Perils and Progress of the Patiently Persistent Planter

February 16, 2019


Those of you who have not developed a perennial border may think that it is much easier than a garden of annuals. Granted, we perennial gardeners do not start from scratch each year. However, the perennial border is not completed in one season.


​​In fact the border begins long before any plants are purchased. There are two vital starting points. One is creating a master plan. The other is preparing the soil. From my experience in developing four gardens, I can tell you that getting the soil into shape can take several years. During this time, planning goes on but the garden area is either fallow or planted in annuals.


When I was developing my first border, I did very little research before planting whole beds of perennials. Needless to say, I killed many healthy plants by placing them in the wrong place. I still tend to push the limits in discovering what will grow where I am living. But now I try to do research and consider the source of information before introducing a selection. I still have my fair share of failures. The successful additions encourage me to keep trying new plants.


​​Once permanent planting begins, one must be patient and persistent. Most perennials take three to five seasons to look like much. Inevitably, some are disappointing. These must be replaced. Then it’s time to be patient again as the new plants prove their worth. One must persistently divide and replant the keepers while integrating new material into the mix. We gardeners must ruthlessly root our mistakes. 



Mistakes come in many guises. Common among them is the plant that doesn’t earn ​​its keep. It has a short, uncertain period of unremarkable bloom usually accompanied by scraggly foliage. No one finds it difficult to expel these from their personal Eden. ​​More common, and much harder to part with are the vigorous, even invasive, selections that will crowd out everything else if not quickly eradicated. These literally grow like weeds and should be treated as such!  Occasionally the color or size of a plant does not fit into the overall plan. These plants are good pass-along candidates.


(Editor's note:  Two guises my own perennial mistakes came in: Above, Mexican petunias, or Ruellia. The tall, showy flowers look great in parking lots, where they love the heat, but in my yard they bloom sparsely and only in the fall. The foliage thrives healthily through the summer, though, and chokes out everything else it's planted with. As the poet said, "With Ruellia my heart is laden!") At right, four o'clocks, sold as annuals, actually establish huge, shovel-breaking roots that reach to China so that they come back every year, eating everything in their path. Beware! After 17 years, the editor has still not managed to expel them from her personal Eden.)  


After five to seven years, the border is getting somewhere. Depending on the mix of plants, maturity may take 10 to 15 years.


Beauty being in the eye of the beholder, there is no one perfect mixed border, but the gardener must be persistent in pursuing his individual vision.


Native Californian Ann Bartlett is a master gardener who would never make the amateurish mistakes the editor has described above.

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