A Perennial Garden That Takes Care of Itself

A Perennial Garden That Takes Care of Itself

There is a group of plants that the garden literature warns us against with such phrases as “spreads rapidly” or “tends to get weedy,” or “not for refined areas.” These plants gradually have been outlawed from the aristocratic seclusion of the perennial border. But they can take care of themselves once they have been given a start and may become useful citizens in the right environment, such as, for example, the garden of a summer home.

It isn’t really difficult to win the cooperation of these outlaw plants. There are many species, many colors, and many habits of growth short of downright aggression that can be made use of. Some of them are quite beautiful, with varied desirable characteristics; and in company with their own kind, they can fight it out. The fittest survivors will cheerily greet the owner when he arrives for the summer, season after season.

Among them are low-growing spreaders from 6 inches to one foot high, that will serve as ground covers or edgings – if one is not too particular about the exact area he wants edged. Others of medium height will supply bloom nearly all season. Several varieties yield gracefully to cutting – welcoming, perhaps, the opportunity it affords to reestablish themselves socially.

The accompanying plan suggests a way to use some of them in borders near the house. The place originally planned for is a farmhouse in New England with an old Apple tree as the focal point of the garden. Under the tree is a ground cover planting of Gill-over-the-ground (18), Nepeta hederacea, which aims to inherit the earth by its meekly aggressive spreading. The foliage is interesting, the blue flower has a charm, and the leaves have a strong odor. It will grow in the shade, in wet or dry soil. Wherever a branch touches the soil, it takes root. To compete with it is the charming and equally aggressive Creeping Charlie (17) or Moneywort, Lynmachia nummiilarla. The flowers are yellow, the leaves round, smooth textured and light green. It is vigorous enough to crowd out grasses and makes a beautiful carpet. The familiar ‘ Runningmyrtle (16) or Periwinkle, Vinca minor, is also quite capable of caring for itself, and Lily-of-the-Valley (4) is another cooperative spreader, once it is well established in a place to its liking.

In the gardens of long ago, the favorite edging plant seems to have been the Variegated Bishop’s-weed (2), Aegopodium, podagraria variegatum, a crisp, neat foliage plant with white-margined leaves. This is so persistent that often it is the only thing left to indicate that in the past a garden stood there. Bugle-weed (1) Ajuga genevensis, is a fine-edging plant that produces flowers that vary from dull red to white and blue. The Purple leaf Bugle (3), Ajuga reptans rubra, is prostrate in habit, and has deep purplish-blue flowers and purplish leaves. Since it is very low-growing, it can be used in front of the other edging plants mentioned. The Purple leaf Bugle will do well in shade, but if the situation is -very sunny, Bluebells of Scotland (19) or Harebell, Campanula rotundifolia, will probably be more satisfactory. Its neat foliage and airy blue flowers make it welcome wherever it is found.

There are many border subjects among the- horticultural outcasts. The Sweet Rocket (15), Hesperis matronalis, one of our most fragrant flowers, is one. Its Phlox-like blooms, varying from white to magenta, are particularly sweet in the evenings from June to September. Although it is a biennial, it self-sows to such an extent that it becomes a weed in the garden and often escapes. Its charm and fragrance plus its self-assurance make it ideal for the summer home. Another vagrant is Bouncing Bet (12), Saponaria officinalls, which has the buxom vigor its name implies. In its way, it is quite beautiful, as the color of the blossoms when they open is an exquisite rose pink.

A favorite in early New England gardens was Maltese Cross (7) or London Pride, Lychnis chalcedonica. The typical color is fiery scarlet, which makes a vivid display in the hot midsummer sun. The Mullein-pink (20), Lychnis coronaria, combines soft woolly gray foliage with vivid crimson blossoms, producing a rich effect that can hardly be surpassed. Another summer-blooming perennial is the False Dragonhead (9), Physostegla virginiana, whose colors vary from rosy pink and lilac to white. The plants grow very rapidly, so become a nuisance in a refined area; but are excellent for supplying bloom where no care can be given.

This survival-of-the-fittest garden can have a variety of colors. Nominees are not limited to any particular race, creed, or color. Take the Bellflowers, for instance: we tend to think of them as rather refined garden subjects, but there is one of the family that refuses to accept conventional bounds. The European Bellflower (8), Campanula rapunculoldes, although an immigrant, has accepted all of our country it can lay root to.

The flower is dainty and the color is good, so we grant it citizenship. Another flower of a clearer blue is the native Spiderwort (13), Tradescantla virginiana, which has long held its place in old-fashioned gardens. It makes a strong, dense clump bearing rich blue flowers from May to August. One wishes that the proportion of flowers to foliage were greater, but the foliage is a good green.

The charm of the early-blooming Cornflower (25) or Mountain Bluet, Centaurea montana, with its deep blue, rose or white flowers, often win a place for itself in the perennial border. It spreads rapidly by underground stems, and the civilized gardener must be vigilant to keep it in check. However, this quality makes it a desirable one for our purposes. Anchusa or Bugloss (10), Anchusa azurea, variety Dropmore, with its Forget-me-not flowers, is also an acceptable border subject. Its ability to self-sow very readily makes it a self-reliant plant wherever it is established. The roots are juicy and brittle and break easily when the plants are dug. Each piece of root that remains in the soil will produce a new plant.

Perhaps the Lupines (11), LuPinus polyphyllus, do not belong with these easily established plants, for some gardeners try unsuccessfully to grow them; but if the temperamental things like a location (usually one with poor soil), they insist on taking more and more. Since they are so stunning in color and habit of growth, they may be worth encouraging.

If tall background plants are needed in the border, Bee-Balm (23), Monarda didyma, -is an excellent choice. The flowers are deep red and rather striking in appearance; the foliage, in addition to being dense and of good color, has a pleasing minty fragrance. BeeBalm roots form a thick sod or mat that is proof against being crowded out by other plants or by weeds. The background may be varied by planting some of the Asters. There are many kinds of wild Asters that would readily adapt themselves to border conditions. One species, New England Aster (24), Aster novae-anghae, is common in cultivation, but there are many other good ones.

A few accents of yellow and white are desirable in most borders. Sundrops (5), Oenothera biennis, are among the most charming of those banished from formal areas. Their habit of opening their satiny yellow Poppy-like flowers in the evening has given them the common name of Evening-primrose. Another charming yellow is the Golden Marguerite (22), Anthemis tinctoria, which can be used for cutting, too. The beautiful, Daisy-like flowers are borne from midsummer to frost. It is splendid in masses, and good for hot, dry places, although it will bloom in partial shade. It spreads rapidly and will happily fulfill the command to multiply and cover the earth. Another self-reliant species that is doubly useful because it is good for cutting as well as for its landscape effect is the Yarrow (14), Achillea ptarmica. A double variety, The Pearl, has been developed and fortunately still retains its wild vigor and is able to compete even with grasses. The Common Valerian (6) or Garden Heliotrope, Valeriana officinalls, is another plant that was prized in old-fashioned gardens mainly for the fragrance of its flowers. It is an ideal filler or background in bouquets made up of brighter flowers, and the masses of white or pale lavender sprays are dainty and charming in themselves.

Horticultural outcasts, it is clear, are not so because of lack of color, variety, or charm. Their vitality alone has caused their downfall. They love life. They love it so vigorously, so abundantly, so exuberantly that they do not recognize the bounds of civilization. Vacations grant us freedom from some of the conventions; therefore it is fitting that our summer gardens be populated by these hardy vagabonds.


The courtyard garden suggested in the little sketch on page 28, and shown in the plan opposite, is made up of the species listed below (plan key numbers in parenthesis). They are listed according to use or flower color. It’s easy to fit them into a plan for your own place

EDGING PLANTS Bishop’s-weed (2) Bluebells of Scotland (19) Bugle-weed (1) Lily-of-the-valley (4) Moss-pink (21) Purpleleaf Bugle (3)

GROUND COVERS Creeping Charlie (17) Gill-over-the-ground (18) Running-myrtle (16)

BORDER YELLOWS Golden Marguerite (22) Sundrops (5)

BORDER WHITES Valerian (6) Yarrow (14)

BORDER PINKS AND REDS Bee-Balm (23) Bouncing Bet (12) False Dragonhead (9) Lupine (11) Maltese Cross (7) Mullein-pink (20) Sweet Rocket (15)

BORDER BLUES AND LAVENDERS Aster (24) Bugloss (10) Cornflower (25) European Bellflower (8)

Lupine (11) Spiderwort (13) Valerian (6)

Information on 50+ Perennials



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