Tips for Growing Perennials

Choosing Perennials

Perennial foliage should be green and healthy.

Perennials represent a truly diverse group of plants. Choosing which to grow in your garden shouldn't be overwhelming. Use the following tips to help find the best perennials for your garden.

  • Choose healthy plants. For the inexperienced buyer, this may be easier said than done in the spring. Potted perennials may be showing only a little foliage, not providing much information about the health of the plant.
  • Look at the plant crown, the place where the shoots emerge from the soil. The emerging stems and leaves should be nicely green and showing no sign of wilting or rotting. Study the foliage and soil surface for signs of pests, which might be feeding on the crown, beneath the leaves, or fluttering up when you move the pot. If you find extensive evidence of pests, buy your plants elsewhere. Ask a sales clerk if you can look at the plant roots. Turn the pot over and slip the root ball out. The roots should fill the pot, but not be crammed into it, and they should be healthy and firm.
  • Keep your expectations for plant life realistic. Although perennials like daylilies and hostas can live for decades, some perennials live only a few years. Perennials with short-but-sweet lives include columbine, blanketflower, and some chrysanthemums. Propagate new plants using division, cuttings, or seed to have replacements ready when needed.
  • Avoid wildflowers collected in the wild. Some people snatch wildflowers from native areas instead of propagating them in a nursery. This depletes the natural environment and can result in inferior plants not prepared for garden life. Buy from a reputable garden center or nursery. Ask where they got the wildflowers and whether they were nursery propagated.
  • Be suspicious if you see pots with several small plants packed irregularly, which may have been taken from the wild. Flowers that are poorly rooted may have been recently dug and stuck in a pot. If you see wildflowers sold for less than a comparable perennial, it's a sign that they may have been harvested in the wild.
  • Choose single-flowered peonies over the double-flowered types. A single-flowered plant has a solitary row of petals (or several rows, in the case of peonies) around the perimeter of each blossom. Double-flowered plants have many rows of petals, which form a full, fluffy-looking flower. The big advantage of single-flowered peonies is weight. With fewer petals, the flowers stay lighter and are less likely to fall over when in full bloom. This means they don't need staking. The flowers are also less likely to trap moisture and, consequently, tend to suffer from fewer diseases.
  • Choose disease-resistant cultivars of garden phlox and bee balm. Both perennials can be troubled with mildew diseases, which cover the plants with ugly white fuzz. Fortunately, developing disease-resistant cultivars has become a priority in the nursery industry. Check perennial catalogues to identify the best new cultivars for your climate.
  • Use salt-tolerant perennials in cold-climate roadside plantings. Roads heavily salted during winter snowstorms often leave salt residue in the soil. Perennials such as sea thrifts, bearberry, and rugosa roses thrive in soils that are salty enough to kill other plants.
  • Use plants adapted to dry conditions in drought-prone climates. Perennials such as butterfly weed have deep or moisture-storing roots that allow them to weather dry conditions. Other drought-survival specialists have leaves that are modified to reduce moisture loss. Silver leaves reflect hot sunlight, and needle-shaped leaves have less surface area for moisture loss. Moisture is stored inside succulent leaves, and moisture loss for furry leaves is slowed by their furry coating.

In our next section, we'll share ideas for displaying perennials in your garden.Want more gardening tips? Try:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.