Aside from my dad’s amusing (if somewhat unsettling) affection for the British comedian Benny Hill, I grew up in a pretty low-key household. Most of our disagreements were marked by raised eyebrows rather than raised voices. My parents made it clear that drama belonged on the stage, not in our family dynamics.
But I’ve come to appreciate that a little drama can be a good thing – including in the garden. Interior designers will tell you that you shouldn’t use small furniture in a small room because everything ends up feeling, well, small. I think the same principle applies outdoors. Even a small garden can use a large, striking element or two to catch the eye and create some visual intrigue.
I’ve confronted this issue for both my clients and myself. It’s been a particular challenge when designing the long but narrow (less than 6 feet wide) borders that I’ve created around my back patio and on either side of my front walk.
As I’ve written about in earlier posts, I’ve tried in those beds to capture some of the fabulous visual impact of much-deeper English flower borders while using a low maintenance approach. I realized that if I filled the narrow borders with dainty, low perennials, you might not even notice them as you walked by. So I decided I needed a good measure of big, bold plants that would grab your attention while still playing nice in a fairly confined space.
And did I mention that I wanted plants with multiple seasons of interest . . . that need little to no staking . . . and don’t often need to be divided . . . and do well whether it’s 10°F below zero or 100°F with 95% humidity?
Those criteria actually ruled out quite a few contenders. Tropicals and borderline-hardy plants — which can be really great for drama — were the first to go. In my Zone 6b/7a climate, they typically need to be dug up, stored and re-planted the following year — not exactly the low-maintenance regimen I had in mind.
I also wanted to avoid dramatic plants that just don’t know when to quit. You know the ones — they’re often described in the trade by phrases like “a little goes a long way.” I do grow and enjoy these types of rambunctious plants, just not in my narrow borders where discipline is required. And many, many shrubs were ruled out, simply because they’d get too big over time. I just didn’t want to fiddle with trying to prevent them from assuming their natural size and shape as they matured.
So how’d things turn out? After some false starts, I’ve developed a list of Drama Queen plants that fit my particular bill. Some are shrubs or sub-shrubs; others are perennials and grasses. I’ll describe the top five performers in my next post. And rest assured – there isn’t a shrinking violet among them.