Sometimes a border needs a big bold statement, something to draw the eye. This is where architectural plants come in!
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 23, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
The most popular garden styles include herbaceous or perennial borders and there are thousands of plants to choose from when planning your garden. Whether you have a small backyard plot or a large expansive garden with multiple borders, there is a place for architectural plants in your design.
Most people use shrubs as backbones for their borders, something to provide year round interest, support for climbers and also for their height. But there are many perennials and bulbs which can really pack a punch in your border or garden. Perennials alone can make a border look flat, so provide something to draw the eye or act as a 'full stop'. I'd like to concentrate on non-shrubby plants in this article.
Let's start with some biennials. These can be grown easily from seed and provide a two year season of interest, the first year the plant will usually produce a rosette of foliage, the next it will explode into bloom. Examples are a thistle (Onopardum acanthium) and teasel. Both provide wonderful height and texture. They are quite similar plants, both have tall spiky looking stems topped with flower heads that have tiny purple flowers making up the inflorescence. Insects love these flowers and the teasel particularly provides wonderful winter interest, as well as valuable seed for birds.
Big leaves can really make an impact in your border, but you need lots of room. Forget hostas, try gunnera! This ornamental giant rhubarb has huge leaves which can reach 6 feet wide and provides an amazing focal point for a damp location. It also has an intriguing flower stem, 2 to 3 feet high. Winter protection can be given by piling the dying leaves over the crown of the plant as they are hardy only to about zone 6 or 7.
Two other perennials worth a mention are Rodgersia and Ligularia. Both have impressive leaves and small but impressive flowers carried on long stems. They too like Gunnera will appreciate a damp location. There are some wonderful varieties of Rodgersia with chocolate brown foliage which are worth hunting for. The flowers resemble a giant astible. Ligularias have bright yellow or orange daisy like flowers with strap like petals.
Grasses are also plants to consider and there are a huge range of varieties to choose from. Stipa gigantea is a one of the largest of the feather grasses and makes a superb border specimen. It's large golden oat like flower heads move beautifully in autumn breezes. Smaller varieties can really liven up a border and provide a wonderful textural accompaniment to other plants. There are grasses or grass-like plants in lots of different colours, blue, yellow, bronze, red, green and white - even black! Varieties of Miscanthus grow tall and have particularly attractive flower panicles. Similar effects can be obtained by using bamboos, these are wonderfully attractive all year round and varieties with beautifully coloured culms are available. Consider these plants for their sound qualities too!
Tall spiky leaves draw the eye upward, a great plant for a bold statement is Phormium, the New Zealand flax. These can get really big! Some of the newer highly coloured varieties don't get so tall but the leaf colours are wonderful!
Another group to consider are bulbs that can get large like the Eucomis pole-evansii, which can easily top 3 feet. It has huge panicles of bright green flowers topped with a pineapple-like tuft of leaves. Or try the giant himalayan lily Cardiocrinum giganteum, which can reach 10 feet in height and produces huge, scented white trumpet-shaped blooms.
For gardeners in sunny regions you can grow a huge variety of cacti and succulents outdoors. Some of the best are agaves with their thick tough leaves and enormous flower spikes.
Also consider tropicals like bananas if you have the climate to grow these outdoors. Tree ferns too can make a magnificent statement in a garden.
I hope this article encourages you to try some of these stunning plants!
All the photos in this article are my own, taken at public gardens around Northumberland.
About Sue Taylor
Originally from Northumberland, and now living here again after 10 years in Yorkshire and 10 years in Maine, USA. I've been a gardener for many years and also enjoy wildlife. I love houseplants, particularly sansevierias.