How to Pick a Perennial

? Make a shopping list ? Buy healthy plants ? How to read a Tag.

We all want to whoop with joy because during this past week nurseries got their big shipments of new plants. Perennials, the plants that come back year after year, provide some of the best value for dollar in the garden. They can be expensive, so it?s wise to know a little bit about them. But don?t be impatient: They take at least three years to mature into something spectacular and too many tyros get discouraged. Don?t beat yourself up if this is your first year with them. It?s worth the wait.

There?s an old saying that you can plant if you can sit buck-naked on the ground, but an arm will do just as well. If the soil is warm enough, start buying plants as soon as possible. I am a big believer in never stepping into a nursery without a list. This is because once inside I want everything in sight especially all things tagged ?New!?? ?Rare!? and ?Unusual!? So, for me, this is a necessity.

A well-organized list, however, will tell you what looks good together.

For instance:

  • One method of shopping is to do it, one bed or border at a time.
    • Choose plants for a hot border (sunny with nothing but strong primary colours such as red, yellow and blue)
    • or just the shady spots (silver, white and gold).
    • Look for plants in the colour range you like and stick them together in the shopping cart.? If you can find a plant with one flower in bloom it will give you an idea of the true colour of the bloom.
  • Check the shape of the leaves, the texture, whether it is variegated (has splotches or edges of gold or silver) and see if they look good together.
    • A perennial will bloom for a few weeks but the foliage stays on until frost.
    • Having a border with nothing but teensy leaved plants will drive your eyes crazy.
  • Mix it up: large and small leaves, strappy and wide, fuzzy and smooth.
    • Mass together plants all with the same colour foliage
    • for instance I love purple-leaved plants.? It doesn?t matter what kind of blooms they have because they?ll look great together anyway.
    • Silver is another foliage colour that works magic to give a garden cohesion.
  • Make sure the plants are well-groomed:
    • they should be weed-free,
    • have very few roots coming out of the bottom
    • and aren?t parched (it?s not just dry surface soil but the container will feel very light). You don?t want to get them home and have to nurse them back to health.

As soon as you get home, put them in a shady spot, give them a drink of water and look after them until you can plant properly.? Nurseries actually have customers who buy plants and pop them into the ground without removing plastic pots (oh yes); or let them languish in the sun. I never ever shop unless I?ve prepared a spot for the newbies, and know I?ll have the time to get them into the soil.

In sunny spots you can plant roses, herbs as well as the sun-lovers as they are marked on the tags. Tags are chockablock with information (go to the web site) so take the information seriously. Perennials are expensive but a great investment for the garden and you can plan around them for all three seasons immediately.

How to read a tag

The first is to learn the name of the plant you are buying. It?s fine to use common names such as purple coneflower.? That?s the genus Echinacea which has many different species all of them different in some way. The species is in the second name on the tag:?(purpurea in this case). These two are always in italics;? and the third name is the cultivar (cultivated variety) and it is in Roman letters always surrounded by single inverted commas. ?White Swan? which is a new white form of purple coneflower.? So you?ve got to know what it?s not just a purple coneflower you want but Echinacea purpurea ?White Swan?. You must learn botanical Latin, it?s not snobbish and? it?s fun once you get on to it. Just repeat: genus, species, cultivar over and over again.

* Beware of any plant where the tag says: ?Spreads rapidly.?? This means it?s really invasive and will take over your garden.? My bete noire is variegated goutweed (Ageopodum variegatum) which will spread out in a radius of about 30M.? If you have it and want to get rid of it, smother it in black plastic held down by bricks and hope to fry it to death.