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Here in the West, perennials ignore garden books.

Here in the West, perennials ignore garden books Instead of annuals that peter out after one season, many gardeners are turning to perennials that come back year after year.

Perennials give you endless diversity in color and texture, from the pattern of leaf and bloom from afar to the detail of flowers up close. They also give you a mental challenge--how to stage them most effectively. No matter how many years you grow perennials, there are more kinds to discover, new combinations to try.

In March, nurseries are beginning with plants, in 4-inch to gallon containers. Many are, or soon will be, in bloom, making it easier to choose and combine colors.

The Western difference

In the mild-winter West, perennials seldom behave the way most garden literature says they do. Instead of blooming once or twice a year, they tend to start earlier and continue later, often blooming in spurts three or four times a year, or sometimes almost continuously.

Instead of dying to the ground for many months each winter, many stay green all or most of the year.

Perennials that do best in cold-winter climates often dwindle away in our mild areas, exhausted by our never-ending growing season. But kinds that gardeners elsewhere must coddle through winter in greenhouses are often our most carefree and rambunctious bloomers.

Here and on the folowing pages, we show and discuss about two dozen perennials that are easy, long-season performers in the mild-winter West.

Choose your style--

easy-does-it or gung-ho

For picture-perfect results with minimum effort, stick with perennials that are ever-green (marked E in the list on page 230), and use them only in relatively small, simple groupings, such as the first three examples shown here.

Even if you have visions of re-creating the grand borders of Britain in your garden, these smaller projects are still a good place to begin. Consider them building blocks for greater things to come, advancing as your time, expertise, and budget allow. Whether you tend a single pot or a grand expanse, the secrets of success are similar.

Start small, from pots to small plots

Containers let you practice the art of creating grand borders in miniature. The bigger the pot, the more easily and evenly your plants will grow. A 25-inch-wide pot like the one pictured at upper left and on the cover costs $70 to $85; we squeezed eight gallon-can plants ($40 worth) into it. You can achieve similar results for much less by substituting a half-barrel (about $10) and planting it from 4-inch pots or sixpacks ($10 to $20). Even small plants of summer bloomers like these should fill out by June or July.

For the cover pot, we chose perennials that are particularly long blooming and prolific. Plants peaked and were cut back to about 6 inches three times from spring into fall; a few continued blooming into January.

In the ground, the most foolproof way to use perennials is to choose one to five that look good all or most of the year and plant them in a way that capitalizes on their growth and bloom habits. You can use a single plant, as was done with the campanula wall seat in the Klopps' garden on page 226, or combine several alternating clusters of three to five plants of one kind, as int he rainbow-like strip shown on page 227, at Mendocino Hill House Inn in Mendocino, California.

Low-growing evergreens such as these are also top candidates for defining the front edge of a full-size border, as in the pastel border on page 227, designed by Josephine Zeitlin for Valerie and Henry Grausz in Marin County, California.

Once flowers fade, you can shear these plants back to low tufts all at once--but large-flowered plants look better longer if you hand-pick dead flowers more often.

Work up to bigger things

You can use such small projects as the starting point for a full-fledged border. Start with a row or clump and make new addtions each season. Or plunk potted perennials into the ground after the first year's performance.

First plan the evergreens that will make up the backbone of your border, defining its shape year-round. They can be woody shrubs or soft-stemmed plants such as pelargoniums (commonly called geraniums) as in the border at left.

Group tallest plants toward the back, medium-height ones in the middle, and low growers along the front. Choose plants that thrive under the care and conditions you can give easily, clustering groups of at least three plants of the same kind. Space them 1 to 3 feet apart.

For professional-looking results, avoid using too many different colors. Most fool-proof and easiest to live with are combinations of closely related colors, such as the pink-to-purple hues used by designer Chris Rosmini in Ruth Borun's garden at left, or of soft pastels, such as those at the bottom of the preceding page.

Pale colors stand out at dusk and after dark. Blues augment the sense of fading light, becoming magical at twilight before they fade from view. Reds and magentas tend to be hard to combine. Our list on the next page emphasize perennials that tend to combine readily with each other as well as being easy-to-grow and prolific.

For beginners, it's easiest to plan a spring-through-summer border the deer-resistant one on page 227. When that area goes dormant in winter, use plants to shift attention elsewhere, or cover bare spots with fast, shallow-rooted annuals such as sweet alyssum. You can also bridge gaps by interplanting winter-flowering shrubs and early-spring bulbs.

As you become more knowledgeable, you can intersperse plants so that late-season performers spill over the early bloomers just as they go dormant.

An easy way to plug gaps in the bloom cycle and gain knowledge at the same time is to fill the dull spots as they occur. Haunt nurseries, gathering plants in bloom like a flower arranger, until you have a collection of flower colors and foliage textures you like.

How much work is it?

Since perennials grow prodigiously and stay put a long time, they need thorough soil preparation. Loosen soil at least 10 inches deep and work in quantities of soil conditioner. Water-loving perennials need lots of fertilizer; drought-tolerant ones (noted in list below) generally last longer with little or none.

When blooming is waning, a large border usually needs grooming every few days to look its best; a small clump can get by with grooming once a week.

Each winter, cut back straggly growth, mulch bare soil with organic materials such as well-rotted compost or manure, and dig up and divide plants that have become crowded or are out of place. Some plants grow so fast they benefit from digging and dividing every year; most continue vigorously for at least three years; some are virtually permanent. When a plant begins to grow and bloom less vigorously, it's time to divide. Fall is the best time; late winter or early spring will do.

Most mature perennials can be cut or pulled into several separate plants. Each time you dig them up, you can multiply your stock to plant a larger area or to share with friends.
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Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article
Publication:Sunset
Date:Mar 1, 1988
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