The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

The Truth about Perpetually Pretty Perennials

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator
slmason@illinois.edu

Peonies, iris, and daylilies - plants found at abandoned farm houses and in old cemeteries. Plants that contine to grow and flower without regard to the presence of an adoring audience. Gardeners continue to fall in love with the amazing diversity of perennials that goes well beyond grandma's traditional flowers. Why are we so star-struck with perennials?

First by mere definition we don't have to plant them every year: perennials give us an encore performance. Well, at least in theory. Some such as peonies may live for decades others such as delphinium may be short-lived at five years or so. Perennials often die from our ignorance of and lack of adherence to the plant's basic needs of appropriate sunlight, moisture etc. which brings us to the second reason we like perennials.

Perennials are durable and survive a diversity of environmental conditions. At least some such as daylilies grow over a wide range of environmental conditions. Others such as delphinium and lupines have a narrow range, at least here in Illinois. There is also a difference between tolerating and thriving. Some plants may tolerate shade, but prefer sunnier conditions for best growth. In comparison if we are forced we may tolerate a room temperature of 55 degrees F, but it's not a temperature we would choose. In gardening we aim for thriving and not just surviving.

We can read books and study catalogs about perennials, but nothing takes the place of experience. Many years ago during my youthful phase of flower gardening I envisioned my flower gardens as a skillfully orchestrated symphony of flowers from early spring until after frost. I would wave my baton and the foxglove would be a crescendo of pink flowers with an accompaniment of percussive purple coneflower. I also reasoned that once my garden experienced a few years of "practice sessions", the symphonies would be basically the same from year to year. After all, I reasoned, I planted perennials. Each year I could just sit back and enjoy the music.

After a year or two of perennial flower gardening I realized sometimes the orchestra picks its own symphonies to play no matter how wildly I wave my baton. Sometimes it is more rap than rhapsody. And sometimes the violin section goes on strike and decides not to play this year because the winter was just too cold or their feet got too wet. Or the percussion section gets overbearing and takes over the whole movement.

Perennial flower gardens are continually changing as some plants succumb to winter injury, poor growing conditions and overcrowding. Sometimes our plant combinations play better together than we anticipated. Our best fulfillment in flower gardening comes when we enjoy all the changes – orchestrated and un-orchestrated.

A few tips for perennial success:

· Get to know your garden's high notes and low notes. Go beyond sun and shade. Understand the soil. And remember the lives of some plants will be sacrificed along the way.

· If a plant is struggling to live in one site, than move it. A Master Gardener once told me, "All my plants come with wheels. They can be moved."

· When selecting plants, consider leaf characteristics. Enjoy the leaves of perennials since they will play for a longer period than the flowers.

· Repeat plants throughout the landscape and plant in masses. You have progressed as a garden designer once you purchase plants in multiples of three.

· Beware of plants listed as "vigorous". It's plantspeak for "it may eat your garage".

· Add perennial shrubs to gardens. Many such as weigela and deutzia are available in small sizes.

· Do not overplant. Believe the labels as to size.

· For quick color include places in the design for annual flowers. Gardens are richer in tone with annuals and perennials.

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