From the Garden Gate: Back of the Border Plants

Jun 20, 2013

Tansy, aka Mugwort... a real "mug"
Credit Wikimedia Commons

This week's "From the Garden Gate" is all about back of the border plants. Murray resident Roy Helton divides his time between teaching in the English Department at Murray State University and indulging his passion for gardening.

Just as a stage play has a backdrop to frame and showcase what’s happening out front, a garden border needs a backdrop as well.  In some respects that shouldn’t be too hard a problem to solve.  I mean, it’s not as if there aren’t plenty of tall plants out there in the world.  And since finding tall plants is not, as they say, exactly rocket science, I thought I would confine myself to mentioning a few of the plants that I have found useful and successful in my own garden borders.

For big, solid masses in the background, it’s hard to beat the grasses.  I use a lot of Miscanthus sinensis (also known as Maiden Grass) at the back of borders.  It grows up early in the season and stays green until late in the fall.  The variety called “Morning Light” with its tinge of frosty white makes a nice variation on the otherwise solid green of most Miscanthus.

For sheer ease of growing, it’s hard to beat Iris pseudacorus, more commonly known as “Yellow Flag.” There is a sister purple variety known, not surprisingly, as “Purple Flag.” Both grow best in conditions that could charitably be termed “swampy”—the wetter the better.  On the other hand, I’ve got them in high and dry conditions myself, and they seem to do famously.  They bloom with their fleur de lis flowers early in the season, and admittedly   are not all that interesting afterwards with their strap-like foliage, but then it’s in the back of the border, so who really cares? The rhizomes do spread fairly rapidly, but they are easy enough to remove where they are not wanted.

One of my personal border favorites is Tansy—tanacetum vulgare.  I like it first of all for the perfectly irrelevant reason that one of its common names is “Mugwort.” Yeah, good old common, unpretentious Tansy—a real “mug,” in the nicest sense of the word.  Here’s what to like about it for the border.  It has few pests or diseases and reliably comes back year after year.  Tansy has heavily cut, deep green, aromatic foliage, grows up early in the season to about four feet tall, and lasts into the fall.  And while the small, yellow, button flowers aren’t much to write home about, the foliage does make good green filler for a vase of cut flowers, serving very well the same purpose that ferns do. 

Another of my favorites is Veronia altissima, otherwise known as good, old-fashioned Ironweed.  I got some out of a field years ago, on the very good advice of a friend, and have had it around ever since.  The foliage is not the big attraction here—it’s the flowers.  In the late summer Ironweed produces branches that for all the world look like little candelabras covered with twenty to thirty small purple flowers that to me resemble miniature thistles.  Not to worry, they are not at all related to actual thistles, but they do look like them.  Since the plant is capable of reaching as tall as ten feet, I usually cut mine in half about the beginning of July to get somewhat more compact plants that don’t need to be staked.

For some real back-of-the-border color splashes, you could use some of the varieties of Tiger Lilies, or a Crocosmia like the fiery red variety “Lucifer,” or maybe some of the newer varieties of cannas with their interesting foliage.   The choices are many.

Well, here’s to you—from the garden gate.