Perennial Garden Basics
by Tim Hallinan
Perennials are any plants which live for more than two seasons and produce stems which die back to the ground each fall. They're at the heart of most flower gardens and offer wide ranging benefits to the landscape gardener. Perennials are treasured for their ability to flower, spread and multiply year after year. They're also noted for their form, texture, vibrant color and their ability to attract birds and other wildlife to the garden. Perennials can stand on their own in the landscape but can be complimented by a few well placed annuals. While perennials are easy to grow, there are a few basic maintenance guidelines to follow which will help your garden flourish.
In the spring, the first task is an obvious one; remove any debris which has collected over the winter. After that, cut back to the ground any plants which were left standing the previous fall. When cleaning out the garden tread lightly and rake lightly. You don't want to disturb any new shoots. Once the garden is cleaned out, look around the garden to see if there are any empty spaces. If there are, you may want to add a few new plants. Ideally, the perennial bed should bloom from spring through the fall, so if the garden in September seems a bit sparse add late season bloomers such as autumn sedum joy, chrysanthemums or asters. Another way to add color in the garden is to plant annuals in the spring. Though they last only one year, annuals bloom all season long.
Fertilizing with a general slow release garden fertilizer and adding lime to the garden early in the season will get the plants off to a healthy start and feed them throughout the entire season. Each spring spread compost throughout the perennial garden to improve soil consistency.
In the summer the main task is deadheading, the process of clipping off spent blooms. This won't encourage continuous blooms in perennials but will keep the garden looking fresh all season. With annuals, however, deadheading will encourage continuous blooms all season. Cultivating the garden soil is another task which should occasionally be through the summer. Cultivating keeps weeds from taking hold in the garden and it loosens up the soil allowing water and nutrients to reach the plant's deepest roots.
Towards mid-summer the taller plants may begin to lean or fall as they become top heavy. This often occurs most noticeably after a rain shower. Staking the plants is important and keeps them from falling into one another thus reducing the chances of mold and disease.
Continuing with the above tasks is important though the fall months as well. Late in the season, however, perennials will begin to fade and eventually their foliage dies back to the ground. The roots are still alive but the above ground part of the plant is done for the season. Cutting back the plants that have gone by is generally done for aesthetic reasons. It can be done in the spring but I recommend this task for the fall as there are a lot of other things to do in the spring.
Dividing perennials is easily the best way to increase your plant stock. A few years after you've planted a perennial you'll probably notice that it begins to outgrow its allotted spot. Dividing large perennials into smaller plants will solve the problem of overcrowding in the garden while giving you new plants to add to other gardens. In the fall when the plants are beginning to die back prepare new planting areas somewhere on your property. If you don't have any space for new plants, give some away to your friends. Simply dig the perennial you intend to divide out of the ground making sure to preserve as much of the root system as possible. Take a spade or a garden edger and chop or divide the plant in half. Remove any foliage which may have been severed. Replace the perennial back in the ground and back fill with a mix of compost and existing soil. You'll need some extra soil to fill in properly. Some of the easiest perennials to divide are daylilies, hosta, iris and sedum.
Perennials are adaptable to a variety of landscape conditions. Most can survive a few hours of shade each day, but there are those which will require full sun and those which will thrive in the shade. Study the conditions of your own garden and have a plan or list in hand before you head out to the greenhouse. Once planted, the perennials you choose will provide years of gardening enjoyment
Early Blooming Perennials: Iris, poppy, aneome, primrose, lily of the valley, coral bell, Solomon's seal, leopard's bane, foam flower, lungwort, globe flower, epimedium, bleeding heart, speedwell
Mid Season Blooming Perennials: daisy, dianthus, hardy geranium, saliva, campanula, delphinium, coreopsis, daylily, hollyhock, yarrow, lady's mantle, phlox, bee balm, catmint, goat's beard, astilbe
Late Season Blooming Perennials: Aster, black-eyed Susan, chrysanthemums, michaelmas daisy, lilyturf, monkshood, cardinal flower, sedum "autumn joy", goldenrod, hosta, globe thistle
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