If you’re looking for some color this spring, summer and fall perennials are a good bang for your buck. For a definition refresher, a perennial is:
A plant that survives from year to year in a temperate climate but dies back just above or below the ground at the onset of the dormant season. ~Source: Understanding Perennials by William Cullina
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about some of my favorite plant combinations, and specifically bright and striking perennial flowers like coneflower, black-eyed Susan, yarrow and peonies. You know what I’m saying? There are so many cultivars too, even of just these 4-perennials mentioned. Amazing how when I think of coneflower (Echinacea), first thought is purple with black cone/center and when I think about black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), first thought is bright orange/yellow with black center.
But things don’t stay the same in horticulture. The continuous hybridization through plant breeding adds new varieties constantly. Echinacea purpurea (purple flowers with black center) may be one of the 10-native species, but hybridization has created some popular 30+ additional varieties with names like: ‘White Swan’, ‘Marmelade’, ‘Orange Meadowbrite,’ ‘Milk Shake’ and in colors like: White, yellow, pale peach, vibrant orange, pink, and red.
The growing season may begin in March/April in the San Francisco Bay Area; later, in climates with shorter growing seasons. Either way, the utter enjoyment is the same! 😉
How to Choose and Plant Perennials for Less Maintenance
1) Learn about the perennials that do well in your area. For example, even though there are many micro-climates in San Francisco, it’s still, as the band Journey’s song “Lights” says, “The city by the bay” where cool, foggy summers and damp unpredictably cool winters don’t please all the sun loving perennials equally. If you enjoy the much loved Echinacea (coneflower) like I do, until recently, it has been GOOD LUCK getting Echinacea purpurea established here. Especially after unpredictably cool and damp winters – seems to be a deal breaker. Yes, now there are some nice Echinacea varieties doing better in our gardens, thank goodness. It’s good to connect with your local plant nurseries, garden clubs, botanical gardens to learn more about which perennials grow best where you live.
2) Choose perennials according to your climate and garden conditions. This is no different than the rest of your landscape. Assess ahead of time the particulars to your garden. Some examples: Do you have critters? Deer or rabbits? How’s your soil? Light exposure? Soil fertility?
Let’s take the example, below, of a generalized idea of Echinacea. Remember there are over 30+ varieties to choose from. In the below example, soil conditions for this plant are moist/well drained. And though this plant says drought tolerant, this may be once its established. It also may mean that it will do better, be healthier and look better during those dryer summer months, July and August, with supplemental water. Maybe there’s an Echinacea variety that prefers dryer conditions? Worth checking out.
Echinacea (Coneflower) – Soil Conditions: Moist/well drained. Light: sun. Bloom Time: July – September. Critter resistance: Deer. Attributes: Fall color, butterflies, drought tolerant.
3) Choose long lived perennials. Not all perennials are created equally. You probably know some that succumb sooner than expected. In the SF Bay Area one that comes to mind is Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’ (wall flower). This perennial typically gets pulled out in the second or third year and is either replaced with another one – or a new plant choice. Some species of plants like Achillea and Monarda tend to be longer lived in Continental climates than maritime climates. Choosing a long lived perennial counters the fuss and expense. Some long lived perennial plants to consider are Geranium, Solidago, many of the Aster, Astilbe chinense varieties, Asclepias tuberosa, many types of Campanulas. And back to Echinacea – Echinacea pallida (pink) is a longer lived species than E. purpurea.
4) Plant high density. Another way to reduce maintenance is to take the high density planting approach of James Hitchmough. The density approach is found in natural plant communities and is far more resilient than traditional garden-made ones with spaces between plants and better to outcompete weeds.
Planting and maintaining a garden is a lot of work; of course it’s very fulfilling and enjoyable too! Have fun adding perennials and have a wonderful beginning to the gardening season of 2023!