How to Start a Perennial Garden

Starting a beautiful and productive perennial garden doesn't happen on accident. Gardeners need to plan, prepare the soil, and learn appropriate planting practices to establish that gorgeous dream garden. It's worth the effort. The best part about starting a perennial garden is that after you get it going, your plants will continue to grow each year without too much maintenance.

I'll be honest; I love gardening, but with a few kids, it's a lot of work. I want the look of a lovely garden, and I want to be able to produce veggies and herbs each year without hours of maintenance. Perennials are the perfect answer.

Perennials don't need to be replaced each year; some can grow for decades! The plants die back in colder climates during the winter and then regrow in the spring. If you happen to live in a warmer region, perennials grow year-round, producing endless greenery or blossoms.

If you’re ready to get started on your perennial garden, here's what you need to know.

Pick Your Plants

Before you start preparing for a perennial garden, you need to decide what plants you want to grow. Think about where you live and then consider its cold hardiness, how much sun is required, and the soil requirements of the plants you're considering.

You also need to think about the spacing and the appearance of your garden, along with your goals. Do you want low-growing ground covers or taller plants to add height to your space? Do you want a mix of veggies, herbs or flowers? It’s up to you what you want to grow.

The best perennials for you are the ones that thrive in your area’s growing conditions. Also, you need ones that will grow well in your yard. Don’t plan to grow hostas if you don't have much shade or if you live in a hot southern state.

There are too many perennials to list here, but to give you an idea about where to start, here are some favorites you should consider.

Flowering Perennials:

  • Aster
  • Daylily
  • Black-eyed Susan
  • Hellebore
  • Balloon Flower
  • Clematis
  • Daisy
  • Delphinium
  • Hydrangea
  • Peony
  • Phlox
  • Sedum
  • Bleeding Heart

Perennial Herbs:

  • Lavender
  • Thyme
  • Sorrel
  • Mint
  • Chives
  • Winter savory
  • Oregano
  • Echinacea
  • Fennel
  • Sage
  • Tarragon
  • Yarrow

Perennial Vegetables:

  • Asparagus
  • Rhubarb
  • Artichoke
  • Horseradish
  • Watercress
  • Radicchio
  • Jerusalem Artichoke
  • Sorrel
  • Wild Leeks
  • Egyptian Walking Onions
  • Kale
  • Capers

5 Tips for Picking Perennial Plants

For many of us, when we pick plants to grow, we don’t make deliberate choices. At least, I know I don’t! I look at the photos in the catalog, and I’m suckered into purchasing based on pictures. The beautiful blooms at the nursery beg me to buy them, and sometimes I can't say no. But that’s not how we should pick perennials.

As I said before, the best perennial plants are the ones that are going to do well in your climate and planting location. Here are some tips for picking the right ones.

1. Consider Your Site

Perennials live longer and will thrive more if they're planted in a location they love. Think about your soil; is it sandy or heavy? Do you have a sunny or shady spot? What is your pH level? Take time to figure out the specifics of your location to determine the right plants for your site. It will save you stress in the long run.

2. Think About Your Hardiness Zone

The plants you pick need to be hardy to your growing zone, or they'll die quickly, which defeats the purpose of creating a perennial garden. Choosing a plant that can't handle the frost when you live in an area with harsh winters will spell disaster.

To avoid this, pick plants that do well in your zone. Some perennials won’t act as perennials in your area if you live in the wrong region for the plant. Of course, you can always take the gamble and see what happens. Gardening is all about experimentation.

3. What You’ll Use The Most

If you want to grow perennial herbs and vegetables, pick what you’ll use. If you despise asparagus, planting them seems like a silly idea. Consider what you enjoy.

For example, I love rhubarb; who doesn’t love strawberry rhubarb jam and a sour cream rhubarb pound cake? Delicious! However, I’m not a fan of artichokes, so I don’t devote space in my garden for them.

The same goes for flowers. If you don't love the look of black-eyed Susans, don't plant them.

4. Desires for Your Garden

Do you want different colors and heights in your garden? Too much of the same color or height could be boring, while too many colors or plant varieties might be visually overwhelming. Only you can decide what you want for your garden.

5. Bloom Time

Few perennials bloom for more than a few weeks each year. The rest of the time, the plants are green. While a blooming perennial might be in flower for two weeks or as long as three months, you'll inevitably have a long period without blossoms.

To deal with this fact, try to vary the types of plants you have so that something is blooming all season long. It's also essential that you like the leaf form and foliage texture of the plants you pick. Don't select a plant that you think is ugly when it isn't blooming.

The Best Time to Plant Perennials

Perennials can be planted any time throughout the growing season. You can plant them until the ground starts to freeze, but the best results come when you plant in either the spring or the fall.

Most gardeners plant perennials in the spring. Your local nursery should offer tons of different options you choose from that are ripe for putting in the soil at the beginning of the growing season. Plant in the spring to give roots time to acclimate and get established. By the time the summer arrives, your plants will be thriving.

You can also put plants in the ground in the fall. The soil is easy to work, and it's warm from the summer heat, so roots can quickly establish. Plants put in the ground in the fall have a head start on spring growth. You can also find a screaming bargain at nurseries because the growing season is winding down.

Preparing the Soil for a Perennial Garden

Prepare the garden bed you selected for your perennials one to two weeks before you plant. Remove all weeds and grass from the bed; a tiller or garden fork can turn over the top 12 inches of soil to make things easier.

After you remove the grass and weeds, spread 2 inches or more of compost or rotted manure over the bed. Mix that into the top few inches of the loosened soil, blending well. Adding amendments before planting will ensure you'll get a slow release of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous over the next few months.

How to Plant Perennials

Planting perennials is pretty straight-forward. Dig holes slightly deeper and twice as wide as the pot that the plant is currently residing in. The container should have some information about the recommended spacing, but the average perennial needs 12-18 inches between plants. If you're growing taller perennials, go for 18-36 inches of space, and small plants only need 6-12 inches apart.

Fill the hole slightly with amended soil so that the plant will sit level with the ground. Take the plant out of the container and put it into the hole. Don’t hold the plant by the stalks; you can damage the plant. Fill the hole back in with amended soil and pat it down. Soak the ground thoroughly after planting.

Taking Care of Your Perennial Garden

Compared to annuals, perennials are a breeze to grow in the garden. They require little fertilizer and little maintenance, so they’re great for anyone, whether they have a green or black thumb. That said, your plants will do better if you give them some care. When properly maintained, perennial plants can live around 20 years; that’s a great reason to pay attention to their needs.

Mulching

Mulching your perennials is vital whether you plant in spring or fall. Adding mulch evens out the soil temperature during the winter to help prevent frost and helps to keep the soil cool in the summer. Mulching also helps with frost heave, which is when the soil freezes and repeatedly thaws, which can push plants out of the ground.

After you plant your new perennials, spread a 2-inch layer of mulch over the soil in the bed. Make sure you keep it 1-2 inches away from the base of the plant to avoid diseases.

Watering

In the beginning, most perennials are thirsty plants because they’re busy establishing a robust root system. So, during the first week, you need to water daily. Then, keep them well-watered for the first month.

After that, your perennials don’t need to be watered as frequently. When you do water them, do so deeply.

Fertilizing

Perennials do need to be fertilized, but they require less than some other plants. They need occasional boosts to help their growth, but adding too much fertilizer encourages leafy vegetation rather than flowering.

If you correctly amended the soil when you planted your perennials, there should be no need to fertilize that first year. In the following years, a few shovels of manure or 2-3 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 100 square feet in the early spring is sufficient. Fertilizing in the spring encourages new growth.

You can also apply an additional pound of 10-10-10 fertilizer in midsummer as the growth starts to slow down. If you watch your plants, you should notice light green foliage or slow growth, both of which indicate that your plants need a boost of nutrients.

Pinching, Pruning and Deadheading

Some perennials like asters, phlox, and salvias benefit from being pinched back. Pinching leads to a bushier plant that produces more blooms. It’s a simple process; all you have to do is pinch the growing tips between your thumb and forefinger once or twice during the late spring.

Also, don't forget to deadhead plants. Some plants drop their dead flowers, but others hold onto them for months. Removing dead flowers makes your plants look better and helps to stimulate reblooming.

Finally, some perennials benefit from regular pruning. Get to know the pruning and deadheading requirements of your plants.

Dividing Your Perennial Plants in the Fall

In the fall, consider dividing your perennials every 3-5 years. For many plants, the center tends to die as the plant gets larger. Dividing not only tackles this problem but gives you even more perennials you can plant elsewhere.

Here’s how you divide your perennials.

  1. Dig up the plant and divide in two if desired. Remove all of the dead parts of the plant.
  2. Discard the dead parts.
  3. Replant the healthy parts of the plant.

See, it's effortless! You can divide these plants into small groups, giving you a way to add more plants to your garden or to trade with friends and family.

Starting Your Perennial Garden

While starting a new perennial garden seems like a lot of thought and foreplanning, it means less maintenance and care in the long-term. Adding perennial plants to your garden will save you money and time, two resources everyone can use more of.

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