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There are lots of ways to jazz up the perennial border

The Garden Coach

Driving to and from Kent Center School, you can’t help but notice the flowery perennial borders Karren Garrity planted along the picket fence outlining her corner lot. As you round the corner or sit at the stop sign waiting for a school bus to turn, there it is, a gift to the street and a joyous reminder that summer is here. The walkers get a real treat.

When Karren asked me for some coaching, she expressed a sense of liking her plants but being vaguely dissatisfied with the garden as a whole. It looked great in May, June and into July, but then there wasn’t much to see.

I felt the same way a few years into garden-making, and imagine most people do. Maybe that dissatisfaction is a sign that you’re growing as a gardener. When I was trying to figure out why a bunch of great plants didn’t add up to a satisfying garden I began by studying why certain plant combinations in other peoples’ gardens just zing and other plants sit next to each other and do nothing.

Like Karren’s, my garden was chock full of plants — phlox, black-eyed Susans, goldenrods, asters — that were about the same height and the same shape and the same shade of green, with leaves that a non-gardener would describe as leaf-shaped, and with different colored flowers sitting up on top.

When not in bloom, they were indistinguishable, a muddle.

As these robust plants spread, I divided and moved them, as Karren had done. Repeating plants throughout a garden gives continuity and makes for a big show when they are in bloom, but too much repetition gets boring.

So my first advice to Karren was to think about editing. This is what makes a garden more than just a collection of plants. Editing gives you immediate gratification and long-term satisfaction. It’s more interesting if some plants mingle and some claim their own space, some are pruned short, others allowed to tower above. If you have plants that take over, it’s OK to set limits. Decide where they will be allowed and pull the rest.

Getting used to killing plants that you once nurtured is a big step, but ruthlessness pays — it leaves room for new plants.

Then we considered adding contrast for more visual interest. Her combination of delicate green threadleaf coreopsis foliage weaving through broad-leafed blue-green swords of iris foliage on the hot south corner was a lively combo even though neither was in bloom.

Plants that have very distinct character — fine lacy texture, big bold leaves, a linear quality, a strongly upright form or a soft mounding one, or colored foliage — are naturals to add the zip and zing of contrast to a garden.

Some of my all-time favorites for jazzing up the garden are also drought-tolerant low-maintenance plants well-suited to this sunny border.

Yuccas have a strong year-round presence with their bold spiky form at about the 2 foot-level, and dramatic flower stalks that shoot up around 6 feet tall in late June. The golden cultivars Gold Sword, Bright Edge and Color Guard look like rays of sunshine all winter long.

Miscanthus Morning Light — an ornamental grass whose thin blades are marked with white midrib — gives height, constant movement, a light graceful quality, flower plumes later in summer and curly buff-colored foliage all winter.

Lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) with its silvery felted leaves, forms incandescent mats that can work as an edging plant, a clump or a carpet through which taller plants grow.

Helene von Stein is a cultivar of lamb’s ears with larger leaves that are thinner and more gray than silver, a very refined plant.

Silver and gray plants contrast with everything and yet also tie a garden together. Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) is one of those plants that looks good with everything. Its wavy-edged rounded leaves are just different enough to make a pleasing contrast, and if you postpone deadheading its long-lasting chartreuse froth of flowers the instant they fade, it will modestly self-sow in both sun and shade.

Just by clearing out some of the excess and adding a few plants — the garden’s citizens — that contrast in various ways, the garden becomes more of a community, one whose members are carrying on an interesting conversation, shaped by the gardener’s hand and eye.

Karen Bussolini is an eco-friendly garden coach, a NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professional . She can be reached at www.kbgarden@charter.net or 860-927-4122.