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A well-planned perennial garden can have beautiful plants that bloom during most of the year. This article gives tips for how to plan a garden with show-stopping color that attracts pollinators, beneficial insects, birds and the admiration of your neighborhood.

What is a Perennial?

In gardening, the term “perennial” has two different meanings. It can be used to define the lifecycle of any plant that lives for more than 2 years. Or, it can refer to small, flowering plants that live between 3-5 years that are normally sold in small containers at a nursery. This article focuses on the latter. Examples of common perennials include salvia, phlox, rudbeckia (pictured above), true geraniums, and daylily. That said, some perennials behave like annuals in cooler climates.

Perennial Characteristics

There are two types of perennials, herbaceous and evergreen. Herbaceous perennials like hydrangea lose their leaves each winter, and evergreen perennials like geraniums stay green year-round. Perennials may be herbaceous or evergreen depending upon the climate. You’ll want to use both types in your garden to guarantee color and interest throughout the year. Herbs are also perennial plants and are mentioned more in depth in Culinary and Medicinal Herbs and Spices.

Plan Your Garden

Perennials Bed Anne of Green GardensPerennial Bed Anne of Green Gardens

Choose an area that gets full-sun.You may already have plants, and incorporating the plants and landscape features that already exist in your garden makes for a well-planned and attractive garden.

Now that you’ve observed the garden area, it’s time to sketch the outline of your perennial bed. Use a piece of graph paper and utilize the squares on the graph paper to represent square feet. For example, four squares could represent one square foot. The outline of the bed can be circular, square or even irregular.

Inside the garden bed you’ll want to draw irregular spaces where you’ll plant the perennials. It’s best to plant perennials in groups of odd numbers (3,5, 7 etc.) to increase the impact of the plant colors and textures. Also, beneficial insects and pollinators prefer to visit large groupings of the same flowering plant because it makes it easier for them to gather pollen and nectar.


Purchasing Perennials

When you visit your local nursery or garden center, be careful of “one of each it is!” This common garden-related addiction occurs when gardeners eyes glaze over and they purchase one of each kind of plant they like. Upon arriving home, the gardener attempts to find places for all of the plants. The end result is a mishmash garden and an unhappy gardener.

If you can’t seem to stop your addiction, read “Coping with One-of-Each-Itis” by Billy Goodnick for tips on what to do once you arrive home. Before you visit a nursery, write out a list of plants or types of plants you need before you go.


Which Perennials Should I Use?

You’ll want to choose a mixture of herbaceous and evergreen perennials that have the same water and sun requirements. There are many perennial books on the market, just make sure the author is from the same region where you live.

Research perennials at your local library, or go to a local nursery and look them over (but don’t purchase anything). Visiting botanical gardens and arboretums can also be helpful. You can also look online at perennial catalogs and search for plants that do best in your USDA zone.USDA Plant Hardiness MapFor Canada, use the Plant Hardiness Zones of Canada.for other parts of the world hardiness zones may exist for your area, or speak to a local certified nurseryperson at a garden center. Here are some questions to answer as you plan your perennial garden bed:

  • Does this plant take sun or shade?
  • How much water does this plant need?
  • Is this plant evergreen or herbaceous?
  • What is the final plant height and width of the plant?
  • When does the plant bloom?
  • Is this an easy care plant or is it fussy?


Planting Perennials

Whatever you do, avoid planting perennials too close together. Pay special attention to spacing directions. Perennial beds eventually need renovation, but usually not for several years.

To plant, dig a hole the same depth as the container but twice as wide. Score the edges of the hole with your shovel; this will help plant roots penetrate beyond the planting hole. Gently remove the plant from its container, then set it in the hole. Fill in around the plant with the original soil, making sure to press the soil down firmly to eliminate any air pockets.

Watering Perennials

All plants, even low-water use perennials, need to be watered regularly during their first year in order to become established. After planting, create small berms around each plant or plant grouping and water deeply with a hose. If you aren’t sure what a berm is, it’s like this sketch from How to Plant a Tree.

Eventually you’ll want to devise a drip system to deliver the right amount of water to each plant. When plants are small, you may only need 1 drip emitter per plant. As they grow larger you may want to add more. The gallons per hour (gph) on each emitter need to be chosen based on your soil type and plant size. In clay soils you’ll need to water more slowly so water can percolate through the soil. In sandy soils you’ll want to water more frequently and for less time. Read the articles under Gardening 101 to learn about soil, water and transplant basics.

Sketch by Ed Perry, photos by Holly Guenther

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