When Dr. Welch and I started writing The Rose Rustlers book a few years ago, I went through my 35 mm slide archive and had a number of them scanned into a digital format. While perusing through my slide collection, I ran across my slide set on perennials and realized how much I missed my two perennial borders.
My venture into perennials began when I worked for Bill Welch and Mike Shoup at The Antique Rose Emporium’s (then under construction) new retail facility while in graduate school at Texas A&M University. Then, I got to help Dr. Welch with his first book, Perennial Garden Color (1988, Taylor Publishing) while I was the Bexar County horticulturist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in San Antonio. From there it was on to helping Dr. Welch with his new “cottage garden” landscape at Cricket Court in Washington County.
Helping wasn’t enough however. I wanted my own perennials (herbaceous plants that return from their roots each year), especially after multiple trips to Europe admiring fine traditional perennial borders.
My first and grandest attempt at perennials was my Rainbow Border at my parent’s ranch house in Shelby County. This 210 foot sunny border stretched across the front of the house and was essentially a linear color wheel, starting with red on the left and progressing through purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, and finally red again on the far right. It featured mostly heirloom and pass-a-long “time tested” perennials in an attempt to show Southern gardeners that we could produce European style perennial borders with proven heat tolerant plants that we already knew. Sadly in those days, many Southerners were experimenting (and failing) with perennials only adapted to the cold winters and mild summers of Europe and the Northern U.S. Thankfully, Dr. Welch taught us there were already plenty of good Southern perennials. Unfortunately the Rainbow Border no longer exists, but in its day was a site to behold.
My next border was on the north side of my old farmhouse and quickly progressed from pink themed tropicals and annuals into similar themed perennials. It was anchored on one end with a pink crapemyrtle propagated from my Great Grandmother Emanis’ old homeplace. My house was ugly back then, but my border sure looked good. When my house restoration started in 2009, I removed the border to make room for several years’ worth of demolition and progress.
I figured I could survive with a small garden in front of the house, but after I looked at my old slides I decided I wanted my border back! So last year I laid out a new perennial border on the north side of my house. I used the same construction method I did with my Rainbow Border years ago. Luckily my garden is blessed with a silt loam soil. I also chose to use only proven perennials that didn’t require extensive soil prep. I do love English borders, but you’ll never catch me “double digging” a bed!
First I killed the existing San Augustine grass with a non-selective herbicide. Then I applied a sprinkling of lawn fertilizer and covered it with an inch of composted “black” pine bark. Next, I planted the perennials through the bark, watered them in, and touched up the bark mulch around them. I also snaked a drip irrigation line between the plants to help them survive the first summer. After the first freeze, I cut the frozen perennials to the ground, took up the irrigation line, and applied a layer of pine straw mulch to keep out winter weeds and insulate the roots for the winter. This spring, I applied a fresh layer of pine straw mulch and added a few new perennials to take the place of the tropicals and annuals I had tucked in last year for temporary color.
Last year my color theme started out with purples, blues, and pinks, but this year I’ve added some yellow to bring out the purples. I also took advantage of the blank canvas to show off and compare Phlox paniculata cultivars adapted to the South. The ones I have right now are “Alvera Griffin,” ‘David,’ ‘Delta Snow,’ “Dr. Ghivan,” ‘Robert Poore,’ ‘Texas Pink,’ and ‘Victoria.’ Last year I lost my variegated ‘Fanick’s Fiesta’ to direct sun, and “Miss Mozelle,” “Diana Walker,” and ‘John Fanick’ to phlox crown rot, a disease associated with too much irrigation and too much mulch. I’ll add them back this fall. Swallowtail butterflies love garden phlox. Most of these have been found or rediscovered in Southern gardens, where most modern phlox cultivars won’t grow.
I’m very fond of pass-a-long plants and tuck them around me wherever I can. In addition to the phlox from my first grade teacher Miss Mozzelle, I also have ‘Lavender Bonanza’ daylily from my dad’s music store secretary years ago, and the hot pink yarrow the late Mrs. Rosprim shared with Dr. Welch and I many moons ago.
This year’s additions include Lantana camara ‘Ham and Eggs,’ Lantana camara ‘Lemon Swirl,’ Buddleia x ‘Purple Haze,’ Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Hortensia,’ and an old yellow daylily from the Johnson House just up the road.
The back of the border is my ever changing row of lilac cultivars and seedlings (everybody likes to try and grow something they’ve been told repeatedly not to!) punctuated by a bird feeder that I run coral vine (Antigonon leptopus) up each summer. I love its other common names—Mexican love vine, queen’s crown, and rosa de Montana. It’s very heat and drought tolerant and the bees love it. As a matter of fact the bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds love my entire border almost as much as I do.