The Perennial Meadow is the artist’s hand at its most playful. Here a wider range of plants with a long season of interest have been chosen carefully so as to provide interest within each season largely through strongly contrasting forms. There is a distinct progression as the seasons advance. In spring and early summer the predominance of flowering plants are of European origin and on the average lower-growing. Though many earlier flowering plants such as geraniums lack structure after flowering, the inflorescence of many of these persist structurally (as one may notice from the photos) 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 little is in flower. 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 these are also tall grasses such as varieties of Panicum, and perhaps 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, begin to flower and 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 for a much greater layering of plants with larger clumps used in repetition such as one sees in an open grassland. Furthermore, this depth of planting area allows for 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 then looking at a planting from the outside. Here plants and insect life can be examined close-up and can even be imposing.
Culturally, this garden is dealt with in a similar manner to the Deschampsia meadow 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 (this as opposed to removing and composting the material in a specific location). There is the added benefit, with our heavy clay loam soils, in which this debris mulch allows one to walk among the plants in early spring without tracking the sticky soil. And even more importantly it greatly reduces the heaving of plants from repeated freezing and thawing. A tidy garden is a much less ecologically happy garden as detritus of varying degrees of decay is the very backbone which feeds the whole garden system. Insects and other invertebrates flourish under these conditions and so on up the food chain. One 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 as “fertilizer”. Once 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-leaf dicotyledon plants (forbs) are nothing but stem come late fall. In this way grasses have a strong ecological appeal in sustaining the garden ecosystem.