A design style that makes good use of California native plants is The New Perennial Movement. This design trend, likes most styles, shares similarities with other themes. Probably the best comparison is a naturalistic or wild-scaping style. Efforts to encourage planting native plants has also been a large part of The New Perennial Movement in America, although the style itself originated in Europe, notably in designer Piet Oudolf’s Dutch Wave style, which he brought to the Lurie Garden in Chicago and New York’s Highline gardens. These are huge urban gardens, and show how to use this style on a grand scale. Done right, The New Perennial Movement garden, like the Dutch Wave garden, does not look messy or neglected. In fact, Oudolf’s emphasis on plants that did not re-seed or spread was partly so that the garden would always retain the shape and form of his original design.
The Dutch Wave style pays strict attention to plant form and color, so knowing how to design with foliage and flowers is crucial. The New Perennial Movement can be a little more relaxed, with more native plants that are allowed to overgrow their boundaries, re-seed or, as happens with many native plants, actually move themselves over time. But it is not “wild gardening,” because there is always an evident pattern or flow. In this way, The New Perennial Movement garden, especially one using many native species, requires maintenance in removing and transplanting individual plants, if it is to retain it’s original look. Most gardeners find this kind of chore enjoyable. Good gardens are always changing; The New Perennial Movement garden changes too, but there is always order and a gardener’s control guiding it. A similar style, The New American Garden, incorporates a lot of this style, but is designed to be more of a re-creation of a prairie meadow, with great sweeps of grasses, interspersed with groups of perennials.
Perhaps many of you have gardens in The New Perennial Movement style and just didn’t know it? Or would you like to use some guidelines to create, or re-create your garden? Here are the basics of The New Perennial Movement:
The first thing to know is “what is a perennial?” That’s easy. It just means any plant that is not an annual. This will change depending on climate. Most of our garden vegetables like tomatoes and squash are annuals here. Most of the “color” pony-paks are also annuals in our climate. This includes marigolds, pansies, petunias, snapdragons, Iceland poppies and many garden sage varieties. In recent years, there has been a definite discouragement to planting annuals, since they use heavy water resources for a such brief period of enjoyment. Perennials, on the other hand, can become low-water use and even very-low-water-use plants over time, as their root systems become established. Most trees and shrubs are perennials. But in The New Perennial Movement, there is an emphasis on the smaller, perennials that are used for flower and foliage interest, form, ecology and lower maintenance.
The New Perennial Movement garden has a feeling of flow. There is very little open space between plants. It is a naturalistic style, with a sense of a tapestry. “Painterly” is an adjective often used to describe this style. There are only a few single plants, if any, in a species; most of the species are planted in masses or clumps. We can use this style to create a garden emphasizing one color, for instance. Purple and its shades are probably the easiest, since we have the most choices in this color range. So we could group several Cleveland sage plants together, then group Margarita BOP penstemon next to it, mix in groups of California aster, showy penstemon, ceanothus, bees’ bliss sage, Winifred Gilman sage, white sage, and perhaps a non-native butterfly bush or grape sage (Salvia muelleri) or purple pastel autumn sage. Sometimes these plants will be broken up by a cluster or broad line of native bunch grasses like deer grass, purple needle grass or California fescue.
The New Perennial Movement incorporates what has been going on lately in our Central Valley and foothill gardens: removing the strict boundaries of lawn, foundation plantings and annual color, in favor of a more natural flow of closely-planted and grouped perennials, many of them native to California, almost all of them suited to the climate and available water. The New Perennial Movement is about 150 years old, but as they say, “everything old is new again,” and our unique version of it is the most popular trend in local gardening today.
This article first appeared in The Porterville Recorder newspaper. Subscribe to read Peyton’s Saturday column: “Native Plants in the Garden”