, plumbago, rose campion, nigella 'Miss Jeckyll Blue,' alyssum, sempervivums, snapdragons, a campanula (from a garden swap - hopefully it will bloom this year; it seems to be a bit invasive and might have to be moved), nicotiana 'Lime Green,' and I'm sure I've forgotten something. I wish I had a good full-length picture of the border, but it's still young - only three years old now, so it's a work in progress.

(These pictures are all PD - pre-digital camera. I'll be sure to get better pictures this year.)

This is the only overview picture I have of it, from May of 2005, right after heavy rain caused the retaining wall to fall over into the border - AAACCKK! It looks much better now, really.

This is the shady end of the longest border. You can't see in this photo, but I've included two Kalmia (mountain laurels) that should eventually give some nice form. At the back of the border, beside the house, is a doublefile viburnum - amazing foliage and delightful flowers. Again, I'm having to manage its spread a bit - I planted it several years ago, then realized it would get wider than I anticipated. The rest of the area on the left of the path is filled with hosta, lady ferns, variegated solomon's seal, pachysandra, two rhododendrons at the back by the fence, toad lilies, lamium 'Hermann's Pride' and 'Chequers,' a dwarf fothergilla shrub, and in the summer with impatiens. I could probably have gotten away with having NO shrubs and only perennials in this area if I really wanted to, but in the winter it's a straight swatch of barren mulch without the shrubs to break it up.

The front (sunny) end of the long border. It's got a backbone of rose of sharon (2), rose 'Roseraie de l'Hay,' lilacs 'Andenken an Ludwig Spaeth' and 'Blue Skies,' rose 'Blaze,' a mugo pine, and an unknown rose (I think it's rosa multiflora, planted by a bird - I have to manage it diligently to keep it in bounds, but I love the sprays of white flowers and its tiny hips). That bed includes tall bearded irises, peonies, pennisetum alopecuroides, salvia 'May Night,' sedum 'Autumn Joy,' aster 'Blue Bird,' knautia, stachys byzantina, an unknown pink aster, daylilies, thrift, geranium 'Brookside' (an incorrigible flopper/spreader, but great flowers), yarrow 'Moonlight,' echinacea, hosta 'Minuteman,' clematis 'Duchess of Albany, climbing one of the rose of sharon bushes), white valerian, alyssum, and others, underplanted with clusters of spring bulbs (daffodils, tulips, and iris reticulata). This border has the fewest annuals of any of my garden areas. The reason for the dense planting of shrubs at the back was at first practical rather than aesthetic: the heavy planting (supposedly) keeps the neighborhood kids from riding their bikes through that area in the winter. . . .


    Bookmark   January 18, 2007 at 8:39AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
Nell Jean

Armitage's vocabulary is somewhat abrasive, but his theory is generally correct, IMHO.

This is a wonderful thread. Thank you all who contributed. Funny, my garden has many of the same plants as Laurelin, with exceptions, like lilacs. Sigh.


    Bookmark   January 18, 2007 at 3:29PM
Sign Up to comment
More Discussions
Would you be willing to share your favorite plant markers?
I've been eyeing the copper and zinc ones but just...
true pink or purple oriental poppies
Hi, I've tried to grow pink and purple oriental poppies...
Im looking for rare edible perennials for zone 5
I want things that require vary little work and do...
Growing Yucca in container?
I seem to remember a member mentioning they were experimenting...
christinmk z5b eastern WA
liatris bulbs
I just bought bulbs. Can I start them in a pot now...
© 2015 Houzz Inc. Houzz® The new way to design your home™