Broadly speaking, hardy herbaceous perennials are those garden plants which go on from year to year, but die down either completely or to a rosette or crown of leaves for the winter, to start into new growth the following spring. They conjure up visions of the long sweeping masses of foliage and colour so beloved of the owners of large houses and stately homes in times gone by when labour was cheap. A properly maintained border was (and is, for those of us who are still able to have one) a never-ending job – manuring, dividing, splitting, planting and replanting, staking, tying, dead-heading, cutting back, forking, fertilizing and spraying, though when all this is done to perfection, there is perhaps no more beautiful living feature than a herbaceous border in summer.
However, the majority of garden owners today simply cannot afford to devote such a disproportionate amount of time to any one area, especially as for a large part of the year the herbaceous border is doing nothing — from October to April very little of most of the plants can even be seen at all.
Nothing looks worse than a neglected bed of perennials. A further argument against giving a whole part of the garden over to this type of plant is that in most modern plots there just is not room – not if you want to have a go at several aspects of plant cultivation, at any rate.
Just as annuals and bedding plants went out of favour twenty or so years ago, so herbaceous plants have been through a very untrendy phase for all except the dedicated plantsman. They had a reputation for being rampant, and disease-prone, and designers were pointing out the greater benefits of shrubberies, which provided something to see at all times of the year, even if it was only the tracery of the bare branches, colour being provided as much by contrasting foliage effects as by the flowers. Herbaceous plants fell into some disrepute with uninitiated garden owners mainly because the only experience they had of them was through ‘gifts’ from friends of rampant golden rod, mildew-ridden Michaelmas daisies, and other subjects off-loaded because they were threatening to take over the whole neighbourhood. And if the novice did succumb to what was bestowed so graciously, and planted them, what happened? They ran riot all over the place, shot rapidly up to a height of five feet or more with spindly stems and sickly leaves and, come the first high wind or heavy rain, they were all down on the ground again.
Things have changed considerably in the last few years. Shorter growing, less invasive varieties have been produced, many having greater disease resistance. The old-fashioned concept of large borders with tall plants backed by a high wall or thick hedge – which in itself produced stability problems because of the down-draughts created — has to some extent been superseded by island beds of short-growing cultivars, or mixed borders where a shrub framework helps to support the herbaceous perennials.