Perennial Meadow

Here a wider range of plants has been chosen to provide interest through the seasons with long-lasting and strongly contrasting forms. As the seasons advance, there is a distinct progression.  In spring and early summer, the predominance of flowering plants is of European origin and on average lower-growing. Though many earlier flowering plants such as geraniums lack structure after flowering, the inflorescence of many others persists as an ornamental feature into the next flush of growth, such as that of Camassia ‘Alba’. On the other hand, geraniums can also seem ever-present due to their very long flowering period and abundance of flowers. What is less apparent at this time is the role played by many as yet to flower plants with their lush and contrasting colored foliage providing filler and bulk in a supporting role when flowers are few and far between.  These include the gray-blue, strap-like foliage of Eryngium yuccifolium and the deep red foliage of Penstemon ‘Husker’s Red’.

As the summer comes into full swing the planting increases in height and the display is increasingly dominated by plants of North American origin such as Echinacea, Agastache, Phlox, and Liatris.  Many of them are also tall grass varieties such as Panicum and Miscanthus, and at least half of this planting consists of grasses of mixed origin. With the arrival of fall the very tallest plants such as the gigantic ironweed, Vernonia, and Eupatorium, begin to flower and visually dominate the back of the planting. Bright colors begin to be far and few between yet can seem even more enchanting in contrast to the many earth tones represented by the persistent structural seed-heads of earlier flowering plants and the variations of yellow and red-colored fall foliage.  Asters such as the novae-angliae cultivar ‘Wendy’ and seaside goldenrod, Solidago semperverins, are particularly striking at this time. As winter strengthens its grip all that will remain are the skeletons of plants with a bit of colored foliage here and there. Many of these forms will remain intact up until the first heavy snowfall prior to which numerous early frosts will coat and highlight their spent foliage and seed-heads with a layer of crystalline hoar frost. This ethereal display is the last of the garden’s expressions until spring.

What is most evident about this meadow-like planting technique is that the depth of the border in places is often as deep as it is long.  This allows greater layering of plants, with larger clumps used in repetition such as one sees in open grassland. Furthermore, the depth of planting area allows one to walk into the planting whereby gaining a significantly different perspective as they progress along a designated path. The effect of being within a planting is considerably more intimate and inspiring than looking at a planting from the outside.


Like all the display gardens, the Perennial Meadow has its difficulty, primarily that of heavy clay soil, which has involved a lot of trial and error.  Culturally, this garden is dealt with in a similar manner to the Deschampsia and Carex Meadows and for similar reasons, though it is left standing longer for the early winter display described above. Using shears, the dead top growth of plants is incrementally chopped and left lying as fertilizer and mulch at the base of the plant (as opposed to removing and composting the material in a specific location). An added benefit of this is with our heavy clay loam soils, this debris mulch allows one to walk among the plants in early spring without tracking the sticky soil.  Even more importantly it greatly reduces the heaving of plants from repeated freezing and thawing.  Finally, a tidy garden is a much less ecologically happy garden as detritus in varying degrees of decay is the very source that feeds the whole garden system beginning with the soil and its decomposers. A note of caution – with this method is the possibility of promoting self-sowing to an extreme.  Some wilder garden plants are prolifically self-sowing and have high germination rates and so must first have their seed heads removed leaving the rest of the plant to be chopped to remain.  When one begins to maintain a garden in this way it becomes clear the added benefit of grasses in the copious amount of biomass they generate.  On average most broad-leaved plants (forbs) are nothing but stem come late fall.  It is thus grasses have a strong ecological appeal in sustaining the garden ecosystem.

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