By Amanda Legare
Gardeners who are just starting out with perennials often think it will be an easy solution to landscaping. It is not that simple.
Some perennials are lovely for a few years and then fade away. Others are self-seeding maniacs or invasive garden thugs and crowd out neighboring plants in no time. Some are pretty when blooming, which is typically for about three weeks, but the foliage then becomes unattractive. Others are insect or deer magnets. In other words, perennials will not take care of themselves year after year. However, there are some relatively trouble-free perennials which I will share here.
One of the things to consider when choosing a perennial is what time of year it blooms and how it looks the rest of the growing season. For this reason a perennial with colorful foliage is often a good choice, as it offers a constant pop of color in the garden. “Palace Purple” is a heuchera (common name, “coral bells”) with maroon purple leaves that can be found at most garden centers. It is grown from seed, not cuttings or root divisions and can be variable in color, so always look for the darkest leaves. The flowers are nothing to write home about, but you are growing it for the foliage. This particular heuchera will do best with sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon.
“Palace Purple” was the first heuchera to be introduced with colored leaves. In the last 10 years there have been all kinds of other new heucheras developed. I haven’t had much luck with the yellow or red-leaved cultivars, but the maroon purple varieties seem a sure bet. Some of the best are “Chocolate Ruffles”, “Plum Pudding”, and “Pewter Veil”.
Astilbe is usually listed as a plant to grow in the shade. As long as the soil is not super dry they flourish in full sun in my Cabot gardens. The divided foliage is topped with spikes of showy flowers in shades of red, pink and white. They are good cut flowers. Some of my favorites are “Fanal” (red), “Erica” (salmon pink), “Visions” (rose purple) and “White Gloria”.
Sedum (stonecrop) is another one of those plants that does well without much care. The most popular sedum is “Autumn Joy” which has upright light green foliage with rose colored flowers in the late summer. Butterflies love this plant’s blooms. Once established, sedum requires little attention. It does need full sun and does well in dry conditions. Considered a good plant for rock gardens, sedum comes in many heights. I like the red foliage on some of the low-growing varieties. “Firecracker” is a good example, with its beet red leaves and dark pink flowers at the end of summer.
Ligularia “The Rocket” has yellow flowers held on spikes three feet high above large cut leaves. This variety definitely needs shade, at least in the afternoon. “Britt Marie Crawford” is another ligularia usually recommended for the shade. In my gardens it is happiest (and prettiest) in full sun. The leaves then turn a dark burgundy. This variety has golden daisy-like flowers which contrast nicely with the foliage.
Brunnera is sometimes called “false forget-me-not” because it has similar blue flowers in the spring, just not as many. Gardeners grow “Jack Frost” brunnera primarily for its silver leaves which are veined and outlined in green. It’s good in a shaded area and has an eye-catching sheen.
Cimicifugia (black snakeroot) can also be found now as “Actea” because botanists have changed the genus in recent years. I finally learned how to pronounce cimicifugia, so I am sticking with that name. It is a tall (4-8 feet) late-blooming plant with wands of white flowers much loved by butterflies. Look for the cultivar with “atropurpurea” attached to its name. The species tends to wander around the garden, while atropurpurea grows in strong arching clumps. There are many dark-leaved varieties now available, which are pretty, but slow growing.
Daylilies certainly belong on this list, but they will get their own column.
For beginning perennial gardeners I suggest starting slowly and don’t plant your perennials too close together. The first year you can always interplant with annuals. And remember that perennials can be moved around without much trouble (usually in the spring) so if you are not pleased with something in your initial planting, you can change it for next season.