Lacing the Border with Beauty

Delicate flowers and frilly foliage add an elegant finishing touch to the garden

Accent your perennial border with a cluster of lacey flowers such as bishop’s flower.
Photo/Illustration: Pam Spaulding

Like many gardeners, I longed for lush banks of greenery and plush borders overflowing with foliage and flowers. Yet, once achieved, my garden cried out for a lighter touch—something to brighten those heavy masses of color. In a way, it was much like a bold expanse of solid-colored fabric seeking a finishing touch of trim. So, just as a seamstress might turn to lace—that most ephemeral of fabrics— I turned to plants with filigreed foliage and delicate flowers. I call these plants “garden laces.”

With their finely threaded or patterned forms, garden laces add glamor, elegance, and lightness to the garden tapestry. Brooding assemblies of evergreens can be thrown into relief by a single specimen of the wedding cake tree (Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’). Bold, structural border plantings can be tied up with a ribbon of ‘Silver Mound’ artemisia (Artemisia schmidtiana ‘Silver Mound’) or threads of sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima). Lacy plants also contrast with and highlight other plants in garden groupings. Tulips and alliums in spring; iris, peonies, and poppies in early summer; daylilies and hostas as the season progresses— they all benefit from the gossamer touch of garden laces.

Trimming with lace

Soften hard surfaces with garden laces. This maidenhair fern adds a light touch to a stone foundation.

The most common use of lace—both with fabric and in the garden—is trimming or edging. Such lacy edgings are particularly useful where the area to be set off contains flowers, foliage, or hardscaping materials that give a solid or bold impression, rather than those involving “busier” schemes. A trail of sweet alyssum fronting a dark-leafed border of peonies will be far more effective than this same edging combined with the multicolored blossoms of petunias. Smooth stone and brickwork practically demand the lightening touch of garden laces. Suitable edging plants include filigreed artemisias, crisply cut bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum var. striatum), hazy love-ina- mist (Nigella damascena), and tiny, laced flowers—such as ‘Moonbeam’ coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonbeam’) or ‘Lemon Gem’ marigold (Tagetes tenuifolia ‘Lemon Gem’).

One of my favorite combinations for a shady spot is bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia ‘Alba’) setting off hostas and hellebores. Flowering all summer, the bleeding heart highlights one of my garden’s darkest corners.

Lovely swatches of lace

As insets, ferns add depth to border plantings like this one with bloody cranesbill and variegated hosta.
Photo/Illustration: Jerry Howard

Insets—swatches of lace used to break up and complement surrounding flowery fabrics—emphasize the depth and solidity of their neighbors that, in turn, highlight the airy quality of the lace. Laces also add depth to plantings, as the eye can pierce them, discerning patterns of light and darkness. They cast their ornamental shadows upon broader- leafed neighbors, adding texture to once-smooth surfaces. Baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata), bishop’s flower (Ammi majus), cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus), boltonia (Boltonia asteroides), and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) are among the many useful inset plants.

One of my favorite inset combinations positions the exquisite lace blooms of bishop’s flower against the deep red and purple foliage of barberry, the brilliant red blooms of ‘Lord Baltimore’ hibiscus, and clumps of red-leafed canna. In another border, maidenhair ferns (Adiantum pedatum) mingle delicately with clumps of golden ‘August Moon’ hosta, a pairing edged with the spiraling sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum).


Veils of gauzy garden lace

Garden veils drop their gauzy curtains, raising curiosity about the partly obscured plants behind them. Here, the lacy leaves of a Japanese maple veil the bright-red blossoms of an azalea.

Just as a lace veil evokes mystery and romance, garden veils drop their gauzy curtains before us, raising curiosity about partly obscured plants and encouraging us to explore scantily hidden spaces. Plants used as veils also add height throughout the garden, thus breaking the monotonous, stair-step quality of so many traditional borders.

Spiky yuccas pierce veils of soft Russian sage (Perovskia), while statuesque and silky maroon hollyhocks peek through clouds of white crambe (Crambe cordifolia). Tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis), bush clover (Lespedeza spp.), and fennel all make excellent garden veils. Many ornamental grasses also make superb veils. In my garden, needle grass (Stipa gigantea) drapes across a path, forcing sensory contact, while fountains of eulalia (Miscanthus sinensis) plumes allow glimpses of the prickly limbs of Scotch thistle (Onopordum acanthium). Elsewhere, the deeptoned foliage and pale lemon umbels of bronze fennel screen the David Austin rose ‘Othello’ and silky ‘Caroline’ hibiscus.

Lace-patterned foliage

Like a fabric upon which lacy patterns are drawn or painted, certain plants with solid leaves are overlaid with lacy patterns. Admired for their intricate design, these lace-patterned plants invite us to look more closely. Here, the pattern is not offset by air or emptiness, but rather by the deep green background of the leaf. This contrast exudes a crispness in character. Milk thistle ( Silybum marianum ), dead nettle ( Lamium spp.), and coralbells ( Heuchera spp.) display this lacy overlay.

Select laces for color and season of bloom

Choosing garden laces begins with contemplation and observation. Where are the dark corners or heavy areas of the garden? Which broad-leafed plants could use a lift? Where could a lacy edging enhance a scene? Should laces be scattered about the garden or concentrated in an area or two?

Once you know where lacy plants could accent your garden, consider your options for color and season of bloom. Dusty-pink Chaerophyllum hirsutum is delightful with blue-leafed hostas; but with clear, red roses, it only succeeds in looking muddy. Similarly, dead nettle cascading over gray stone might be just the thing, while this same plant rambling among variegated hosta would look hopelessly jumbled. While white laces conjure up images of bridal purity, blues and purples evoke impressionist paintings, and dusky reds create a somber or richly elegant mood.

Selecting laces for season of bloom is also important. Paired with the giant blossoms of purple allium (Allium giganteum ‘Globemaster’), flowering white crambe sparkles elegantly. Sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) will tuck its white froth around the feet of felted mulleins (Verbascum spp.), but will have gone to seed before nearby lilies can open their heavy-headed buds.


A special spot for your garden laces

Lacy plants have many homes in the garden. You might confine them to shaded areas where their airiness is appreciated. Containers flanking a doorway are another good spot, as they can effectively screen and enhance architectural elements. A shady spot in a rock garden might sport a patch of royal fern (Osmunda regalis), and wild spurge (Euphorbia corollata) could grace the entry to a sunny pergola.

For a change of pace, try a border of laces featuring a season-long display of feathery foliage and flowers interspersed with a few, slightly more substantial companions. A froth of azure forget-me-nots (Myosotis scorpioides) could be interplanted with an early, yellow tulip like ‘West Point’. This might be followed by clumps of snowon- the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata), sea hollies (Eryngium alpinum), artemisias, and yarrows (Achillea spp.), followed later by Russian sage, verbena, and bluebeard (Caryopteris spp.).

In a reverse approach, more substantial perennials—such as loosestrife (Lythrum spp.), coneflowers (Rudbeckia spp.), and chrysanthemums—could add depth, while mulleins or evergreens tie down the border at each end. Spikes of feathery goat’s beard (Aruncus dioicus) could add vertical contrast and creamy color to this combination. Amid a carpet of green, a circular bed of pinks (Dianthus spp.) would look like a large, lace doily flung down upon the lawn.

A border of laces requires careful siting. In addition to adequate sunlight, lacy plants need a solid background to set off their diaphanous quality. A hedge, wall, or other dark backdrop will allow a mass planting of lacy plants to be seen to their best advantage. Protection from the afternoon sun will keep these fine-textured plants from “frying” in summer’s heat, as will frequent attention to watering needs. Such a border will grow in loveliness as the plants fill out and spread their feathery wings.

More delicate flowers and frilly foliage

A selection of lacy garden plants

Ammi majus (bishop’s flower)
Tagetes tenuifolia ‘Lemon Gem’ (marigold)
Cosmos bipinattus (cosmos)
Euphorbia marginata (snow-on-themountain)
Gypsophila elegans (gypsophila)
Lobularia maritima (sweet alyssum)
Myrrhis odorata (sweet cicely)
Nigella damascena (love-in-a-mist)
Silybum marianum (milk thistle)
Verbena bonariensis (tall verbena)

Anchusa azurea
Crambe cordifolia 
(white crambe)
Crambe maritima (sea kale)
Michauxia campanuloides
Myosotis scorpiodes

Adiantum pedatum (maidenhair fern)
Aruncus dioicus (goat’s beard)
Arabis spp. (rockcress)
Artemisia spp.
Boltonia asteroides (boltonia)
Brunnera spp.
Calamintha grandiflora ‘Variegata’ (variegated catmint)
Chaerophyllum hirsutum
Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonbeam’ (coreopsis)
Corydalis lutea (corydalis)
Dianthus spp. (pinks)
Dicentra spp. (bleeding heart)
Euphorbia corollata (wild spurge)
Foeniculum vulgare (fennel)
Galium odoratum (sweet woodruff)
Geranium sanguineum var. striatum (bloody cranesbill)
Gypsophila paniculata (baby’s breath)
Lamium spp. (dead nettle)
Lespedeza spp. (bush clover)
Limonium spp. (sea lavender)
Osmunda regalis (royal fern)
Perovskia spp. (Russian sage)

Grasses, shrubs, and trees
Acer palmatum
Caryopteris spp. (bluebeard)
Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ ( wedding cake tree)
Miscanthus sinensis (eulalia grass)
Stipa gigantea (needle grass)

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