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Competition time

Noël Kingsbury Naturalistic planting involves dense combinations

where individuals and different taxa will be in
he last 30-odd years have
reports on a seven- seen a huge increase in the
more intense competition than in conventional
herbaceous planting. Late May in the author’s
year experiment growing of herbaceous garden in Herefordshire.
perennials in Britain. Alongside this
aimed at transferring has been an interest in so-called is therefore to a degree dynamic.
continental ideas of ‘naturalistic’ planting which aims It certainly involves higher planting
at incorporating something of the densities than has conventionally
growing perennials aesthetic of natural and semi-natural been the case. The related and now
to the UK climate environments such as meadows and very well-established, commercially
prairies into herbaceous planting. successful, German approach known
This style has been accompanied as Mixed Planting (Mischpflan-
by a greater acceptance of natural zungen) is similar. These planting
ecological processes in planting, systems generally use up to nine
accepting that species may self-seed, plants per square metre, Oudolf
spread, and move within the often around seven or eight,
planting. This planting style, compared to the more usual four
illustrated best by the work of James or five.
Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett, The new planting styles inevitably
and to some extent by Piet Oudolf, cause the component plants to

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compete; in other words ecology Outline of the trial ‘variables’, which varied between the
begins to take over from The overall aim was to look at plots. The base plants were:
horticulture. We actually have very competition in order to learn more Achillea Galaxy Hybrids
little knowledge of how ornamental about how the selected species Alchemilla mollis
perennials behave ecologically. gained or lost ground over time, with Aquilegia vulgaris
A better understanding of the goal of reaching a better general Eurybia divaricata
ornamentals as ecological actors understanding of the different ways Geranium phaeum ‘Lily Lovell’
could potentially allow us to design in which garden perennials spread Geranium sylvaticum
plantings which reduce the and interact over time in dense Hemerocallis ‘Golden Chimes’
maintenance required (particularly naturalistic plantings. One intention Phlomis russeliana
in denying space to weeds) while in choosing the combinations Solidago rugosa
maintaining a high level of floristic employed was to try to produce as Two of each were used apart from
and aesthetic diversity. dense a canopy of vegetation for the Hemerocallis and the Phlomis
I have long been interested in as much of the year as possible, where only one of each was used.
developing something similar to primarily to reduce weed infiltration. The four grey plots were used for
the German concept for British The factors influencing choice of the variable, two replicate plots of
conditions. The long growing season species were: each treatment was planted. The
in the UK is very different to that The need to have a wide seasonal plants used as variables were:
of continental Europe, as its many spread of interest in ornamental Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl
months of cool conditions and plantings. Foerster’
abundant moisture favours the The idea that a ground-covering Iris sibirica
growth of rapidly-spreading grasses layer of low, clump-forming Miscanthus sinensis ‘Rot Fuchs’
and a number of other very perennials with an emergent layer Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’
competative species. of erect-growing, later-flowering The base plants were chosen
Following on from a PhD study species is valuable aesthetically. because they are all vigorous
All pictures by Noel Kingsbury

into the growth habits of ornamental That co-existence between forbs perennials whose performance is
perennials, consultancy work with and grasses is crucial to the success known to be good on this site.
Bristol City Council during the early of the contemporary planting design Numbers used tended to reflect
2000s, and participation in a aesthetic; the importance of this co- simple availability of material rather
research project surveying the existence and a poor understanding than any more substantive reason.
experiences of gardeners with of its dynamics led to the choice of The variables were chosen to
perennials (see The Plantsman, June the species used as variables. represent three of the most widely-
2011), I set up a trial plot in October used larger ornamental grasses; Iris
2010 in Herefordshire, which ran Eight plots of 1.5 × 1.5m were set sibirica was used as it has an unusual
until October 2017, with the out on a gentle south-facing slope in method of suppressing competition
intention of assessing how feasible western Herefordshire, at an altitude around it through self-mulching leaf
it might be to develop a system of of 150m, on an Old Red Sandstone- litter – this was judged to be a useful
British Mixed Planting. derived soil – a heavy silty loam. attribute worthy of investigation.
Here I would like to outline how Rainfall is relatively high (in the Although there were no formal
the trial was run and discuss its region of 1,500mm per annum) and controls, all the species grown were
outcomes in relation to other the soil becomes rapidly saturated. also being grown in several locations
research I have been conducting Phosphorus content is high, pH elsewhere in the garden over at least
during this time into the growth neutral. Each plot was identical, several years, and in all cases for the
habits of ornamental herbaceous with nine species of ‘base plants’, period of the trial, but generally at
perennials. The design of the trial and one of four variables, as on page lower densities.
is very different to that of formal 32. Plants were put in as either fist-
scientific trials, but was intended for sized divisions or, in the case of the Running the trial
a ‘citizen science’ scale, realistic for Achillea, Aquilegia and Geranium During the course of each year,
gardeners without access to external sylvaticum, from 9cm pots. maintenance consisted of occasional
sources of funding or extensive areas There were two groups of plants: weed removal; I was delighted at
of ground. ‘base plants’ used in every plot and how little time I spent on this, ➤

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only a few minutes per plot per year,

much less than other areas of the
garden where plant densities were
lower. Dead herbaceous growth was
cut back and removed in late winter.
Every autumn I recorded a crude
evaluation of plant condition (dead,
growth small, growth good, growth
very good). Weeds and seedlings of
the plot components were noted.
At the end of the trial each plot was
overlain by a grid divided into 10cm
squares, and the presence (shoots Calamagrostis 1 Iris 1
with roots) of the component plants
recorded square by square (see
images, right).
During the first three years most
species established well. However all
the Achillea were lost by the end of
year two, the Hemerocallis grew very
slowly (in the end the plant survived
in only one plot), the Panicum and
Miscanthus never established well,
and were mostly lost during this
period; Iris sibirica established poorly
with major losses, although the
survivors flourished. A feature in the Calamagrostis 2 Miscanthus 1
first few years was Aquilegia seeding
into gaps. The layout of each 1.5 x 1.5m
Achillea Achillea plot (left). The grey indicates
Once established, it was notable Galaxy Aquilegia Eurybia Galaxy Eurybia
Hybrids vulgaris divaricata Hybrids divaricata the variables.
how effectively the plants in the
The final plot surveys (above).
plots covered the ground and how Achillea In plot Calamagrostis 1, for
they began to form an intermeshed Geranium Alchemilla Galaxy
sylvaticum mollis example, Calamagrostis ‘Karl
pattern of growth. This must have Hybrids Foerster’ is the variable; it has
played a major role in minimising done well, along with Solidago
rugosa and Phlomis
weed incursion. The main weed Eurybia Hemerocallis Phlomis Geranium Solidago russeliana. The white squares
divaricata ‘Golden russelliana phaeum rugosa
problems were Geranium × Chimes’ indicate how much ground

oxonianum ‘Claridge Druce’ seeding was unoccupied, although it
was generally shaded by
in from elsewhere in the garden Geranium Solidago Geranium foliage.
along with stinging nettle. In the phaeum rugosa sylvaticum
final year of the trial Molinia caerulea
subsp. arundinacea began to seed Achillea
Alchemilla Geranium Eurybia Galaxy Aquilegia
heavily into the plots. mollis sylvaticum divaricata Hybrids vulgaris

The outcome
In discussing the trial with a wide on several occasions I am sure I said plots were; the process of inter-
range of fellow gardeners, the ‘I want to see which is the overall species competition appearing to
common response was ‘I expect one survivor’. In the end however, this play out differently in each one. This
of them will take over’, and to some did not happen, and perhaps the can be appreciated by the overview
extent I expected the trial to result most interesting, and encouraging, of the plots shown above. No one
in a process of gradual elimination; outcome was how different all the species took over.

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It is suggested that it was probably

outcompeted by taller components,
however its ability to seed into gaps
would make it a valuable component
to ensure continuous ground cover.
Aquilegia vulgaris plants
flourished for many years, with the
appearance of some seedlings;
numbers were reduced in 2016 and
few were noted in 2017. A short-
lived non-clonal species, this is
dependent on seeding to survive in
Miscanthus 2 Panicum 1 borders; here competition may well
have been too great to allow this to
happen for the full length of the trial.
Eurybia divaricata largely
survived as dense, slowly expanding
clumps. There was no sign of seeding
or adventitious vegetative spreading.
Examination of the roots indicates a
very tough dense mat of overlapping
rhizomes, which appear to be long-
lived, while the clumps of foliage
early in the year are notably dense
and weed infiltration is rare.
Geranium phaeum ‘Lily
Panicum 2 Iris 2 Lovell’ plants were dispersed,
sometimes extensively so. Partly
KEY the lifespan of the rhizomes appears this must be the result of seeding,
Alchemilla mollis to vary. It is the experience of many as seedlings were observed during
Aquilegia vulgaris gardeners that modern cultivars of annual evaluations, and the species
Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ the genus often fail to persist, seeds extensively elsewhere in the
Eurybia divaricata especially on heavier soils. It is garden. However it may also be due
Geranium phaeum ‘Lily Lovell’ suggested that short-lived rhizomes to rhizome migration. In lower
Geranium sylvaticum
are very vulnerable; if they meet density garden conditions the plants
Hemerocallis ‘Golden Chimes’
Iris sibirica difficult conditions they are unable are usually observed to form a dense
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Rot Fuchs’ to draw on the resources of an clump; however anecdotal evidence
Panicum virgatum integrated network of rhizomes, and suggests that the plants will also
Phlomis russeliana so can die rapidly. Rudbeckia fulgida move around. It is possible that in
Solidago rugosa may be more resilient as a garden competitive conditions the rhizomes
Cells with borders = two plants plant, but it too shows this move forward into new territory.
Small squares, a third plant characteristic, one outcome of which Geranium sylvaticum
Every square is 10x10cms is that weeds are able to readily generally survived, sometimes
infiltrate the clump, as with many forming dense and expanding
cultivars of Monarda. clumps, but often remaining small.
Alchemilla mollis survived, Little seeding was observed,
Individual species largely as scattered small plants, although this species is often noted
performance along with a number of seedlings. as being a vigorous self-seeder in the
Achillea Galaxy Hybrids This contradicts the experience garden. Rhizome growth was
disappeared rapidly. All Achillea of many gardeners who find that observed to be slow and the plants
species spread vegetatively, but this plant forms extensive mats. relatively uncompetitive. ➤

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Hemerocallis ‘Golden
Chimes’ survived only as a single
plant. The growth habit of most
Hemerocallis is that of a very dense
clump, with an equally dense root
network, but sideways spread is slow.
The plants were almost certainly
outcompeted by the more vigorous
subjects under trial.
Phlomis russeliana moved
away from its position in the centre
of each plot, but to a very variable
degree. Seeding was observed but
in most cases the increase in spread
appeared to be through adventitious
production of new growth. Of all the
plants in the trial, this was perhaps
Surveying the plots after seven years´growth. Expressed diagramatically, an overview can be taken of the
the most interesting. It has been plots, revealing how there were always different outcomes.
noted as a very effective ground-
cover species, forming extensive
mats elsewhere in the garden. In
the experiment, however, with
competition, it also performed as a
gap filler. Given that it is functionally
evergreen, this makes it an extremely
valuable component in any kind of
naturalistic planting scheme.
Solidago rugosa was the most
predictable in its behaviour, with
each of the two clumps in each plot
surviving and in most cases steadily
spreading in what plant ecologists
call phalanx fashion, i.e. marching
Late May, the period with the most intense flowering. Geranium sylvaticum and G. phaeum ‘Lily Lovell’ are
outwards at an equal pace from the visible along with some colour forms of Aquilegia vulgaris.
centre. The plants form very dense
clumps (not spreading rapidly like
older garden cultivars) with a dense
root system. This pattern of plant
growth appears to favour strong
long-term persistence and might be
a good model to look for in selecting
other perennials for Mixed Planting.
Of the plants used as variables, Iris
sibirica was slow to establish, perhaps
for similar reasons to the
Hemerocallis, with densely-packed
shoots taking time to build up.
Only half survived. The pattern of
grass growth was very distinct: the
Panicum and Miscanthus established Phlomis russeliana flowering in mid June. It and Solidago rugosa (dark upright foliage) appear to be in
very poorly and were effectively intense competition; in most cases neither species proved dominant.

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The dense growth of Eurybia divaricata by mid Geranium sylvaticum showing a relatively small The growth of Solidago rugosa was one of the
March is an example of the type of perennial number of short rhizomes after three years clearest outcomes of the trial. The dense root
growth which is very resistant to weed infiltration. growth, making it a relatively uncompetitive, but network illustrates its potential for domination of
still persistent, plant. its environment.

eliminated within two years, the encouraging and suggests the where their performance may be a
Calamagrostis took off with no concept of continental Mixed useful contribution to a dense weed-
hesitation. The first two species are Planting is sound for UK gardens. proof intermingled combination.
both ‘warm season’ species with C4 n Two patterns of dominance n While they played only a
carbon fixation that means they will are suggested: 1) tight overlapping minimal role in the outdome of this
only initiate growth at relatively high rhizome mats, as in Eurybia trial, self-seeding, non-clonal species
temperatures, not usually until late divaricata. 2) dense, slowly- such Aquilegia vulgaris are also
April or even May, and they make expanding rhizomes with an potentially very useful as gap fillers.
poor growth in cool Welsh border extensive root system as in Solidago I hope to be able to use the
summers at the best of times. rugosa or Calamagrostis × acutiflora experience gained here to try to
Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl ‘Karl Foerster’. develop a commercially viable Mixed
Foerster’ is a hybrid of two European n Slow-growing perennials are Planting system for British
species and starts into growth in vulnerable to being out-competed conditions, and as a guide for future
February or March. by more vigorous species in the early researches into the growth patterns
One final point is worth noting, years of a planting. These are often of perennial plants. The greatly
that even after seven years, there examples of what prairie ecologists reduced weed management resulting
were considerable areas unoccupied in the USA dub ‘conservative plants’: from dense intermingled perennial
by plant shoots, with between 8% long-lived, resilient, but slow to growth is certainly something we can
and 43% of squares unoccupied. establish and therefore vulnerable also all learn from. If pollinator-
This perhaps illustrates the need for in the early stages. It is proposed friendly and other diversity-
low, shade-tolerant groundcover that these need to be planted as supporting species can be used or
species to be included as well larger plants in dense plantings. incorporated into these planting
in order to give even coverage, n Certain perennials can be systems then they can also do much
minimising weed infiltration and regarded as ‘mobile’ plants, e.g. to improve the biodiversity
providing invertebrate habitat. Phlomis russeliana and Geranium supported in our gardens.
phaeum. They are capable of filling in
Conclusions the gaps between others, therefore Noel Kingsbury has been
Academic plant ecologists would reducing opportunities for weed designing and writing about plants
critique many aspects of this trial infiltration, and repairing gaps left for some 25 years, focusing on where
but I believe that it shows how small- by losses. This niche is one which horticulture and ecology meet.
scale plots are easy for non- conventional horticulture has tended
academics to set up and gain useful to ignore or even to be wary of. The If anyone wishes to participate in
knowledge from. experience of this trial suggests that setting up a similar trial plot, I would
n The main outcome, that no one we should be ready to include be delighted to hear from them:
species shows total dominance is spreading species in dense plantings

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