Articles by Jim Gainan

As published in the Billings Gazette

Growing up: Count on perennials to brighten your garden every year

Ah, perennials, the ever-faithful plants that come up each year despite our busy schedules and erratic Montana spring weather.  Many perennials are prized for either their colorful blossoms, like Echinacea (Coneflower) or Phlox.  Many bloom at different times of the year so you can literally time the color scheme of your flower beds. Begin with pinks and purples in early spring and end with the golden tones of Black Eyed Susans in the fall. 

Other perennials are valued for their foliage, such as hostas, ferns and ornamental grasses which add texture to a garden. Use perennials in combination with shrubs and evergreens to provide color and variety.  Low, spreading perennials are frequently used as ground covers to give a greener, softer feel to an area.

Good soil preparation is the key to success with all plantings, but especially with perennials, since they will occupy their spot in the garden for several years.  Most perennials prefer a well-drained soil that is high in organic matter. With heavy soils that may drain poorly, you may consider raising the area to improve drainage. For heavy or light soils, incorporating garden compost, well-rotted manure or peat into the top 8 to 12 inches will increase the organic matter and aid in drainage and soil aeration.

Organic mulches, such as wood chips, compost, shredded bark, or leaves are also beneficial by providing a cool, moist soil that perennials prefer, reducing weeds and helping in overwintering by reducing frost penetration into the soil.

For winter, 2 to 4 inch mulch of leaves, cover bark, hay or straw, or compost will provide protection for shallow rooted perennials like mums, Shasta daisies, delphinium, etc.

Many perennials benefit from being divided periodically. If permitted to go undivided, they become crowded, lose their vigor and become vulnerable to diseases. Iris, daylilies and lilies are some of the perennials that benefit from being divided about every three years.

This year’s perennial of the year is Brunnera macrophylla, ‘Jack Frost’.  It grows 18 inches tall and 18 inches wide in a mounded form and is hardy from zones 3 to 8.  Brunneras are prized for their blue flowers, which are similar in appearance to forget-me-nots.  ‘Jack Frost’ has silvery heart-shaped leaves with a thin green margin.  All brunnera are shade lovers, but will tolerate morning sun if the soil is moist.  Use ‘Jack Frost’ for lightening up shady gardens.  Good companion plants are hostas, ferns and epimediums.

With all of its special features, it is easy to see why gardeners would select ‘Jack Frost’ for their gardens.  However, when the Perennial Plant Association (PPA) selects a perennial of the year, it has more criteria to meet than being easy on the eyes.  It must also be suitable for a wide range of climatic conditions, be low maintenance, demonstrate pest and disease resistance, be readily available in the year of release, have multiple seasons of ornamental interest and be easily propagated. 

The Perennial Plant Association is a professional trade association whose mission is to improve the perennial plant industry by providing education to enhance the production, promotion and utilization of perennial plants. 

Members include professionals spanning the entire spectrum of the horticultural industry -- wholesale growers, seed companies, plant breeders, retailers, landscapers, designers, garden writers and photographers, educators and students, public gardens and arboreta.   The Perennial Plant of the Year program began in 1990. 

Each year, members of the PPA nominate plants that they feel deserve wider recognition.  A committee narrows the nominations to four perennials and the members vote for the winner.

The past five Perennials of the Year have been:

2011 – Amsonia hubrichtii – Arkansas Blue Star

2010 – Baptisia australis – Blue Wild Indigo

2009 – Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ – Japanese Forest Grass

2008 – Geranium ‘Rozanne’

2007 – Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ – Walker’s Low Catmint

 Some tips to keep in mind when selecting perennials for your garden:

·         Choose the colors and textures that appeal to you

·         Know the space you have available and the full size of your plant

·         Select plants that will provide color throughout the growing season

·         Select plants that are appropriate for the amount of sunlight and shade that is available

·         If planting several perennials in the same area, look for companion plants that have the same light and water requirements.