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Birth of a Perennial Border

Head gardener Kip Anderson reflects on the poetic process of beginning the Victory Garden's new perennial border
by Kip Anderson

Kip talks to Michael about plans for the new perennial border at the Victory Garden.

When a new perennial border is proposed, the first task is to evaluate the site thoroughly. What is the light like? How good is the soil? Will the new border integrate well with existing landscape features?

In our case, the light was perfect: full sun tailing off to partial shade in the area nearest to the patio. The soil was full of stones — potato- to melon-sized — but once a good portion were removed by every means at hand, there was nothing in place a good measure of organic material could not make right. And happily, our desire for a new, robust, and very large perennial border dovetailed perfectly with a need to separate the horse pasture from the orchard with a 160-foot-long stone wall.

In planning the border, Kip opted for curved lines to offset the long straight expanse of the stone wall.

Detailed Drawing
The next step was to create a detailed drawing, a graphic model informed by all our hopes, our knowledge of plants, and our imagination. Time to bring out the magic pencils. With the stone wall as backdrop, the outline of a 100 x 18-foot border began to take shape. I provided access paths throughout, for the gardener as well as the stray visitor who might wish to get in the middle of things. (We do not tolerate foot traffic in plant root zones.) I like to draw garden plans onto quadrille paper, which makes it much easier to transfer the finished plan onto terra firma.

On principle, I eschewed straight lines. And it turned out that the peaks and valleys created by the curved lines of the paths suggested locations for significant specimen plants.

The new 160-foot-long stone wall will serve as a backdrop for the perennial border.

The bulk of the detail arose naturally and unpredictably as an amalgam of my experience with (or hopes for) certain plants and the guiding principles of design, which include Control of Color, Massing of Like Plants, Alternation of Form and Texture, Arrangement According to Height, and Rhythmic Repetition of Selected Key Elements.

If a flower garden can be likened to a poem, then the lexicon available for its composition consists of every plant cultivar to be found in the world. The burden — or opportunity — to choose wisely and widely rests squarely on the designer or gardener. As it goes with original poems, every garden is a unique creation. No two are ever the same.

Colored pencils helped Kip plan his color scheme during visits to local nurseries.

Gathering Plants
As a practical matter, the gathering of plant material can be managed by stages. First there are those plants that can be acquired by transplanting and dividing stock from other places in the landscape (or from other landscapes). Then there are the plants purchased by mail order, which require special care upon receipt. Finally, we can scour garden centers and nurseries for potted plants to complete the execution of The Plan.

Even the best-laid plans are subject to revision, both during the original installation and in the following years, after the plants have settled in and the critics have had time to look things over. Over and over. The best news of all is that in a garden mistakes never have to be buried: they can just be dug up.

Prior to planting, Kip postitions the new perennials throughout the border according to his hand-drawn plan.

Who was it who said a good garden should be a static, finalized creation? No one, that's who.

trowel icon Read more about how this project turned out in Kip Anderson's "Perennial Splendor."

For more information on resources used on the show, visit our Resource Directory

This segment appears in show #2808.

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Published August 31, 2007