Meet the Meadow Border
Sedum'Matrona' mixed in with a variety of ornamental grasses. ©2010
Oak leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia ©2010
The Northwest meadow border is garden grassland of a decidedly conceptual sort. Not a prairie planting, or a traditional wildflower meadow, the meadow border reflects the lush, and not entirely grassy, un-mown meadows of our temperate maritime climate. Sweeps of grasses are interplanted with drought tolerant perennials and shrubs, adding not only textural contrast, but season-long interest.
For Nils Sundquist, owner of Sundquist Nursery, his native New England roadside verges was the inspiration for the meadow border at his Poulsbo, Washington nursery. Yes, there are grasses, and plenty of them, but Sundquist's interpretation offers so much more.
"I grew up in an area where the fields and pasture edges were a mishmash of native plants," says Sundquist. "There were big drifts of Eupatorium and Panicum. The effect was one of opulence, rampant growth, and competition. It exuded fertility."
The Sundquist meadow border recreates this "frenetic expression" in spirit if not in fact.
"I don't try to reproduce nature; I'm more concerned with creating the effect," Sundquist explains. "My tastes are eclectic. I want a variety of textures, a range of bloom times, lush growth, and a nice crescendo through late summer into fall."
Borderline xeric, the garden receives irrigation only three or four times during the dry Puget Sound summer. Sundquist has found oakleaf hydrangea, (Hydrangea quercifolia) to be surprisingly drought tolerant even in full sun. Many of the perennials sport large or highly textural leaves, including globe thistle (Echinops), biennial figleaf hollyhock (Alcea ficifolia), and Persicaria polymorpha, which has a resemblance to Japanese knotweed, but not its earth-conquering nature.
"Broad leaves added to a grass planting avoids the mono-textural," asserts Sundquist. "It's much more interesting than sole reliance on grasses. A border composed of grasses alone gives the effect of sweeping uniformity in the home garden. Mass grass plantings are better for creating vistas than gardens."
Sundquist trials a number of grasses, and has his favorites including Siberian graybeard or frost grass (Spodiopogon sibiricus), which he describes as "wildly underused." This little-known grass reaches four feet with a neatly rounded form and red fall color, and grows particularly well in the cool Pacific Northwest.
Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium atifolium ©2010
Along with some fountain grasses (Pennisetum) and northern sea oats, (Chasmanthium latifolium), it performs better with a bit of extra water in summer.
"As a group, the panicums—especially the blue forms—are really good for dry sites," Sundquist observes. 'Rotstrahlbusch' has great color. 'Shenandoah', however, tends to revert to a taller size."
Another blue-leaved, xeric grass recommended by Sundquist is blue oat grass, (Helictotrichon sempervirens), which grows in a dramatic sweep, waving tall, elegant inflorescences in his meadow border. Sundquist finds blue wheat grass (Elymus magellanicus), not as drought tolerant, and blue fescue, (Festuca glauca), to be lamentably short-lived and to "melt out when they become congested."
Good companions for the meadow border
For a prairie effect, try daisies such as coneflower (Echinacea), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), perennial sunflower (Heliopsis), and sneezeweed (Helenium). Goldenrod (Solidago) and Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium) are other American classics.
Salvias, Penstemons, Agastaches, wild indigo (Baptisia), yarrow (Achillea), cat mint (Nepeta), Sedum, globe thistle (Echinops), sea holly (Eryngium) all appreciate the same lean, well-drained soil as many grasses.
Asters add a nice autumn contrast. Spring—a slow period for many grass gardens—can be enlivened with drifts of native Camassia or species tulips which thrive with a dry summer dormancy, and whose yellowing foliage will be hidden beneath the expanding grass blades.
Sundquist points out that many grasses are warm weather growers that don't hit their stride until the Fourth of July. Miscanthus is one such late starter. But this extremely useful genus catches up quickly once summer arrives. Miscanthus offers innumerable species and cultivars, many notable for their flowing forms, variegation, or showy seedheads. Sundquist particularly mentions Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning light' with its fine texture and leaf-margins pinstriped white, 'Adagio' and 'Yaku Jima' for their equally graceful stance, and 'Flamingo' for its pink-tinted bloom.
Sundquist has found Pennisetum orientale to be fuss-free and handsome with purplish flowers from July until frost. On the other hand, Pennisetum alopecuroides often "browns out" in his dry border. Mexican feather grass (Nasella tenuissima), browns out in a good way - its honey-blonde locks rippling with every breath of air. Giant feather grass (Stipa gigantea), is a graceful eight-footer that holds its elegant panicles proudly aloft.
Another pleasant surprise to emerge from the Sundquist meadow border is Japanese blood grass, (Imperata cylindrica var. koenigii). This low-growing, red-leaved grass, while undeniably eye-catching, has a reputation as a runner. Sundquist reports that, when grown in a dry situation, blood grass is well behaved and highly effective in combinations or sweeps.
Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica var. koenigii) ©2010
Once established, the meadow border is relatively carefree. It requires little water after a first-year coddling of new plants. Lean soil and light feedings encourage dry-land grasses to stand tall and strong. Perhaps the most important chore is regular weeding, especially over the first few years, since weeds and native running grasses allowed to root within crowns of ornamental grasses are nearly impossible to eradicate.
One of many xeric borders at Sundquist Nursery. ©2010
Sundquist Nursery on the Kitsap Peninsula is known for hardy ferns, epimediums, shade companions, better perennials, ornamental grasses, and (Nils just can't help himself) some nice woody plants.
The nursery opens the gardens to the public several times annually. Check their web site for open garden dates.
Wendy Tweten is an avid hobbyist gardener and writer living in Kingston, Washington. She is at least halfway to her goal of trying one of every kind of plant that can be grown in zone 8. Wendy studied horticulture and nursery management at South Seattle Community College. As a freelance writer, she specializes in home and gardening and Real Estate topics, and is a regular contributor to many Kitsap County and Seattle area publications. She is a member of the Garden Writers Association and her humor column is published in the Kingston Community News.
Location: Sundquist Nursery
by Debbie Teashon.