Structuring Perennial Gardens

Structured perennial gardens-the phrase is something of a contradiction in terms.  Perennials die back to the ground with the frost, and do not reappear in my zone until 6 months later.  Certain perennials, such as asparagus, butterfly weed, some ferns and grasses have a strong winter presence as their stems dry and persist.  Some gardeners leave their perennial gardens as is in the fall.  Others cut all of the perennial plants back to the ground.  The butterburr bed pictured above (enclosed below ground by a 24″ barrier of galvanized sheet metal, I might add)  is a dirt space for the winter. The big stems and leaves collapse and turn to mush, once exposed to a frost. However, they do a fine job of screening the scraggly lower branches of the arborvitae hedge in the background.  I wedged them into the rooty ground as best I could.  True to their invasive nature, they covered the space by the second year.  Their giant leaves are very architectural in the summer, their absence in the winter is mitigated by by other large woody plants nearby.  The structure of this garden comes from the repetition of a single plant, in a defined shape.         


Perennial gardens can be organized by plants that require similar conditions, by color, and by form.  This garden is relatively small, so it features plants with spike like flowers, or a narrow habit of growth.  This means bulb lilies, delphinium bellamosa, platycodon, and phlox.  Most of the plants are white, and shades of red violet, pink, and purple.  The mature clumps of Sum and Substance hosta provide a visual foil for this organization.  Its mass anchors the garden, and the lime green leaves light up the shadiest part of the garden.  The garden was placed between a pair of trees, and is backed up by a row of Annabelle hydrangeas.  This provides the garden with a context. garden structure

This perennial garden is planted with a collection of mixed perennials and annuals.  Locating a perennial garden in a traffic island can be a dicey move, but this planting has a few things going for it.  There are a couple of small trees.  There is a children’s playhouse (not visible from this angle), a good bit of stonework, and a fountain that help weight the garden.  The elevation of the soil, and the massing of both perennial and annuals give the garden visual heft.  Big annuals planted in a perennial garden can provide season long color as ther perennials come in and out of bloom.  This garden benefits from the fact that it has one clear idea. Lots of color, and bloom time has greatly influenced the selection of plant material.  Big stands of Monarda, shasta daisies and phlox celebrate the summer season.  Focusing on a single season means that season has the potential to be stellar, and the other three-quiet.   

pots in the garden

A perennial garden gains visual stature when associated with a favorite pot, a beautiful arbor, a fountain, or a sculpture.  An ornament for the garden can provide that garden with atmosphere. 

decomposed granite

This garden backs up to a large stone wall, and is faced down with a generously proportioned decomposed granite walkway.  These hard surfaces enclose the garden-both on the ground and in the air.  The mass of the Annabelle hydrangeas is a good match for the mass of the wall.  The lavender petunias surround a fountain pool; the rounded front of that pool is repeated by the petunias, the gravel, and the lawn.  The petunias are more than just petunias.  They are a shape that makes sense with the entire garden scheme.   


 This decomposed gravel path is large enough to accomodate seating in the garden.  The gravel is contained by aluminum edger strip to keep it from migrating into the garden.  However the perennials are planted close enough to that edge to encourage them to spill over.  This giving the garden a relaxed and low key feeling without loosing its strong sense of shape. 

perennial gardens

Any garden is green, most of the time.  Shades of green can be contrasted; a garden where all of the greens match or are similar can be very striking.  The textures, sizes and shapes of leaves can be contrasted with one another.  The relationships forged between individual plants can be more important that this individual plant or that one.   

 The flowering of the roses and the peonies is glorious, and short lived.  That said, I still would not dream of foregoing either pleasure.  Some years they bloom at the same time.      

rose gardens

Though the roses, clematis and peonies have a place all their own, they belong to a bigger group known as Janet’s garden.


  1. Deborah 2 great posts, mmmm great!! Greetings fron the Netherlands!

  2. Janet’s garden is beyond reproach. A masterpiece.
    Thanks for more structure.

  3. Gorgeous! Thank you!

  4. since moving to the midwest from the deep south, i have a whole new, appreciation, maybe love affair with perennials.

    hostas, back in alabama, were to me these upstart green things that never went away and took up way too much space in my garden. i’m sad to say that i would rip them out and give them away.

    here, in indiana, i have fallen in love with hostas and any pioneering plant that can withstand our winters and just routinely pop out lovely green fronds at the first sign of warmish weather. they, are to me, the little engine that could..just thumb their noses at ice, snow, blizzards.

    deborah, your landscape designs are just so breathtaking, but also, very livable. i really like that you always seem to take into consideration how invested your clients are into maintaining/loving their plantings. Was wondering, do you take in consideration the views from inside your clients’ homes when planning their gardens?

    i find myself stuck sometimes between what i love from the outside view from our home as opposed to the inside look. i guess i’m not used to spending so much time inside.

    thank you for sharing your lovely visions!


  5. Deborah, I visit your blog from time to time and I always find something useful and interesting here. I am impressed about your huge knowledge about perennials and growing them. I am thinking of creating a small pond in my garden, do you think it will be good to grow perennials in its area? Near the place where I would like to have pond there are coneflowers growing
    (these one: so is it a good idea?

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Grace, either locate the pond away from the coneflowers, or move the coneflowers to a drier spot. Good luck! best, Deborah

Leave a Comment