Bartlett on Gardening: Are Perennials for You?

Do you wish your flowers would come back year after year? Perennials do.

While annuals such as zucchini and marigolds flower, produce seeds and die in one season, perennials flower, produce new plants and return to do so for at least three years. The parts above ground may be killed by frost but the roots live through winter, and in spring the plant grows again. Peonies and iris are example of frequently seen perennials, but there are hundreds of readily available selections.

Although a mature perennial border can survive on a reduced schedule of garden maintenance, the work involved in cultivating these plants is different rather than less intensive than tending an annual border.

In an annual border, the gardener plans and plants anew each year, enjoying a uniformly vivid color display throughout the season. With perennials, the color display is continually evolving, changing noticeably roughly every two weeks as the plants grow, bloom and fade.

Planning the border is a big part of the fun. Not only must the gardener decide on a color scheme, but she must choose and arrange a section of plants which thrive in the environment and provide visual interest throughout the growing season. There are many which bloom in spring and early summer and quite a few for late summer and fall color. The challenge lies in midsummer. Certainly annuals can be used to fill the breach. Another strategy is to make foliage forms a focal point. There are perennials which should bloom in August. However, I recommend combining all approaches to ensure success.

My first successful perennial design was small, a two-by-four-foot area around the mailbox. Preplanned gardens are available from several companies. Using them is a great way to become acquainted with a variety of plants.

Establishing a perennial border requires as much patience as labor. I always caution folks that the first year won't be the best year. After selecting the site, soil preparation is critical because it will be the permanent home for your plants. Adding organic material can improve both soil quality and fertility. A soil test can reveal any need to adjust soil pH to a slightly acid range of 6.1 to 6.5.

Spade or till the area to a depth of 8 to 10 inches. Space the plants as directed on the labels. Fill the gaps with annuals the first season. Happy perennials will quickly fill in and you will be busy dividing and finding new homes for the offspring.

Keep this maxim in mind: First they sleep; then they creep; then they leap!

Editor's note: Illustrations are by Ann Bartlett's artist daughter, Roxanne.

Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.

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