Perennials Forever - 27 East

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Perennials Forever

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Alliums, or ornamental onions, bloom mid-spring and into the summer depending on the variety.  They don’t grow from crowns and they have hollow stems but we still treat them as perennials and use them in perennial gardens.  Varieties like Globemaster can be quite stunning and make great cuts.
ANDREW MESSINGER

Alliums, or ornamental onions, bloom mid-spring and into the summer depending on the variety. They don’t grow from crowns and they have hollow stems but we still treat them as perennials and use them in perennial gardens. Varieties like Globemaster can be quite stunning and make great cuts. ANDREW MESSINGER

An early spring glimpse of my English-inspired island bed. The view is from the north end, and the first 25 feet where the plantings look thin was just added late last summer.  The bed is 150 feet long and ranges from 8 to 20 feet wide with undulating edges. Unseen is the dry laid rock wall down the spine, which separates the upper portion from the lower. The wall is home to Campanulas, creeping phlox and other plants that like to

An early spring glimpse of my English-inspired island bed. The view is from the north end, and the first 25 feet where the plantings look thin was just added late last summer. The bed is 150 feet long and ranges from 8 to 20 feet wide with undulating edges. Unseen is the dry laid rock wall down the spine, which separates the upper portion from the lower. The wall is home to Campanulas, creeping phlox and other plants that like to "hang." In the center is a large lilac that provides shade to one of the hosta collections below it and to the left (not visible). ANDREW MESSINGER

A small portion of the island perennial gardens by Alan Bloom at Bressingham Gardens. The perennial and dwarf conifer gardens cover some 15 acres.
 IKCUR/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, <a href=CC BY-SA 4.0" class="img-fluid">

A small portion of the island perennial gardens by Alan Bloom at Bressingham Gardens. The perennial and dwarf conifer gardens cover some 15 acres. IKCUR/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, CC BY-SA 4.0

Alan Bloom’s famous

Alan Bloom’s famous "Dell," which is composed of island beds of mixed dwarf conifers and herbaceous perennials. This picture is on the cover of the 1980s Hampton Gardener booklet “English Gardens Adapted for the U.S.” AIRWOLFHOUND/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, CC BY-SA 2.0

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Hampton Gardener®

  • Publication: Residence
  • Published on: May 31, 2023
  • Columnist: Andrew Messinger

I’ve had an interest in plants and gardening for as long as I can remember. I inherited this from my father who was an avid gardener who let me tag along as he planted his fruit trees, roses, funkia (now called hosta), beds of cannas and a few perennials.

Even when I went to college to pursue a career in journalism my interest in plants continued and for four years I sold houseplants on campus. A twist of fate brought me to Southampton, and I found myself with a 1,200-square-foot glass, Dutch greenhouse where I expanded my tropical plant collection.

But somewhere along the line I became enamored with a class of plants called herbaceous perennials, or just plain “perennials,” I became a voracious reader of books and articles on perennials and decided I’d try my luck at growing these plants. A few years later I decided to try my luck at growing perennials to sell. At the time there were two large perennial growers on the North Fork that I couldn’t possibly compete with in terms of nursery space and cash on hand for stock material.

My solution was a bit unique. Grow everything from seed. The wholesale growers on the North Fork really weren’t growers but “finishers.” They’d buy root stock from other growers, pot the roots into gallon plastic pots and a few months to a year later we’d find these “finished” perennials at local garden centers. But, if I could grow these plants from seed I could offer a much more varied list of offerings and so The Hampton Gardener became a wholesale perennial grower.

I would buy my seed from Klaus Jelitto, a wholesale perennial seed dealer in Germany, germinate the seed in the Southampton greenhouse and grow the plants for a couple of years before releasing them for sale. In our last year of operation we sold hundreds of thousands of perennials to garden centers from Montauk up into Westchester. We leased one delivery truck and bought a second. On the side was our motto, “We’re in the best beds in the Hamptons.”

I’ve learned a thing or two about these plants, and while I no longer sell them I’ve got a collection of perennials that any day now will top over 1,000 varieties from all over the world. My passion for these plants never subsided and was further cultivated by a friendship with Alan Bloom who was an English horticulturist and nurseryman who really sealed my fate.

Alan was the founder of the British nursery Blooms of Bressingham where several hundred perennial varieties were developed by Alan and his son Adrian. Alan also “invented” what is now known as the perennial island bed. Previously, perennial gardens were one sided, and you looked into the garden from a walkway or lawn. Alan put his perennial beds in the middle of lawns so they could be viewed from two sides and thus, an island bed. Suddenly these beds became the rage of the 1970s and beyond with all kinds of new opportunities for garden and plant viewing.

We established a business relationship with Bloom’s and began importing some of their root stock, which we grew on and began selling locally at several garden centers. But changes in importing regulations made it difficult to continue this practice and Alan became more interested in rebuilding retired steam locomotives while Adrian managed the business. My perennial business was eventually sold to Martin Viette Nurseries, which also bought the Springs Nursery in East Hampton and in time that business dissolved.

My lust and passion for perennials continued through, and I’ve got one island bed that’s about 150 feet long and 15 feet wide with sun, shade and everything in-between. It’s packed with perennials as are the two side beds, each 150 feet long but traditionally one sided. Every year I bring in more plants and every year I swear I won’t add any more. That was my vow last fall. This spring about 100 new plants arrived. To make things “worse,” several growers send me their plants to trial, and another 18 of those showed up in recent weeks.

So, why perennials? To answer this question you first need to understand what a perennial is, or more specifically what a herbaceous perennial is. The technical definition would be any plant that has a soft (versus woody) stem that at the end of the growing season dies while the crown of the plant remains intact through the winter and new growth or shoots emerge from this crown in the spring. And then there are all the exceptions. Many of them.

There are the perennials that are winter hardy in zones 8 to 10 (south of us) that may not make it through any or most winters here. These are the tender perennials. One good example of this is Althea zebrina, or the miniature hollyhock. In some catalogs it’s noted as not hardy but self seeding while in others it’s listed as a hardy perennial. It’s not a perennial out here.

On the other end there is the Russian sage, or Perovskia. It’s sold as a perennial and is winter hardy out here, but new growth emerges not from the crown but from last year’s nearly woody stem. Prune it to the ground in November when you tidy up the garden and you may have a dead Russian sage come spring.

What about raspberries? We often trim this plant down to the ground at times to rejuvenate it and this causes new shoots to emerge in the spring. But it has a woody stem that will overwinter if allowed — most of the time. A perennial? Nope.

But let’s not get hung up on strict definitions and try to keep this simple. Most perennial plants return and flower every year. Some are tender and must be treated as annuals like many of the recent Digitalis introductions. Some will live for two years, maybe three then fade away. These are short-lived perennials.

And while bulbs of many sorts have stems (mostly hollow and not herbaceous) the fall-planted bulbs do not have crowns and store all their winter energy in the bulb. Bulbs really fall into the group known as geophytes, but that never took hold as a new “thing.” Then there are rhizomes, corms and whatever else I’ve forgotten.

Right now the garden centers are full of true perennials and that’s the place to be looking and perusing for perennials in June and early July. The mail-order nurseries’ shipping season is over so if you want to shop, shop locally.

Next week, what to buy, what to avoid, where to buy and by all means go on lots and lots of garden tours this summer. If you find a perennial that you like, ask what it is. Make a note somewhere so you can shop for it even though it may not be until next year that you can locate it. Like to shop for bargains? During the summer many perennials left on the shelf go for half the original price. Don’t plant it in the garden this summer. Put it in your holding garden and give it a year to revive. Transplant it next spring.

Before I let you go though, one gardening and Hamptonesque short take. Years ago while I was managing the properties of a wealthy Southampton couple, Mrs. Boss became the epitome of how a little knowledge can be dangerous. The one question went like this: “Well, Andrew, why do we have so many annuals in our gardens when they are very expensive and they die in the winter? Don’t perennials come back every year and we’d save a ton of money?” Next week, the answer.

Now I know the Hamptons can be very competitive. How many varieties of perennials can you grow and be proud of?

Keep growing.

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