Be Picky About Perennials

pereennial garden  I know the title of this post sounds heartless, but there is no need to plant every plant you can find in your garden unless you are young, you want to learn by doing, and you have acreage. If this is not your situation, there is nothing wrong with being choosy. The fact of the matter is that no perennial plant is without its shortcomings. Some fall over, or seed relentlessly. Some are disease prone, or beloved of bugs. Others fail to perform unless they have a full time nanny. Still others would grow in your bedroom window if you take your eyes off of them. Still others have a painfully awkward habit of growth, or an incredibly short life span. Those perennials with nondescript or poor foliage – I will not plant them. I make a point of seeing new hybrid introductions in test gardens, as I am fiercely protective of what plants I give ground to in my own yard, or my client’s gardens. I designed and planted the garden pictured above 15 years ago. This year I will redo it.  I suspect my plant palette will be different. I like plants that deliver and endure.

double bloodrootThis said, I routinely break my own rules. I would plant double bloodroot, knowing that their yearly bloom time might be a few hours, and their foliage dies back in the blink of an eye. I would attempt to grow roses, even though they come with a long list of do’s and don’t’s. I like snakeroot, even though there flower stems droop.  The joy of my garden? My choices may be thoughtful or capricious. Either is fine. No one will be stopping by this week, or any week, to grade my garden. For good or for ill, and thankfully, I am in charge of my garden decisions. No one cares or ever will care more about my garden than I do. So I do think through my decisions about what to plant. I will have no one else to blame for my bloopers. I may ignore my own advice when I am so inclined. I make mistakes, most of which make me laugh. I should have known better. Be assured that I have planted lots of perennials that languished and died. I have planted even more that I wish would die. A poorly performing perennial that struggles back year after year to no good end – nothing makes me more furious than a mediocre performance from a plant.

Walters Gardens astilbe Visions in PinkYou may find fault with my notion that plants in my garden need to perform. So let me visit the idea of performance. A garden is a terrific amount of work, much of which is not all that much fun. I like plants that reward my efforts with their beauty. A great performing plant is a plant whose habit, substance, hardiness, flowers and foliage are equally beautiful.  The Visions series of astilbe come very close to this level.  They do remarkably well in open shade, and are tolerant of full sun if they have sufficient water.  The foliage is glossy and healthy all season long. The flower stalks are sturdy. They are hardy in my zone.

blue delphiniumIt’s a rare gardener who is not besotted by the sight of a well grown stand of blue delphinium. The day they come into full bloom is the June day we will have a driving rainstorm that will take most of them down to the ground. You can see the support strings in this picture from the RHS. But there are ways to limit your exposure to disaster. Thin mature clumps, to promote good air circulation and discourage fungus. Pinch them back early, for more sturdy stems.  Plant the smaller growing species, d. belladonna or d. ballamosum, or shorter growing hybrids, as opposed to the exhibition sized varieties. If you buy seed for delphiniums bred in England or New Zealand, consider their climate before you try to grow them in Wyoming. If you must have those big delphiniums, be good natured about the aphids and the less than wonderful foliage once the bloom is finished. Don’t forget to feed and feed again.

pure peonies    Every living thing is flawed one way or another. This includes me, and my opinions about what perennial plants I would recommend. I have a point of view based on my experience, patience, and . None of the aforementioned Some flaws are charming.  Other flaws are deal breakers.  I avoid plants that are not truly hardy in my zone. I also pass by those plants that need and thrive in an environment that I cannot provide.  A flawless perennial is even rarer. It may not even exist. It would have gorgeous foliage, a long and heavy bloom time, a weatherproof habit of growth, good resistance to disease and bugs, a minimum in hands on maintenance – as in deadheading, division, staking, feeding or any other attention, perfectly hardy ands winter tolerant in my zone, adaptability to a wide range of light and soil conditions, a long life span, a healthy respect for the plants next door, vigor without aggression, a compact habit, great substance, early to show and late to go down-am I missing anything? This photograph of a hedgerow of the peony “Moonstone”, from Pure Peonies, is a good example of a perennial that is worth a second look. If you love perennial plants, pick and choose what to grow.



  1. Music to my ears! The one thing that I abhor more than anything else in gardens is the faux Gertrude Jekyll-inspired ‘mixed perennial border’, with some annuals thrown in for good measure. It MAY look attractive for a few weeks during the year. More often though, these borders look like really bad wall paper. And once the blooms are gone, all that remains are unattractive leaves. Call me boring, but the only perennials that I use are astilbes and trillium. Are ferns perennials? I use those too. Sparingly. Thank you for your post, Deborah!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Antoine, there are lots of perennials that I would not hesitate to plant. I also think mixed borders can be beautiful-but they can be even more beautiful with the right plants. The best part is that everyone can interpret the garden as they see fit. I do plan to post about those plants that I think are terrific in a garden. thanks for writing, Deborah

  2. Excellent article Deborah
    I have suggested some perennials that have gone haywire
    Gaura is one of them.
    I am learning too as I am going along
    Nothing is fool proof
    I love clematis
    But after its done flowering it looks bare
    I enjoy when it flowers
    I keep changing my perennial often
    I will post a picture in spring when some stuff blooms !

  3. mollie duvall says

    When I was young and learning, I had my heart broken by roses, delphiniums and foxgloves. I started a flower garden to have “free” material for teaching myself floral arranging, LOL!! Not so free, it turns out, when I had to spend time and money on fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and replacement plants only to be disappointed time and again.

    Now, (30 years wiser) I still plan my garden to have floral arranging material but, I only plant what I KNOW will grow with a minimum of care, fertilizer, etc. Hydrangeas, Oriental lilies, clematis, hosta, coneflowers, astilbe, mums, peonies and select annuals comprise the backbone of my cutting garden. All of these do well in my Zone 5 garden with basic maintenance. If I wish to add roses to an arrangement, Kroger is a short car ride away!

    Looking forward to the next in this very informative series on perennials. Thank you again, Deborah for your generosity in sharing your knowledge.

  4. Being a landscape designer, neighbors constantly walk by my house expecting to see a masterpiece. Unfortunately, I have not done much to my front yard in the 8 years we’ve lived here. This winter, however, I yanked the entire front bed with plans to install a stone retaining wall, a few boulders and some low maintenance mugo pines and the obligatory Karl Foerster grass for maintenance ease. The perennials however are stumping me. I want long-blooming or something showy that delivers maximum eye candy on limited attention. I’m leaning toward heuchera since they come in a variety of show stopping color and are shade loving, but I am secretly afraid to pull the trigger. Any other suggestions? Colorado zone 5, NE exposure.

  5. I have two plants that I love even now in winter. Clematis ‘Comtesse de Bouchaud’ grows up a trellis on my gray-painted garage. Flowers, seed heads, then the vine turns rusty-brown against the gray paint, holds its shape, and I think it’s beautiful. Also, Thalictrum ‘Black Stockings’ has vibrant purple flowers on stems about 4 to 5 feet, from a base of lovely green foliage. It prefers light shade, and foliage stays green all summer as long as it gets rainfall. Those stems and seedheads are still upright, brown and beautiful.

  6. debra phillips says

    in my 28 year career every mistake has been made. all began in england watching road crews mow over foxglove, “such a nuisance!” i was told, that set the path to trying too hard in my zone 5 garden to do the impossible which included foxglove
    now i have the same requirements as you deborah, i am ruthless and non-stop foliage is a must. cannot wait for your list!

  7. Heather Burkhardt says

    I love your writing and your philosophy. I am looking forward to hearing about the perennials that you like. I have just planted a delphinium belladonna as a centerpiece in one of the containers I maintain at my daughter’s high school. Their colors are blue and gold and white, so that is the pallete I work with. I will watch it as it kicks in, to see if I should pinch it. TY.

  8. For more bang for the buck, I go for foliage rather than flowers. Easy care for me In the PNW are hellebores, heucheras, euphorbias, hebes (small leaved varieties), and many grasses. Phormiums and cordylines are also favorites of mine, but these are tender for us so I plant them in pots and lug them into the garage for the winter.

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