I’ve been growing perennial flowers my entire gardening life and they’ve been the backbone plants of every garden I’ve ever had. In my nursery days, I’d propagate/sell over 1600 varieties every year and start another 200-300 new seeds I’d get from collectors just to test them in our gardens. If they were good, I’d put them into production. That’s how I got to growing so many different perennials.
I have found many gardeners don’t quite know where to start – so here’s the simple way to start your perennial garden and get the soil right.
These perennial flower pages contain the real world story of how to grow and use this wonderful garden plants. I’ll share what I’ve done, what works and equally important what doesn’t work and what I’ve killed.
What You Need to Know
- Perennial flowers don’t live forever. Most have a 3-5 year lifespan except for some rock-hardy ones such as daylilies, hosta, peonies and iris.
- Here are the four things that kill overwintering perennials
- If they stop blooming, your first step is to dig them up in the spring, divide them and replant.
- They do much better if the dead flowers are removed but this is optional – even though some garden authors insist it’s quite necessary.
- Heavy soils (clay) are harder on perennials than any other so you have to understand and deal with them. There are however, perennials that do survive on clay)
- Garden soil preparation is simple and if you do it – either the fast or slow way – it will pay dividends in the long run.
- Many perennials are fast growing “thugs” that will invade every inch of your garden and most nurseries won’t tell you which do this. If you see “spreading” on the tag, that’s often garden-speak for “will-take-over-in-six-weeks-and-ruin-your-garden”. It took me ten years to eliminate Potentilla pleniflora from the garden after we bought the property.
- Your perennials will do much better in the first year of planting, if you water regularly (soak thoroughly twice a week). Some perennials such as spiderwort (Tradescantia) will bloom almost all summer if you give them enough water. And do feed perennial flowers properly – you may do more harm than good if you ignore these guidelines.
If you hold back the water from perennial plants, understand this simple rule.
There are some plant that will survive with reduced watering but no plants in our gardens thrive without adequate water.
Here’s a simple but effective way to tell the light levels in your perennial garden. Some gardeners are also concerned about what they can grow in their gardens – do they have enough or too much sun for a plant they want to grow and that link will give you an instant evaluation.
Here are some guidelines for successfully planting perennials – the real key is in the watering schedule.
Full Sun Perennial Plant Profiles
- Achillea or Yarrow is a tough, full sun plant that now comes in a variety of new colors. Here’s how to grow it and what to look for at your local garden center.
- Aconitum or monkshood is a lovely perennial for full, hot sun but it comes with a serious “poisonous” label and is not for gardens with small children.
- Agastache: how to grow it and pronounce it
- Anemone: is a large family with rhizome (perennial) and tuberous (bulb) family members and sometimes the distinction isn’t totally clear.
- Aquilegia or columbine is a delightful summer bloomer that will – if given the right conditions – self sow with abandon.
- Artemisia is grown for its silver foliage and tough ability to take a full sun, hot garden setting. Here are some suggested varieties and growing suggestions
- Asters are a terrific fall blooming plant in blues and reds. They clearly belong in every full sun design to brighten up the fall when everything else is starting to struggle.
- Baptisia is a wonderful plant for the full sun perennial garden and here’s how to grow it and pictures of newer varieties
- Belamcanda or Blackberry lily is an easy plant to grow with its delicate blooms but it is short-lived so here’s what you have to do to keep it going in your garden.
- Bellis perennis or English Daisy how to get a repeat bloom from this biennial plant
- Buddleja or butterfly bush is an incredibly fragrant shrub or hardy perennial (it dies to the ground in cold climates) that’s worth a place in any garden.
- Caltha palustris or Marsh Marigold (sun or shade) a hardy North American native plant for the damp garden.
- Centaurea or Bachelor Buttons: Getting Two Blooms Per Year you get to make your own choice about this one – thug or lovely? I had it in one spot in the garden and it pretty much decided to take over. Took me four years to “almost” eliminate it.
- Chrysanthemum or mums – or whatever the botanists are now calling this plant.
- Dianthus or Pinks in the Perennial Garden
- Echinacea or Coneflower: Eight Important Points for Success
- Geraniums are one of my favorite perennial flowers. Growing in full sun or light shade, they come in a range of heights and bloom times.
- Hemerocallis or daylily is one of the great plants for the full sun garden as it will grow and thrive on almost any soil or condition if given full sunlight
- Hibiscus is a superb blooming perennial but it does come out later than many other perennial flowers (don’t give up on it – as you’ll see in the post) Here’s how to grow and propagate hibiscus.
- Hollyhocks (Alcea) Growing and Dealing with Hollyhock Rust
- Iberis or candytuft is a low-growing semi-evergreen plant that wants cutting back every year.
- Iris (bearded) How to grow the bearded iris and prevent iris borer
- Iris (Siberian) are one of my favorite garden plants and here’s the trick to growing them successfully.
- Lavatera: Growing and Propagating This Pink Bloomer in the Perennial Garden
- Lavender: Keeping it Alive and Blooming From Year to Year in the Perennial Garden
- Lysimachia or Loosestrife for the sun or part shade garden but this is a spreading thug and you’ve been warned.
- Growing Liatris or Gayfeather – the Most Unusual Flower in the Perennial Garden
- Lupines are easy from seed and here’s how to grow them successfully
- Monarda or beebalm – fragrant, easy to grow spreader that is hummingbird bait.
- Nepeta or catnip is a wonderful flowering plan
- Peonies: Fragrant flowers for a classic English Garden look.
- Perovskia or Russian Sage wants your poorest, well-drained soil in the hot sun
- Phlomis or sticky Jerusalem sage is one of the easiest of unusual perennials to grow in the hot sun perennial garden. Not enough gardeners know this family imho.
- Phlox paniculata or garden phlox is a long-flowering and backbone plant of the perennial garden
- Physostegia or Obedient plant is a sun lover best grown in a dampish soil for best results. But it’s versatile as this profile show.
- Rudbeckia – those golden flowering plants of the mid-summer border are easy to grow. Just understand which are annuals, biennials or hardy perennials.
- Salvia this family of plants is a delightful mix of perennials and biennials (don’t confuse them at the garden center level) with some truly amazing flower and foliage displays.
- Scabiosa: Three Tips for Growing The Blue Flowering Pincushion Flower Successfully
- Sedums are perfect plants for that hot, dry spot where nothing else will grow and the variegated creeping forms are perfect for edging and rock gardens
- Shasta Daisies Bloom Almost All Summer.
- Sidalcea or Prairie mallow is one of those tough, full hot sun plants that will reach out and surprise you with great color
- Solidago or golden rod is a superb perennial for full sun and it’s not responsible for hay fever (ragweed is!)
- Stachys or lamb’s ears is a silver leafed plant used as a groundcover or contrasting plant in the perennial garden.
- Tradescantia (spiderwort) is a North American native that’s very popular and here’s how to get it to bloom almost all summer.
- Here’s How To Succeed Growing Wooly Thyme as a ground cover or between stepping stones
- Verbascum or Mullein is a full sun perennial and the breeders are introducing new varieties regularly. Do be careful to understand the hardiness of these new plants.
- Vernonia or Ironweed is one of the taller perennial flowers you’ll find in a garden and worth a place at the back of the full sun border
- Veronica is one of my favorite perennials and I’ve listed some of my must-grow plants in this post.
- Veronicastrum or Culver’s Root is a plant for the full sun perennial garden – it does survive in light shade – but it prefers a moist, rich soil for best blooms.
- Yucca filamentosa is a hardy full sun perennial and there are other (nicer) varieties available in the nursery trade you may want to search for.
Dicentra spectabilis or Bleeding Heart
Shade Perennial Flowers Plant Profiles
- Actaea rubra or baneberry is a classy shade-loving perennial flower that deserves to be hunted down and used for the great foliage and magical blooms. (Yeah, I love this plant)
- Ajuga is a spreading (thug!) of a plant but this makes it an excellent perennial ground cover for tough shady spots. And there are some fantastic leaf colors now so do check this one out
- Alchemilla mollis (Lady’s Mantle) is a chartreuse-coloured flower with amazing foliage that sparkles when filled with morning dew.
- Aruncus or Goatsbeard resembles an Astilbe on steroids. It’s a marvellous white blooming plant.
- Astilbe is one of the better shade garden perennials as it’s tough enough to handle almost any garden. Understand if you give it excellent growing conditions, it’s going to grow quite quickly.
- Asarum is a shiny leaved plant for shade and it makes a great (slow establishing) ground cover
- Athryium (Japanese painted fern) This fern is one of the lovely small ferns with different colours in the leaf. Check out the pictures here and start searching for this gem of a plant.
- Bergenia is one of the earliest of spring blooming perennials (evergreen foliage in warmer areas) to grace my garden. Love the newer hybrids and I’ve got some pics of those for you here.
- Brunnera macrophylla (Siberian Bugloss) is a wonderful spring blooming (blue forget me not flowers) and is one of my favorites. Do read the note about dividing this plant though as it can be somewhat picky about how this is done.
- Caltha palustris or Marsh Marigold (sun or shade)
- Dicentra or Bleeding Heart is one of the great shade garden perennials – either the old-fashioned bleeding heart or the newer (longer-blooming) short hybrids make a great color choice in your shade garden.
- Epimedium is a tremendous groundcover for that shade garden where few other plants will thrive (yes, you do have to water it).
- Ferns and how to grow them in the shade garden. Along with a brief description of the best garden worthy species and some pictures of new hybrids
- Heuchera or Coralbells is a must grow plant for the part shade garden. Avoid the mid-day sun with this one and do fall in love with the range of leaf colors in the pictures here.
- Heucherella is a cross between Heuchera and Tiarella – and makes a great shade garden plant. Check out the pics of the modern hybrids and tell me you don’t want one.
- Helleborus or Christmas rose is one of the earliest and longest blooming perennial flowers for the shade garden. A tremendous plant and one of my all-time favorites. The new varieties are stunning in their color range and worth every penny you’ll pay for them.
- Hepatica with its early spring blooms is one of my favorite shade garden perennials because of its early blooms (one of the earliest to bloom in my garden).
- Hosta are the undisputed queens of the shade garden with thousands of varieties available for almost any shade garden setting or design.
- Lunaria or money plant is an excellent shade plant but do understand this can turn into a weed if you don’t pick the seedpods.
- Primula is one of the classic shade garden perennials and is relatively easy to grow. Note many of the Primula sold in garden centers are really only biennials and if they’re in bloom when you buy them, they won’t bloom again.
- Hosta – everything you need to know to succeed with this plant in shade or sun.
- Polemonium is an excellent shade garden perennial – it will “melt” away if it’s unhappy (too much sun or not the right amount of water or sometimes for no good reason other than not liking the gardener’s cat. (That’s a joke – everybody likes your cat!)
- Polygonatum or Solomon’s seal is a lovely spring bloomer and if you get the variegated variety, it adds a season-long interest.
- Pulmonaria and how to grow this gorgeous spring blooming knockout – plus here’s a downloadable trial report on the best Pulmonaria varieties
- Symphytum or Ornamental Comfrey
- Trollius is a part shade, damp soil plant. Don’t let this one dry out
- Tricrytis is a lovely little plant for shade gardens but it does bloom very late in the season so may be a problem in colder shorter-season gardens.
Weihenstephan Sighting Garden
I’ve grown ornamental grasses for years but it’s only in the last few that I’ve really started to appreciate their strength and power in the perennial garden. Maybe it’s me becoming a more mature gardener and perhaps it’s just another way of looking at the garden. Whatever it is, here are some of the great grasses I’ve grown.
- Arundo donax is one of the plants I wished I could grow. I managed to get it through one winter (once) with a heavy cover of mulch but the second winter did it in. Sigh… Like most plants, if you give it what it wants, it can become a bit of a weed so be aware of this if you live in an area where it thrives.
- Northern Pampas Grass – Saccharum ravennae is tall (and imho ugly flowering) and it’s not like the Southern named plant.
- Hakonechloa – here’s how to grow it and pronounce it. It’s a delightful shady plant that thrives on decent soil.
- Miscanthus is one of the most popular of ornamental grasses and here’s how to grow and propagate it.
- Molinia or purple moor grass is a grass for the damp garden.
- Pampas Grass: Be Careful Because It Can Bite Back This lovely Southern blooming grass is ubiquitous from the Carolinas southward and is much envied by northern gardeners (until they try to prune it) 🙂
- Panicum is an excellent ornamental grass with multiple excellent varieties. (just don’t buy them from seed as they don’t come true)
Perennial Plant Lists
- 33 Garden Plants For Wet Gardens
- Three Heavy-Flowering Daisies For The Perennial Flower Garden
- Eight Long Blooming Perennials
- My Three Favorite Blue Perennials
- Eight outstanding perennial flowers for shade
- Perennial plants that seldom need dividing
- Perennials for full sun
- Perennials for part shade to full shade
- Perennial Plant List for Hummingbird Gardens
- Perennial plants for clay soils
- 85 Plants for Gardening Under Black Walnut Trees
- Deer Resistant Perennial Flower Charts
Reviews: Some Interesting Plants You May To Grow
Answers To Perennial Garden Questions
- How Do I Stake Peonies In The Perennial Garden: Fast Easy, Effective and Free?
- How To Succeed With Collecting and Propagating Wildflower Seed?
- When Can You Transplant Plants In The Fall Garden?
- How and when do I transplant perennials successfully?
- Questions and Answers on How to Feed Perennial Flowers
- Why do peony leaves turn black and gray fuzz appears on some flowers?
Meconopsis or Himalayan Blue Poppy is a plant for a humid spot in a relatively mild climate.
Plant Profiles For Damp Soil
- Acorus is a fine foliage plant for very damp soils or beside backyard ponds.
- Arrowhead is an easy plant for the full sun perennial garden in a damp spot or pondside where it’s kept constantly moist. Note that constantly moist is the key to success here.
- Asclepias incarnata or swamp milkweed is a lovely plant for the damp garden and at 4-5 feet tall, it’s a showy specimen for your damp or bog garden in the full sunshine.
- Astrantia is often sold as a full sun perennial (it is) but seldom does the tag suggest you plant it where it wants to grow (damp gardens)
- Pitcher plants want an evenly damp soil but the plant is relatively easy to grow if you give it what it wants (hint: it’s all in this post)
- Pickerelweed or Pontederia cordata is a plant for damp soils or in shallow areas of the pond itself.
- Rodgersia is a bold leafed plant with interesting flowers but it really wants to grow in damp soils (not enough gardeners know this)
- Scouring Rush is a plant for damp spaces in full sun or part shade.
- Thalictrum is a plant for not only damp soils but damp, shady soils. A great plant for a tough location in your garden
Perennial Garden Maintenance
This part of the average gardening book on perennial garden maintenance sometimes makes me cringe because there is just so much I don’t do that I’m supposed to do.
- I don’t do a regular deadheading (I should)
- I don’t regularly pick weeds (that’s what the mulch is for)
- I don’t fuss and muss over the small weeds (when they stick their heads up to the level of the perennial plants, they get pulled).
- I have a simple system for feeding perennials – and one part of it stops weeds as well.
- I do however understand that a grass plant left un-pulled is a grass invasion the next year and if you allow grass to get a foothold in the garden, then your garden life becomes hell on wheels. Keep the grass out or suffer in the long term.
- Dividing perennials is a must-do task in the perennial garden and here are some important and labour saving tips you’ll want to know.
Deadheading or Removing the Spent Flowers
I do less deadheading than the average gardener and here’s why. With plants like Hemerocallis (daylilies) each blossom opens and dies in 2 days. Open on day one – close and die on day two. Some don’t even make day two but die on day one.
I have a significant number of these plants and picking off the spent blooms would take an hour or more a day. I let them wither on the plant and allow the developing blooms to hide the sins of the gardener. I only prune off the main flowering stems once the plant has finished blooming for the season as the spent flower stalks are rather ugly.
Many plants are beloved by our local finches and I have no objection to feeding these feathered creatures. So I leave the seed heads to develop and the birds strip them down for me. Once this is done, I cut the dead stems as close to the plant as possible. This works with nearly all the daisy family of plants. I pretty much treat them as I would if I were propagating wildflowers – save a few seeds for myself and let Mother Nature take care of the rest.
So Why deadhead?
It makes the garden look better. When you clean out the dead flowers and stalks, the garden looks cared for, neater and greener (you’ve just removed all the drab brown) and much brighter.
So if the appearance of your garden is critical because it’s out front, then keep it deadheaded.
If it’s in the back, feed the birds and trim off the dead stuff. Do you have to do deadheading at all? No.
There were several years when I was too busy to spend much time in the garden and it did quite nicely on its own. It didn’t look as good as it might have looked had I spent time out there but it still looked good if a little “wild”.
What about plant health? You know I’ve written about how deadheading makes the garden healthier and I’m sure it does but health is a relative thing. The two years I neglected the garden didn’t produce any long-term effects. I had a few extra weeds, a few extra seedlings here and there but nothing that showed up as a long-term health problem for the plants.
From my experience I will say if you take spent blooms and stems out of the garden, your garden will be better for it. But if you miss the odd stem or the odd plant or even the odd season, and you don’t stress your garden with water or feed, it will be fine. The garden is healthier if you deadhead. But don’t obsess over it.
You’re better off to do a little more weeding and control the grass and weed invaders than obsess over a few spent flowers.
Addendum to bottom line: When you have company coming, it’s important to clean up the garden and do some deadheading. At least that’s what I’m told by the better half.
Karl Forster Potsdam Garden
How To Easily Understand Plant Latin?
Just to give you the language. A species is the individual plant name (Coreopsis) and this would be comparable to your last name. In my case, Green. The individual plant in the species has a “specific epithet” or individual Latin name to identify it from all the other Coreopsis, one example would be verticillata – in my case “Doug”.
Just as there is more than one Doug Green, there is more than one Coreopsis verticillata and we need to have a way to identify this further. So I might be Doug Green ‘garden writer’, while the garden would have Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonbeam’. Now you know enough to handle any plant conversation with your local garden shop.
Nature doesn’t trim spent flowers. Simply understand if you leave the spent flowers, you may have seeds germinate and other plants develop that may nor may not look like your fancy hybrid (hybrids don’t come true from seed).
Perennial Flowers in Containers or not
You can grow any plant in a container so whether you can grow a perennial isn’t an issue. What is at question is whether you want to look “cool” by doing so.
It’s a design thing and if you want to stay current and fashionable, then go ahead. But if not, then stick to annuals, it’s less work.
Overwintering your container-perennials is as simple as digging them out of the container in the fall and planting them in the garden for the winter. In the early spring, you can dig them back up to replant in a container or allow them to grow in the garden.
If you don’t have a garden, then the objective is to keep the roots above 5F. If they go below this temperature, they often die. If they go above 40F, they’ll regularly start growing.
Do not bring them into the house and try to keep them growing all winter. You may keep them alive but they’ll fade away the next year as they need a dormancy period.
If you can’t store them or plant them for the winter, then I recommend either not growing them or treating them as annuals (or giving them to a friend to overwinter).
Perennial Garden Design
There are several practical things every homeowner can do to instantly improve their perennial garden. Here’s the single easiest thing to do that will improve any design.
And here are three principles of perennial garden design to get you thinking
The first is to use what we call “backbone plants”. These are plants that grow and thrive in your specific garden situation. Or, that have a characteristic you want in your garden such as these 28 long blooming perennials or you may be looking for tall ornamental grass.
Or it could be using rock hardy plants that live for decades such as peonies, daylilies, iris, and hosta. Personally, I’ve always been partial to daisies and here are three of the best.
If you’re interested in wildlife, you can include plants that may attract hummingbirds or other creatures. And while many gardeners focus on the actual design, I also suggest there are three techniques you want to use to prolong the blooms in your garden.
See the section below on the “Myth of the English Cottage Border” for how you can design your own perennial garden even if you’re not a designer.
The Myth of the Cottage Garden Border
There is a myth about the cottage garden border that says it must be custom designed or it won’t look good. And far too many gardeners obsess over color and plant combinations to the detriment of their enjoyment of the garden.
The cottage garden started in industrial workers houses in the U K when the women planted seeds, shared cuttings planting a wide variety of whatever they could find or save over the winter into their gardens.
From vegetables to annuals and including herbs and perennials, the “collection” of plants was a mish-mash representing those flowers the woman could obtain. They weren’t fancy varieties but old-fashioned stand-by plants and seeds saved from season to season. It was a poor-person’s garden.
The Edwardians tarted this up giving us designer cottage gardens but it need not be this way.
The honest answer here is that if you grow what you love, if you crowd the plants into the space to maximize the flowers and vegetables you’re growing, it will look great no matter what you grow. All jumbled together, your garden will look fantastic.
But you have to crowd them a bit – leaving big spaces between plants is not allowed as is having all short or modern plants. You want to mix perennials, annuals, and bulbs to give you riotous mix.
But you have to love growing each one of those plants because that love will make your garden work.
The rule of thumb is to move the spring bloomers in the fall and the summer and fall bloomers in the spring.
But I move everything in the spring except for peonies that seem to move better in the fall. I also like to have most of my perennials dug and moved by the end to mid-October for best results (this would apply to USDA zones 4-6) Warmer zones can add a week or two later.
You will read about gardening zones (here’s how to cheat at them) as they apply to perennials and woody plants (trees and shrubs) and the honest answer is that they are only guidelines and not hard and fast rules.
This is because every garden is different for micro-climate. My neighbor’s garden may be slightly warmer or cooler than mine because of wind patterns or heat sinks (such as large rocks). And soil drainage makes a massive difference in survival rates with wet soils being harder to keep plants alive than normally drained one.
There are simply too many variables to say, “This plant will always grow in this zone”. So take them as suggestions rather than rules. An other reason is because the gardening zones are moving northward with climate change. This is well documented now that gardeners in more northern areas can grow plants they couldn’t grow 20 years ago and recent research shows this trend is increasing.
Tags and reference material haven’t caught up with the reality in our gardens. So zones are guidelines and not hard and fast rules. You can find your own gardening zone here.
A Secret About Perennial Plants
It’s one of those secrets nurseries don’t willingly share with customers but I”m here to deliver the bad news.
Ah yes, plants die all the time in my garden and I know/expect this to happen so it’s an acceptable fact of life. Beginner gardeners expect that a “perennial” means forever. Plant it and it lives forever and ever, amen.
- There are “tender perennials” that live maybe for one winter or maybe not at all.
- There are short-lived perennials that might make 2-3 years.
- There are biennials that grow leaves in the first year, flower the second and then die. Often, but not always, setting copious amounts of seed. But often sold as “perennial”.
- There are plants that might take a few years to flower and then die once they’ve flowered. Or dying in the center leaving a crop of surrounding baby plants.
- There are medium lived perennials that might go 5 years or so give or take a few years before fading away over a winter.
- And then there are bone-hardy perennials that live for many years, slowly expanding and providing reliable shows of blooms year after year. The plant lists above are this kind of plant.
All these plants are sold on the “perennial” benches with no tags indicating what kind of longevity is expected.
I visited a local nursery with Liriope (zone 6) perennials in bloom in the perennials section (we live in a USDA 4 maybe stretching into 5 in warmer areas) So the poor gardener that pays 10 bucks for this “perennial” is looking at a dead plant next spring. No warning labels about tenderness. Nothing but the plant in bloom with a name tag (albeit with the zone in tiny print on the back that even I had to squint to find knowing it might be there). Do beginner gardeners read and understand the consequences of this tiny label or do we have them with the concept “perennial” and blooming now?
What Kinds of Plants Come Back Every Year?
- Annuals are killed off by frost
- Biennials grow leaves in year one, flower in year two and die after that.
- Perennial flowers come back every year (until they die – which could be anywhere from 3 to 50 years)
Everybody’s Perennial Garden Conditions Are Different
There are no two gardens with exactly the same growing conditions. You’ll likely find that even your neighbor’s backyard soil is slightly different than yours, or the wind patterns are different (leading to more or less winter damage) or maybe she feeds her plants a bit more than you do. Here are a few plants that survive in most gardens.