A great garden in a small space
Perennials sometimes get a more credit than they deserve. There are those who think they can just plant perennial flowers once and forget them forever. In reality, a great perennial garden requires as much, or more, planning and care than a really nice annual garden. Let me explain why.
Let’s begin by rating how long various perennials will be in bloom. A very few, like autumn sage (Salvia greggii) and some of the hardier lantanas will bloom for many months, spring clear into the fall. However, most perennials are in flower for only two or three weeks and then they either maintain their leaves for a period of time or they quickly die back to the ground and wait for next year. Both of those leave you scrambling for some means of maintaining a good year ‘round program of color.
True, perennials do live from one year to the next, which means that you don’t have to replant them every year. However, most will begin to crowd into themselves after two or three years, and your only solution will be to dig and divide them, replanting some back into the bed and sharing, relocating or discarding the rest.
The old axiom with perennials is “If it blooms in the spring, you divide it in the fall. If it blooms in the fall, you divide it in the spring.” Think about that one for a moment. That means that you get one chance to get a large rototiller into the bed to work the soil up before you set out any of your perennial plants, but from that day forward you’re going to be resigned to doing the digging and bed prep with hand tools and small power equipment.
So now I want to go back to the bloom dates and introduce the concepts of colors, heights, growth forms and textures. Those are all factors you’ll want to consider in planning any type of landscape design. Think about how you decorate your house. Think about how you decorate yourself! You have to consider many things all in the same string of thoughts.
When you’re planning a perennial garden you’re going to need a sequence of blooms to fill in the time voids. You’ll want spots of color scattered throughout the garden. Daffodils down here and cannas back there. What you probably wouldn’t want is a long bed of one type of perennial that goes for broke all at one time, then fizzles to a stop when its bloom time has finished. Indeed, a well-planned perennial garden probably has 15 or 25 different types of perennials scattered through its plantings, and it wouldn’t be surprising to find evergreen shrubs serving as anchoring pieces throughout.
Your color scheme may change during the seasons. In the spring you might feature daffodils or iris, so the other perennials you choose to plant with them need to complement them attractively. But those shades may shift as you head into the summer. Perhaps you want cooling shades of pinks and lavenders, then oranges, golds, rusts and deep reds in the fall. All of that goes into the planning.
Don’t be afraid to intersperse a few annuals into the beds for little spotlights of color. That’s important in the winter, because almost no perennials are showy when it’s cold, but you can also get a lot of mileage out of a small border of wax begonias or blue fanflowers or colorful foliage of coleus or caladiums. Or grow them in decorative pots that you set back in among the perennials. It can work really well and in those cases you’re just changing out small amounts of soil a couple of times each year, not reworking large beds. You can do that!
Some of the best perennials for North Texas …
We all have our own opinions, but my spring begins with Lenten rose (hellebores), and it wouldn’t be the same without daffodils such as Ice Follies and Carlton, both well known repeat bloomers. I enjoy grape hyacinths, summer snowflakes, thrift, candytuft, autumn sage, iris, Byzantine glads, St. Joseph lilies (“hardy amaryllis”), purple coneflowers and purple loosestrife.
Goldsturm gloriosa daisies begin my summertime garden, along with daylilies, cannas, hardy hibiscus, summer phlox and Cabaret maidengrass. Purpleheart groundcover is wonderful all through.
Fall has some unusual treasures like fall crocus (Sternbergias), oxblood lilies, naked lady lilies, Mexican bush sage, fall asters, spider lilies and, of course, mums.
All of which is to say that perennial gardens need not intimidate you. Just don’t expect too much from them. They’re a jigsaw puzzle where the parts keep changing and a game where the target keeps moving. But that’s what makes gardening so exciting. Have fun, and bring your full whimsy with you!