Using a matrix

by AnneWareham on May 31, 2013

Post image for Using a matrix

A matrix is  ” A situation or surrounding substance within which something else originates, develops, or is contained”. That’s one, above.

Now I know that the usual way of planting in the uk is to buy a plant, wander round with it in its pot, looking for a space where you can squeeze it in. Or garden designers and sophisticated types debate whether to plant in drifts, or clumps or multiples of uneven numbers..

Crescent border Veddw copyright Charles Hawes

Alchemilla mollis as matrix

But often  I have done something else. I either plant something vigorous, the kind of thing that garden writer describe as dangerous, or a ‘thug’. Or perhaps, I let the ground elder flourish – maybe  the variegated kind, because it works best for this system. Or – in the case above, I have Alchemilla mollis filling a whole border with some inserts. Those inserts have mostly been replaced now by blue geraniums.

2012-07-21 19.37.23 Crescent border alchemilla, campanula and geranium

Geranium in the Alchemilla matrix with great addition of Campanula lactiflora

Then I plant robust, vigorous plants into this weed or thug plant, after it has had a good chance to spread and establish. And then I call the weed or thug a ‘matrix.’ It makes all the difference, to have a name and a theory.  I have now become theoretical. Impressed? Hope so.

The result is that other weeds have a hard time and we have a solid, attractive background for the planting. Creates a kind of unity. I have also used the original grassland at Veddw in the same way, instead of digging it all up and destroying the history and the eco system. Plant into it, let things fight it out.

Wild Garden, late summer, Veddw, copyright Charles Hawes

Crocosmia flourishing in old grassland with the grassland ‘weeds’.

At Chelsea I noticed that other people were doing something similar. See (apologies for poor picture) –

Chelsea 2013 using matrix Tony Smith wheelbarrow garden copyright Anne Wareham

Use of a matrix – Tony Smith’s wheelbarrow garden, Chelsea 2013

There are plants, and wheelbarrows, growing out of a ground cover of some kind. This also draws attention to another aspect of this planting method – it lends itself to using and creating pattern. Not fashionable but has the great characteristic of helping to create order and please the eye.

It also offers the possibility of showing off the form of a plant (think of the grace of a tulip) – something we never usually get to appreciate.

I know that everyone but me is supposed to have a small garden and no room really for anything, but if there should chance to be someone out there struggling with a huge space which they are trying to turn into a garden, it’s a good tip.

I ought to give it a name and write a book about it. Do a Chelsea garden. Or something like that..

Anne Wareham

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Helen May 31, 2013 at 5:26 pm

I am using Alchemilla mollis a bit like that in the front garden. It is strange how people are sniffy about it but I think that it provide a wonderful background to other plants and as you say covers the ground

AnneWareham May 31, 2013 at 5:38 pm

It’s very beautiful too. And looks good for five or six months apart from just after flowering, when I cut it down to the ground. It’s back in a week…

Nigel Dunnett May 31, 2013 at 6:52 pm

The book has already been written! See Peter Thompson’s ‘The Self-Sustaining Garden: the guide to matrix planting’ first published in 1997.

AnneWareham May 31, 2013 at 9:22 pm

You are right – I believe I read it then too! So that’s where it came from. There’s one for the reviews of classic garden books on thinkingardens, I think. Thanks for reminding me. (here it is on Amazon –

william martin June 22, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Only one book allowed on the subject?

amy June 1, 2013 at 12:29 am

I am a fan of alchemilla mollis and have used it as a border around a native shrub area. In between the shrubs and the alchemilla I have planted other vigorous plants, Mayapple/Podophyllum peltatum, Anemone canadensis, and st john’s wort/Hypericum perforatum. It is a very good way to cover an imposing space, with the added benefit of being pretty.

AnneWareham June 1, 2013 at 8:31 am

Maybe the garden world falls into alchemilla fans and the ….others.

Pam Ruch June 1, 2013 at 1:47 am

I think this falls into the “don’t try this at home” category.

AnneWareham June 1, 2013 at 8:32 am

May depend what you want to achieve?

william martin June 22, 2013 at 12:13 pm

That sounds like a ‘kill-joy’ comment…

Tristan Gregory June 1, 2013 at 7:36 am

I agree wholeheartedly that a matrix is the very best way to turn a border of perenials into a cohesive design. My preference is for the self seeders though so its Aquilegia at the moment, use interesting ones though and not those mean little bonnet things that shrink into those miserable little buttons. Then Echium lusitanicum, Sisyrinchium striatum, verbascum chaixii album etc. The seeding perenials mean that the seasons are marked with particular waves of particular plants and extend the season of impact not just of interest.

On a slightly related note now that so much is conspiring against hedging shrubs perhaps it is time to start thinking about herbaceous hedging. I am particularly pleased with a Phlomis russeliana hedge/wisteria fence combination.

AnneWareham June 1, 2013 at 8:30 am

Good ideas but less helpful (self seeding) when you mulch as much as i do. The only annual that self seeds with me may be Cleavers….

Desert Dweller/David C. June 4, 2013 at 12:53 am

Interesting take on this topic, that I didn’t realize I was pursuing. Saw a program by a design team on using a matrix, except theirs was the entire plant association, not just smaller plants to knit the groundplane…it was even trees. I like your method of thug plants to cover large areas, with other plantings. A good re-read for later!

The UK way of planting is funny – just like some here do.

AnneWareham June 7, 2013 at 10:44 pm

I’m intrigued by your programme – wondering how that worked..

bernhard June 15, 2013 at 10:18 pm

This planting technique (didn’t know the proper name) does ring a bell with me, too. Actually it makes beautifying sense to fill/create spaces like that and have at the same time a vivid and changing effect. And who on earth could not adore lady’s mantle, and its ability to hold dew drops and its own for such a long time? And this either in fertile loam against grass or in driest stone gaps.

At the moment I still go with Tristan (not mulching) since this enables me to “harvest” more seedlings to use elsewhere, even though this could mean initially more work. Other “thugs” I could recommend are vinca minor (or major if you dare), woodruff, wild strawberries, hellebores foetidus and to an extend with caution centaurea montana. The latter flowered up to 4 times with me last year after pruning it back. (

And just being curious Anne: Have you ever (re)planted ground elder or just left /not restricted it?

AnneWareham June 15, 2013 at 11:01 pm

Thanks for these recommendations, some of which I do use. Does that suggest a limited range of possibilities or just that we haven’t experimented enough, I wonder?
Have only ever left (and sometimes restricted!)ground elder, though I have added the variegated version.

bernhard June 22, 2013 at 2:09 pm

Sometimes, I suppose, we are rather forced to experiment or witness surprising effects after they have “overtaken us”. And I have to modify myself a little: Playing with weeds is certainly an optimistic euphemism, they are playing with us or just their game.

And I have to thank you. You have encouraged me to attack the cleavers at last in an area I had left to itself. It was a pleasant relief (for the time being).

AnneWareham June 22, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Well, all our plants ‘play’ with us – as long as they survive..

Now cleavers – keep pulling it but do wonder if it profits to wait until it has toughened up a little? At the moment it breaks off, to regrow. With a tougher stem it might come out whole…?

william martin June 20, 2013 at 11:02 pm

So that’s what I have been doing for a quarter of a century…..I AM THE MATRIX…koo koo ka choo!

william martin June 20, 2013 at 11:09 pm

Not quite sure if i am a ‘substance OR a situation’…..I too collaborate with many thugs and count some of them as my very best friends…not a sniffy in sight/site/spite.