Gardening with perennials can be a rewarding and enjoyable experience, especially with a little know-how. A basic understanding of perennials, their care, and needs, is usually all it takes to be a successful perennial gardener.
Perennials are plants that live more than two years. Many plants are perennials – including trees, shrubs, and bulbs. The commonly used word refers to perennial flowering plants that are herbaceous. Herbaceous means their stems are soft and fleshy, not woody like shrubs and trees. Herbaceous perennials survive varying degrees of winter cold by virtue of roots that are stronger and more vigorous than those of annuals and biennials. The term hardiness is often used to describe the ability of a perennial to withstand low winter temperatures. The terms hardy perennial and tender perennial were originally coined in England to identify plants that could or could not survive an English winter (equivalent to that of the American Northwest). Most perennials survive much colder winters. Whether or not a hardy perennial can withstand high summer temperatures, drought or poor soil depends on the species. Not all hardy perennials are heat tolerant.
There are many benefits to a perennial garden. The obvious one is that the plants will return season after season. Other benefits include fragrance and attraction to butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. Perennials are very diverse and come in just about every shape and size. They also have distinct flowering seasons so you can have a perennial blooming just about all year long if you plan your garden well.
Deciding where to put your perennial garden is very important. First, you must determine the point where the garden will most often be viewed. Next, are you interested in a formal or an informal garden? A formal garden is composed primarily of straight lines and classical symmetry; for example, the right side of the garden is matched, sometimes nearly perfectly to the left. An informal garden has a predominance of curved flowing lines and a seeming disregard for symmetry. Most perennial gardens are designed as either beds or borders. A perennial “bed” is a cultivated area surrounded by an open expanse, usually a grass lawn. Accessible from all sides, they can be easy to maintain, admit more sunlight and air circulation and can be viewed from all sides. Perennial “borders” are cultivated areas that bounds or borders an expanse, such as ringing the perimeter of a lawn and usually lies adjoining a walkway. This style allows more open space.
Once you have decided the type of garden design you prefer, you can begin to consider the plant material for the garden. If at all possible, a scale drawing of the area should be done. This will assist you to know exactly how many plants can be planted in a given area, depending on their size and habit. In a border planting, tall plants should be planted in the back with the shortest plants in front. In a bed planting, the tallest plants should be planted in the middle of the bed, because it is usually viewed from all sides. When grouping plants, consider planting in odd numbers, 3-5 of a kind. For more effect, try planting even larger groups.
When selecting perennials, choose the ones known to do well where you live and be careful of the “spreaders”. These seemingly nice plants may do very well but they also tend to take over the garden. Know the season of bloom. With perennials, you can have blooms all year round if you plan carefully. I believe the color choice is a personal preference. Know that cool colors (blues & mauves) do tend to recede visually while warm colors (reds & oranges) tend to advance. Don’t forget form and texture when making your decisions. They can play a big part in your garden’s overall appearance.
Once you have decided on the design and plants, it’s time to talk about the preparation of your new garden. Know your soil type. This is very important. The type of soil will help determine the watering and fertilization requirements. I always recommend adding as much organic matter as possible to our Sandhills soil. These sandy soils do not have much nutrient holding capacity, therefore, we try to add as much organic matter as we can. It is important to cultivate organic matter into the existing soil either by double digging or using power tillers. Once you have planted be sure to water-in the plants and apply a layer of mulch (at least 2-3 inches) on top of the bed. This will help reduce weeds and retain moisture.
Now you can sit back, relax and enjoy your new perennial garden. Well, you can, but there is still some aftercare associated with the new garden. Not limited to, but including the following: staking, dividing to control size, watering, fertilizing, deadheading, cutting back and the monitoring of pests and diseases. All this may seem like a lot of work but the outcome will be more than worth it.