Perennial Winners and Losers in the Sidewalk Border

The Sidewalk Border was the second border that I added to the garden. We moved into our house in July, 2003. Next day I went to work on the Driveway Border. The following spring I started digging up turf along the sidewalk for the Sidewalk Border.


This border has fairly moist soil, as water drains down from the house towards the sidewalk, and enjoys almost full sun. The soil is rich and loamy.

The plant mix in this border has changed substantially over the years. Some of the changes were mine, others were made by the plants themselves. Here’s an overview.


Blue Star (Amsonia tabernaemontana). Anchors the west end of the border. A slow and steady grower that forms a massive clump.

Rose Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). A tall Milkweed that seems to hold its own with the Monardas.

Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium). A constant struggle to keep this grass from seeding itself all over, but oh those dangling seed heads!

sidewalk border
Sidewalk border, 2012. You can see my little Puddle of Salvia along the sidewalk.

Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum). Short and neat, I planted it in the front of the border along the sidewalk. Then I tried to repeal and replace it with various Salvias. The Geraniums chuckled at my presumption and grew right back from whatever bits and pieces of rhizome remained. They were perfectly happy in the shade cast by the Switchgrass, Monardas, and other taller plants.

Bee Balm ‘Raspberry Wine’ (Monarda didyma). I planted a couple of these guys on a whim and now they almost dominate the look of this border for most of the summer.

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). Not as aggressive as Bee Balm, but can hold its own. The lavender blue flowers are a good contrast for ‘Raspberry Wine’.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). Over time it made huge clumps at the back of the border. Early this year I divided two of those clumps for the first time. As the Switchgrass expands it tends to squeeze out smaller plants, but more on that below.

Summer is really the peak season for the Sidewalk Border.

Brown-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba). Showed up here without an invitation, but that’s OK. Always disappearing, then popping up somewhere new.

Celandine Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum). Shares the front of the border with the Wild Geranium.

2014-08-09 17.53.05 path between island bed and sidewalk border
The back of the Sidewalk Border faces north, towards the house and the front lawn.

Short’s Aster (Symphyotrichum shortii). A plant that takes care of itself, and provides a multitude of light blue flowers in fall.


Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). Love this plant, but it just doesn’t want to grow here. Can’t handle the tall competitors, plus maybe too much moisture. Fortunately, it grows well in the Driveway Border.

Sidewalk Border in April, with Wild Geranium and Blue Star in flower.

Smooth Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis). I have both the species and ‘Husker’s Red’. Initially it did well planted between clumps of Switchgrass. However, the Penstemon had to be transplanted as the expanding Switchgrass threatened to squeeze them out.

Early Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides). I just didn’t love this plant enough to justify the time needed to control its self-sowing. I thought the flowers were too coarse and stiff. Actually, I’m still pulling out Early Sunflower seedlings from this border.

Salvias, various (Salvia sylvestris ‘May Night’ and others). So I was inspired by the Lurie Garden’s River of Salvia and thought I could come up with a miniature version, a sort of Puddle of Salvia. Unfortunately, the Salvias struggled in the shade cast by taller neighbors. I ended up transplanting them, mostly to the Parkway Bed.

2014-10-05 14.06.25 sidewalk border
Sidewalk Border in September. Note the Short’s Aster and Switchgrass seed heads.

Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea). Golden Alexander prospered in the Sidewalk Border for the first few years, but eventually it was squeezed out by the Monardas. It continues to do well elsewhere, in spots where the competition is less intense.


Last year I planted a number of ‘Casa Blanca’ and ‘Conca d’Or’ Lilies. They bloomed nicely this year, and we’ll see if they make themselves at home. I also planted a Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa). It’s been settling in, but didn’t bloom this year. We’ll see how it does.


I’d like to add some blue to all the mid-summer red and pink in this border. Possibly some Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata). Also, in late summer the Wild Geranium tends to die back a bit, making the front of the border look a little sparse. I was thinking of providing some late season fullness and color by interplanting some Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andewsii) among the Wild Geranium.

The Sidewalk Border gave me an object lesson on companion plantings. Now when I think about combining plants, I try to anticipate which plants will shade or squeeze out the others over time. Smaller plants need to be shade-tolerant or carefully placed facing west or south so that they get adequate sun. They also need to be stubborn. Some plants just have a limited tolerance for competition.

That’s all for now.

36 Comments on “Perennial Winners and Losers in the Sidewalk Border”

  1. That border sounds like a dream. There is not patch land in my yard that remotely resembles what you have described. Sigh. But we must work with what we have, as I have learned the hard way. šŸ˜‰

  2. It’s really interesting that your exuberant and beautiful sidewalk border appears to be between two regular front lawns. I’m imagining you smiling to yourself as your neighbours busily mow their plain old lawns while you admire your plants. It was a bold, generous and inspired decision to plant it like this and I’m sure passers-by appreciate it. Your plantings work so well together and it’s fascinating to read how it all came about. Thank you for telling us all about it!

  3. Wow – you started the driveway border the day after you moved it – now THAT’s hard core (as the young folk say šŸ˜‰ I think I fret way too much when it comes to making selections for the garden, thinking I’ll make a “wrong” choice, when in the end, there really is no wrong choice, just choice (although I always check to see how “invasive” something is – I have way too many of those types in my garden already!)

    Question about the Switchgrass – I’m considering including the variety ‘Cloud Nine’ at the back of the west border where I need height & descriptions indicate to give this variety 4-6′ width spacing. When you say that the Switchgrass squeezes out other plants do you mean that it continues to expand beyond what the catalogues indicate? Would I need to give this guy more space than 6′?

    • No, I don’t think you need more than 6 feet. What I was referring to was how the Switchgrass casts a rather dense shade on smaller plants right around it (unless they are south or west). Also, after 10 plus years my Switchgrass showed signs of needing division – dead center, more flopping, etc.

  4. “The geraniums chuckled at my presumption…”

    Jason, you’re too funny! šŸ™‚

    And totally agree with you on the Heliopsis helianthoides. Too coarse and too large (can get 5-feet tall and floppy here without cutbacks and can grow 3-feet even with multiple cutbacks), but the dealbreaker is the rampant self-sowing. I let three of them go to seed last year and now I have hundreds of seedlings in one of my flowerbeds and even little false sunflowers can be a bear to pull.

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