Keeping Perennials Perennial

Tuesday, July 02, 2002

Keeping Perennials Perennial
     No question but that gardeners have a sense of humor.  Why else would one definition of a perennial be this ironic pearl:  a perennial is a plant that, had it lived, would have bloomed again for several years.
     Hebaceous perennials are in fact plants with fleshy, nonwoody stems that are not annuals. They do not live, as annuals do, to set seed before they die in a single season.  Perennials have a different mission:  to grow roots so they can maintain their heart and soul, the crown.  Its survival means everything:  leaves, flowers, roots, and new shoots to insure its future.
     Choosing and planting:  The explosion of perennial popularity means you'll find lots of them to buy.  That's good news, but, take my advice and prepare your soil first, then shop.  Perennials cannot live long in their pots.  Originally, all these herbaceous plants were gorwn in the ground and what few you could buy were dug up, potted, and sold almost entirely locally.  Now, a wider variety of plants are grown in greenhouses much like annuals, in light soil designed for frequent watering at the grower's pace, and shipped across the state at least.  Water new plants as soon as you get them home, and plant within the day.
     If the rootball is tightly wound, rough it up, even cut a wedge out of the bottom of the rootball and plant on a small mound.  Use your own great garden soil, and mix it with whater potting soil isnt attached to your plant.  If roots are loose, spread them in a hole wider than it is deep.  Remember that hydrated roots multiply faster than dry ones, so soak the roots before planting.
     After planting, water again, preferably with root stimulator, fertilizer, or compost tea.  Take a cup of compost, your own or the bagged stuff from Back to Earth Resources.  Steep it in a bucket with a quart of warm water for a couple of hours.  Stir a couple of times, let it settle and water with the top part of the water.  Soak the new plantings well.  Mulch, then don't let the new plants dry out.
     When you shop, seek out young perennials with healthy green leaves growing in at least a one quart pot.  If i find a sought after specimen and it looks too small to make a go on its own, I pot it up on a one gallon and grow it out before planting.  For the longest garden life, do not look for flowers or even fully mature growth.  These are lang haul plants, closer in fact to shrubs than annuals, but we don't always see that.  They are often small, relatively low priced, placed in the garden center near the annuals, and of course, we pricce them for their flower just as we do the one season wonders.
     Plants with wheels:  Remember that it's easy to move perennials about in the garden, so don't fret if they don't make your heart sing the first year... wait til time, then dig and move them.  Perhaps the best part about perennials is that most of them multiply readily, so many can be moved at th etime they're divided.  Here's a few ideas on when to do that:  Think opposites:  early spring is best time to dig and divide summer and fall bloomers; fall is the best time to work with spring flowers.  The exceptions to this are obvious to southern gardners: the plants should have about three inches of new growth on them before you fool with them.  Some years, some plants, that could be Feb. or April.  For the other end of the plants and calendar, you don't have to wait until near winter to work with them. Some plants will go into summer rest as early as June; if you're prepared to water and care for them, or if you're moving them into pots, late summer is fine.  Let the plants be your guide.
     Don't be surprised if spring bloomers look just aweful in summer and don't rush to compost them, they're resting.  Some will grow again in fall (bleeding heart, Dicentra, LA iris); some wont be seen again until late winter the next year (peonies).
     What nobody tells you:  Let me stress how important it is to label plants in a perennial garden.  Invest in nice ones, or recycle plastic stakes, or cut up aluminum pans, punch a hole in one end and threat the other through.  But put the names out there.  You'll never remember them all, and since each plant goes dormant sometime, you'll also never remember who's where.  Trust me on this to avoid columbine hidden behind phlox and coneflowers.
     Deep south gardeners know that some perennials are short lived, some long lived, and that many are shorter lived here than elsewhere.  Our growing season is longer, with hotter summers and colder winters than many find ideal.  others find our dry spells, heavy soils, and wetter than wet periods simply exhausting; the plants wear out.
     Trust me also to tell you that perennials may have been touted as low maintenance, the 'plant 'em and forget 'em til the bloom' plants.  But they will be lots better looking, and you'll enjoy them more, if you do fool with them.  First on that list will be staking, then dead heading.  Perenials store up a years worth of energy in their crown, then burst up with stems and flowers above ground.  Many grow fast, especially in good garden soil, and staking will keep the flowers nice and the plants in view.  Single poles with cotton or pantyhose, single loops, cages, u-name-its... any uplifting decie will also improve air circulation around the plants and prevent soilborne fungus diseases from reaching most of it.
     When you prepare a garden bed, amend the soil.   Feed th edirt, and the worms, and they'll feed the crown.  You definately want to fertilize the plants twice a year at least ( I like a granular flower food myself), and add organic matter every fall.  But the weekly fertilizing you may do to annuals, and the slow release you always add to houseplants and may put around shrubs is not the best for perennials.  Feed perennials by the calendar.  If you group them in bed with annuals, spot feed those.
     Water is another matter.  Except for some hardy natives that have lived for generations without irrigation, most perennials must have weekly water to perform.  Even those natives need to be planted in the garden as in nature and a dithbank or bog, prairie or whatever may not be in your backyard, supplying water is just another way gardeners adjust for the realities the plant is enduring.
     If you are successful, you will have tons of flowers to cut and enjoy, or to view in the garden, then deadhead.  Like annuals, perennials will be blooming best if you'll keep the flowers trimmed.  Not all will rebloom, though, and I want you to look before you cut:  if the flower stalks have green leaves below the buds, don't cut them back hard.  If the stakes are naked, snip away.
     Crowning glory: the nerve center of the whole plant.  Crowns may be big and obvious, like daisies, whose emerging green dots the late winter landscape.  Or less so, like alstromeria, which looks like green sticks popping up from nowhere.  As you life the plant to divide it, though, you find a dense mat sustains it.  When you plant or replant, be sure to keep the crown at or slightly above ground level.  As offshoots emerge, make room for them, or transplant them out.  Replace the dying center in plants like mums and lambs ears who

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