As our gardens evolved, so did our use of perennials. When I was a horticulture student in the 1960s, the traditional herbaceous border featured large in our garden design lectures. Today, no doubt, students learn more about the naturalistic prairie style of planting perennials, championed by Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf and landscape architecture firm Oehme van Sweden. And now there is a third generation of perennial planting, best known by some garden designers — including Michael King, writer and perennials expert — as the “perennial meadow,” which uses the best parts of both the previous formats.
Modern perennial meadows are a mixture of colorful perennial plants and grasses that are planted in groups and drifts to create plantings in a naturalistic style, using a restricted planting palette and plants that happily grow together to form a stable community.
The design of the perennial meadow has changed the way we interact with the plantings. Whereas the herbaceous border was created as a focal point, or a feature to be viewed, rather like a painting, the perennial meadow takes its form from the prairie style, where we are surrounded by the plantings or are led through them by pathways. The perennial meadow gives us the opportunity to use a wide range of plants and grasses to create a stylized version of a traditional meadow that perhaps has nostalgic resonance with our past.
One of the benefits of this generation of planting is being able to use a wide range of plants, not necessarily native to the zone or country, but because they suit their position in the overall design.
The black-eyed Susans and pink sedums in this long border are planted in groups and repeated, creating a visual link along the border. The planting is tight to form a low-maintenance ground cover that gives the impression of a living tapestry of color and texture. Because more modern compact varieties of perennials and tight plantings were used, there is little need for time-consuming tying, staking and weeding of plants in season.
A mixture of grasses and flowering perennials provides habitat and food for a wide range of insects and birds, while having a low environmental impact. Any cutting back of flowering stems should not be carried out until the spring, to allow birds to enjoy the resulting seed heads while they use the dried foliage for nest building.
This planting requires less maintenance than the traditional parterre would have and provides color throughout a longer season and additional environmental benefits — on my visit the border was alive with butterflies feeding.