Meh, or M.E.B.?

As a long-time perennial gardener, I’m tickled when clients request that I include layers of herbaceous plants in their residential landscape designs. We do “tidy” very well in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and it’s not uncommon for trees, shrubs and lawn – lots of lawn – to predominate. Incorporating a stunning swath of perennials in a landscape is a great way to add interest and some personal flair. And it has the added benefit of getting you outside to enjoy your garden since most perennials are best admired up-close-and-personal.

But the thought of taking ownership of a perennial-intensive planting does make a lot of people a little queasy, even (or perhaps especially!) if they’ve tried it before.

For nearly two decades, I tended a large perennial garden on a corner lot that was always on display because our house was set back from the road and the garden was there for all to see. When asked, I described my gardening style as “Managed Chaos.” I happen to love the English garden tradition of stuffing big beds with a riot of flowering perennials that are constantly elbowing each other out of the way. And because I couldn’t stop buying plants even though I didn’t have much time to spend on upkeep, there was a lot of elbowing going on.

Despite the fact that my garden was pretty much the opposite of tidy or manicured, people seemed to love it. Even small children would sometimes approach me as I worked in the yard to tell me how much they liked my flowers.

And I loved them, too — until they hit the tipping point. A number of years in, I realized that the beds were taking up too much space and were being overrun by the garden thugs I had unwittingly planted because I didn’t know any better. I knew the right thing to do was undertake a major garden overhaul that would entail lots of buying and digging and hauling. But I took the coward’s way out. I moved.

While our new house has some wonderful, mature trees and sits in the middle of a bucolic hayfield, it had no garden to speak of when we bought it. I had, I realized, a clean slate.

With my previous gardening experiences firmly in mind, I decided to resist my natural tendencies to go completely crazy, buying whatever plants happened to catch my eye in the nursery and constantly expanding the edges of my perennial garden beds. I vowed to see instead if I could find the right balance between a low-maintenance but “meh” landscape and the stunning but oh-so-high-maintenance English borders to which I and so many other garden lovers are attracted. Could I develop a “Modified English Border” that has high interest over multiple seasons but, once planted, is relatively low maintenance? And if so, how many of said borders could I artfully place around my yard without hitting the dreaded tipping point where working in them is more pain than pleasure?

Well, with the caveat that gardening is always an experiment (and an adventure), I think I’m starting to make some progress. I’ll be writing about my efforts in future posts and sharing some of the things I’ve learned along the way. And even though I’ve made plenty of mistakes (already!), I think I can safely say that with a little know-how and some occasional intervention, it’s not all that hard to avoid having a garden that is both boring to look at and boring to tend. Why settle for “meh” when you can have a much more inspiring “M.E.B.”?


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