Perennials 101

By National Gardening Association Editors

Over the past 200 years, perennials have gone in and out of fashion several times. Owing to a fairly recent revival of the casual "cottage garden" look, perennials are more popular with today's home gardeners than they ever have been. Given their popularity, dozens--maybe hundreds--of books, not to mention countless magazine and newspaper articles, have been written on the subject of gardening with perennials. Combine all the publicity with the fact that the home gardener now has a greater selection of perennial plants than has ever been available in the past and it all adds up to a somewhat larger-than-life situation. As one gardener recently exclaimed, "gardening with perennials can be so intimidating!"

One of the reasons many home gardeners find perennials intimidating is the enduring legacy of the traditional English perennial border. At the height of their fashion during the early 20th century, it wasn't unusual for an English perennial border to be sixty or more feet in length and twelve feet deep. Add to their enormous size the dictate that, with the exception of winter, there be something in bloom every season of the year--preferably in waves of complementary colors and contrasting flower forms. You can see how the prospect of establishing a garden of perennials could become rather daunting.

Fortunately, a much freer approach with perennials has begun to take hold in our imaginations. Perennials can be planted among shrub borders or in containers. Annuals and perennials can be combined to delightful effect. And if you really must, there's always the perennial border, scaled down to reflect contemporary restraints of time and resources.

For the record, unlike annuals, which complete their life cycle in a year or less, perennials are long-lived plants, many of which are "herbaceous," meaning that during cold winter weather, they die completely to the ground, returning with new growth from the roots the following spring.

The Basics

The world of perennial plants is so large and diverse, it really pays to take your time and familiarize yourself with as many of your choices as possible before planting. If possible, visit local gardens that feature perennials to get a good idea of what is particularly well-suited to your region and to get "up close and personal" with the plants while they are in bloom. Home gardeners and perennials make a long-term commitment to one another, so a little extra care, both before and after you plant them, will pay off in the long run.

Although some perennials are remarkably tolerant of a wide variety of soils, you'll always get better results if you plant them in a well-drained, loose, loamy soil. If your soil is heavy (or exceptionally sandy), add two or three inches of organic soil amendment (such as compost, ground bark, or peat moss) before planting, and cultivate the soil to a depth of six inches or more, incorporating the organic amendment as you turn the soil.

There are two primary planting seasons for perennials: spring and fall. Many aficionados favor fall (as a further inducement, many nurseries put perennials on sale in fall). Perennials are widely available from both local nurseries and garden centers and a burgeoning number of mail-order catalogs. During the late winter months, perennials are available in bare-root form (dug directly from the growing fields with their bare roots usually wrapped in plastic for shipping) or container-grown in a variety of sizes, from 2-inch pots to 1- and 2-gallon containers. Obviously, the larger the container, the larger (and older) the plant. Container-grown plants should be vigorous, with plenty of new, lush shoots coming from the rootball. A few roots showing through the drainage holes are okay, but avoid seriously rootbound specimens whose roots practically fill the container and choke the drainage holes.

Although it is possible to grow perennials from seed, few gardeners have the patience, as it takes several years for seed-grown specimens to mature and bloom. If you have patience, starting perennials from seed is an extremely inexpensive way to enjoy the glories of perennials. Just be sure to follow the directions on the back of seed packet.

If you're planting perennials from containers, remove each plant gently, keeping its rootball intact. Plant the transplants at the same depth as they were in their nursery containers, pressing the soil gently around them with the palms of your hands. Bare-root perennials are usually sold with some kind of moist packing medium surrounding their roots. Don't keep bare-root plants waiting! Plant them as soon as you get them home. Remove the packing medium and soak the roots in tepid water for about an hour before planting. Position the bare-root plants so the crown of the rootball is right at soil level. Fill the hole and firm it around the roots. If possible, plant on a cloudy day, or in the early evening, to keep wilting to a minimum. And always give newly planted perennials a good drink of water to settle the soil and refresh their spirits.

During the first growing season, it is important to keep your perennials consistently watered. The soil can be allowed to dry out slightly between waterings, but it should never be overly dry or wet. And to keep diseases to a minimum, water the soil without wetting the foliage.

Contrary to popular opinion, most perennials are not heavy-feeders. Too much fertilizer may, in fact, cause some perennials to produce extra-long, floppy growth. Most perennial gardeners find a single application of fertilizer in spring (after the weather and soil has warmed), provides sufficient nutrients for the entire growing season. Use a complete fertilizer (such as a 10-10-10 formulation).

If you're out in your garden of annuals on a daily basis, it's easy to keep a sharp eye out for any potential damagers, like pests and diseases. Bear in mind that the most valuable phrase regarding healthy plants is, "at the first sign of attack." If you apply a control in the earliest stages of infection, the amount and strength of any insecticide or fungicide needed will be minimal. Once a pest or disease has really taken hold, stronger methods and controls will be needed.

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