planning your Perennials

An Alaskan buyer’s guide to varieties and garden planning

By Jamey Bradbury

Perennials make for a gorgeous garden that comes back season after season. But the longevity of perennials means you’ll need to make good decisions – and do a little homework – as you select and plant.

Do your research

“Don’t just go to the store and buy whatever looks pretty,” advises Ginger Hudson, retail and horticultural special projects manager for Alaska Botanical Garden. Instead, ensure planting success by getting to know your yard’s micro-climates.

While some perennials love sun or do well in rocky soil, others prefer shade or deep soil. Factor in wind, too: Tall, lanky plants placed in high-wind spots will be shredded by a big gale.

“Once you’re familiar with which parts of your yard are shady or sunny, wet or dry, you can research which plants will grow best in each area,” says Chase Ricks, project manager for Kelly Lawn and Landscaping. Start with plants that do well in Alaska’s USDA Plant Hardiness Zone. “Anywhere from a Zone 3 to Zone 5 thrives pretty well here.”

Room to grow

One key to having a successful perennial garden is allotting the right amount of space for each plant.

“Remember that little plants grow up to be big plants,” offers Ground Effects senior project manager and horticulturist Mike Estep. Your research should tell you how large your plant will be once it matures. “If you don’t take that into account, you end up overplanting. Then the flowers die off and your garden starts to look like a weed patch.”

Height will play a part, too: Keep taller plants toward the back of your garden, or in the middle of an island, to make sure lower-growing plants aren’t blocked from sunlight, and to create visual interest.

Deliberate design

In addition to scale, consider proportion. The wide beds and tall, imposing plants that lend drama to a large house and yard may overwhelm a smaller home, which is better served by a series of small beds.

Hudson suggests sitting inside your house and looking out. “Is there something you want to be able to see? Choose elements that will draw you outside.” You might start with a focal point, like a boulder, an arbor or even a table where you can sit in your garden for a drink. Work out from there, pairing plants that provide contrast: big, bold flowers with delicate, airy blossoms, or tall, spiky stalks behind soft, mounded plants.

Then bring unity to your garden by repeating plants or plant combinations throughout the bed. Or repeat colors by selecting plants with the same blossom shades.

All-season color

You could just plant flowers wherever it strikes your fancy, but by having a plan for where you’ll place different varieties, you’ll be sure your garden offers color throughout the seasons.

You might draw a simple map, using different sized circles to represent different plants. The research you’ve done will come into play once again as you group early, mid-season and late-blooming plants together so that as one loses its bloom, the next is beginning to flower. “Getting color all spring, summer and fall just comes down to making sure you’re catching the season right and planning when each plant is going to bloom,” says Ricks.

Go green

When you’re thinking about color, adds Hudson, don’t neglect your greens. “Consider different types and textures of leaves to give interest. Perennial shrubs can serve as anchors in a garden. Rodgersias have big leaves that add variety, or ligularia has great leaves and tall flower spikes.”

You can also use grasses to add texture. Fescue, for example, is a good textured short grass for mid-shade to sunny conditions. Hudson even suggests letting garden grasses grow into fronds at the end of the season to provide interest through the winter, as grasses become coated in frost and snow.

Low-growing, leafy perennials can provide ground cover. Be familiar with what you’re getting, though, warns Estep: “Is it going to take over the whole garden? Aegopodium is a great example. It’s beautiful, with variegated green and white leaves, but once it gets started, you’re not going to get rid of it.”

An edible garden

As you’re branching out, why not include some edible perennials? Herbs like chives, mint and garden sage can bloom a long time, while groundcovers like strawberries and lowbush blueberries provide color – and a delicious treat.

“Larger fruit trees also can lend structure to a garden and provide a nice background to your other perennials,” adds Hudson. And don’t forget vines like kiwi or hops that can twine themselves around an arbor for an elegant touch.

With a combination of flowers, shrubs, vines and edible perennials, your family can enjoy a beautiful garden well past its last bloom – then look forward to the next spring, when your carefully chosen perennials come back again.

Resources: Alaska Botanical Garden, alaskabg.org; Kelly Lawn and Landscaping, kellyllc.net; and Ground Effects Landscaping and Snow Removal, groundfxlandscaping.com
What to know before you grow

This handy chart offers ideas for perennial plants to buy based on when they bloom, how tall they grow, and how much sun they need.

DOWNLOAD CHART (PDF)