Easy-care perennials - Part 1
Story by Jo Simon
They are the old reliables of the garden. It’s not that they live forever – their lifespan can be a mere five years – but they ask so little of us, and growing, strengthening, slowly multiplying their forms and flowers bring a beauty to the garden that becomes grander with each passing year.
Around them, much happens, as we bring home the lastest plants to grab our fancy, and happily mix and match, and mulch and water, waiting to see if the dreams we have for them come true. The reliables can fend for themselves. When new, we had watered them carefully as they sent their roots deep into the soil; now they can weather dry days, hot days, wind, just about any kind of soil and periods of serious neglect, and still, uncomplaining, be the mainstay of the garden, with longlasting blooms that add a steadfast beauty to their surrounding. Some arrive early, many arrive in midsummer and may last until the first heavy frost lays them low.
Here are a few of the wondrous, easy maintenance flowering plants that are a familiar and beloved sight in our northern gardens.
Gaillardia (blanket flower): Sturdy, extra-long-blooming (early summer to frost) and hardy like a true native; you can prolong the gaillardia’s life by cutting off the finished flower remnants. It’s highly drought resistant, wants some sun or full sun, and has one dislike – wet feet — but it will cheerily grow just about anywhere. Its lifespan is about five years max. It’s usually found in combinations of yellow and orange, but there is also ‘Burgundy’ gaillardia, a dramatic wine colour, and the playful, unusual ‘Fanfare’, with red-orange tubular petals and yellow, curled tips.
Rudbeckia hirta (black eyed Susan). Golden and happy, this daisy-like plant with the deep-brown, disk-like centre was made for summer. Happy in the heat, tolerant of poor soil, drought-hardy, insect and disease resistant, it reaches 45 to 75 cm on erect often- purplish stems, flowering freely from July into the fall and enduring early frosts. It can be a perennial or biennial and is easily grown from seed. The celebrated `Goldstrum` cultivar, a top bloomer with outstanding vigour, was North America`s Perennial of the Year a decade ago. Butterflies love rudbeckia`s nectar.
Echinacea (coneflower). Like many of the reliable, undemanding flowers that are staples in our gardens, Echinacea is native to this continent – but its story has taken some intriguing twists and turns. As Western society began to take an interest in natural and sometimes ancient cures a decade or so ago, echinacea, historically a leading medicinal drug for North American native peoples, came to sudden new prominence as an effective immunity booster. Soon after, the dependably purple Echinacea purpurea, astaple of the Canadian garden for two centuries, suddenly emerged from greenhouses as a multicoloured wonder: white, rosy orange, yellow and lime, with its shape sometimes much transformed as well. The subtle colours, at once glowing and restrained, light up our gardens for long periods. Tall, erect, pest and disease resistant, echinacea has spiky cones that attract bees, butterflies and birds even after the petals fall away.
Physostegia (obedient plant). An adaptable, long-living native plant, the physotegia thrives in sunshine, where it prefers its soil moist, and does well in somewhat shaded locations, where it likes drier soil. Its firmly upright 60-cm spikes bear four vertical rows of small widely spaced flowers – white, pink or lavender — whose nectar attracts hummingbirds and flying insects. You can twist a tiny flower and it obediently stays put, but the same can’t be said for the plant which is prone to spreading and can be seriously invasive. Flowers bloom from midsummer to fall; plant resists pests and disease.
Aconitum (monkshood). The eye-catching violet-blue flowers of tall-growing monkshood are a welcome addition to the mid-summer to fall garden and, it’s been suggested, a worthy substitute for delphinium blooms in a shaded area. Aconitum species are mainly native to Europe and Asia. As a member of the vast Ranunculaceae family, monkshead has many illustrious relatives, including delphinium, peony, clematis, columbine and nigella plants. Monkshood need moisture – they should be kept away from thirsty tree roots — their moisture requirement increasing with the amount of sun they receive. Aphids and fungal stem rot and crown rot can attack them. Rabbits and deer stay away, perhaps because monkshood roots and seeds are seriously toxic.
Iris. Celebrated in antiquity in the mid-East and ancient Greece, these ruffled beauties have been bred intensively through the years, to become the strong, abundantly flowered specimens that we have today. Their large flowers offer wondrous swirls and splashes of colour in the late spring garden, with hues as far out as black and bronze and heights typically in the 40 cm to 80 cm range. Easy to grow, iris need sun, along with well-drained fertile soil, and should be divided every three or four years. Besides the ever popular bearded iris, there are waterside-type varieties (I. pseudacorus) and the enchanting, small I. Siberica withits grass-like foliage. Insects are sometimes attracted to this plant; deer and rabbits avoid it. Take care: it is toxic.
Lilium (lily). Mid-summer and this northern-climate flower is showing up in gardens everywhere in this land. Lilies like it cold in winter and warm in summer, so we gardeners and this plant with the soaring blooms are pretty much destined to get together.
Its colours can be tempestuous, sultry, soft or pallid, dark centred, dark-pointed, polka dotted, striped, or solid white, pink, red, burgundy or just about any hue.
There are a range of shapes, with the Asiatic and increasingly the small, high floating martagons and a series of inter-species hybrids being a popular choice. Lilies are largely pest-free and intensive breeding has produced a disease resistant plant that is a cinch to care for. Many lilies are sun lovers, other want light shade. A preferred location is the mixed flowerbed. Cut it right down in fall to avoid disease.
Hemerocallis (daylily). So easy to grow, so undemanding and adaptable, so tough, it’s a joy to plop another daylily into a flowerbed and watch for its blooms. Extensive breeding of this one-time Asian plant has produced some 40,000 varieties, in an almost unlimited range of colours and with heights that ready them for front-of-garden placement or spots all the way to the back fence. You can have daylilies blooming in your garden from early June through to September, each plant generously endowed with buds to produce a long blooming period. Give daylilies moist, well-drained and fertile soil, and divide them every two or three years to keep them strong and the flowers coming.
Lysimachia clethroides (gooseneck loosestrife). This pretty plant with the unusual arching neck will be one of the delights of the garden. Emerging from the grassy rolling hills of Japan and lower grassy slopes and woodlands of China, gooseneck loosestrife is 60- to 90-cm high, bearing its white 2.5-cm, long-blooming, late-season flowers on a curving spike that turns to follow the sun. When daylight dims and these flowering racemes are seen nodding in concert they appear to be bobbing geese. Gooseneck loose-strife likes moist soil, and even a waterside location, but will also perform adequately in drier locations and a range of light conditions. ‘Geisha’, a variegated leaf cultivar, seems to have had this loosestrife’s invasive tendencies bred out of her. The species is disease resistant and a destination point for butterflies.
Dictamnus albus (gas plant). This lovely lightly scented plant is an enduring one, an ideal choice for a low maintenance garden. Two cultivars get rave reviews: the albus (also listed as D. fraxinella ‘Albiflorus’) with its showy white spikes rising above mid-green foliage starting in late spring, and the variant purpureus with soft mauve-pink, purple veined petals, which open from purple bulbs, and which gardeners seem to love even more. The plants insist on being left undisturbed, in full sun or part-shade, and will grow slowly, living 20 years. The gas plant grows to 60 cm, with its spikes rising another 30 cm. It can adapt to moist or dry conditions. To enjoy the full beauty of these plants, it’s recommended that gardeners grow them in groups. The plants have a light citrus perfume.