Longwood Idea Garden – Use Annuals Like Perennials in Design for Impact


I never thought I would see a good example of using exclusively annuals like one would use perennials in border design. When I first looked at the trial garden beds, the view “read” perennial. Upon closer inspection, the beds were filled with drifts of many tall annuals. It read differently because of the height of the plants and how the plants worked so seamlessly together.

Additionally, the trial gardens were neighboring the Idea Garden, showing innovative pairings of plant varieties that could be used reliably in gardens in the Eastern Pennsylvania area. They used selections for beds of annuals, perennials, vegetables, and small fruit to provide inspiration for the viewer. The 5 acre Idea Garden was formally the vegetable garden for the estate. Check out the images and see what could work for you!


The trials help determine plant combinations for the main display beds. I found this somewhat surprising considering the care of planting and design using color, texture and massing. Longwood staff does research and plant evaluation processes putting the newer variety annuals to the test. All are evaluated every two weeks to see if they cut the mustard for future display.

This garden was formally dedicated to groundcovers, vines, ornamental grasses, and roses.


I viewed the gardens as a final vignette, or finished border. On this trip I was asked what we could learn from this and I offered substituting the annuals with similar color, size and texture of perennials.

The average gardener could not replicate these costly designs because many plants are raised to almost maturity in the winter greenhouses, then planted outside full and healthy. Where one might plant Coleus or Caladium, Heuchera or bright Hosta would be a nice substitution, or just use the easy to find, inexpensive tender annuals, but start them early indoors.


Tropical big leaved Colacasia, Alocasia, 7-foot cannas and banana just need big leaved perennials to give that feel of the tropics. Gunnera, Verbascum, Rodgersia, Crambe, Darmera peltata, Hosta, Ligularia, Mayapple, Brunnera, Petasites japonicus, are all hardy plants with large leaves. I can’t think of any with the height and elongated form of banana or Elephant Ears, but these choices are great for substitution.

The flowers are a bit easier to find plants of similar qualities, even tall varieties. Some include Agastache, Asclepias, Bear Breeches, Monkshead, Japanese Anemone, Cardoon, Asters, Delphinium, Foxglove, Globe Thistle, Sea Holly, and of course, self-seeding annuals like Cleome, Cosmos, Verbena bonariensis (7b), Tithonia (8b), and more. The list of tall flowers is long.

Many hardy grasses can be used as well. Cyperus papyrus ‘King Tut’ (zone 9-10) is shown in these beds and is a tropical tall sedge. Cortaderia selloana ‘Pampas Grass’ also has showy flowers and may be hardy in zone 7 with a heavy mulch. Other Erianthus are hardy to zone 4, just a bit aggressive in the garden.


Silver leaves are not a hard substitution either, but substitution for pointy, leathery or sharp succulents takes a bit of thought. Yucca or Prickly Pear are plants used in our region. Take a look through the gallery images and add your hardy design substitutions. Like I mentioned to folks on the trip, cold region gardens have quite a few similar choices.


See the Lily Pools at Longwood Gardens on Nature and Wildlife Pics. So beautiful in August.


About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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17 Responses to Longwood Idea Garden – Use Annuals Like Perennials in Design for Impact

  1. arlene says:

    Love your photos Donna, so pleasing to my tired eyes. And what a wonderful grouping of those lovely plants.

  2. A.M.B. says:

    Longwood gardens is such a lovely place! We go there often.

  3. Longwood is looking beautiful as usual. I need to get over there when i return home and see the combinations you show and go to the new nightscape exhibit.

  4. Loretta says:

    Ahh, you were a 15 minute drive from me Donna. Love Longwood Gardens, and what a good observation you’ve made. I wonder if you will incorporate that idea into your own garden? The pictures as always are bright, bold and brilliant, with the Mennonite ladies interspersed in some of your photos 🙂

  5. I like your suggestions. I know I need to get more tall plants in my garden.

  6. Interesting, I always find new ideas in your posts that I can try myself in my garden…Love the photos.

  7. bittster says:

    Thanks for the pictures, I almost stopped in there a few weeks ago and now I’m regretting skipping!
    I’m not all that crazy about bedding on such a large scale but you do get ideas for new plants and combinations and I love seeing everything growing and exploding at this time of year! My favorite is the verbena mixed in with the grass and Emilia maybe? I saw something similar at chanticleer a few years ago and loved it there as well.

  8. mary lou mcguire says:

    Just back from a couple of days at Mohonk Mountain House in New Palz NY…they have fabulous, themed, mixed annual and perennial gardens..and an 80 year history of “garden weeks!”

  9. Love that swath of bright red in the last picture. I might get a chance to see Longwood in October – think it is worth seeing that late in the season?

  10. Beautiful photos! You have highlighted some fine examples of plant combinations, thank you.

  11. debsgarden says:

    Oh my, such wonderful drifts of flowers! Your photos made me happy; I wish I could have been there. The ladies in the purple dresses were nice accents to the garden!

  12. rogerbrook says:

    A very distinctive style Donna. I love it.
    Almost every garden is different – I think this is one of the fascinations of gardening

  13. Great examples, Donna! I need to get to Longwood one of these days.

  14. Alisha says:

    interesting post as usual..love your photos..feeling refreshed and energize ..thank you so much Donna ..

  15. Thank you so much for sharing this Donna. I am hoping to visit Longwood this fall while in Pennsylvania and now am really longing to go! Your captures of the gardens are wonderful!

  16. These are great examples of how we can use annuals more which I should do. Love the Amish ladies in some of the pics enjoying the gardens. Still have not visited this wonderful spot yet.

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