Perennials Delight and Surprise for Many Years - 27 East

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Perennials Delight and Surprise for Many Years

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Itoh Bartzella tree peony blooming in mid-May. These tree peonies are expensive and not for the person just beginning a perennial garden. ANDREW MESSINGER

Itoh Bartzella tree peony blooming in mid-May. These tree peonies are expensive and not for the person just beginning a perennial garden. ANDREW MESSINGER

Again showing the diversity within a genus this dark green/marooned foliage Ligularia flowers in early September with daisy like orange/yellow flowers. ANDREW MESSINGER

Again showing the diversity within a genus this dark green/marooned foliage Ligularia flowers in early September with daisy like orange/yellow flowers. ANDREW MESSINGER

Phlox subulata atop a stone wall and hanging down. These need to be pruned after flowering for a great show the next year. ANDREW MESSINGER

Phlox subulata atop a stone wall and hanging down. These need to be pruned after flowering for a great show the next year. ANDREW MESSINGER

Tiarella

Tiarella "Finger Paint" is one of my favorite woodland plants. It likes partial shade and spreads slowly. ANDREW MESSINGER

Aquilegia

Aquilegia "Purple Rain" is about 48 inches tall and quite striking in a semi-shaded spot. Only hummingbirds are able to get their tongues to the back of the long spurs where the nectary is. In the process they pick up pollen from the front of the flower. ANDREW MESSINGER

Alliums are treated as perennials but not a perennial by definition. Note the honeybee in the center. This is an early flower that supports insects that are early pollinators. ANDREW MESSINGER

Alliums are treated as perennials but not a perennial by definition. Note the honeybee in the center. This is an early flower that supports insects that are early pollinators. ANDREW MESSINGER

Just past their peak, these columbines are random hybrid crosses thanks to mother nature and her pollinator insects and hummingbirds.  ANDREW MESSINGER

Just past their peak, these columbines are random hybrid crosses thanks to mother nature and her pollinator insects and hummingbirds. ANDREW MESSINGER

Hidden behind some Polygonatum (Solomon’s seal) is a single stalk of Primula Bee’s Ruby. It’s surprises like this that make the perennial gardens that aren’t over weeded full of surprises.
ANDREW MESSINGER

Hidden behind some Polygonatum (Solomon’s seal) is a single stalk of Primula Bee’s Ruby. It’s surprises like this that make the perennial gardens that aren’t over weeded full of surprises. ANDREW MESSINGER

Smack in the middle of the long perennial island, a Heuchera (left foreground) marks the beginning of a line of Geranium phaeum

Smack in the middle of the long perennial island, a Heuchera (left foreground) marks the beginning of a line of Geranium phaeum "Raven." As striking as this tall, purple-flowered perennial Geranium is it will self-seed and needs to be kept under control. The Geraniums are surrounded by columbines, lilies, Phlox paniculata and other perennials. ANDREW MESSINGER

The German Iris

The German Iris "Immortality" blooming in the foreground with Aquilegia "Purple Rain" in the background. The Iris is about 36 inches tall and the columbine closer to 48 inches, which is very tall for a columbine. ANDREW MESSINGER

Ligularia

Ligularia "The Rocket" being visited by a monarch butterfly in late July. ANDREW MESSINGER

Autor

Hampton Gardener®

I’m up with the sun these days, and that always reaffirms my belief that I have a farmer’s genes in my blood. And this morning as the sun rose I looked from the living room window and in the distance noticed a cloud of white in the middle of the west border. The German Iris “Immortality” opened up overnight, and their pure white blooms in front of the dark purple columbine flowers just behind them and rising above them could only make me smile.

It’s these Iris and the columbines behind them that remind me of the joys of perennials. The Iris have been in the garden for nearly a decade and have been moved at least three times. You can do that with perennials, and when done at the right time it’s easy, painless (for both the planter and the planted) and in just about every case you end up with more plants than you started with.

The Iris also remind me about the many mysteries of perennials. “Immortality” is one of the varieties that is referred to as a “rebloomer” or double bloomer. When I bought the initial three rhizomes (now 18, with others in friends’ gardens) it was because of the pure white color, long-supported reputation and the fact that this was one of the few German Iris (bearded) that would bloom again later in the season. My experience, however, has been different. In the decade I’ve grown this variety, it’s only rebloomed once. Just once.

The columbines behind the Iris are another story. My records tell me that I’ve planted about 25 varieties over the years. I was smitten by one species named Aquilegia chrysantha. It’s a native to the west and southwest but allegedly hardy here. In spite of several replantings I was never able to get it to overwinter, but I suspect it’s left some genetic traces among the columbine collection.

As I’ve noted, columbines (Aquilegia) are notoriously sexy and often cross-pollinate. As a result I stopped buying named varieties and just let these plants have their fun. The hummingbirds seem to be the primary pollinators as their long tongues can get deep into the spur of the flowers to extract the nectar. Pollen gets on the hummingbirds’ heads and gets moved from flower to flower, making natural but hybrid crosses.

As a result, my gardens are now populated with columbines of all colors, spur types, heights — from a foot tall to 3 feet tall — and just an amazing display of color. In early spring it’s easy to go through the garden and thin the seedlings or move them around, but unless the seedling is in flower you really never know what you’ll get — but you always know there will be more next year.

Occasionally a stand of one color will occur. This year I’ve got one isolated group of a tall cherry red with medium spurs that I’m calling Cherry Stilts. Another even taller group in a different area of the garden is a dark, dark maroon with long spurs. It seems very hardy and a striking plant at close to 48 inches tall. I call this one Purple Rain. There’s yet a third group that I’m following that is only 12 to 18 inches tall with a small three-quarter-inch double white flower. But a second group about 20 feet from the original showed up this year with the same size double flower, but in a light lime green instead of white. I’m calling this one Tinker Bell.

The native Aquilegia canadensis now shows up, but I never planted it. I suspect that an animal moved some seed around because I know it grows in a garden a few houses down the street. But over the years it seems that even A. canadensis has had some interesting rendezvous as the plants now show up in several spots ranging in heights from 12 inches up to 40 inches and some have exceptionally large flowers while others are small.

In 2012 I bought a single plant of Uvularia grandiflora (bellwort) from a nursery in West Virginia. This is a nice midspring perennial with nodding yellow flowers that turns out to be an important nectar source for bees and other early pollinators. A few years later I bought another one from a now-defunct nursery called Lazy Z’z Gardens. It was tagged as the same species and yet grows much more compact. Yet a third plant established on its own from seed, and I now have three distinct plants with similar foliage and habits except that one is only 8 inches tall, one is 15 inches tall and the third is nearly 2 feet tall. Divisions of each one (remember divisions are free and a great bonus with most perennials) come true to size.

Then there’s the Trollius collection, the Heuchera collection, the Tiarellas, Helleborus, Peonies, Delphiniums, Hostas, Baptisias, Primulas, Epimediums, Lillium, Ligularias, Echinaceas, Geraniums, Astilbes, Iris, Crocosmia, Begonias (yes, perennial ones), Kniphofia, Filipendula, Cyclamen, Rodgersia, Dionaca, Campanula, Polygonatum, Papaver, Hibiscus, Spigelia and many, many more. There are also one-of-a-kinds that number in the hundreds such as the Farfugium japonicum that’s one of this year’s new plants and my first Trilliums for the woodland garden.

But for the beginners among us I know this can seem daunting and confusing. Rejoice, it can be simple. As simple or as complex and wide ranging as you want your collection and garden to be. So, for the beginner let’s take a look at one genus, Phlox, and look at the diversity.

Yes, there is an annual Phlox, and that alone can be confusing. However, there are also a number of Phlox that are perennials, and part of the appeal of perennials is how diverse the plants can be just within one genus. In our gardens (and garden centers) you can find Phlox subulata, Phlox paniculata, Phlox maculata, Phlox carolinia, Phlox stoloninfera and a new Phlox hybrid in the “Fashionably” group that can bloom twice — sometimes.

Phlox paniculata is our tall garden phlox. This is the one used in gardens and in cutting gardens as it has tall stems, lush green foliage and wonderfully scented flowers. It’s available in white, pink, red, a near blue and some bi colors. It is prone to mildew, but there are mildew resistant varieties and the mildew is controllable. In contrast there is P. subulata or the creeping phlox. Well the older varieties seem to creep, or there was a species mix-up, but breeders have made the newer varieties more compact. It’s a great plant on stone walls, is usually evergreen with needle-like foliage on wiry stems. In the world of opposites, P. subulata is P. paniculata’s opposite and yet still a Phlox.

Phlox stolonifera is similar in habit to P. subulata, but unlike P. stolonifera, the subulata species needs more sun. They can look very similar so be careful which species you pick up.

Phlox maculata is often confused with the P. paniculata, but there are important differences. P. maculata is usually found in meadows that are damp, low woods or along stream banks. The flowers are always purple to lavender, the leaves more pointed than P. paniculata, and it will grow in sun to part shade. It is a native wildflower in the Northeast and not as prone to mildew as the tall garden Phlox. It also makes a nice cut flower with a mild but pleasant scent.

Just a very tiny look at a few perennials. You can probably find 50 to 100 varieties at local garden centers. However, if you really want to start a diverse collection and have your perennials blooming from February (Cyclamen coum) to November (Chrysanthemum Korean Single Apricot) you’ll need to hunt down the mail-order nurseries or drop me a line, and I’ll put together a suggested list.

Looking for good books on perennials? Try any of Allan Armitage’s books, but for the ultimate perennial treat go for the fourth edition of his “Herbaceous Perennial Plants.” It’s the current bible of and for perennials.

And now a confession. The gardener that has been helping me for the past dozen years always tells me I should use some annuals. My response is always “What’s an annual?” Last summer I was in a garden center and I saw a 2-gallon pot of Salvia that just blew me away. It was in the perennial section, and I had to have it. I bought three. Got it back into the garden and installed them in the new north extension of the island bed. It performed with incredible color and vigor all summer and was very impressive. I’d grown other Salvias in the garden and none have swept me away like this one.

At the end of last winter as we began to evaluate and clean up it looked like all three of these plants were quite dead. I pulled the label then went back to the Proven Winners website to look up the plant’s details and I was embarrassed beyond words. But the hardiness key was pretty clear — a perennial but not hardy except in zones 9-11. My bad. Yes, a perennial, not a hardy, herbaceous perennial. But in my defense, it was in the perennial section. Keep growing.

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