Pass the Perennials . . . Please!


A perennial is a herbaceous plant that lives for at least two years or more. The term is often used to differentiate a plant from shorter lived annuals and biennials. Perennials usually grow and bloom over the spring and summer and then die back every autumn and winter, then return in the spring from their root-stock rather than re-seeding themselves as an annual plant does. However, depending on the rigors of the local climate, a plant that is classified as a perennial in its native habitat can be classified as an annual elsewhere.  For example, in a colder climate, certain plants are considered an annual because they do not survive the harsh dormant period. They are planted out every year, from seed, from cuttings or from divisions. 
Some nurseries and garden stores sell perennials already growing in containers. In both fall and early spring, some perennials are also available as dormant bare-root plants and bulbs.

Salvia leucantha "Santa Barbara"

Low-Water Use Perennials
         Blue Star, Amsonia spp. , 2' high X 1' wide.
Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberose, 2' high X 2' wide.
Chocolate daisy, Berlanderia lyrata, 2' high X 1' wide.
Desert marigold, Baileya multiradiata, 1.5' high X 1' wide.
Sundrops, Calylophus hartwegii, 1' high X 3' wide.
Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja integra, 1.5' high X six inches wide.
Blue Mist, Conoclinium gregii, 3' high X 2' wide.
Coreopsis, Coreopsis lanceolata, 2' high X 1' wide.
Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpera, 3' high X 1' wide.
Cutleaf daisy, Engelmannia pinnatifida, 3' high X 2' wide.
Spreading fleabane daisy, Erigeron divergens, 1.5' high X 2' wide.
Western Wallflower, Erysimum capitatum, 3' high X 1' wide.
Siberian Wallflower, Erysimum hieracifolium, 1.5' high X 1' wide.
Red Indian Blanket, Gaillardia amblyodon, 1' high X 2' wide.
Blanket Flower (Firewheel), Gaillardia spp. , 1' high X 1' wide.
Golden Aster, Heterotheca villosa, 1.5' high X 1.5' wide.
Gayfeather, Liatris punctata, 3' high X 1' wide.
Blue Flax, Linum lewisii, 2' high X 1' wide.
Plains Penstemon, Penstemon ambiguous, 4' high X 3' wide.
Scarlet Bugler, Penstemon barbatus, 2' high X 2' wide.
Canyon Penstemon, Penstemon pseudospectabilis, 3' high X 2' wide.
Blue Sage, Salvia farinaceae, 1.5' high X 1' wide.
Mexican Bush Sage, Salvia leucantha, 4' high X 4' wide.
Globe Mallow, Sphaeralcea sp. , 3' high X 5' wide.
Mountain Marigold, Tagetes lemmonii, 3' high X 3' wide.
Angelita Daisy, Tetraneuriis acaulis, 1' high X 1' wide.
            Hummingbird Trumpet, Zauschneria California, 2' high X 3' wide
            Rain Lily, Zephryathus spp. 

Penstemon pseudospectabilis - Canyon Penstemon

Close-up view of Penstemon

Whether you're planting perennials in a bed, border, or other area, always prepare the soil thoroughly before you plant.  If you need to remove sod, strip off the top layer, trying not to take off more than an inch of soil.  Some equipment rental centers offer sod cutters to make the job easier.  Locate larger perennial plants at least 4 feet from any tree or shrub so they won't have to compete with massive roots. Use a spading fork to remove grass and weak roots. Spade or rototill the soil well, turning it over to a depth of about 6 to 8 inches. Then rake the soil to level it, removing all stones and breaking up clods. Use the fork or rototiller to work in a 2- to 4-inch layer of compost, fine bark, humic acid, gypsum and/or organic fertilizers. Organic matter improves the soil structure and provides better growing conditions for all plants.
If your soil has a high clay content, heavy & sticky, and difficult to work with; you should fork/rototill in a ½ to 1 inch layer coarse sand and/or a sand and perlite mixture. These can be added at the same time as the compost and fertilizer to provide good aeration, and will lighten heavy soils.  It's wise when preparing a large bed to take these steps outlined above in the fall season if possible.
If you discover that the builder of your home has put a very thin layer of topsoil over clay, your best bet is to tackle the problem at once, before you attempt any planting. Decide on the place or places where you want planting beds and build raised beds in those areas. The other option would be to remove at least 2 feet of poor soil instead. You will have to check on the percolation rate in the excavated areas first, though.  Dig a hole about 3 feet across and 2 feet deep into the clay soil.  Fill 2/3 to 3/4 full of water and see how long it takes for the water to drain down. If it takes longer than 24 hours to drain, raised beds are your best solution.  Otherwise, the water will simply sit and fill in the excavated areas and start to smell bad.  Have clean, sandy loam soil brought in for planting.  If this sounds like a drastic step, remember that it will certainly be easier to do now than later and it could make all the difference between a good and a poor garden in the future.

Planning  and  preparation
Once you've decided the location of the planting area, determined the sun/shade aspect, and amended the soil of the proposed area, the kinds of perennials you'll grow in your garden will be easier to pick out. Select a list of about 5 to 7 different kinds of perennials, and then begin preparing a planting plan. This will help organize your thoughts and make it easier to envision the completed area. The design process will help you imagine what it would look like in bloom.  If something doesn't seem right, then revise it add/change and then review it again. Keep looking at it with different criteria or utilize a deign theme to drive it on.  The garden's style or genre; and using color coordinating criterion are just two powerful design engines that help "to run" the design process. 

For example:  Let's say someone wants to create an 'Traditional English Style' mixed bed.  The theme color will be red-orange and oranges with accents of white and violet-purple flowers. Those choices drive the design and limit the choices of plants to use.   

Use the same plant species in odd numbered groups of at least one, and up to nine for the English garden genre.
 Some perennials will be short, some mid-height, and others tall; all will look best if they're planted with all future views in mind.  Height, and variation of it, creates interesting and dynamic spaces in the garden.  If the space has a backdrop in the form of a hedge, fence, or garden wall, the design will become one-sided and best viewed with higher plants in the background, creating layers of color and textures. Unless your border's narrower than 3 feet, it's important to allow for reaching plants from either back or front for planting, weeding, fertilizing and so on.  Add stepping-stones of natural stone, or a brick path to provide easy access to maintain the wider areas.  If you use gravel or decomposed granite between stones and along the path, you'll limit constant weeding by placing weed barrier fabric or plastic under the paths.

It's difficult to generalize about planting perennials because each is quite individual.  However, here are some steps to help ensure success. First, set the plants at the proper depth. That means at the same level they grew the previous season. Plants should be planted slightly higher than the adjacent soil area.  The crown of all plants needs oxygen to survive. If a plant is planted “too deep” or sink because of improper back filling, compacting and/or watering in.  The plant’s crown will not be able to get enough oxygen, and will suffer and possibly die. This usually happens when a plant is being transplanted.  

I like to soak the bare roots in a bucket with vitamin B-1 starter solution for 24-48 hours before planting.  Next, provide adequate space for roots so they're not crowded. Dig a hole several inches larger in diameter than the width of the roots and spread roots out so they can quickly get established. It often helps to build up a low cone of earth at the bottom of the hole so you can easily space roots out over the cone. Look for the marks of the former depth on the dormant bare-rooted plants you buy to see the planting level, and plant slightly higher. Then, gradually sprinkle in the back-fill soil over, and water in.  Remember that your main goal in transplanting, whether new plants or those you obtain through division of your older plants, is to avoid shocking plants. Don't let roots dry out or break off. They're the plant's lifeline to food, moisture, and good health.

Choose a day to plant that is cool, cloudy, or even a bit rainy. If it's warm or sunny, try to plant in the morning or evening, keeping plant roots shaded and covered with layers of water-soaked newspaper until you're ready to plant. Lift plants gently and set them slightly higher than the level around them.  Gradually fill in earth about the roots and firm the soil to eliminate all air pockets. Water thoroughly immediately after transplanting and continue to water every day for up to a week until you are certain the new plants are settled in, or the weather permits.
If you plant in the fall season, mark the location of new plants. Some are quite late to emerge in spring, and you can easily forget their location if it is not staked. Cover them with a light mulch for the winter, then remove it in the spring as plants first appear. But keep some mulch handy in case a late frost should make it advisable to re-cover the young, tender shoots.  Don't use raked leaves as mulch. 

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