Good news — there's a perennial for almost any growing situation your yard can dish up. Make a match between the conditions you have to offer and the known characteristics of a plant, and you're halfway there. A little care from you on planting day and beyond, and your perennials are sure to thrive.
Lots of perennials adore sunshine. They grow more compactly when they get enough sun (as opposed to becoming lanky or leaning towards the light source), and they produce more and better flowers.
Full sun means six or more hours per day. If you have to choose between a spot with morning sun and a spot with afternoon sun, most sun-loving perennials seem to do better with the afternoon site. This situation varies somewhat on your climate. If you live in the deep South, a plant that grows best in full sun in a Northern climate may perform better in a spot protected from hot, late afternoon sun.
Because sun can be drying, either choose dryland natives or help out the plants with regular watering and a moisture-conserving mulch around their root systems.
Favorite sun perennials include artemisia, armería, basket-of-gold, blanket flower, coneflower, coreopsis, delphinium, gaura, lavender, penstemon, peony, sea holly, and yarrow.
Judging from many gardening books and magazines, a beautiful garden is full of sunshine and flowers, and those of us with shade are doomed to a dull and boring display. Not so! Many perennials prefer shade, prospering in a range of conditions ranging from deepest woodland gloom to areas of dappled or filtered light to those that get morning sun and afternoon shade.
Not only that, but many plants appropriate for shade have beautiful leaves — you can find amazing variety in shape, texture, and even color. And you may be pleasantly surprised to hear that plenty of shade plants produce attractive flowers.
Shade is actually a benefit to many plants. Lack of direct sun means their leaves look healthy and lush, without burned edges or tips, without drying out or wilting. Sunlight also tends to bleach out the beauty of variegated leaves (leaves that are marked or rimmed in white, cream, or gold), whereas in shade, such foliage thrives and lights up the scene. Shelter from the sun's hot rays also preserves flower color.
Favorite shade perennials include ajuga, astilbe, bergenia, bleeding heart, brunnera, coral bells, corydalis, many ferns, goatsbeard, hellebore, hosta, lady's mantle, lamium, lily-of-the-valley, lungwort, Solomon's seal, and sweet woodruff.
If sandy, gritty, or fast-draining soil is your lot, a fabulous perennial garden is still possible. Save yourself a lot of blood, sweat, and tears by working with what you have. Sure, digging in some organic matter at planting time (and on an annual basis) is good advice that you should follow when you can, but your gardening life can be a lot easier if you go native. You don't have to pour on water you don't have, and you may be delighted with the easy maintenance and attractive look.
That's right: Go native. Perennials native to dry ground are your best bet. Before you protest that they aren't attractive or are probably weeds, take a fresh look. Peruse the offerings at a local nursery that specializes in indigenous plants. Visit a public garden or botanic garden with displays of natives. Your eyes will be opened. Botanists and horticulturists feel your pain and have been working hard over the years to find out which ones adapt best to gardens and which ones are prettiest. There are even selections or cultivated varieties (cul-tivars) that are significant improvements over their wild parents — new flower colors and bigger, longer-lasting flowers on more-compact, handsome plants.
Favorite dry-soil perennials include black-eyed Susan, blanket flower, baptisia, butterflyweed, evening primrose, gaura, penstemon, phormium (a tender perennial in most regions), and yarrow. And don't overlook cacti and succulents — a well-stocked local or mail-order nursery can convince of their astounding range and beauty.
Soggy, boggy ground is usually written off as a lost area or liability. But what if that damp side yard, wet back forty, or perpetually muddy roadside ditch were to come alive with handsome leaves and blooming color? It's certainly possible. A host of plants actually like wet feet; a little research can point you to the ones that are a match for your problem-spot's conditions.
You may have to wade in prior to planting and get the spot ready. Bring your rubber boots and create a hospitable open area with gusto and determination! Yank out most or all the existing vegetation so it doesn't compete with the desirable incoming perennials. If warranted and practical, dig a drainage trench to route excess water away from the spot. Perhaps dig in some organic matter to improve soil fertility and drainage, if only a little.
After you've planted the area with appropriate moisture-loving perennials, not much more should be required. The plants' basic need — water — is already present. If the plants are happy, they'll increase over time, reducing the need for weeding or indeed, any intervention on your part. If they grow too lushly, why, you can rip out and discard or give away the extra plants.
Cardinal flower, daylilies, forget-me-not, Japanese primrose, marsh marigold, and turtlehead are good plants for wet soil. Don't apologize for the wet soil: Go ahead, call it a bog garden! And if you're ambitious, make the boggy area the entry to a new water garden — see Chapter 17 for details on ponds.
Clay soil: Soggy soil at its Worst
If your yard has clay soil, you already know it. Slick and soggy in wet weather and nearly impenetrable in dry, clay soil is actually composed of lots of densely packed, very tiny particles. Clay leaves little space for air and water to circulate, and the result is heavy ground that drains poorly. Needless to say, many perennials — or rather, their roots — have a hard go of it in such conditions (and so does your shovel or trowel, for that matter).
Clay soil does have some advantages, believe it or not. It's often fairly fertile because it holds nutrients and water so well. And of course, it's slower to dry out in hot weather, which can help your plants.
At any rate, if clay is your lot in life, you have three options:
1 Improve the soil's structure. Add organic matter. Doing so can help lighten and aerate the area, making it more hospitable to perennials and other plants and allowing water to drain away better. Dig organic matter in often and deeply — compost and/or well-rotted manure are up to the job. (For details on soil improvement, check out Chapter 4.)
1 Go with what you have. Plant clay-tolerant perennials, such as beebalm, cardinal flower, chrysogonum, epimedium, many ferns, galax, gunnera, Japanese iris, Japanese primrose, marsh marigold, or myosotis.
1 Bypass it. Grow your perennials in raised beds (see Chapter 13) or pots (Chapter 16).
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