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What can you expect from sixpack perennials?

Buying sixpacks is one of the most economical ways to get started with perennials; six plants cost about half the price of a single one in a gation can.

The little seedlings look puny when you plant. But in rich, warm soil they can mushroom to over a foot across in three months, so don't skimp on space; put plants 15 inches to 2 feet apart.

Which ones perform best in mild climates? To find out, we bought 18 kinds nurseries commonly sell in sixpacks. We started six plants of each in March, a duplicate group in June. The most robust grew equally well planted early or late, but March-planted ones were in full bloom by June, while June-planted ones took until September. Less robust ones planted in March were more likely to bloom in the first year than June-planted ones, but timing had no effect on their survival rate.

Few gardeners have time for constant puttering, so these plants got the bare minimum. We hired help to rotary-till and amend soil, shape beds, and install a drip system on an automatic timer. To control weeds, we covered the soil with black plastic. Then we poked in the perennials. We cut flowers for bouquets and removed faded ones if we had time. We used no pest control. Despite such benign neglect, all 12 seedlings (two sets of 6) of the eight winners survived and bloomed their heads off for at least two years. Check the Sunset Western Garden Book to see which are best suited to your climate.

Eight winners: easy and prolific

Dusty miller (Centaurea cineraria). Its silvery leaves stayed fresh-looking all summer and through winter, despite periodic rains and light frosts. In colder, wetter climates inland, it may look shabby in winter. Yellow flowers look muddy against silvery foliage, but they're easy to snip off. In the white-felted bud stage, they make a striking addition to bouquets. Shasta daisy (Chrysanthemum maximum). Clean white flowers on 2- to 3-foot stems mix well with anything, indoors or out. Grooming faded flowers is necessary but easy. Foliage stays good-looking and green through light winter frosts, though a hard freeze will knock it dormant or kill plants. Bloom is heaviest in spring, off and on in fall.

Coreopsis (C grandiflora). First to bloom and among the last to quit, these 2-1/2-foot plants produced fistfuls of graceful, long-lasting yellow cut flowers. Their profusion is a mixed blessing: unless you cut often, spent flowers become a tangled mess. The solution: periodically shear plants back to a neat tuft of green; flowering resumes in several weeks. Seed heads you miss attract birds and spread volunteers. Dense foliage stays green all year. Border carnations (Dianthus caryophylIus). Unlike some others sold in sixpacks, this dianthus is perennial and performs well for at least two years. Grow it for the legendary spicy fragrance and a springto-frost supply of long-lasting cut flowers. A few scattered flowers appeared in all but the coldest weeks of winter. In the garden, their floppy blue-gray stems are somewhat unruly.

Gaillardia. Flowers are as early and everblooming as coreopsis. The kind most common in sixpacks, G. grandiflora, has long stems, making it a versatile cut flower, but floppy in the garden. 'Goblin', the dwarf (foot-tall) version, stands neatly upright, suitable for edging a border. Both kinds have red flowers with yellow edges. When petals drop, they leave behind decorative hairy globes. You may get more flowers if you cut these seed heads off, but we seldom did and plants still never slowed down from June untit frosts.

Geum. Like shooting stars, bright yellow or red flowers on 3-foot stems blaze briefly, then fade away. They last a few days in bouquets. Bloom lasts four to six weeks in early summer, and usually repeats in fall. Dense foliage stays neat and green almost all year where winters are mild, dies back in hard or prolonged frosts.

Statice (Limonium perezii). Leafy green tufts send up wands of purple flowers throughout mild weather. Water often until roots sink in, then keep slightly dry. Our plants, watered every few days, grew overly lush and leggy, and foliage burned with light winter frosts; plants nearby on spartan watering regimens stayed compact, green, and in bloom.

Border penstemon (P gloxinioides). To many, this is the prettiest and most practical of all-long-lasting in bouquets, easy to groom, with foliage that always looks good. Third in our test to begin blooming and last to stop, it alternately blooms and needs clipping back from midspring into winter. Flowers come in a pleasing mix of coral, pink, and purplish shades. Year-old plants grow about 2 feet tall and wide; the second year they reach 3 feet both ways.

Five that prefer fall or winter planting

These spring bloomers were trouble-ftee but produced little but foliage the first year. For certain bloom this spring, buy them in 4-inch or gallon containers: columbine (Aquilegia), perennial alyssum (Aurinia saxatilis, sold as Alyssum saxatile), foxglove (Digitalis), coral bells (Heuchera sanguinea), and evergreen candytuft (Iberis sempervirens).

Five that are popular but iffy

These required much more care and gave less return. Grow them only if you have space for part-time performers-and, in most cases, time for regular pest control. Canterbury bells (Campanula medium). In fall, three surviving March plants sent up 2-foot spikes of purple cups that lasted and lasted. June-planted survivors waited until the following spring. Give partial shade in hot, inland areas.

Delphinium. Twelve plants went in; most died, nibbled by a variety of critters, but three bloomed magnificently Foliage died back early. One survived to perform even more gloriously the next spring.

Gypsophila (G. paniculata). Husky seedlings soon shrank, munched by insects and slugs. Excruciatingly slow growth resulted in a little cloud of white flowers hovering 1-1/2 feet high for many weeks-enough for one dried bouquet. In winter, plants disappear. Second-year bloom on the two survivors spread 3 feet tall and widetwice the size and duration of first year's. Russell lupines. Caterpillars shredded leaves; plants sulked. Two sent up splendid pastel spires to 3 feet, then died.

Oriental poppies. Nothing ate the fuzzy leaves, but plants sulked. In June, two bloomed; midsummer, the survivors disappeared. But in fall, five lacy tufts of foliage popped back, producing foot-tall stalks of pastel flowers in late spring.
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Mar 1, 1989
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