The Sidewalk Border: A Herbaceous Report Card

About seven years ago I dug up an L shaped length of turf, with the longer section along the front sidewalk and the shorter one along the property line with the neighbors. The result was a border in almost full sun, 4-5′ wide and about 25′ long. The soil was rich and moist, even before I started adding organic matter.

A long view of the sidewalk bed.
A long view of the sidewalk bed.  Not at its most colorful, but gives you an idea. Our house is painted white.

I wanted something that passing neighbors would enjoy while walking past, that would have a cottage garden feel but not too wild. Over time I’ve made adjustments, adding and removing plants to see what worked best. Here’s a report cards on some of the plants that are or have been in this bed.

Salvia 'Blue Hill', Salvia 'May Night'
Salvia ‘Blue Hill’ and ‘May Night’

Plant: Salvia (Salvia xsylvestris ‘May Night’ and Salvia nemerosa ‘Blue Hill’). Grade: A-

After being inspired by the River of Salvia at the Lurie Garden, I pulled out the Geranium maculatum that I had originally planted and replaced it with Salvia. While not comparable to Lurie, they have done very well and have provoked admiring comments. Long blooming, good for pollinators. My only criticism is a tendency to sprawl. Next year I’ll try cutting them back to prevent this.

Plant: Bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana). Grade: A-


This is a lovely plant with star-shaped sky blue flowers in spring. Nice fine textured foliage. Only thing is, don’t underestimate how big it gets! I planted this one too close to the sidewalk, so I’m always struggling with staking and cutting back by the middle of the summer. Also, the fall color for me is not nearly as dramatic as advertised.

Plant: Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus). Grade: D

The seed heads, evocative of amber waves of grain, are nice. However, the plant is just too floppy, at least in rich soil. This guy is also an aggressive self-sower. I took it out after a few years and replaced it with Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’. I am happy with ‘Northwind’, which is very upright. However, since it is planted to the south of the Salvia, which is planted along the sidewalk, I am a little worried that it will eventually throw too much shade. (Note to Jean: sorry I advised you to plant this, I’d just get rid of it now.)

Smooth Penstemon
Smooth Penstemon

Plant: Smooth Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis). Grade: B+

This is planted between the clumps of ‘Northwind a’long the back of the border. Clusters of tubular white flowers on upright stems (though I usually have to do some staking). It’s fun to watch bees climb in and out of the flowers. ‘Husker Red’ has red/purple foliage and more pinkish flowers.

Golden Alexander
Golden Alexander

Plant: Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea). Grade: B+

Flat topped umbels of golden yellow flowers in late spring and early summer. A very easy plant that takes shade. May need to be cut back. Supposed to be a host plant for swallowtail butterflies but I have not seen any caterpillars to date.

Golden Alexander with Salvia
Golden Alexander with Salvia
Short's Aster
Short’s Aster

Plant: Short’s Aster (Symphiotrichum shortii). Grade: A-

Very floriferous light blue aster. Tall, mounded shape – responds well to cutting back. Does not need staking. Self-sows, but not obnoxious about it.

Monarda 'Raspberry Wine'
Monarda ‘Raspberry Wine’

Plant: Bee Balm (Monarda didyma ‘Raspberry Wine). Grade: B+

Striking raspberry red flowers in summer. Resistant to powdery mildew, but still got a mild case in this bed by late summer. For the back of the border. Great for hummingbirds and polinators.

Wild Bergamot
Wild Bergamot

Plant: Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). Grade: B

Wild Bergamot is more subdued than its cousin Beebalm, with smaller lavendar flowers. I find it quietly charming, however. It does tend to grow tall in my garden, up to 5′, and may need cutting back.

Plant: False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides). Grade: D

This plant could possibly earn an A in another location. Sunflower-like yellow flowers starting in June and lasting through the season. Only problem was that it was just too tall and bulky for a bed along the sidewalk – even with aggressive cutting back. Some neighbors feared that wild animals were hiding in its bushy inner depths. Heliopsis also tended to smother smaller neighbors. I ended up pulling them out and replacing them with the much more demure Penstemon.

Northern Sea Oats
Northern Sea Oats

Other plants in this bed: Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), Bluestem Goldenrod (Solidago caesia), Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum).

As you plan for the coming year, have you been giving grades to the plants in your garden?

47 Comments on “The Sidewalk Border: A Herbaceous Report Card

  1. You are such an organized and observant gardener. I’ve got more of a pass/fail system – If it lives it passes. However, this year, I’m going to get rid of a lot of Phytolacca americana which is interesting but likes to spring up everywhere.

    • I’m trying to become more ruthless, getting rid of plants that aren’t satisfying. I’m not familiar with Phytolacca is that a Pacific NW plant?

  2. I’m the same as Peter above. If it lives, it stays!

    Your Golden Alexander looks fantastic! Mine is teeny tiny, even 7-8 years after planting it.

    • Huh, I wonder why your GA would be small. Around here it is pretty robust and requires no particular care. Could you have very acid soil, maybe?

      • Acidic soil is possible. I’ve violated rule #1 and never had my soil tested, though my neighbor does treat her yard with lime. I’ve always just thought of my GA as a petite little thing.

  3. I like this idea of going through a garden space and making graded evaluations — I may do the same. Good way to “take stock”.

    Northwind panicum has been a great problem solver for me, and May Night salvia is everything you say it is. I’d give the same grades you did. And I love that delicate little aster.

    Nobody got a straight A grade! You’re tough.

  4. Oh wow! That’s amazing!! What a stunning border and yes, definitely something your neighbours or passers by must have ogled at! I’m really loving (everything of course) the bergamot and the bee balm. I love the smell of bergamot in my lotions but I don’t think I’ve ever seen or smelt the flower itself. The little aster is beautiful too and I just can’t wait to see what it looks like this year : ) What a truly awesome gardener you are dude!!

  5. In my yard, it’s the gardener that should be graded. When something fails, it is usually my fault. Fortunately, except for trees and large shrubs, most mistakes can be rectified. In your yard, the gardener gets an A!

    • It’s never really a question of fault, we gardeners just have incomplete info on how a plant will perform in the specific conditions of our gardens.

  6. Wow! Gorgeous! I’ll bet you get lots of people stopping and pointing at different plants – always a sign you are doing something right. No, I don’t grade my plants, but after years of making excuses for the under-performers and giving them just one chance, I am finally going to rip them out and toss them into the dust-bin of garden history.

    • I just came up with the idea of grades as a way to organize my post and make it pithier. I do think it’s better to dump plants that aren’t really performing.

  7. I like how you graded them, but no grade A’s? I think Salvia May Night and Blue Hill needs an A. Penstemon too. I have most of what you have planted and Raspberry Wine might only get a B from me. It is too aggressive although I love it for the hummers. You are lucky your neighbors like your garden, in my front yard I had a few that thought it pretty, but too different than everyone’s green carpet up and down the block.

    • I am lucky that my neighbors are very tolerant. Some of them are amazed I spend so much time on the garden, some love it, and others just shrug their shoulders.

  8. I’m impressed by the ratings. Sometimes it takes a few years of adjustments to get things right. I’m tough on herbaceous plants too. If it flops, it’s out. Salvia ‘May Night’ is such a winner for me though that I tolerate it’s somewhat lax habit. Have you tried Helenium in this garden? Seems like it might be a good fit.

    • I have not tried Helenium, but I would very much like to. You’re definitely right that it can take a few years to find out if a plant is really good for a certain spot.

  9. A very interesting exercise and one I should do myself. This is a great time of year to take stalk of things and determine what worked before buying any more plants.
    I have Blue Star and agree that it does get big. I must confess that I wish the flowers where a bit more dramatic. False Indigo looks great as a companion by the way.
    I have several varieties of Bee Balm, and like you, appreciate them for attracting hummingbirds. One of my favourites is a pink variety (maybe an idea for spring).
    I love the way you have mixed salvias. I think I may use your border as inspiration to add another color next to my dark blue variety.
    P.S. The link that you leave along with your comment on my blog takes me to your profile page, but no further. There is no link back to your own blog off that profile page. Could you please add a link to your blog? It would make returning your visits so much faster.
    Have a great weekend Jason!

    • Thanks for mentioning the problem about the link, I’ll try to figure that out! We do have False Indigo growing in another bed, but I can see it would go well with the Amsonia.

  10. I like that you are grading your plants…my new to me garden is still in the I’m not sure stage…there are definitely some plants I would like to turf, and others I would like more of. I just need some more time.


  11. I MUST plant Northern Sea Oats! I keep seeing them on other blogs, and they’re so interesting. Your wash of Salvia in various shades is a winner, too. How entertaining to have report cards for your plants.

    • Just know that Northern Sea Oats has two drawbacks: it can grow so tall that it needs staking, and it does self-sow. And the seedlings are stubborn little buggers.

  12. Very pretty! I am most impressed with your river of salvia! What a beautiful combination of blue and purple – I definitely need to try this in my own garden!

  13. I like your Golden Alexander. Our Alexander that I grow in York UK is Smyrnium and is biennial. Is zizia perennial? I wonder if it will grow over here.

    • Yes, Zizia aurea is perennial. I would think that it would grow well in most of the UK. It likes moisture but will tolerate dry soil. Also tolerates shade well.

  14. Jason, do you have any trouble with the sea oats? They can be quite aggressive, but some people love them. As for your other plants, I love nearly all of them, especially those with the A and B ratings. Great post, and your neighborhood is so lucky to have such a garden to see as they walk by.

    • Yes, I do have trouble with the sea oats. I have removed some from some of the other beds. But mostly I just work at controlling the aggressive self-seeding.

  15. I like the idea of grading your plants. Makes me think there should be a cut off at certain grades – if you fall below a C+ then you’re out! Also thanks for mentioning the mildew on the Monarda. I was just looking at this one on a nursery catalogue yesterday but have had big trouble will powdery mildew on other plants here.

  16. Not formally grading but not a bad idea…I think i will begin in a few beds and list the plants, when they bloom, whether they are native (important for me), growing conditions and a grade…it will probably help. Thanks!

  17. We have all the same plants!!! WOW! Try ‘Blue Ice’ amsonia instead of the larger one. It only grows to 16″ or so and is tough as nails. Ok – wait – I don’t have the rye grass or wild bergamot but I have every other plant you listed. Golden Alexanders aren’t a host food for swallowtails. I’ve read that, too, but they only go to plants in the carrot family such as dill, carrots, parsley and rue. I’ve never seen them on my Alexanders.

    • I have some Blue Ice in the backyard, but it is just one year old so I’m not sure how it will do. I thought Golden Alexander was in the carrot family. I do grow dill, fennel, and parsley for the STs and haven’t seen ST cats on them either.

  18. Hi Jason, that’s a lovely, generous front border. I have a tiny front garden where more than half the grass has been turned into planting space. I enjoy cramming it full of bold bright flowering plants and people do occasionally comment if I’m working in the front. Some people even take pictures, which is very flattering. One thing that I think would look nice in your border is to add height either with a rose or clematis obelisk or a stand of tall plants such as delphiniums or hollyhocks.

  19. I love your sidewalk border. I have been trying to cultivate something similar and fingers crossed this summer it will all come together. I just hope it looks as good as yours!

    • I think time is the one thing you really need, both for the plants to fill in and to figure out what works. But thank you so much for the compliment!

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