Saturday, April 19, 2008

Low Maintenance Perennials

Years ago I was asked to give a talk about low maintenance perennials to a community group in Orange. I selected ten plants and with slides and handout sheets I explained why I chose those particular perennials. When I was finished a gal in the back of the room asked: “Amanda, do you ever sell those plants that come back year after year?”

Now, when I discuss perennials I start with a definition. A perennial is a plant that comes back year after year ... until it dies. Some perennials live a few years and then fade away. Others, like peonies or dictamnus (gas plant) will probably last longer than the person who planted them.

A low maintenance perennial would be one that it is reasonably long-lived, but not what I call a “bully” perennial. These can take over the garden in a few years. When a neighbor comes over with a paper bag stuffed full of bare roots and says it is “... a really easy perennial to grow,” be very careful!

Low maintenance perennials do not need need to be staked, nor do they have to be pruned of dead headed (although that never hurts). These plants are not troubled with diseases like powdery mildew or prone to insects like aphids or spider mites. And these are plants that look good the entire growing season, not just when they are in bloom.

STACHYS LAMBS’ EARS - ‘Helen von Stein’ --- I don’t care for the lambs’ ears grown from seed, because it sends up what I consider to be unsightly scapes and odd blooms which need to be cut. The foliage also tends to die away in the center. Stachys ‘Helen von Stein’ is grown from cuttings, not seeds, and as such rarely flowers. One common name for this plant is “elephant ears”, as the leaves are twice the size of the seed-grown varieties. It provides nice waves of silver in the garden.

SEDUM ‘kamtschaticum’ --- Most people are familiar with ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum, which is nice, but I particularly like the low growing sedum ‘kamtschaticum’. It is a thick green ground cover in the spring that bursts into yellow blooms. When they go by the spent stems and flowers turn a rusty red.

DAYLILIES --- These reliable plants withstand neglect. They can be used as erosion protection or ground cover and they increase in size each year.

If you were to just grow one daylily, ‘Stella de Oro’ would be a good choice. It is a lower growing plant with orange/yellow flowers. It reblooms on and off the entire season. This cultivar is widely used by landscapers.

ASTILBE --- Typically sold as a shade plant, I find in northern Vermont astilbe does fine in full sun, as long as it is not planted in dry, sandy soil. In fact, in the shade it doesn’t bloom much for me. Astilbe has feathery plumes and comes in white and many shades of pink, red, and purple. If I were to pick just one variety, I would stick with ‘Visions,’ which is a lower growing (18”) cultivar that has done well for us in all growing conditions. It has raspberry rose plumes and large clear green leaves.

VIOLA ‘Purple Showers’ --- This plant combines the old-fashioned charm of a violet with modern vigor. Some years it blooms all summer long.

BAPTESIA - (False Indigo) --- Baptesia is one of my favorite perennials. It takes a few years to size up, but then it behaves like a trouble free shrub, about 4 feet tall with spikes of violet blue flowers followed by pods. It has a nice vase shape to it when it’s not blooming and I also use the foliage in bouquets all summer.

AMSONIA (Willow Blue Star) --- This plant has light blue flowers in the spring and is native to the Eastern US. It is totally trouble free. A three foot, upright plant, like baptesia, it almost appears to be a small shrub. The foliage is long lasting in bouquets and turns golden colored in the fall.

SIBERIAN IRIS --- All siberian iris are low maintenance, until four or five years when it’s time to divide them. Then a jack hammer comes in handy, or a strapping young man. Meanwhile, you have lovely flowers in the spring. They bloom around the same time as peonies. If you don’t deadhead the flowers, the seed pods can be used in fall dried bouquets and the foliage looks nice all year, kind of like an ornamental grass.

Hostas are the best selling perennials in the US, but the slugs and the deer love them, so where I live that involves a lot of maintenance.

Every plant needs a bit of attention. A new planting needs moisture to get the roots established and placing some mulch around the base will help with weeds.

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