Garden Dirt

In The Dirt: Perennial Gardening


So many varieties of Echinacea to choose from – and they are great pollinator plants too!

By Ray Greenstreet

ALEXANDRIA, VA – June – and with it, summer – has arrived. In an annual rite marking this seasonal passage, the Perennial Plant Association named June “Perennial Gardening Month” and in doing so, urges gardeners to celebrate the summer garden by planting perennials. Moreover, perennial gardening is something to celebrate.

A perennial (from Latin per, meaning “through”, and annus, meaning “year”) is a plant that lives for more than two years. Herbaceous perennials grow and bloom in the spring and summer, die back every autumn and winter, and then return in the spring from their root-stock. There is also a class of evergreen perennials which keep their leaves throughout the year.

Because most perennials have a defined bloom time that usually lasts for 3-5 weeks, the key to a successful perennial garden is to choose plants that bloom at different times throughout the growing season. Perennials come in every form, size, texture, and flower color. Combine plants with different characteristics, and don’t overlook the value of contrasting colors – purple and red or orange may sound crazy but it is an excellent color combination in a summer garden. When designed for continuous bloom, the garden will be ever-changing and lovely, May through November.

Holy Guacamole! So many hostas to choose from, you can go crazy choosing a mere dozen.

Ready to dig into perennial gardening? Let’s have some fun, as even the names of these plants are something to smile about.

Start at the ground level with dependable growers that just about any color thumb can successfully grow. If you only plant these plants, you’ll have a season of perennial blooms: Shasta Daisy; Coreopsis; Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’; Nepata; Dianthus (‘Fire Witch’ is a staple); Salvia (especially ‘Caradonna’ and ‘May Night’); and daylilies ‘Stella d’ Oro’ and ‘Happy Returns.’

Ready to take it to the next level? Dig deeper and experiment with bold foliage and flower colors. Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ makes a statement with its carmine red flowers and spiky foliage. Soften the garden with gray foliage and blue flowers of Russian Sage. Journey into the land of Echinacea, from rose pink ‘Magnus’ to ‘Sombrero Salsa Red’ to orange ‘Big Kahuna’ to the limelight of ‘Green Jewel. Grow your daylily collection with the ruffled Siloam ‘Double Classic.’ And don’t forget Geum, especially the giant ‘Totally Tangerine’ and the aptly named ‘Double Bloody Mary.’

Coreopsis ‘Jethro Tull’ is a sturdy and dependable bloomer.

Are you hooked? Now you’ll be hard-pressed to pass up a perennial you’ve never seen before, a new variety that is as much fun to pronounce as it is to grow. Like Echibeckia, a cross between Rubeckia and Echinacea. Got to have it just to say it. Or Verbena bonariensis. Good luck pronouncing it, but it is one cool plant. And Euphorbia. ‘Tiny Tim’ and ‘Ascot Rainbow’ look almost prehistoric. Then there’s Echinops. Say that fast after a glass or two of wine.

All of the afore-mentioned plants are sun lovers. If you garden in the shade, don’t despair. You can easily garden with perennials that grow where the sun doesn’t shine.

Grow your daylily collection with ruffled varieties!

Start with Astillbe, Ferns, Foxglove, and Bleeding Heart. Thalictrum ‘Black Stockings’ is a tall drink of water at five feet. Or Ligularia desdomona. Epimedium ‘Orange Queen’. These names just roll off the tongue.

And then there are the three “H’s” of shade gardening – Hellebore, Heuchera, and Hostas. ‘Holy Guacamole!’ – don’t get perennial plant geeks going on hostas. From tiny ‘Blue Mouse Ears,’ ‘Slim and Trim,’ and ‘Cookie Crumb’ to the bigger bolder ‘Striptease,’ ‘Albiqua’s Drinking Gourd’ and ‘Big Daddy.’ You can grow a hosta garden and never run out of new hostas to include. Did I mention ‘Maui Buttercup’ or ‘Thunderbolt’ or ‘Rainbow’s End’? The list is endless.

So join me in celebrating Perennial Gardening Month and discover the joy of perennials. These hardy plants are the garden’s backbone, flourishing throughout the growing season until freezing temperatures force them into hibernation until spring. And then they grow up and do it all again, bigger and better. What’s not to love?

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