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The Best Perennials and Annuals of the Season

While many gardens are beginning their decline toward the end of summer, Dominique Bluhdorn’s High Meadow Farm is just getting started -- putting on gorgeous displays of undulating grasses and irrepressible perennials that bloom throughout the fall.

by Carol Williams


High Meadow Farm is an old estate with ponds, pastures, gardens, an orchard, and expansive, romantic views. But when owner Dominique Bluhdorn moved in with her family 10 years ago, the house and its scattered outbuildings were surrounded only by a melancholy expanse of lawn. What brought it to life?

Photography by: NGOC MINH NGO
Lovely year-round, the gardens at High Meadow, in the hills north of New York City, are at their best in late summer, when grasses reach full size. Here, dwarf fountain grass is in bloom, as are peegee hydrangea, buddleia, white echinacea, variegated sedum, gaura (in foreground, center), and the low-growing rose ‘Carpet White.’ A classical urn containing silvery licorice plants punctuates the expansive view.

Bluhdorn envisioned a “mosaic of gardens -- sanctuaries, really,” in place of the uninspired landscaping. She wanted them to mirror the natural beauty of the distant hills. Brian Grubb, a landscape designer with a profound knowledge of how plants behave, understood her impulse. A close collaboration soon developed.

Photography by: NGOC MINH NGO
Artful planting allows grasses and perennials to bring out the best in each other. Tall Miscanthus ‘Gracillimus’ and low Pennisetum ‘Hameln’ bloom with late-season perennials, phlox, echinacea, and eupatorium (native joe-pye weed), which can grow as high as seven feet.

Both recognized the paradox that wild gardens look best when they’re framed by formality. Bluhdorn’s limestone house evoked the architecture of French country houses, where gardens relate strongly to the lines of buildings and their symmetries. So Grubb designed a series of beds, borders, and hedges that adhere to this design philosophy. Then he deliberately chose exuberant plants that wouldn’t be shy about crossing those lines, bringing with them a distinctively American informality and grace.

Photography by: NGOC MINH NGO
Annuals white cosmos and creamy lantana, together with the dwarf fountain grass Pennisetum ‘Hameln,’ circle a limestone fountain.

The plantings are a considered mix of grasses, flowering shrubs, boxwood, annuals, and perennials. Grasses play the most significant role. Always in motion, they soften edges, while at the same time capturing light and forming diaphanous hedges. They’re at their best when late summer’s slanted light glimmers through their silvery blades and plumes.

Photography by: NGOC MINH NGO
The gossamerlike grass hedge is anchored by Pennisetum ‘Hameln,’ with butterfly-like Gaura ‘Whirling Butterflies’ fluttering through.

As many gardeners know, grasses can be difficult, often overwhelming other plants as they grow, flop, and spread. Planted by themselves, however, they are oftentimes bleak. Grubb resolved this dilemma with a selection of new cultivars that keep to manageable sizes and have an upright growing habit. Even at their highest, these grasses play beautifully with late-summer flowers and shrubs. ‘Little Kitten,’ among the smallest and neatest of the Miscanthus sinensis grasses, does not exceed three feet, even in bloom. It is so tidy in habit that Grubb uses it as an edge between the beds and lawn. Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ is a switchgrass that can reach six feet but stays vertical. The perennial dwarf fountain grass Pennisetum ‘Hameln’ arcs elegantly, but only to two or three feet. All are left to winter over -- lovely in the snow -- then cut low in early spring.

Photography by: NGOC MINH NGO
Against the house, a low hedge of ‘Green Velvet’ boxwood surrounds a field of annual Salvia ‘Victoria.’ ‘Endless Summer’ and ‘Annabelle’ hydrangeas soften the edges of walls. A glazed urn from Provence is filled with wispy white gaura -- containers of just one species are a High Meadow motif. Across the stone path, the fountain grass ‘Hameln’ exhibits its good manners as a border.

The flowers that shine among the grasses are chosen for their robustness and long or late bloom: They must hold their own when the grasses are at full height. Most of the annuals bloom all summer. Perennials such as Japanese anemone, joe-pye weed, and echinacea open in July and continue through September. The peegee hydrangea shrubs and small trees have white flowers, then subside into rosy shades with fall’s approach.

Photography by: NGOC MINH NGO
Billowing shrubs of peegee hydrangea and two cultivars of rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus ‘Diana’ and ‘Blue Satin’) highlight the dark woods behind them. A curved, sweeping hedge of grasses surrounds a swath of lawn. Echinacea ‘White Swan’ and tall, wispy Verbena bonariensis enliven the hedge, creating a meadowlike effect.

Blooms at every height create a meadowlike effect. Clouds of white boltonia float five feet high with no staking. Cleome and white cosmos wave high in the breeze. Echinacea drifts, and gaura weaves among the grasses. Low annuals crop up at shoe level. Though an ethereal palette of whites, silvers, and near-whites predominates, flashes of color (purple perovskia, blue-violet vitex) provide a welcome counterpoint. Around terraces and pathways and beside the pool, these burgeoning plantings offer a sense of enclosure. Wind sighs and rustles through the grasses. Bees, butterflies, and birds, drawn by all the flowerings, happily inhabit the hedges and borders. Bluhdorn says that for her, too, “this garden -- more than any house -- has become my home.”

Photography by: NGOC MINH NGO
The seating area on this limestone terrace is surrounded by abundant blooms. In the foreground, clumps of blue perennial perovskia and pale-lavender-pink and deep-rose cleome flourish. A blue vitex bush is in flower under the wisteria arbor. White buddleia (a cloud-pruned boxwood), hydrangeas, and tall miscanthus grasses form the background. Beyond a grass hedge lie the forest and distant hills.