Perennials for Beginners

Pat Simpson

Adams County Master Gardener

Perennials are hardy plants that live year after year. The leaves, stems and flowers die back each fall, and new plant tops arise from the roots each spring. Perennials are the foundation of a garden that can provide years of enjoyment and long lasting beauty. However, before you start planting a perennial garden, there are some important recommendations that should be followed.

1. Prepare and Test Your Soil. It is very important that you do some initial soil preparation. Pick the spot you want to landscape. Check the soil drainage by digging a ten-inch deep hole and filling it with water. The next day fill it with water again. If all the water has not drained out in eight hours, the drainage is poor and you should consider constructing a raised bed. Dig a furrow around the edges of the bed and add the soil from the furrows to the top of the bed. Add three to four inches of compost and peat moss to the top 8 inches of soil. This process will build up or “raise” the bed. Excess water can then seep from the beds into the furrow. Next, test the pH of your soil. Your local Cooperative Extension has test kits available. Once you have the test results, make the recommended amendments to the soil. Master Gardeners at the Extension Office can help you interpret your test results.

2. Pick your Perennials. Do some research first. Decide what kind of garden you want; cottage garden, rock garden, mass planting of color, herb garden. Are you going to use bulbs or ornamental grasses? Is your flower bed in sun or shade? It is important to have the right conditions for your perennials. A shade plant may not survive in the hot sun. A plant that likes direct sun may not flower properly in a shady spot. Make sure the plants are hardy for your area or agricultural zone.

Check the flowering times of different perennials since most have short blooming periods. Pick plants and bulbs with different blooming periods so you have a succession of bloom during the spring, summer and fall. Look for ones that have longer blooming periods. Most plant catalogs have this information and make it easy for the novice by selling “group packages” of perennials guaranteed to give a succession of bloom. You can also plant annuals (plants that live only one season) with your perennials. The annuals will help brighten the garden during the periods when some of the perennials stop blooming.

3. Buy your perennials. Here there are many choices: garden centers, garden club sales, herb farms, catalogs or better yet, get plant divisions for free from friends, neighbors and relatives who are dividing their plants. Perennials are more expensive than annuals, but you only have to buy one or two plants of each variety because over the years perennials will grow and spread. Make sure the plants are healthy looking. You want plants that are dark green and compact—avoid plants with thin, yellowing stems and leaves or ones that may be infested with insects. Read the directions on the plant tag to see if they do best in sun or shade, how far apart to space them, and how tall they will get.

4. Start Planting. Plant in clumps or groups, spacing the plants as the directions recommend and keeping in mind the height of the plants. Plant according to heights starting with the tallest plants in the back of the bed down to the shorter, edging plants in the front. Large plants like ornamental grasses do better planted as specimens by themselves since they will grow very large over the years. Begin planting by removing your plants from the flats or pots leaving as much of the block of moist soil around their roots as possible. Dig a hole deep enough so that the top of the root ball is level with or just above the surface of the ground.

Before setting the plant in, drench the soil in the planting hole with weak fertilizer (one tablespoon fertilizer to one gallon water) and then fill in with soil around the plant. Water on a regular basis until the plant is established and during dry spells. Water needs to reach the roots of perennials so use a soaker hose, drip irrigation or a hand held hose with a water breaker type tip placed underneath the plant. Avoid sprinklers that wet the top foliage and make the plant susceptible to diseases and squirt type hose nozzles that push the soil away from the plant.

5. Mulch. This will keep the soil moist and warm and cut down on weeding. Bark, pine needles or shredded leaves are good organic mulches. You can also use gravel or black plastic landscaping material.

6. Deadhead. Remove old flower heads or cut back plants to keep them neat looking after their blooming period is finished.

7. Divide. Every three to four years your plants will need to be divided as they will get overcrowded with unsightly centers. Divide them into clumps of three to five shoots. Do this when plants are dormant in the spring or fall.

8. Fertilize. This should be done each spring as plants come to life and begin growing.

Follow these steps and you are on your way to establishing a beautiful garden. When fall comes, your plants will die back, but what a thrill you’ll experience to see them come to life each spring. With perennials, a little investment in time and money now can give you virtually a lifetime of enjoyment.

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