It is no secret that I’m fond of quotations, and this one perfectly describes the spring start in the garden this year. Once dead twigs are now verdant lush growth and the perennials appear as a carpet of varied foliage with colour peeking out under the roses. It also feels like we have had every season this past week from frosty mornings, hot, dry and windy days, rain, fog, heavy dew, sunny days of clear, beautiful blue skies and even humid, cloudy days that climaxed into storms in the evening. Today is a plain old cloudy day of no rain, with winds expected shortly.
Little by little, the roses unfold despite the ever-changing weather, and one or two roses have finished their first flush. Thousands of buds are visible, but the perennials are the ones that surprise me. They often can be disappointing because they take ages to become the envisaged carpet we planted them for, and some may take up to 3 years to mature. Waiting for the spectacular texture, colour and wow factor requires patience. And then, one day, when you’ve given up any hope that the plants have survived the winter’s frost, you suddenly see a display that matches what you had intended or better. Knowing the planting was not wasted and they are on their way is a relief and gratifying.
A perennial is a term to describe plants that live longer than three years. These plants are welcomed back each season like a familiar visitor one may be fond of but have forgotten about during the winter. Whether we planted perennials as seeds, bulbs, or plants, it is a pleasant surprise when they pop up many months later. Once established, they often spread in amongst all the other greenery and look very much at home in the landscape. They are a sign of a ‘proper’ garden where the plants no longer need careful nurturing and are at home in the garden. Perennials are either evergreen or herbaceous, and the list is long, including many groundcovers, bushes, shrubs, ferns, grasses and many ornamental flowers. There are so many to choose from that allow a wide variety of textures, colours, heights, and styles that all go towards creating structure, harmony and seasonal intrigue. Also, bees, birds and other pollinators adore them, benefiting the garden environment.
Have you heard the expression sleep creep leap? The phrase is primarily about perennials that describe the growth process from minimal in the first year, steady in the second and faster in the third.
Sleep: in the first year after planting, the plant’s energy is focused on the root system, so there is little visible growth. It is an essential time for the plant to develop the roots to withstand the winter and come up again next spring more well-established. The stronger a plant’s root system is, the more nutrients and moisture can be absorbed and the more secure and robust the plant will be. Healthy roots are needed to anchor the plant, so it is worth the wait.
Creep: the second year after planting, the roots are more established, and the energy in the plant can go towards producing leaves and some blooms, but the plant still needs more time to be fully grown.
Leap: the third year after planting the flowers and leaves are at their best and the plant will have grown enough to absorb all the water and nutrients from the ground to reach full maturity.
Perennials can be thought of as the foundation of the garden structure and used to create the design of your garden. Trees, Shrubs, Roses, Grasses, Peonies, Hostas, Ferns, Succulents are all perennials although the term usually refers to non-woody varieties. They provide diversity for pollinators and design elements alike from strappy leaves, architectural seed heads and textural foliage to abundant flowers, blossoms and blooms galore for year-round appeal in the garden.
Sometimes, perennials may spread or reach spectacular proportions and must be cut back to fit into the garden. The spreading nature of some perennials is also worth being aware of, as they can be invasive. It is easy to make mistakes when eagerly wanting to fill empty garden spaces and then find they are now more like weeds than groundcovers or good companion plants. Any plant in the mint family is one to be cautious with because it grows and spreads very quickly and although not harmfully invasive, it certainly likes to take over. Apple Mint is one I learnt by mistake that it is easy to pull out with soft, green, delicate leaf and flower, but it spreads in runners below the surface like weeds and quickly fills an entire garden. Similarly, Lemon Balm grows prolifically into strong dense clumps and appears everywhere in the garden, and is quite hard to remove once established.
Perennials are planted for flowers but also foliage texture and colour. The idea is to mix styles, colours and variety throughout each season to create interest all year. Consider a range of Astilbes, Asters, Dahlias, Daisies, Black- Eyed Susan, Chrysanthemums, Alliums, Geraniums, Pelargoniums, Day Lilies, Phlox, Peonies, Penstemons, Delphiniums, Perennial Sage, Scabiosa Pin Cushion, Lavenders, Coneflowers, Russian Sage, Herbs, Camelias, Buxus, Westringia, Butterly Bush, Hydrangeas, Foxgloves, Nemesia, Daphnes, Agastache, Dianthus, Lambs Ears, Clematis, or Fuchsias amongst many others.
Tips On Perennials
Before planting perennials take a close look at the garden and make decisions on the plant palette remembering that sometimes less is more. Not less plants less variety. It has taken me quite some time to learn this one and this year I have streamlined the plant palette considerably to just those plants I know will do well in this region.
Plant perennials in the Spring or Autumn to provide time for the plants to settle into the garden.
Research is essential before planting perennials because what appears in the nursery or online plant shop can be hugely different in your garden climate. Salvia’s, for example, can be from 20 cm to many metres high, depending on the type. Many perennials reach heights out of proportion to the size of a home garden.
The phrase “right plant, right place” was written with perennials in mind because they thrive in such widely varied conditions. I have learnt this the hard way, and now, before purchasing any perennial, I thoroughly read and research their characteristics, especially concerning light, water, and soil requirements. Then, when planting, ensure the plants are paired with others that require the same conditions, be it a dry garden landscape or sun, shade, sandy soil, moist, fertile soil or fast-drained soil.
Choose plants that will thrive in your locality and in the garden region over the entire year so that you have interest for each season. Once you are aware of the gardens region and aspect, there are plenty of plants to choose from. Consider the amount of sunlight, and shade and choose plants accordingly.
Consider spacing because many perennials become very large and tall so leave enough space to avoid overcrowding that may cause disease and fungal issues.
Mix it up with bold foliage to build texture and colour as well as floral highlights.
Create focal points in the garden with perennials and plant with the design elements like repetition, line, shape, form, space, texture, contrast, movement and variety to ensure a unified and harmonious garden.
Remove spent blooms of perennials to maintain the garden and prevent the seeds from spreading and forming new plants.
If you want mint or other more invasive perennials in the garden, one trick is to remove the base from a plastic pot of the desire plant or drill holes in it, then bury the entire pot level with the ground, slowing the growth to some extent.
Divide perennials every few years and replant in Autumn will reduce some perennials’ over-abundant nature and help reinvigorate the garden.
Water: many perennials are grown because they are suitable for dry gardens and are hardy and drought-tolerant once established. Perennials still will require watering to become the established drought-hardy plants. All new plants will require correct watering to thrive.
Staking tall perennials like Delphiniums and Foxgloves is essential.
Mulch to protect from extreme weather conditions and keep moisture in the soil.
One of the most challenging garden areas is this full afternoon sun corner where, several years ago, I planted Sally Holmes and Madame Anisette Roses amongst Lavender and Artemisia. The site is dry and has heavy clay soil, so it has been tough trying to get a garden established in this spot. This year, in the true nature of perennials, these roses are doing well at last and have bloomed beautifully right on cue at the start of Spring.
Sally Holmes is a Hybrid Musk shrub rose bred by an amateur rose breeder, Robert A Holmes in the UK in 1976. Sally Homes rose is a hardy, thornless, bushy climbing rose with dark green glossy foliage and single cluster-flowered blooms from apricot pointed buds that open to creamy white blooms with yellow stamens. Sally Holmes was the breeders wife Sally who was born in Ireland in the 1920’s. The parentage is Ivory Fashion and Ballerina – Bentall 1937. The Sally Holmes rose is an award winning popular rose across the world and is a prolific repeat bloomer growing to approximately two metres.
Title quote by W. E. Johns.
Content and all images Di Baker October 2023.