What is perennial garden design?
Perennial garden design refers to a type of planting but also a way of ensuring your garden looks good all year and hopefully for years to come. It should please you and the wildlife by mimicking wild planting structures and species – it’s not wild but it looks wild – it’s wildish.
This is written in the hope that it inspires you to grow things. We knew very little about plants and garden design a few years ago (and still have a lot to learn) – understanding that it’s a process, trial and error, visions and failures – until finally getting the right plant in the right place. The fact that you have to wait a year to see whether it works is amazing – slow motion design that needs to be refined, curated, nutured and pruned as it grows year by year.
What do you like?
A lot of inspiration and knowledge was gathered from books and Instagram (and visting amazing gardens). Some of the leading proponents of the New Perennial garden design movement are listed below. Here you can start to build your own personal design aesthetic and pick and choose the direction you want to go in. Our inspiration has come from:
- Tom Stuart-Smith – https://www.instagram.com/tomstuartsmith/ – you can see his work at The Hepworth in Wakefield or Chatsworth amongst many others.
- Piet Oudolf – https://www.instagram.com/pietoudolf/ – you can see his work at Scampston Walled Garden (near York) or The Highline in New York City.
- Nigel Dunnett – https://www.instagram.com/nigel.dunnett/ – you can see his work all over Sheffield, and The Barbican and The Olympic Park in London
- Jimi Blake – https://www.instagram.com/jimiblake_huntingbrookgardens/
- Luciano Giubbilei – https://www.instagram.com/lucianogiubbileigardens/
- Jinny Blom (https://www.instagram.com/jinny.blom/) – but more for her amazing book The Thoughtful Gardener
They all capture the spirit of wild perennial planting but with some structure – the plants are the stars, and nature is embraced.
There is one more book that has really influenced our thinking, particularly about creating and obstructing lines of sight. Everything in the garden is placed to be framed either from a seating point or a view from inside the house….but also to deliberately obstruct some views to create intrigue! We got all this from a book called Envisioning the Garden by Robert Mallet.
2020 has been a strange year, starting a new business venture, then lockdown and months of working from home. It has also been a great year to have a garden and the time to spend in it. Giving the garden some love and getting much much 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 listening to birds singing and bees buzzing – with no traffic noise.
Another lovely thing that happened through lockdown is the re-discovery of Diarmuid Gavin. He started doing an hour long live show on Instagram every night at 7pm. It’s brilliant, funny, 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 bit of research, a few phone calls and some collaboration with my mate James we managed to work out who was still open and delivering and got some great plants.
How to begin a garden plan
It started in late winter/early spring, cutting out new beds and getting them ready for planting. As predicted in the last post about the garden – the beds did grow in size and number 🙂
Winter perennial garden design
Building on the design ideas we started a couple of years ago (you can watch the video of the transition on YouTube). Winter has become a key consideration. If all thought is only put into the summer garden design, the beds can look bleak and the garden joyless when it comes to winter (Piet Oudolf made a brilliant film called Five Seasons which extols the virtues of Winter plant structure).
Our winter structure comes from the trees, Cornus Midwinter, Juniper, Pinus Mugo and five Irish Yews, combining with all the tall seed heads and grasses to make the garden look fabulous all the way through winter. Which is important as it takes up five months in Yorkshire where Spring is slow to arrive in February.
Then it all gets cut back in Feburary and March, ready to do it all again from mid-march onwards.
Until slowly but surely the plants spring to life and start building in height to their summer zenith.
Perennial garden design plant list
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, Teasels, Foxgloves, Fennel, Stipa Gigantea and Echinacaea – plus a whole raft of Geraniums and Pontentilla crawling through the taller plants with Nepteta, Lythrums, Salvia, Verbena Bampton and other smaller grasses. Plus Succisa Pratensis, Molinias Poul Peterson and Foxtail Barley round the water tanks.
This all comes together to create a magical backlit haze of colour and texture.
Wildlife and ecology
Sat in the middle of all of this with the bees buzzing, butterflies dancing and bats fluttering around is a brilliant feeling. We only live a mile and a half from the city centre of Leeds in a very built up area. Yet we get all the birds…Finches and Tits, Jays and Woodpigeons, Red Kites and Tawny Owls. We even have our very own Sparrowhawk. This year our first proper Dragonfly came to visit.
Just to give you an idea of what it looks like as a whole, here’s the view from the back lane – also check out our hedgerow plants on the other side of the wall:
Quite a change from when we moved in – this photo is 5 years ago:
Not just Perennials
And finally, we have been starting on other bits of the garden – the big front garden in front of the hoops, now has the beginnings of a ‘Zen garden’ with an Acer and some rocks :)This is going to be made bigger – although the lawn looks OK, it’s under our big beech tree, so it really struggles to grow – so perfect for more rocks and pebbles.
The ‘stumpery’ has got more stumps and ferns. This wasn’t going to be a focus this year, but someone put an ad on our local community Facebook page that they had three very large tree stumps going free for anyone who would like them – they are huge and heavy. To settle them into their new home another batch of ferns were put in. Previous stumps have been from our garden but also a neighbour had two hollow large rotten tree trunks that they were finally getting rid of after getting the tree cut down six years ago.
A stumpery was a very fashionable Victorian garden trend. Large tree stumps were planted up with exotic ferns. It recreates the look of fallen woodland. Prince Charles has a beautiful example at Highgrove. It is a haven for wildlife and peaceful and magical making use of 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 the wilder landscape that surrounds it.Yorkshire Post 5th January 2014 Chris Beardshaw
The courtyard an update…
The Courtyard is getting better now the plants are all at least three years old. This year it both suffered and benefited from the neighbours cutting down a large sycamore, giving it loads more light which meant things grow better – the only problem is that many of the plants are shade lovers, because that’s all that would grow – we’ll see what happens.
Where to Buy?
A huge factor in getting the design right is to get the right plants. The big ‘garden centres’ tend not to do this stuff, or will do it half-heartedly. So we have hunted out a whole host of local small (and big) nurseries. Our favourites 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 – Big nursery in York, no online sales. If you want it, they will have it. Stock changes to match the seasons, also great for trees. http://www.vertigrow.co.uk/
- Stillingfleet – Again near York, with gorgeous gardens with a great nursery of Perenials, no online sales. Helpfully organised by shady and non-shady. They have weird opening times, so check before you go. https://stillingfleetlodgenurseries.co.uk/
- Beth Chatto – Down South, we get ours online. Really big selection, great for specific plants or problem areas like Dry Shade. https://www.bethchatto.co.uk/
Hopefully that has given you inspiration and food for thought. All we have learnt is that you need to try things, look at the way the sun changes through the year, feel your soil and add muck, look at the plants and start to understand what they do all year round, then research, read, imagine and dig!