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Perennials That Nearly Look After Themselves

Part 1
by Larry Hodgson
September 9, 1999

The key word in gardening these days is "low maintenance". The modern garden, it would seem, has to be attractive all summer long and yet need very little in the way of human intervention. It's hard to tell whether this is because garden-lovers have less time to spend on their hobby then in the past or whether they have just as much time, but want larger gardens and are therefore looking for plants that don't need as much individual attention. At any rate, the search for plants that basically take care of themselves has lead to some profound changes in the way we garden.

Only a few years ago, the average "flower garden" was largely composed of annuals. Attractive all summer long and initially inexpensive, they were regarded as the ultimate in decorative outdoor plants. But people have become tired of planting and replanting annuals every single year, of having to restart the entire flower garden each spring, of the constant weeding necessary to keep them in top shape and, most of all, of the recurrent cost of replacing them: the cost of replanting an entire bed of annual flowers each year can become quite mind-numbing. Annuals have not been eliminated from the modern garden by any means, but they no longer take up its entire surface. In fact, they are more likely to be used rather sparing as accent plants, placed here and there among a wide range of longer-lived plants where they are appreciatef for their season-long colour.

Flowering shrubs have undoubtedly been the big winners of the low-maintenance trend. Once restricted to background plantings on lawns, dwarf hybrids especially are now staples of the flower garden. They can be faulted for their rather seasonal bloom… but no one will deny that, once planted, they'll remain in place with little care for as long as the garden exists.

There has also been a strong trend towards the use of perennial flowers in low-maintenance gardens. They offer a much wider range of flower colours and forms than shrubs. A careful mixture of perennials can indeed bring season-long bloom to the garden. But, as many gardeners are discovering, they are not necessarily as "low maintenance" as many people were led to believe. They tend to be quickly invaded by perennial weeds which are hard to eradicate, need dividing on a regular basis, can be susceptible to difficult-to-control pests and diseases, are frequently short-lived and often tend to be extremely invasive, choking out desirable but less resistant plants. In fact, some gardeners have come to the conclusion that even labour-intensive annuals, with all their faults, are still the better choices than perennials for the flower garden.

But don't give up on perennials just yet! There are low-care perennials out there that have a lot to offer but which often just need to be better known in order to become star performers in your garden.

What is a Low Maintenance Perennial? Before choosing perennials for their low-maintenance characteristics, it's important to discuss what those characteristics might be. Here are just a few of the traits which one would hope to find:

  • Perfectly cold hardy so no winter protection is needed and equal resistance to summer heat.
  • Longevity (90% should still be alive and thriving 5 years after the initial planting).
  • Resistance to disease and insects so spraying is not required.
  • No need for division more often than every 4 or 5 years.
  • Tolerance of a wide range of growing conditions.
  • Long blooming period, or, if not, attractive foliage throughout the growing season.
  • Little tendency for invasiveness.
  • No staking required.

It is surprising how few perennials meet all those characteristics. Phlox, for example, meet almost all of them but for disease and insect resistance: keeping them pest-free can be a summer-long nightmare. Many tough perennials, like peonies and delphiniums, need constant staking, and a very large number of the otherwise nearly ideal ones are either very invasive (goutweed is a prime example) or tend to disappear after only a few short years (such is the case with lupines and just about everything in the daisy family).

Fortunately, there are some perennials which really are low-care plants. Plant them today and you can expect to still see them blooming away in 5, 10 or even 15 years. What's more, most have such dense foliage they care capable of smothering out the most persistent weeds. The plants that follow, then, are truly no strain, no pain perennials.

Daylily (Hemerocallis) (USDA hardiness zones 3-9) If you thought all daylilies had yellow to orange flowers, think again. Probably no other perennial has undergone such a rapid development over the last 40 years and the modern daylily is available in every shade from white to pink to red to purple, including bicolours, doubles and even flowers with such frilly petals that they are more reminiscent of orchids than of the old-fashioned garden daylily. Daylilies have the advantage of thick, apple-green, grasslike foliage that is so dense it smothers out all weeds and yet is attractive enough to find a place in the garden from spring to fall. And although their clumps increase quite substantially in size over the first few years, modern hybrids are not at all invasive and you can choose to either divide them regularly so as to increase the number of plants you have or to ignore them entirely for up to 10 years: daylilies seem remarkably immune to neglect. If you want to impress your guests, you can also serve them stir-fried daylily buds or even roots: all parts of the plant are edible.

Although each flower lasts only a day (which is where the plant gets its name), there are several flowers per stalk and many stalks per plant, meaning each plant will remain in bloom over a few weeks time. What's more, by mixing early, mid-season and late-blooming types, you can have flowers throughout much of the summer. The most recent and interesting development in daylilies has been that of "reblooming" hybrids, notably the remarkable 'Stella d'Oro', a dwarf variety with yellow flowers that, in my garden at least, literally bears flowers throughout the summer.

Daylilies are very tolerant of diverse conditions, but will bloom best in rich, well-drained soil and full to partial sun. Dwarf varieties are excellent choices for a flowering border.

More on low maintenance perennials in the upcoming column!

Larry Hodgson

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