Color, Texture, Shape…
I’m noticing a new trend these days: Gardeners are tucking more shrubs into borders and more perennials into pots. Both changes make good sense, since a well planned shrub-based border holds its looks all year in return for comparatively little maintenance. This is a plus both for the busy and the less able who may not bend or stoop with ease. Many gorgeous perennials can suffer or rot away altogether in heavy Northwestern clay soils, especially after a wet winter, so potting them up makes perfect sense, as long as the pot is capacious and well tended.
Admittedly, those efficient shrub borders can look a little static. Adding some grasses and a few choice, sturdy perennials will breathe life into their formality. Of course, it’s important to choose very carefully in order to avoid both maintenance issues and seasonally sloppy or barren looks. Avoid running grasses as well as weak or weedy ones with a single moment of glory (think Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Little Bunny’). Supple, flowing grasses such as Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra) form large clumps that hold their own with solid-looking shrubs. Upright, reliably columnar grasses like Miscanthus sinensis Gracillimus provide contrasts of form and texture as well as gentle movement in any breeze.
Reliable Border Perennials
Traditional perennial borders require very high maintenance to look their best, which means significant overhauls every 3-5 years. Today’s mixed border model combines multi-season shrubs with sturdy perennials that also offer multiple attractions, as well as bulbs and grasses. The best of contemporary perennials are valuable contributors that don’t need staking, frequent division, or fussy care. For instance, while wild yarrow (Achillea) can be a garden pest, modern cultivars are both mannerly and shapely, bringing striking colors and strong horizontal lines to the border.
Long blooming and architectural, these new girls definitely deserve a place, notably Moonshine, with cool, lemony flowerheads above grey-green foliage, an especially effective blender for blues and purples. For the pastel color story, A. Appleblossom makes a gentle mass of pinks, from baby ribbon to delicate rose. Spunkier A. Paprika offers smoky to sparky shades of red, while Ortel’s Rose creates a complex run from cool lavender to vivid magenta-rose.
Bee-Loved Long Bloomers
Agastaches, called anise hyssop (though related to neither), are adored by all kinds of bees as well as hummingbirds. They thrive in open, sandy soils and do best in large containers where clay soils remain soggy all winter. These long blooming perennials provide an ongoing display from midsummer into autumn. The neoclassic Blue Fortune produces spires of dreaming blue, while Purple Haze takes ip up a notch into thunderhead shades. Some recent hybrids offer looser masses of vivid bells, notably the Arizona series, in shades of terra cotta, apricot, and gold, and the tawnier Summer series, including coppery Summer Sunset and gentle peach Summer Glow.
Heartleaf (Bergenia cordifolia) is often used on rock walls and shade borders, though it can take full sun in good soil. Its large, round, glossy leaves read powerfully with boulders and supple grasses such as pheasant’s tail (Anemanthele lessoniana) and hazy pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris). It can hold its own in a shrubby border as well, providing a strong contrast to feathery foliage as well as needled evergreens. The variety Winterglow takes on ruddy pink tints in winter, regaining its summery green each year.
Deer Resistant Toughies
The spurge family (Euphorbia) is deer proof, hardy, and handsome, and includes many excellent garden plants as well as a few rogues. I’m a sucker for wood spurges like Euphorbia amygdaloides Ruby Glow, a smoldering beauty with dusky purple foliage set aflame by ember red new growth. It grows happily in shade or sun and seeds itself about in a mild sort of way, never a pest since the plants are fairly short lived. Sculptural E. characias is a noble creature with many fabulous variations, such as Black Pearl, with tall stalks of green blossoms with snapping black eyes. Glacier Blue offer frosty foliage in silver and blue, while Silver Swan is even cooler in soft jade trimmed in ice. E. x martinii Ascot Rainbow makes a delectable, almost shrublike two-foot mound with foliage like frozen fireworks in delicate rainbow shades.
Evergreen hellebores are strong performers whose winter or spring flowers often linger well into early summer. The dangling blossoms turn upward when pollinated, so let some go to seed if you want to develop your own strain, or have enough babies to plant in sweeps under trees and large shrubs. If you cut off the old foliage as soon as it heads earthwards, you can avoid the leaf spotting that disfigures older leaves. Corsican hellebores are queenly, statuesque plants with strong, dramatic foliage and great clusters of ice green flowers that persist for months. All hellebores prefer partial to full shade but tolerate morning sun very well.
Laid out like a candy box in ruffled rows, French vegetable gardens can be as lovely as any flower border. Even if you aren’t growing your own food, a number of new vegetables qualify as genuine border beauties worthy of bed room. For instance, Kale Darkibor is an edible showboat with midnight purple, intensely ruffled foliage on two foot stems, making a murky mass that perfectly offsets neighbors that bloom in lemon, coral, peach, copper, salmon or rose, as well as chartreuse and golden foliage plants.
Flat out gorgeous, Basil Purple Ball is a dwarf small-leaf basil with glossy purple leaves. This European award winner forms vivid purple mounds that easily earn front row spots in an ornamental bed. So will Compact Summer Savory, a tidy, upright form of this standard kitchen herb that partners the warm, earthy flavor of its fresh green foliage with a markedly improved habit. Any or all of these dazzlers can enliven a staid shrubbery or add luster to a lush container planting.