IF shrubs and trees provide the backbone of a garden, then herbaceous perennials must be the flesh that fills it out.

Spring delights: Yarrow, bronze fennel and Sedum Emperor. Below, Aquilegia, variegated lemon balm and Sedum Autumn Joy.

Spring delights: Yarrow, bronze fennel and Sedum Emperor. Below, Aquilegia, variegated lemon balm and Sedum Autumn Joy.

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IF shrubs and trees provide the backbone of a garden, then herbaceous perennials must be the flesh that fills it out.

They’re the plants that “come back every year”, as my mam says, but die down and become dormant in winter to survive the cold and damp.

Although the epitome of the cottage garden border, its vast ranks supply plants that can fit into any style – courtyard, architectural, patio.

There’s nothing so splendid as seeing a well-planned border blooming from June to October (if you’re lucky), wih an ever-changing relationships of blooms, leaves and colour.

Unfortunately, there’s also nothing so sad as seeing a single rudbeckia struggling to make an impact on its own. These plants are mostly social beings – plant them in odd numbers – a minimum of three in a small garden.

Only plant single specimens if they’re absolute whoppers, like gunnera (6ft wide leaves), rodgersia or rheum (ornamental rhubarb).

Don’t think herbaceous perennial are only there for their flowers – the three I’ve just mentioned are grown primarily for their spectacular foliage.

Some plants need staking, but I tend to get round that by planting things very close, or inserting twiggy branches around the new shoots in spring. The plants grow through them and they’re unobtrusive. There’s also good supports on the market – check out my useful links.

You may have heard of the ‘Chelsea Chop’ – simply cutting back growth by a half to a third around the last week in May. It’s an idea if you want bushier plants which are less prone to wind damage, but it will delay flowering. You can even just do half the plant if you wish, to make it flower over a longer period.

Suitable plants include: Anthemis tinctoria, Echinacea, Helenium, phlox paniculata, upright Sedums and Solidago.

The downside to such a blaze of glory is the dying down in autumn. Conventional wisdom told us to chop them down at the first frosts.

I’m glad things are changing, that some of us are leaving behind the skeletons of the plants to help the birds and overwintering insects, giving some structure to a bleak time of year. A true gardener has the ability to see whatever is there at the moment, appreciate it, and the ability to look forward to the next stage of growth. And that’s why I love herbaceous perennials.

HERE are some of my favourites:

* Heucheras and heucherellas are neat ground huggers. I recommend Plum Pudding and Marmalade.

* For shade, Pulmonaria ocupol Opal (liverwort); pale-blue flowers above small leaves blotched and spotted with silver.

* Achillea mollis, or lady’s mantle; frothy lime flowers and handsome foliage.

* The massive daisy family; rudbeckia, gaillardia, echinacea, etc, come in a wide variety of colours and usually flower in late summer/early autumn.

* Cardoon (cynara) or globe artichokes; stately and architectural plants for the back of the border.

* Kniphofia (red hot pokers); Ice Queen – green-tipped buds opening creamy-yellow and Kniphofia uvaria Nobilis, fiery red.

* Lamprocapnos (Dicentra) spectabilis Alba, or white bleeding heart, fresh green leaves and perfect flower stems.

* Echinops and eryngium; the globe thistle and sea holly, both with architectural foliage and flowers, in shades of steely blue/grey and loved by bees.

* Bear’s breeches (Acanthus mollis); glossy, lobed foliage and tall white/purple flower spikes, 1-1.5 metres.

* Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) – many varieties, eg Cloth of Gold grows to 1.8m, with large, flattened heads of bright yellow flowers. I have the Summer Berries mix in the front garden, easy to grow from seed.

* Hostas and Sedums; both great foliage and flowers.

* Aquilegia (Granny’s bonnet, Columbine); the epitome of the cottage garden. I have a form similar to Blackcurrant Ice (deep purple/white).

* Helianthus (perennial sunflower) Lemon Queen; 2m tall, with dark green foliage and light yellow flowers 5cm wide.

* One perennial that keeps its leaves in winter is Bergenia. I have Admiral, with oval leaves, bright winter colour with bronze and crimson tints with cherry-pink flowers in spring.