Walk through a garden center in spring and you can be overwhelmed by the choices for perennial flower beds. The range has never been greater. There’s something for all tastes and all spaces: hot spots, shade, bright colors, pastels, tall and spiky, low and trailing. It’s all there.
Susie Cochran, manager of Rountree Plantation Garden Center in Charlotte, encourages customers to ask themselves: “Have I got sun, or is it more shady?” Knowing that key detail will lead the gardener toward the right choices, and there are plenty for full sun, part shade and full shade.
Sharon O’Neill, the perennials, trees and shrub buyer at The Logan Trading Co., a Raleigh garden center, says that other initial factors that affect choices are the amount of space the gardener expects to plant and the time available to maintain it. Often, they say, people speak of colors they like, which can also guide them toward good choices.
Yet, Cochran and O’Neill warn not to put all your time, space and money into a single season.
“We encourage people to think about staging their perennial beds, so there is not all the bloom at one season,” says O’Neill.
Such staging, she points out, will keep the show going through the spring and summer and into autumn. And Cochran points out that within types of perennials – irises, for example – various kinds, including tall bearded (German), Siberian and Japanese irises, will stretch the flowering season within that single category.
The same is true with various kinds of phlox, which can open the season in early spring and keep the show going well into summer.
Staging also includes understanding the mature height of a perennial so it can be placed correctly. Some, notably hardy sunflowers, can grow quite tall and should go in the back of the flower bed. Others, such as creeping phlox and most of the sedums, remain quite short but will sprawl rather neatly at the front of the bed.
It also means distributing the plants seasonally within the flower bed, rather than clumping all spring or summer bloomers together.
Beat the heat
With summers seeming hotter than ever, often accompanied by long stretches of drought, heat tolerance should factor into choices, too.
“We are really starting to look at heat tolerance as well as cold hardiness,” says O’Neill. Southern and western exposures, where open sun can be brutal on sizzling summer afternoons, are particularly challenging, but Cochran points out many great perennials, including salvias, sedums, rudbeckias, coneflowers and coreopsis, will perform well.
She points out that lantana, a mainstay annual for hot spots, is now available in hardy perennial varieties such as Miss Huff, Chapel Hill Yellow and Mozelle.
Loosen clay soil
The finest choices still need help from the gardener. Unless you’re lucky, your soil will contain a high percentage of clay, which doesn’t drain well. So you’ll need to make the soil looser and lighter with various conditioners packaged and ready to dig into the clay. Compost, either home-made or bought in bags, is an excellent way to loosen up the clay soil.