Perennials, the plants that keep on giving year after year

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We talked about annuals in our last post. Now, let’s talk perennials.

So what exactly is a perennial? A perennial is a plant that lives for two or more years. Some perennials flower often, and some do not.

In the case of many flowering perennials, unlike flowering annuals, which bloom in one season then die, the perennial plant will continue to live, and new blooms will come up year after year.

Photo courtesy of Julia Yansen

The term perennial is used to describe plants that live for two or more years but aren’t woody, like trees, shrubs, and some vines. Trees, shrubs, and some vines are perennials because they live for more than two years, but most gardeners don’t call them perennials and instead focus on herbaceous plants (non-woody) when speaking about perennials.

Some perennials can go on for many many years if the conditions are to their liking. Those conditions include the right light, amounts of water, balanced nutrients, and oxygen levels.

Roses are a perennial that can live for far more than two years. In the right conditions, they will bloom year after year. Photo courtesy of Sheela Brennan

The needs of a perennial are based on the specific species of plant and the environment they are planted in. As always, it is a bit of an experiment, but when you get it right … voilà, you’ve got it made with some beautiful long-living plants.

One of the most significant differences between flowering annuals and flowering perennials is that flowering annuals will usually bloom and keep those blooms for most of the season, where flowering perennials will bloom for a few weeks, and then the flowers die back.

You get a more prolonged seasonal bloom with annuals, but you get years of flowers with most flowering perennials. You get to pick what works best for you and your garden.

Although I love a wide variety of perennials, in this post, I will focus mostly on the perennials that provide flowers since most people want to add pops of color to their garden. Just keep in mind there are many other types of perennials to choose from.

Tulips are very showy perennials. Photo courtesy of Boudewign Huysma

When the flowers on an annual die, you can be sure that the plant will die shortly after. Remember, they need to drop seed to become new plants the next season, not so with perennials. Just because the perennial flowers are gone doesn’t mean that the plant is gone. Many bulb species of perennials die back and the bulb stays alive in the soil to get ready for next year’s bloom.

Often, indoor bulb perennials are cut back and then put in a warm dark place to do their “thang” next year. Tulips are a great example. Usually, you buy them in the store when they are at their showiest with big beautiful, colorful flowers. A few weeks later, the flowers die. Then, the leaves die, and you think you lost everything. You didn’t! Wahoooo!

They are perennials, so they are still alive under the soil and will come back the next year. That is the cool thing about perennials; they live for more than one season.

How neat is that? All that valuable information stored under the soil, ready to pop up when the season is right. Ah, Mama Nature, you are incredible.

With that in mind, you will need to plant your bulb varieties in your garden with the knowledge that they will come up, bloom, then go back under the soil until next year. You don’t need to rip them up or do anything special, but you can. I’ll go over that a tad later.

I like to mix bulb perennials into the garden design in front of evergreens. The evergreens give you a fantastic backdrop for the perennial blooms when they come up. Think of the perennial bulbs as the front row plants or the hidden plants in your garden.

Some species of perennials only live for two or three seasons. Some gardeners will work with these species as biennials or even annuals because of their short lives. Again, the choice is yours as to how you use them.

Some perennials don’t flower at all. And, some perennials flower and don’t die back or have a bulb at all. Just think of perennials as ongoing but not woody. That is the main takeaway.

With perennials, the design possibilities are endless. Perennials are lovely for texture and visual interest in the garden. There are tons of perennial species to choose from.

Photo courtesy Pawel Bblazewicz

You have ground-hugging, tall spiked, rounded, arching, heart-shaped, bold leaf, dramatic clumps, spiky, bushy, and the list goes on and on.

Lupines are short lived perennials. They live approximately 2-5 years on average.
Photo courtesy Annie Spratt

There are also a ton of textures to choose from. Bold, spotted, variegate, splotched, two-toned, striped, feathery, broad leaves, thin leaves, and again this list goes on and on too.

Perennials offer a huge range of colors, textures, and shapes to choose from.
Photo courtesy Macau Photo Agency

You have options for shade-loving or sun-loving perennials. Remember most brightly colored flowering plants like the sun or at least a lovely filtered sunlight. Bright flowers don’t usually do well in shaded areas. But some perennials do enjoy the shade, such as Hostas. With all these options, you can have some fun playing with perennials.

Watch how the sun lights up your garden before planting perennials. You should know if they like full sun, filtered light or shade before planting.
Photo courtesy of Scott Webb

Before you plant, take the time to watch how the sun hits your garden. This tiny step makes a huge difference for the long haul. As far as bulb perennials go, select the shapes, textures, and sizes you want to see in your garden when the Spring comes. Bright flowers usually enjoy more light.

Make room for those bulbs to come back up and bloom. Check your zone for the best options for your area.

Winter is the perfect time to start pulling ideas for your garden and making notes.
Photo courtesy of Carolyn V

Winter is a great time to make a garden plan or to get a journal to keep notes or make sketches for your Spring garden. Try a free garden design program to layout options or draw it out by hand. Planning and researching prior to planting will save you time and headaches. Researching is also a ton of fun, and you learn so much preparing your perennial garden.

Figure out where all your hardscape items will go, like paths, benches, water features, and decorative garden art. From there, take the time to look at the space and imagine the colors you would like to see pop against your other plants.

For example, if the evergreen is silver, then place a darker flower, maybe purple, red, or blue, in front of it. If the evergreen is darker, think about lighter color flowers like pink, white, or yellow. Contrasting perennial colors will give your garden a dramatic touch without the yearly maintenance associated with lots of annuals.

Of course, you can plant both annuals and perennials in your garden. If you did leave annuals in spots to go to seed and grow new plants, you will have that benefit as well. To learn more about gardening with annuals the easy way, check out this post.

Think about your zone when searching for plants, bulbs, or seeds. Read the estimated bloom dates, growth habits, water, and light needs for that plant. Researching plants is part of the fun of gardening, and it gives you a good starting point, but as always, you will need to experiment. Again, this is the perfect winter project.

You can create a gorgeous show in your garden if you plant things that bloom in succession. You won’t miss the perennials that have died back for the season if you have another coming up right behind it. Bulbs are great for this purpose. You can create a succession garden in containers too.

Succession gardening is a fun project to do with the kids. By planting bulbs that bloom at different times, you will have a garden or container that changes with the season. Succession gardening is also a great way to feed the pollinators a variety of foods.

Perennials planted in succession (so the next species is coming up after the prior species’ flower died back) is a great way to help pollinators and keep color in your yard.
Photo courtesy of Boris Smokrovic

You wouldn’t want to eat just apples every day, all year long, and neither do the pollinators. Variety is the key to life. So plant a variety of perennials, annuals, and biennials in your garden.

You can buy perennials in several ways.

1) You can purchase bulbs, which means they come as bulbs without soil or flowers. Plant those in early Spring where you want them to bloom, cover, and wait for the growth at the proper time of the year in your area. Although most bulbs are perennials, not all will do well in all areas and come back. Please check with your local Master Gardeners to find out what species will do well in your area and how to care for them.

2) You can purchase plants that are already blooming and transplant those. In my experience, the blooms don’t last as long as the planted bulbs. Planted bulbs have time to enjoy their new home and are a tad stronger than plants shipped across the county sitting in a cold store until you buy them and bring them home. That is a whole lot of stress on the plant. Make it easier for them to grow and start with bulbs. You can also purchase seedlings or seeds. I find that seed is always the best for diversity and healthy plants.

When planting most plants, you want to plant at the same depth as the root line. This includes most bulbs. You can usually see the soil line from the nursery. For seeds, a good rule is to plant the seed the same depth as its height.

When transplanting from a pot, make a hole three times as wide and twice as deep so the roots can spread out. I like to cut about 25% of the roots off to stimulate growth. Backfill the hole so the root line matches the soil line.

In my opinion, you should do this with all of your plants. They just grow better; that has been my experience.

Prep the soil, so it is a nice place to live, has good drainage (think about how sand drains well and clay holds water, you want something right in the middle), and also has good organic matter (think about how manure holds moisture and is filled with nutrients). A little bit of both will set up a garden for a long life. This is true for most plants.

Once planted, most perennials don’t need much help. Less is more. Start with great soil, plant the right plant in the right place and let nature happen. You can give them a little water to stay slightly moist but not soaked. Stop watering when the ground freezes.

If you picked the right plant and put it in the right area of the garden (shade-loving in a shaded area, sun-loving in a brighter spot), you should be good to go.

You don’t need to overwater your garden and should allow nature to water as much as possible. You want to create a garden that does most of the work for you. You do this by following the laws of nature. Right plant, right place, great composted soil, enough water but not too much, and great air and light. Gardening this way is easier for you and the garden. Researching what the plants like before planting really helps.

You can give your plants a 1/2 tsp of Epsom salt circled around the bulb or roots and mixed with some composted soil. It helps with blooms. Please do not put Epsom salt directly on the bulb or roots of plants. Spread out the Epsom salt in the hole you made and mix it with composted soil. This is a great practice after you have dug the hole twice as deep. You can backfill with the Epsom salt/compost mix to reach the root line level for your plant.

I feel very strongly about not cutting back dead leaves all the time. Let the leaves die off and compost on their own. This is a good practice and has worked in nature for millions of years, so there must be something to it. There is a lot of something to it, and we will explore that in our soil post. Fallen leaf mulch is an excellent fertilizer for plants.

When leaves are dying, some plants take back some of the leaves’ sugars to become healthier the next year, so it is a good reason not to cut away all the yellow on plants. Sometimes it is ok, all the time, not such a good idea. Let the sugars go back, and the leaves drop naturally.

You may see that your perennial plants are multiplying. That is a great sign. Plants like those with healthy bulbs will reproduce underground, which means you have more to plant or share. Some will reproduce via spores like ferns. Some like Hostas produce at the roots. You can dig the plants up and separate them gently. Then, plant them in other spots, pots, or share them with friends. This is another benefit of perennials.

If you see your perennials look a little sad and tired, it may be time to split them up and give them some room. It is good practice to divide perennials every three to five years. If they have dead spots in the center, or smaller flowers or the leaves are getting sparse, it may be time to divide them. But, if they look happy you can leave them alone.

If you do divide, early Spring for colder areas is a prime time to separate them. This gives the plants a chance to get strong over the summer months. If you live in a warmer place, try the Fall and let the plants grow roots in the mild winter months.

Dividing means more plants, and more plants mean planting more. Planting more is always great, but please don’t divide while the plant is blooming. Creating a flower takes a lot of energy, and if you split them at that time, you are doing damage to the plant.

If you are in a cold area, you can also pull the perennial bulbs up after the leaves die back and store them in a paper bag once they are dry. Keep the bag in a warm, dark place. The garage works great. Then, the next year before bloom time, plant them or share them with others. Most other perennials can stay in the garden over the winter months.

Again, if you picked the right plants for your zone and put them in the right place, they should do well. Some people like to cut perennial plants back to about 6″ above the ground to hold up the snow and protect the roots or bulbs.

I say experiment. I believe in nature’s power and think they will do ok if you picked the right plant for the right place.

So, what species of perennial are you going to try planting? Tulips? Ginger? Ferns? Hostas? Lupines?

I can’t wait to hear what you planted and see your photos.

Plant Power On!

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