Powerhouse Plants

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Hardworking Plants That Earn Their Place

Years ago, I was so in love with perennials that I used them anywhere and everywhere. Over time, I started to dislike the blankness of perennial beds in winter and started developing mixed borders. These held colorful combinations of perennials and shrubs, grasses and bulbs, all laced together into a tapestry that could hold up visually even in the depths of January.

Later I swung so far to the shrubby side that I almost cut perennials from my palette. However, I was soon lured back, first by gorgeous foliage, then by color and fragrance. These days, I still plant mixed borders, but the balance is a bit more even. I find that my perennial palette is strongly influenced by the way plants age. Incorrigible floppers are out, even if their flowers are lovely. Takeover thugs are out as well, no matter what they may seem to offer.

Big, Bold and Beautiful, Please!

Demure dainties are also out, perhaps because my eyesight is not what it was. Details have to be strong enough to read clear across the yard, otherwise they feel fussy and contrived. I am also more and more in love with the natural shapes of plants. When I plant grasses, I may still place them in sweeps, especially fluffy ones like Mexican feather grass. However, grasses with structural good looks, such as Anemanthele lessoniaia and Carex testacea, are most satisfying to my eye when given enough room to spread into their full space, which may be as much as 4 x 4 feet.

Thus, the beds and borders become less about floral color and more about the rhythmic repeats of hummock and mound, spike and spire. I now assess the impact of a given plant over time and try to plant accordingly. Since this might mean parking a small start in a big, empty space, I use annual fillers as place holders. They provide seasonal color without cramping the style of the perennial or grass they are filling in for.

Making A Strong Statement

I was recently asked to create plantings for the entryway to Bainbridge Island, a pocket park above the ferry dock. Created by a team of Rotarians and community volunteers, the island’s new Waypoint paths will guide millions of eyes and feet a year. Like our home entry plantings, the park beds must look good year round without needing much care.

Since the budget for this ambitious community project is limited, remarkable amounts of materials and work are being donated. Some plants came from local gardens, including the Bainbridge Public Library’s. The rest were generously discounted by a local nursery, Bainbridge Garden. As a result, the park combines brand new plants with larger specimens that immediately provide a sense of maturity.

On The Wild Side

One side of the Waypoint blends into a wooded ravine. This Wild Garden combines many handsome natives with allied garden forms that evoke the island’s complex history. Thus, you’ll see both rosy pink Spirea douglassii and compact garden spireas, bigleaf maples and Japanese maples, wild cherries and Japanese cherries, native roses and rugosa hybrids. Bold background plantings meld the bed into the ravine, rich with oceanspray and sumac, twiggy dogwoods and hawthorns, Indian plum and huckleberries.

The more formally planted island bed island bed combines Mount Fuji flowering cherries with a solid mass of Lonicera pileata Royal Carpet. This low-growing, evergreen, trouble-free shrub is an excellent choice for low garden hedges, maturing to 3-4 feet high and wide. Tucked into the sweep of green, rain gardens hold sheets of dwarf redtwig dogwood, Cornus sericea Kelseyi, which take up water eagerly in winter without needing summer irrigation. Along the sidewalks, pockets of seasonal color hold low maintenance perennials, clumping grasses, ground covers, and bulbs.

Soft Yet Structural

These “softer” elements must none the less be architecturally strong enough to hold their own amid the larger woody plants. Instead of darling details, the perennials and grasses need to be powerhouse plants that offer excellent form and foliage. Some also have pretty flowers in season, but they must earn their place without them. The grasses are all clumpers rather than runners, with distinctive natural shapes. We were very lucky to receive some huge grasses from several sources, which gives the plantings immediate strength. However, all of these structural grasses will size up quickly even from small pots or divisions.

Since the Waypoint will be tended once a month by a team of volunteers and island Parks staff, the plantings are easy-care if not entirely care-free. (Let me know if you want to help!) Several readers asked for a list of Waypoint plants suitable for home gardens, so below you’ll find a start. Next week, we’ll look at the choice natives that bring the Wild Garden to life.


Berberis (Barberry) Amstelveen, calliantha, Cherry Bomb, darwinii, Golden Nugget, Pygmy Ruby,  Sunjoy, Wallich’s Purple
Callicarpa (Beauty Berry) Profusion
Cotinus (Smoke bush) Grace, Royal Purple
Exochorda (Pearl Bush) The Bride
Forsythia Golden Tide
Spirea Goldflame, Golden Elf, Limemound, Ogon
Vaccinium (Blueberry) Bountiful Blue, Brunswick, Burgundy

Anemanthele lessoniana Pheasant tail grass
Carex Bronze, Cappuchino, Frosty Curls, testacea
Hakenechloa  macra Japanese forest grass
Miscanthus  Gracillimus, Morning Light

Alchemilla mollis Lady’s mantle
Crocosmia Lucifer
Epimedium (Bishops‘ hat) Sulphureum
Helianthus (Prairie sunflower) Lemon Queen
Nepeta (Catmint) Six Hills Giant, Walker’s Low
Persicaria (fleeceflower) Painter’s Palette, P. superbum
Polystichum (sword fern) munitum

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *