A Perennial Primer

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, friends!  The earth has defrosted and the last signs of winter gray are being shed off and replaced with new foliage by the day.  It’s time to see which perennials are coming back for another year, bigger and better than the year before.  There is no better time to get outside, and I, for one, am psyched!

I thought I’d share a quick post outlining why I love perennials so very much.  A primer of sorts for those who are interested in starting their own perennial flower garden but may not know where to start.  I’ll also share some photos from my trip earlier today to a local perennial farm with my mom and the kids.  It’s one of my favorite places to spend a morning.  The kids are growing to love it as well.

First things first, let’s start with the basics…

What is a Perennial?

The most common classifications for flowers are Perennials and Annuals (there are also Biennials, but what do you say we save those for another day?!).  Annual flowers and plants will bloom for one season, produce seeds, and then die off completely.  They must be replanted year after year… annually... get it?.  Some popular annuals that you’ve no doubt found at your local garden center include marigolds, petunias, impatiens, and zinnias.  They typically provide a good bit of color to your garden, but are fairly labor intensive in that planting them over and over takes time.  Perennial flowers, on the other hand, live for several years.  They often die out all the way to the ground in late fall and through the winter, but return from the same root system year after year.  Many perennials will grow in size and bloom volume as the years go by, as well.  That’s the fun part, y’all! These gems aren’t the best for instant gratification, but with a little patience they can create the most magnificent borders and beds.

Are Perennials for you?

Time is your most valuable resource when it comes to succeeding with a perennial garden or flower bed.  If you plan to stay where you are for at least a few years, perennials may be right for you.  They will save you (in both dollars and planting time) in the long run, and if it is instant gratification you seek you can always mix in a few annuals for some splashes of color on demand.  If you are not planning on staying in one spot for awhile, though, you may choose to go with annuals exclusively, as they’ll provide you with a great show of color almost immediately.

Know your zone:

Before thumbing through a catalogue of perennials and picking out your favorites, it’s important to know what US Hardiness Zone you live in.  This is the easiest way to ensure that you are selecting plants that will thrive in your garden.  Once you know your zone, be sure to check the tags on plants at your local garden center to ensure that the plants they are selling will work well in your climate.

Designing your bed or border:

The great thing about perennial gardening is that there are so many “right” ways to design your space.  There are two opposing methods, though, that may help you get started in thinking about the direction you’d like to go.

First, you could choose to plant your perennials in “drifts,” or groupings of 5-6+ specimens of the same plant.  This will create large swatches or rows of color as the individual plants blend together.  This method is great if you’ve got a large space to cover, or if you are going for a more designed look.

The second method is to create what is often referred to as a “collectors garden.”  This type of garden is filled with one or two of each plant spaced in a more organic way.  They are great for those who are into exploring all sorts of flowers, and may have trouble committing to one strict color scheme or design plan.

Regardless of whether you opt for a carefully designed garden or a more freeform collector’s garden, there are a few tips that you may want to consider:

  • Pay close attention to the height of your plants (that is… the height that they’ll be once they’re full grown!).  It’s pretty much always a good idea, friends, to put the tallest plants in the back of a border or center of an island and work your way down to the smallest plants near the front of your bed.
  • Before you get started, decide if you want to stick with one defined color scheme, or if you are going to throw caution to the wind and throw it all in.  Sometimes a preselected color scheme a great way to achieve a happy medium between a strictly designed space and collectors garden look.  I just love my mom’s front yard perennial garden, which includes one or two specimens of countless varieties of perennials, arranged in a seemingly haphazard way.  The space is visually stunning, though, because it is tied together with a well defined color scheme of mostly purples and yellows.
  • Be aware of the bloom duration and season of the flowers you select.  It’s pretty easy to pick only the most beautiful blooms in the garden center, only to realize a few weeks later that your garden is filled with spring bloomers (and thus lacks color throughout the summer and fall… oh no!).  One great tip I learned from a friend was to not plant your garden all at once, but rather to take a few separate trips to purchase plants throughout the year.  This way, you’ll ensure that you select plants that will be beautiful in various seasons, providing colorful points of interest in your garden throughout the year.
  • When planting your perennials, dig deep and water well.  It’s important that roots of your plants get off to a great start, so loosening the soil around your plant is key to success.  Similarly, I like to give my perennials a good soaking for the first little bit (even are they are varieties that require little water in the future), just to ensure that they are settled well in their new spot.

OK, friends… I think you’re ready to get planting.  If you’ve been stuck in a marigold and petunia annual rut, I do hope you’ll give perennials a try.  It’s just so much fun seeing them pop up vigorously out of once frozen ground, and the anticipation of watching your garden fill in year after year is one of spring’s greatest simple joys.


For more from the Hansen House, click here.

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