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by Dan Clost
by Dan Clost


First serious garden earned 25 cents from the Kemptville Horticultural Society when I was 12. Have been poor in horticulture ever since but rich in spirit.

Went to work writing the Good Earth column (over 500 articles published in newspaper, magazine, website and journal.) and learned that what was printed wasn't what I wanted to say and certainly not what Gentle Reader understood me to say. Subsequently have developed a certain clarity and economy of words.

Day job- nursery and production manager for a large nursery/garden centre
Side job- Garden restoration and renovations, design consultations, remedial pruning.
Night job- garden writer and communicator (overnight success in another 20 years)

Dan gardens in Canadian Zone 5b

April 18, 2004

A perennial plant is one that returns every year. An herbaceous perennial is a plant that loses all of its aboveground growth during the winter. Most of us use perennials in combination with shrubs, trees, annuals and bulbs, i.e. the entire plant inventory available to us.

If shrubs are the foundation of a design, then perennials are what fleshes it out and develops the garden's character. That character ultimately reflects your flavour and individuality.

There are a few things to consider before you plant or even purchase your material.

The first is to analyse the environmental aspects of your site. What hardiness zone are you in? Do you have any microclimates? Where does the wind come from and how hard does it blow? Do you need a windbreak? How much sunlight does the spot receive? Where does the snow pile up in the winter? This is the first step in developing a coherent approach.

The second item, and this is unarguably the most important, is your soil. Good soil is paramount for success. Do you have too much clay? Many books will suggest you cut it with coarse, gritty builder’s sand. Well, a little bit’s not too bad but as any contractor can tell you clay plus sand plus water equals cement. Is your soil too sandy? Here’s the best advice- add humus or organic matter to your soil. It can be compost, leaf mold, peat moss, manure, triple mix, straw- anything that used to be a plant and is still decomposing. A depth of 8” of good friable fertile soil is what you need for acceptable results. As time goes on, the flowerbed will become deeper as you continually add more organic matter and the worms and microorganisms work it deeper into the ground.

Another function is drainage. Generally, a good soil will hold enough moisture to satisfy the plants and allow the remainder to drain away. Your job is to make sure it has a place to go. If you’ve made a raised bed or erected a retaining wall, then there should be an outlet for collected water to flow away.

Selection, actually picking your plants, is the fun part. [Next week we'll look at how to go about it.] For now, we'll continue on with the mundane but oh so important topic of maintenance.

Caring for your perennials is a fairly simple matter. Keep them clean; remove spent blossoms, fallen leaves, etc. This will decrease the probability of disease and insect damage. Neatness counts. Keep the bed weeded (use a mulch until the perennials cover most of the bare ground. Or use groundcovers such as english ivy or thyme.)

When to divide; usually, dead spots in the centre of the clump or declining performance are the first clues. It is preferable to do this during dormancy but the plant is often buried under snow by the time you can get to them. The next best time is after they flower. Spring and early summer bloomers get divvied up in the fall, late summer and fall bloomers can be split in the spring after the ground warms up. Some plants like to be ripped apart, others need slicing, and some require a gentle touch. Read the bio on your plant. Each new plant should have one healthy looking crown or root mass with lots of new roots (small and white). Replace a few divisions in the original hole, swap some with your friends, donate some to your hort club and compost the remainder. I usually have a swarm of neighbourhood children “helping” me so a lot of these treasures go home with them.

Watering is important. A very good drink when you plant them, watch them the next two weeks or so and give them a sip if warranted. After that, they should take care of themselves.

Feeding is just as simple. One of the best aids that we have now is the slow release fertiliser. Follow the instructions once a season and you’re done.


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