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For 1989 bloom, plant these perennials now.

You can't wait until spring if you want good bloom at a low price from these popular perennials the first year you grow them. Planted from sixpacks now in mildwinter areas, they are one of the bargains of the season. For $5 to $10, you can buy enough seedlings of any of them to plant an area 3 by 10 feet. By spring, you should have robust clumps of foliage and ample bloom.

Delay planting until after winter rains in warm climates and the same display will cost you $75 to $150. For reliable bloom then, you must buy these plants in 4-inch or 1 -gallon containers; smaller ones don't have time to reach bloom size before warm weather.

Give them plenty of space

With good soil and care, young seedlings expand fast, and even experienced gardeners find it hard to leave enough space for growth. If you don't give your plants plenty of room now, they'll be choking each other by midsummer.

From sixpacks, plant perennial alyssum, coral bells, candytuft, and columbine at least a foot apart; foxgloves 2 to 3 feet apart. All should close ranks in six to nine months.

In 18 months, our plants in the smaller group were 15 to 18 inches wide and crowded; if you start with bigger plants, space them even farther apart. Meanwhile, camouflage bare ground between them with a good-looking mulch such as decorative bark, peat moss, or aged redwood sawdust; it will also keep soil loose and off the foliage.

Choose a site that will get appropriate light all year: near the coast, full sun or bright shade; inland, morning sun and filtered midday light. Loosen and amend soil a full spade's depth (10 to 12 inches), adding quantities of compost or similar soil amendments as needed to prepare a rich, well-drained soil. Fertilize lightly, and water as needed between winter rains.

For good looks almost all year

The following three spring bloomers are particularly good values. Unlike many perennials, their foliage is almost always neat and good-looking in mild-winter climates. Compact and fine-textured, they won't crowd small gardens. They need little grooming other than clipping back after bloom and removal of old leaves.

Perennial alyssum (Aurinia saxatilis, often sold as Alyssum saxatile). Groundhugging mats of gray-green leaves are covered with a froth of gold flowers in spring, sometimes repeated in fall. 'Gold Dust' (12 to 15 inches tall) and 'Compacta' (8 inches tall) are common in nurseries; 'Silver Queen', about 8 inches tall, with pale yellow flowers, is available by mail from perennial specialists and in larger containers at some nurseries. Alternating clumps of the two colors make a handsome border.

Coral bells (Heuchera sanguinea). Marbled leaves with scalloped edges form neat tufts that stay green if moist enough in summer and warm enough in winter. In spring, airy 1 - to 2-foot-tall sprigs of coral red flowers rise above the leaves. Other colors, from white to various shades of pink, are available from specialists.

Evergreen candytuft (Iberis sempervirens). Thick mounds of dark green can spread 1 1/2 to 3 feet wide in time. In mildwinter climates, plants often bloom in winter and continue until May or June, almost covering foliage with clean white

flowers. Named varieties tend to be lower and more compact. Most wide-spread are 'Purity' and 'Snowflake', about 6 to 12 inches tall.

For long seasonal interest These two bloom heavily in spring, and often again in summer or fall. Their foliage is attractive half to three-quarters of the year, completely dormant in winter.

Columbine (Aquilegia). A favorite in dappled woodlands, its light green lacy foliage is the texture of a large-leafed maidenhair fern. Leafy stems 2 to 4 feet tall produce long-spurred flowers in pastel shades of cream, yellow, blue, purple, pink, and rose. Cut off seed heads for repeated bloom from spring into summer. As weather gets hot, leave some pods if you want plants to self-sow; in hot climates, plants live only one to three years. Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea). Broad, rumply-textured leaves soon expand into a thick clump 2 to 3 feet wide. In mid- to late spring, speckled flowers appear. For the classic 5-foot spires of white to purplish bells, choose 'Giant Excelsior' mix; for more easily managed plants that don't need staking, look for 'Foxy', a 3 -footer in mixed colors.

When flowers finish, cut back the main spike to encourage secondary bloom. In hot weather, foliage looks ratty; you have three choices to deal with it. Cut it to the ground and hope plants rejuvenate to bloom again when weather cools, wait until seeds mature (they volunteer freely), or pull plants as if they were annuals.
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Publication:Sunset
Date:Oct 1, 1988
Words:777
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