Relying on 'tried-and-trusted' plants creates beautiful beds and new gardeners

Columns - Regional Plant Specialist

October 11, 2010
Adrian Bloom

It has been 50 years since I started working with perennials, and 43 years since I began planting up my garden, Foggy Bottom, in Bressingham, England. In that time, I have developed a passion for, and philosophy of, developing successful plant associations to create continual change in the garden — a change that ensures enduring interest throughout the year, whatever the size of the garden. By selecting plants that have proven themselves reliably perennial and easy to maintain, a successful border or island bed becomes attainable for even beginning gardeners, who are the lifeblood of our industry’s future.

Adrian Bloom surveys Adrian’s Wood, a garden which connects his Foggy Bottom garden with his father’s, Alan Bloom, Dell Garden. Photo by Richard Bloom“Giveaway” gardens
Many years ago, to inspire the public to learn more about perennials, I decided to install gardens at private homes using perennials and ornamental grasses to show how they could transform even the most colorless and static outdoor areas into dynamic and vibrant landscapes. The first in Massachusetts in 1997 was followed by more in Michigan, Toronto, Peoria and Sacramento, and later, larger and more public gardens at the Kendall-Jackson Winery (California), Yew Dell Gardens (Kentucky), Chadwick Arboretum (Ohio), Cornell’s Long Island Horticultural Research Center and the Massachusetts Horticultural Society (Wellesley).

Planted in one or two days by a legion of enthusiastic volunteers, the creation of these demonstration gardens was both motivating and rewarding for everyone involved, and helped further promote my goal of switching more people on to gardening. The demonstration gardens have become destinations for learning and showcase plants that perform well under diverse growing conditions.

Too much of a good thing?
I and many in the industry believe that there are simply too many new plants introduced each year, with too few of them being proved garden worthy. Pity the poor gardener who, faced with an overwhelming choice of plants, can hardly know which are the best to choose.

In addition to creating confusion in the minds of gardeners, there is concern that so many new, and generally untested, plants will supplant varieties on garden center benches that would bring more initial success. It concerns me that so many gardening novices, suffering early disappointment, may be lost, blaming themselves for any failure. We need good new plants that gardeners will succeed with, not new plants for the sake of being new. (Perhaps we all need to exercise restraint and insist on longer trialing periods under a wider range of conditions before introducing new cultivars, but that is a subject for another time.)

Blooms of Bressingham’s demonstration garden shines at Yew Dell Gardens in Kentucky. Photo courtesy of Blooms of BressinghamLess is more
There is a poster in my office featuring the words of the American environmentalist Henry David Thoreau: ‘Simplify, simplify.’  This concept of “less is more” is key towards ensuring gardening success, especially for novice gardeners, by encouraging them to start with a limited range of plants (no more than a dozen) that have proved their garden worthiness over time.

You may also have a list of plants that come to mind when you think of “tried-and-trusted” perennials and grasses, but here are a few of my favorites for seasonal interest:

Geranium ‘Rozanne’ has been called the best, most garden-worthy hardy geranium you can grow. It blooms May until frost, is heat tolerant and is a striking groundcover plant. I have used this tough, high-performance plant in many of my demonstration gardens, to create my signature garden design with “rivers” of color that run through each bed.

Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ grows easily in sun or shade and has most attractive foliage that provides a long season of interest from spring to late autumn. Silvery leaves are heart-shaped with dark-green edges and veins. In spring, light-blue forget-me-not flowers appear.

Sedum ‘Matrona’ has many outstanding merits. It is hardy and reliable, yet also withstands heat and drought. It offers succulent grey-green foliage in spring to reddening stems and rose-pink flowers in late summer. Seed heads are a bonus in autumn and winter.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ is a beautiful grass with an “inner light” that emanates from the white midribs of its fine-textured leaf blades and the threads of white around their edges. It moves with the wind and turns golden in November, fading to beige in winter.

Other proven performers that I highly recommend include Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’, Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ (discovered by my late father, Alan, in 1966) and Campanula Blue Waterfall for summer color.

Time-tested winners
There are many perennials and grasses that have proven themselves reliable, easy to care for and attractive through a variety of seasons. In my experience, focusing on these tried-and-true cultivars is the most positive way to encourage people to use our products in an imaginative and productive way — and to keep them coming back for more.

Adrian Bloom is a world-class plantsman and holder of the Royal Horticultural Society’s coveted Victoria Medal of Honour. He is well known for developing the Blooms of Bressingham brand. His newest book, “Bloom’s Best Perennials and Grasses,” features expert plant choices and dramatic combinations for the year-round garden. Available from Timber Press and White Flower Farm.