No need to harbor that perennial secret any longer

The dreadful secret that you have been harboring for the past three or more years - you are sick and tired of perennials - can see the light of day now. More and more articles are appearing that indicate your secret is shared by many dedicated gardeners.

Sales figures for nurseries show a steady decline for their perennial plant products. Some, but certainly not all, garden writers are expanding their fields of vision and writing passionately about trees and shrubs. More sophisticated gardening journals have reduced the number of articles on designing borders, and increased their attention to a broader range of gardening topics.

Finally, the realities of the work involved in creating and maintaining the perfect herbaceous perennial border are being examined more closely. If the plants are not renewed every three to four years, the blooms become fewer and smaller. The crowding issue is another problem. You don't want bare spots the first two years, but by the third year, if you had planted thickly, the plants then become too crowded.

Many hardy and tough perennials, such as rosemary or lavender, become hideously woody, with their gnarled trunks creating a jarring note in the border's lush growth. However, that same trunk could be put to an effective use as a piece of sculpture if it had been trained over a gorgeous rock or other structural feature in your garden.

So, it is not the fault of the plants that we are losing interest. Rather, it is the herbaceous border design form into which they are planted that is causing the ever-increasing grumbling. The design form is as labor intensive as good bonsai work, topiary collections and edible productive gardens combined!

Please be assured that I am not suggesting that you rip out, on a wholesale basis, your lovingly tended borders. There are less drastic maneuvers you can choose that will effectively direct your garden toward more self-sufficiency while cherishing and keeping some of your most favored perennials.

To start, introduce some trees, both deciduous and evergreen, into your borders. I always plant one-gallon size trees, for they are easier to get into the ground and ultimately (after three to four years) they grow faster than bare-root or large-sized transplanted trees. With deciduous trees, I plant in groves of five or seven and then thin them as they grow on.

As the trees start to mature I add interesting shrubs to the mix, manipulating the site to ensure there will still be some sunshine and some shade for my smaller collection of now beloved perennials.

Small trees and shrubs are not easily found at large garden centers, but our abundant local specialty nurseries always have good selections. Visit and you can find a wonderful selection of one-gallon size trees at the many spring and fall plant sales in this region.

Also, be courageous about your selections. Most people would be put off by the description of Stewartia monadelpha - 80-feet in the wild, 41-feet in a local garden. I have seven of these trees in my front garden - they are slender trees, growing slowly, bringing much interest year-round, and only about 15-feet tall after 10 years in the ground.

Of the nine Quercus agrifolia, California live oak - 108-feet in the wild, 59-feet in a garden - that I planted 10 years ago, I have thinned out all but three, and have enjoyed many a cozy winter evening with the firewood.

The January 2006 issue of the Royal Horticultural Society's journal, "The Garden," has a very good article by Jane Owen on the garden, Vico Morcote, that Sir Peter Smithers created in Switzerland on the shores of Lake Lugano. He is a world famous plantsman with some very interesting aims and principles for his designing of the garden. He wanted always to have his garden moving toward more and more self-sufficiency.

Now that your secret dread has been outed, take yourself off to the Elizabeth C. Miller Library at the Center for Urban Horticulture where you will find not only "The Garden" journal, but many other resources for rethinking your herbaceous borders. Start putting the pleasure principle back into your garden.

As Sir Peter Smithers states in one of his 12 principles: "The garden shall be a source of pleasure to the owners and their friends, and not a burden or an anxiety." Well said, Sir Peter.

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