It's the Plants, Darling

Can perennial borders really be easy? As easy as roses?

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Other People’s Perennial Borders

Speaking as a mainly shrub+ground-cover kinda gardener who goes easy on the perennials because I find them to be more labor-intensive, I did a major double-take when writer Suzy Bales told me this perennial border in her Long Island garden is almost no work at all.  Really?  She stands by her assertion that a well-established perennial border – and this one’s more than 20 years old – is SO full, it takes care of itself.  Because there’s no bare ground, the weeds are very few and far between.  Also, there’s no staking required because everything is held up by its neighbors.  So all that’s required is the yearly chopping down of the old, weeding, and I assume mulching, plus watering as needed (which is easy enough with a well-designed irrigation system like hers).

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Nearby are the shorter, less cram-packed borders at the magnificent public garden Old Westbury, where they make no claims about low-maintenance.  This baby has to look stunning every day of the season, so they use lots of annuals to fill up empty spaces.

Now about my own perennial borders (if you can call them that).
For me, perennials are always needing to be moved, divided, hacked back, or
simply given up on for something more vigorous.  But maybe it’s just me – because I don’t buy enough of them and/or give them enough time to prove themselves.

Please, weigh in.  Tell us about your perennial-gardening.

Spray Roses?  No Way
Now here’s something I don’t doubt for a moment – that the dozens of roses in Suzy’s garden are easy – because I know she never sprays them – no exceptions!  Many are fragrant, many bloom more than once.  All look healthy and lush.

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Here’s the whole spring rose tour on Suzy’s website, with all the plant names.

Lower photos by me, taken June 7 of this year. Top photo by Suzy – coz my own photos of that border kinda suck. 

Posted by on June 28, 2010 at 3:45 am, in the category It's the Plants, Darling.
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26 Responses to “Can perennial borders really be easy? As easy as roses?”

  1. greg draiss says:

    outstanding gardener to say the least.

  2. Tara Dillard says:

    The most important picture of a perennial border is taken in February.

    Does it have the structure, bones, to look good all year?

    Back to your 1st picture. What does it look like in February?

    I won’t design a perennial border for a client unless it has bones/structure for Feb.

    A client hired me for a perennial border & I risked losing the job with my beliefs. He was doubtful but we did it my way, this was over 10 years ago.

    His garden has been in magazines, on TV & tours.

    I enjoy referrals from this client (Shipman) & we travel together visiting gardens.

    But I remember well, telling him, “I can’t just do perennials it must have bones/structure.”

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  3. suzy says:

    My garden is not just perennials. It is dominated by perennials. It has climbing roses and clematis to cover the stucco walls, four vitex that act as anchors in the four corners, a dwarf Japanese maple, a tree peony, Hakone grass, annuals and thousands of winter and spring blooming bulbs. I even add leaks in their second season so they bloom.
    Any garden that is planned should have a mixture of plants for four season beauty. You can see what the garden looks like other seasons on my website, suzybalesgarden.com.

  4. I must come from the same LI stock as suzy. My perennial garden (with three roses) is easy -after 5 years, and is full full full. I don’t spray. Rarely water.
    Compost some years. Yes, move things around -but that’s part of the fun.

    http://nycgarden.blogspot.com/2010/06/lilies-and-roses.html

  5. John says:

    Though in a similar zone, I’m far enough south that some major border destroyers make those sorts of flowerbeds a bit more work. The first few years would be easy but after that the poison ivy, kudzu, wisteria, campsis, and autumn clematis would have suffocated everything. Without yearly seedling removal those stranglers thrive. They are designed to make it in the spaces between bushes and perennials and then overtake them. Besides the fire ants would also move in and ruin everything.

    I love the lush look of it and it does work for a while but things get out of control and by about the fifth year and you end up tearing it all out and starting over.

  6. Modern roses really are very easy. After years of not being able to keep any of them alive, I have a garden area that is lush and flush with rebloomers. I’m doing a blog series now, see: http://loisdevries.blogspot.com/search/label/Roses

  7. tangledgardens.blogspot.com says:

    I adore perennial beds and have many. Mine too have more than just perennials, but they are the mainstay. I am creating a cottage garden look so roses etc… are a must and here in the Northwest it is almost impossible to avoid spraying against blackspot. They are a tremendous amount of work right now, as my plants vary from one to three years old. But once everything fills in and matures they should be relatively easy to maintain.

  8. Liz says:

    I think perennial maintenance just depends on if you want it to be perfect or not. If you do…tons of maintenance. If you don’t care as much…very litt.e

  9. Eva says:

    Gorgeous. I’m hoping that’s what my garden looks like in a couple of years. The year 2 plants in my garden are already knocking my socks off. Can you say “towering Echinacea”?

  10. Cameron says:

    There are perennials that are high maintenance and those that are not. I do agree with the idea to cover any bare ground with plants or compost to keep maintenance down. I like to use perennials with the same maintenance requirements together. My garden is heavy on drought-tolerant, deer resistant plants that should not be cut back in fall, so my clean up is usually spring. I go heavy on the fall seed-sowing of self-sowing annuals as filler until the perennials kick in for the summer…but, then it’s not just a perennial border, is it? :-)

  11. Cameron says:

    Oh, BTW — I think her garden is gorgeous!

  12. kate says:

    The chores for perennials or shrubs are of a different nature, I think. The design can make either kind of garden simple to maintain or require a lot of staking, weeding, or trimming. Overall, I feel herbaceous plants are more easily maintained by novice gardeners or an unskilled landscape crew than a bed with woody plants (with its various natural shapes and pruning regimes) throughout. Seasonal tasks are *generally* more cut-and-dried with perennials: mulch late winter, deadhead occasionally in summer, cut down mushy, structureless plants in late autumn – and the rest in late winter. It may require more esoteric plant knowledge and skill to maintain woody plants well because not everything flowers on new wood and pruning techniques really show over time. You don’t start afresh from the ground each year! One of the sweetest things about gardening is learning about the plants themselves so that you can build a border that works really well for *you* and the kinds of chores you find enriching. I detest shoveling compost – maybe that’s why I have so many woody shrubs that are self-mulching!

    I think of “flower gardens” (perennials/annuals) as the place where most begin as gardeners; we move towards thinking about structure as well as flowers and graduate to integration (as Suzy has described with her beds).

  13. Goldfinch says:

    I have several large flower beds that are all or almost all perennials. I use natives and well-adapted exotics — all tough plants. I don’t fertilize or spray, and almost never water. However, these beds are still a fair amount of work:

    1) keeping the more aggressive plants from pushing out the more delicate ones and generally getting rid of seedlings and other volunteers where they aren’t wanted;
    2)cutting back stems etc. in the fall and spring;
    3) Mulching.
    4) Protecting the edges from creeping grass, etc.

    As the beds mature #3 becomes less of an issue but the others continue to require quite a bit of time.

  14. Susan,

    Okay, I’ll weigh in here since I have a large mixed perennial garden which includes borders and beds.

    It does take more maintenance, but it doesn’t take that much more. In the spring, I work pretty hard getting things ready and adding mulch. I would do the same for any garden.

    Parts of my garden are about fifteen years old, and they are tightly packed because I love plants, and I keep buying more.

    Once the flowers bloom, I must pull out some and deadhead others. I’m also adding things all the time, but that’s just obsessive me. The biggest problem in much of the south for those of us who have Bermuda grass is keeping the runners out of the beds. However, you would need to do that with any type of garden.

    As for spraying, you know I don’t. I won’t. I can’t stand the idea anymore. Some of them just get blackspot. If it weakens them, the rose goes, and I put something else in its place.

    Now, we come to the but . . . roses, even the disease resistant ones I love, if planted all together are a mono-culture, and we know that’s a bad idea for so many reasons. If we want to keep our pollinators, we need to provide them with food at all stages of life along with cover so they can rest. This means mixed plantings with grasses, perennial flowers, shrubs, herbs and even annuals. Most of my garden is filled with herbaceous perennials, and I don’t know how I would ever do without them. Neither do the bugs.

    Also, Gail from Clay and Limestone, said they are having trouble with the Knockouts in Tennessee. She didn’t elaborate on the problem, but I took it to be disease related. We aren’t having any trouble here, but I see a lot of red Knockouts planted all over Oklahoma City. If they begin to be diseased, entire landscaped areas will be wiped out.

    Just my thoughts. BTW, Suzy’s border is stunning.

  15. Susan,

    Okay, I’ll weigh in here since I have a large mixed perennial garden which includes borders and beds.

    It does take more maintenance, but it doesn’t take that much more. In the spring, I work pretty hard getting things ready and adding mulch. I would do the same for any garden.

    Also, once the flowers bloom, I must pull out some and deadhead others. I’m also adding things all the time, but that’s just obsessive me. The biggest problem in much of the south for those of us who have Bermuda grass is keeping the runners out of the beds. However, you’d need to do that any garden here unless you spray chemicals, and even then, you still need to pull weeds.

    Parts of my garden are about 15 years old, and many of the shrubs and herbaceous perennials are large so they do shoulder out competition.

    Now, we come to the but . . . roses, even the disease resistant ones I love, if planted all together are a mono-culture, and we know that’s a bad idea for so many reasons. If we want to keep our pollinators, we need to provide them with food at all stages of life along with cover so they can rest. This means mixed plantings with grasses, perennial flowers, shrubs, herbs and even annuals. Most of my garden is filled with herbaceous perennials, and I don’t know how I would ever do without them. Neither do the bugs.

    Also, Gail from Clay and Limestone said in Tennessee they are having trouble with the Knockouts. She didn’t elaborate on the problem, but I took it to be disease related. We aren’t having any trouble here, but I see a lot of red Knockouts planted all over Oklahoma City. If they begin to be diseased, entire landscaped areas will be wiped out.

    Just my thoughts. BTW, Suzy’s border is beautiful.

  16. donna says:

    I don’t know how you have any bed that is “just” anything. That’s not really how nature works, it’s always a mix.

  17. Suzy’s garden is wonderful. I can only aspire to it!
    My experience has been that perennials are more work, even if you factor in replacing annuals, etc. This doesn’t mean I don’t do it — most of my garden plants are perennial. But it takes such careful planning and maintenance and watchfulness. The average retail customer I’ve met in the garden center simply has no idea what she’s in for. She likes the idea of perennials because she doesn’t have to replace annuals all the time. But the “look” she’s going for is “all color, all the time.” Which is time-consuming and expensive to duplicate with perennials, even here in zone 9A, where we can pop in tropicals. Plus — perennial doesn’t mean immortal, and yes, sometimes they die and must be replaced. But what I wouldn’t give for a border like Suzy’s.

  18. C.L. Fornari says:

    A perennial garden is only as low maintenance as the plants that are placed in it. Clump-growing daylilies, Russian Sage, Stokesia, short Platycodon, Nepeta and Heucheras are all pretty low-maintenance in this area in that they don’t spread or self-seed very much.

    The plants that are high-maintenance are the so called “pass-along plants”. There’s a reason people donate the irises, Mondarda and Physostegia to plant sales and give them to their neighbors.

    And it’s true that the thicker the plantings, the less work that they are. The problem is that most of my clients aren’t willing to do the maintenance that comes before the plants grow to be that thick. They want their gardens to be low-maintenance from day one.

    The general public also frequently doesn’t use cultural practices that contribute to a low-maintenance garden. They over water and over fertilize so that the plants get floppy, or plant sun lovers in the shade.

    I think that perennial gardens can be low-maintenance, but you have to choose the right plants, place them in the right place, and keep the weeds out while they get established.

  19. Ali M says:

    Suzy’s garden is exquisite and her expertise in design and choosing the plant material shows well. But, she is gardening on Long Island, home of some of the finest soils in the country. There are few others who, even if we had half Suzy’s talent, could do as well – as easily. I know I have spent years amending my soil and will never achieve what comes naturally on LI. Oh, to be so blessed – to be a great designer with perfect soils…….

  20. Denise says:

    Here in So. Calif. growing perennials would seem to make little sense with all the evergreen shrub choices, succulents, woody lilies, tropicals, etc. But…I still grow the few perennials that will tolerate our mild winters and enjoy the process of finding out which ones will (Persicaria amplexicaulis!) I find their fleeting seasonality so exciting. More and more I find I’m not after non-stop, Knockout color but enjoy watching the ebb and flow of interesting blooms and seed heads, supported by long-lasting shrubs and grasses. Embrace the ephemeral! Works for me in a small garden, probably not so much in gardens 1/2 acre and beyond.

  21. David says:

    First couple years, lots of maintenance, but in 3+ years maintenance drops off significantly. No mulch ever needed when the bed is full and very little watering.

  22. commonweeder says:

    Suzy Bales is right when she says a full perennial border doesn’t generate too many weeds, however, she doesn’t mention the necessity for dividing perennials and (in my experience) grasses especially need dividing – and it is a job! I have perennials, but I am tending more and more towards shrubs and a cutting garden – and my carefree roses.

  23. suzy says:

    I wanted to reply to Ali M. She stated that Long Island soil is some of the finest in the country. I beg to differ. When I moved here 32 years ago there wasn’t a garden on the property. At the turn of the last century, it was a brickyard. In order to work with the heavy clay, I used raised gardens in the vegetable garden and added several feet of top soil and compost to the area where I planted the formal perennial beds ( actually, mixed beds). The soil after all these years is still heavy and has trouble absorbing heavy rains.

    When I first planted the formal border thirty years ago, I noticed that the plants were slowly drowning. I learned the hard way. I dug each plant up, amended the soil and replanted again. Now my big problem is that the phlox, monkshood, Japanese Anemone, asters and a few others are fighting for more territory–stumping over the weak. I’ve ignored it for years but now I’ll be giving loads of plants away in the fall to make room for others.

    The truth is no soil anywhere is perfect. But every kind of soil is perfect for some plants. The trick is finding what plants thrive in your soil. It also helps to add compost yearly to every soil to refresh it, as nature intendedl.

  24. suzy says:

    Comonweeder stated that grasses are a problem in the border because they need dividing so often. I personally don’t like the look of grasses in the border. I prefer them in a more natural setting–along the seashore, around a pond, at the edge of a woods, etc.

    However, I love the golden Hakone grass in the border. It is slow growing and never a problem. It always looks like it has just been combed. It adds sunshine on cloudy days.

  25. Benjamin says:

    Early on I staked my taller perennials, but this year they all lean on each other and sing camp songs. My 1500 feet are EASY to take care of, holy cow easy–it’s my freaking hawk-like daily walks that cause trouble. Righ tplant, right place, right planting–it DOES work! I invite you to check out video of my garden at my blog to see what I mean (I just hope that, next week, Nebraska audubon society garden club board members think so and put me on their 2011 tour).

  26. Rose Sterling says:

    Nice photos! I have two perrenial plant in my garden. The roses and the common chicory. They both doing well. I used to fertilized my plant in an organic way. That makes them healthy and blooms well.

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