(This Narrative introduces a wide range of topics that will enhance the understanding of Perennials. Links will carry you to a more detailed discussion of a specific topic with the option to return to this Narrative. Thumbnails will transport you to a full sized photo and the Backspace button will return to the Narrative.)
What is a Perennial?
In it’s simplest terms, a Perennial is a plant that has an expected life cycle longer than one year. Compare this with plants that complete their life in one year that are called annuals. The term Herbaceous refers to plants that die back to the ground each winter and return with new growth in the spring. Thus the term ‘Herbaceous Perennial’ narrows the plant category even further and eliminates trees, shrubs and your lawn.
There are literally thousands of Perennials available to the gardener. Daylilies and Hosta are the most widely used Perennials, but they represent only the tip of the iceberg. We can select Perennials that provide a myriad of sizes, shapes and textures – flowers that encompass all colors of the rainbow and beyond – bloom times that can be staggered to create a constant show throughout the season and perennials can be selected that will grow in virtually any conditions imaginable.
This diversity of plant material is what makes Perennials so exciting as a group of plants. Diversity is also the primary reason for growing perennials. Unfortunately, it is this same diversity that complicates the selection process. The new gardener, as well as the experienced gardener, can be overwhelmed by all the options available in the World of Perennials.
Imagine three experienced gardeners from different parts of the country sitting and discussing the merits of a particular plant. Comments can easily range from:
How is this possible to have such vast experiences with the same plant? The truth is that Perennial performance does vary under different conditions. This fact can frustrate the gardener and complicate the process of selection, but it also exciting because it helps to make the possibilities of gardening with Perennials endless.
Various tools are available to help organize the selection process. The first of these is nomenclature (those Latin Names!). Nomenclature is important because it allows all gardeners to communicate properly about the same plant.
Hardiness Zones have been established throughout North America that define winter temperature ranges for various geographic areas. A gardener living in Zone 5 can then select plants that should survive in that part of the country. Recently, a system has been established that defines heat ranges and helps identify plants that have difficulty with higher temperatures and humidity.
Zones provide guidelines that are invaluable to the gardener. But, it is the personal experience of each gardener that will eventually determine what they can grow successfully. No matter the size of our property, we all have some conditions that stretch the boundaries of any classification system. These areas are called microclimates and they add to the Perennial adventure.
The most important rule of plant selection for the beginner is to choose plants that will be successful. After all, the Heart Surgeon probably did not learn the skills of the trade by starting with Bypass Surgery on the first day of Med School!
As you might suspect by now, there will not be a list of simple rules that must be followed in order to grow Perennials successfully. We can, however, provide some guidelines that are universal. Light requirements (sun, shade or partial shade), soil, moisture, nutrition and insects/diseases are all factors that must be considered when growing perennials.
Pruning, staking and mulching are needed by some perennials to enhance their viability in the garden. Propagation of perennials is an exciting aspect of the Perennial Experience that allows you to share plants with others or produce more for your own garden. Organic Gardening is a popular cultural practice that eliminates the use of chemicals in the garden.
Garden Design is the process that combines the physical layout of the property, structures and ornaments along with plant materials to create a garden. The opportunities for design are limited only by our imaginations.
Basic design techniques serve as guidelines in the process. Perennials can be used alone or combined with trees, shrubs and annuals in the mixed border. Popular garden styles that use Perennials include the Cottage Garden, the Rock Garden, the Formal Garden and the Japanese Garden.
Native Plants are popular and gardens can be designed using only this group of plants. Other gardens might feature a specific Color or a theme such as Fragrance or a Childrens Garden. Others might be built around an era such as a Shakespeare Garden, Victorian Garden or a Grandmothers Garden.
Gardens can be built around a geographic feature such as the Prarie, Woodland, Scree or Bog.
Perennials are also predominant in end-use gardens where plants are grown for reasons in addition to their beauty. Numerous Perennials are found in Herb and Vegetable Gardens, as Cut Flowers, Dried Flowers and attractions for Wildlife such as butterflies and hummingbirds
Sources for design ideas
The gardener has a number of resources to select from when designing the garden. Professional Landscape Designers are available to create the entire design and installation if interested. Landscape books and plans can be found in libraries, bookstores and on-line.
Visits to Private or Public Gardens in your area can excite the imagination as you develop a plan for your own garden. Joining local Garden Clubs allows you to interact with other gardeners to share ideas and experiences.
Garden Centers often have staff advisors to help layout gardens or advise on specific plant needs.
Plant Lists and Encyclopedia
The Plant Lists are guidelines in selecting plants for a specific use, such as Perennials that can be used as cut flowers or plants that will attract butterflies.
The Encyclopedia is a work in progress that discusses specific Perennials along with growing techniques and attributes.
Now that you have learned about Perennials and their uses, the question becomes availability. A great place to find plants are at local Garden Centers. They will generally specialize in plants that are proven winners within the local area.
Mail Order firms that specialize in Perennials will ship plants through the mail or a commercial carrier. Many carry unusual items to test your gardening skills as you become more knowledgeable and experienced.
Other great sources of plants include sharing with friends and neighbors, plant swaps or other local activities.