Gardening Articles: Flowers :: Perennials

Perennials 101

by National Gardening Association Editors


Over the past 200 years, perennials have gone in and out of fashion several times. Owing to a fairly recent revival of the casual "cottage garden" look, perennials are more popular with today's home gardeners than they ever have been. Given their popularity, dozens--maybe hundreds--of books, not to mention countless magazine and newspaper articles, have been written on the subject of gardening with perennials. Combine all the publicity with the fact that the home gardener now has a greater selection of perennial plants than has ever been available in the past and it all adds up to a somewhat larger-than-life situation. As one gardener recently exclaimed, "gardening with perennials can be so intimidating!"

One of the reasons many home gardeners find perennials intimidating is the enduring legacy of the traditional English perennial border. At the height of their fashion during the early 20th century, it wasn't unusual for an English perennial border to be sixty or more feet in length and twelve feet deep. Add to their enormous size the dictate that, with the exception of winter, there be something in bloom every season of the year--preferably in waves of complementary colors and contrasting flower forms. You can see how the prospect of establishing a garden of perennials could become rather daunting.

Fortunately, a much freer approach with perennials has begun to take hold in our imaginations. Perennials can be planted among shrub borders or in containers. Annuals and perennials can be combined to delightful effect. And if you really must, there's always the perennial border, scaled down to reflect contemporary restraints of time and resources.

For the record, unlike annuals, which complete their life cycle in a year or less, perennials are long-lived plants, many of which are "herbaceous," meaning that during cold winter weather, they die completely to the ground, returning with new growth from the roots the following spring.

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