Planting Perennials

By Kristen Castillo

July 2, 2012 5 min read

Whether you're an experienced or a novice gardener, you probably love perennial flowers and plants. They're easy to care for, and their continuous growth means you'll enjoy their beauty for a long time.

*Advantages

"You buy it once, and hopefully you have it for years to come," says expert gardener Melinda Myers.

The term "perennial" means the plant or flower will last at least a few years, but many live a lot longer. Most perennials blossom in spring and summer and then grow dormant during the winter.

"They come back every year," says Roger Dutcher of Knox Nursery Inc., a young plant producer in Florida that ships to greenhouses all over the country.

Unlike annuals, which last one growing season, perennials give your garden long-term beauty without lots of work.

"With perennials, if you pick wisely, it's low-maintenance," says Myers, who mixes annuals in with her perennial garden for color and interest.

Another benefit of perennials is the chance to slowly fill in your garden. "You can spread out your work," says Myers.

If you buy perennials, you can color and size match as needed. But sometimes, perennials vary in the way they look.

"With a bed of perennials that you plant from seed, you'll see shades of yellow, but not the same color and height," says Dutcher.

*Start Small

While it can be tempting to tackle a large garden project, it's best to start small.

"Less is better," says Myers. "You can always add more. You may keep your favorites forever or trade out plants."

When choosing perennials, look for ones with seasonal changes, such as flowers, varying colors, good leaves year-round, texture and ornamental grass.

*Know Your Zone

"The big challenge is matching perennials with their environment," says Dutcher, who explains that perennials in Florida, for example, need to be able to survive and thrive in heat and humidity.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has created 11 zones in North America based on each region's climate. Learn your zone so you can choose plants that will do well in your area.

"Pick perennials suited to winter cold, summer heat, drought tolerance and plants that tend to thrive during normal rainfall," says Myers.

If you need inspiration about which perennials will prosper in your yard, ask your neighbors which ones work for them, and check in with the professionals at your local nursery or botanical garden.

"I'm a strong advocate that people use native plants," says Dutcher. "It's well worth looking at them for reliable perennials."

*Perfect Perennials

The Perennial Plant Association's perennial plant of the year is Brunnera macrophylla, known as "Jack Frost," which is shade-tolerant with baby blue flowers and silver leaves. It grows well in zones 3 through 8.

Myers suggests Amsonia hubrichtii, also known as Arkansas blue star, which she says is easy to grow in zones 4 through 9.

"It tolerates full sun, and it takes some shade," Myers explains. "It's got nice fine foliage, blue flowers in the spring, leaves in the summer and a glow in the fall."

She also suggests the geranium Rozanne. "It blooms all season long, and leaves look good all season," says Myers, noting that it's also drought-tolerant. "It has a nice red fall color."

*Prep and Care

Even though perennials tend to be low-maintenance, you still have some work to do.

Myers advises preparing your soil by adding compost and aged manure, as well as giving perennials "a good soaking" once a week to encourage the roots to grow deep.

Keep your perennial garden looking good with regular weeding.

"I do a lot of five- or 10-minute weeding," says Myers. "That five minutes every day adds up."

If you want, you can cut off old blooms, known as "deadheading."

"With most perennials, Mother Nature takes care of pruning," says Dutcher. "It cleans up on its own."

To get ready for a winter in a really cold climate, you can "mulch heavy," says Dutcher, who suggests using straw, hay or leaves in a tight mulch layer. "But as soon as it warms up before spring, you need to remove the heavy mulch," he explains.

You can even keep perennials inside. "Some people very successfully move perennials inside for protection from frigid temperatures," says Dutcher.

If you want to move a perennial from another place in your garden or to a new home, it's easier than you think.

"People shouldn't be too nervous about trying to transplant perennials," says Dutcher. "They tend to transplant pretty well."

Track your perennials' progress, too.

Myers advises gardeners to take notes and photos throughout the year as a reminder of when to prune.

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