Perennials are available in many forms: as seeds, as dormant bare-root plants, in seedling packs like annuals, in 4- and 6-inch pots, and in 1-gallon containers. Larger plants represent a considerably larger investment than their smaller counterparts. However, they will produce a full look sooner and you may see each plant's foliage and possibly flowers before you purchase it. Although more wildflowers and ferns are becoming available, you usually have to obtain the more unusual ones from specialized nurseries.
Many nurseries now offer perennials as first-year seedlings in plastic "cell packs." These plants might take an extra year to establish, but the cost per plant is considerably less.
Try to choose only fresh, green plants that are bushy and compact. If plants have flowers, remove them at planting time.
Mail-order businesses generally wait to ship dormant plants until the weather is suitable for planting. However, many of these companies operate in southern states and plants sometimes arrive when snow is still on the ground in the north. In such cases, store dormant plants in a cool, dark location where the temperature stays above freezing, and keep the packing material slightly moist. If the holding temperature is not below 50°F, watch the plants closely because they may yellow and deteriorate if they are kept longer than one to two weeks. Wrap the plants loosely in plastic and keep in a refrigerator if you have room. If not carefully protected from desiccation, the plants will deteriorate very quickly.
Another way to handle newly purchased bare-root plants is to pot them in containers and grow them in a protected area, a coldframe, a cool greenhouse or similar structure until you can safely plant them in their permanent location. Or plant bare-root plants directly in the ground, if it's workable, in the corner of a garden or small nursery. A light, sandy, well drained soil is desirable. Cover plants with slitted row covers or similar plant protectors until the danger of hard frost has passed. Be sure the protectors are ventilated, or remove them on sunny or warm days. Then move plants to their permanent location. Or, if small, allow them to grow for a year before transplanting.
Many perennials are relatively trouble-free and grow best in a loose, moderately fertile loam with adequate moisture. The best time to plant most perennials is in the spring because the plants will establish a good root system before winter. This will also reduce the possibility of heaving, a common problem with poorly established perennials in northern climates. You can also plant new divisions in late summer, but be sure the roots have at least a month to develop before cold weather sets in. A few perennials are at their best when planted in August: bearded iris, Oriental poppy, peony and many woodland wildflow-ers. Potted perennials can be planted any time during the growing season.
Growing Perennials from Seed
Many perennials can easily be grown from seeds, such as columbine, delphinium and rudbeckia.
Use small pots or trays containing cell packs to start seeds. A standard, well drained growing medium works well for most perennials. Seed packets should include essential information, such as when to sow, how deeply, germination temperature and other information. Sow seeds at the recommended rate and time (spring, summer or fall) in a sterile medium, either scattered (broadcast) or in rows, and cover them with the recommended amount of growing medium (usually about two to three times the diameter of the seed).
Label the containers and water very carefully to avoid washing away the seeds. Use a fog-type nozzle or let the containers stand in a shallow tub of water to avoid disturbing the seeds.
Place the containers in a warm location where the soil temperature is at least 70°F. Cover with plastic to keep the medium moist. As soon as most of the seeds have germinated, remove the plastic and move the containers to a cooler location (60 to 65°F) in bright light to harden seedlings.
You can also start seeds in outdoor seedbeds either in an open or a protected area, such as a cold-frame. The seedbed should have porous, well drained soil that you have prepared thoroughly, leveled, tamped with the back of a rake and leveled again before seeding. After preparing the bed, sow the seeds and cover, following directions on the seed packet. Moisten the seedbed with a fog-type hose nozzle and be careful not to wash away the seeds.
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