Perennials are very underused in the landscape and it's because they're misunderstood. Any gardening books or magazines show images of beautiful, perfectly maintained sweeping gardens teeming with perennials. Many people look at those images and think they're unattainable because they're either too expensive or too difficult to maintain. If I won the lottery, or if I had a staff of gardeners, or if I had the ideal conditions, my garden could look like this.
It can, and it's not as difficult as you may think.
As landscape designers and fine gardeners, we design and install a mixed garden of both shrubs and perennials. Perennials offer far more color and interest than even the most beautiful shrub. Many people omit perennials. While it's true, there are thousands of varieties of perennials, there are many that need very little maintenance and survive in the least favorable conditions. The most famous garden designers in history as Gertrude Jekyll and Beatrix Farrand (Beatrix Ferrand created the Rockefeller Garden) created gardens that contained a mixture of perennials, shrubs, bulbs, and roses. Many designers, like us, also add ornamental grasses to our landscapes to create year-round interest and achieve scale and height – especially where a large shrub may not be appropriate.
There are no hard, set rules when it comes to perennials. Well, there is ONE rule, but that's true of any plant. The one and only rule you have to follow is “Right Plant, Right Place”. In other words, get plants that will be happy in the conditions of your garden. If you have full shade, don't expect roses to grow. If you have full sun, your woodland ferns will brown and die. Other than that, there are no rules. Do what looks good to you. Don't be afraid to take a bunch of plants that you like at your garden center and arrange them right there to see what they look like together before you bring them home. Keep in mind how much time you have and are willing to commit to maintenance and get perennials that will do well with that level of maintenance.
Do I Need To Weed Constantly? Occasional weeding will need to take place in order to keep your garden looking it's best. The fuller your garden is, in other words, the more perennials you have, the less room there are for weeds, so the less maintenance you will need to do.
What Is Deadheading And Do I Need To Deadhead My Perennials? You don't NEED to deadhead your perennials. Many perennials reproduce by seed. They WANT to produce seed so they can reproduce. If you clip off the spent flower heads before they go to seed (deadheading), they will bloom longer, but if you don't they certainly won't die.
Do All Perennials Need Staking? No, some perennials, like peonies, need staking, so look for a variety of perennial that has strong, sturdy stems that won't need staking such as coneflower or shasta daisy.
What Is Pinching And Do I Need To Pinch my perennials? Pinching is removing the main branch of a perennial with your thumb and forefinger. It's a practice that can make some perennials bushier and stronger as they grow and tend to help avoid flopping. While some varieties of perennials such as Bee Balm, Yarrow and Sedum can benefit from pinching, they can do fine without. Some, like Sedum or Yarrow, can tend to get a bit floppy depending on their growing conditions, but if you don't feel comfortable pinching a little twine or garden wire tied about 1/3 of the way up should help.
Perennial Beds Require A Lot Of Maintenance. I find that to be exactly the opposite, depending on the type of perennials you plant. All garden beds need weeding, but if you fill your bed with perennials, they'll need less weeding because there is less space for weeds to start. If you plant shrubs that full, it would look overgrown.
Do Annuals Come Back Every Year? This is a common confusion among so many people – and no wonder why! Annually means every year. But in the case of gardening, and annual is a reference to one year. If you look up the definition of a perennial in the Merriam-Webster dictionary https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/perennial the actual definition states “Something that is present at all seasons of the year”. While perennials may be dormant in the winter, they actually are still present during the winter season. If you think about it, they're not that much different than a deciduous tree, just without a trunk. The leaves have fallen off, but the roots are still alive in a dormant state, ready to come back again in the spring.
Perennials Don't Look Good In The Winter. Many people believe that if they have a bed that consists of only perennials, they'll have nothing but an ugly mulch bed during the winter. Some perennials such as sedum, grasses, coneflower, and even astilbe if you can live with the spent flowers through the season, will provide winter interest in the garden, and even food for birds. Other perennials such as Lenten Rose and even Coral bells remain evergreen, or colorful in the case of Coral Bells even in the winter.
The Garden Only Looks Good In Spring (or summer, or....). That's not true, that's only going to occur only when careful thought and planning haven't been paid to the garden. By going to your garden center during each season, you will have a garden full of flowers through every season.
Perennials Need Full Sun. Completely false. I do love the sun, but when I get a call for a shade garden, there's a childish excitement that's hard to quell! Sun is easy. Shade is equally as easy, but most people don't realize that. The truth is the shade garden (at least for me) is even more exciting than a garden in full sun. I am in love with perennial foliage. So many colors and textures exist in the shade garden! Blue, chartreuse, yellow, silver ,and even white! Because they require less chlorophyl, their foliage can be lighter, brighter and that makes the shade garden POP!
I Will Have Blooms All Summer Long. You can, with proper planning. Unlike annuals that flower all season from spring to frost, perennials have seasons. Some plants bloom in late spring and early summer. Some perennials such as echinacea bloom in the heart of the summer and persist into fall. Others, like Sedum, flower in the fall. A carefully planned garden WILL, in fact, bloom all season, but it takes effort, planning and a variety of perennials.