Saturday, June 23, 2012

Some of my Perennial BFFs

I have lots of favorite perennials and could never limit a list to just five, so the following are just a selection of a large group of BFFs.  It so happens that four of these are partial to full shade loving plants, which will serve as answer to one of the questions many people ask me regarding perennials.  What does well in shade other than Hosta, Impatiens and Garden Gnomes?  No insult intended to the International Garden Gnome Labor Union.

Epimedium (Barrenwort) - This is a semi-evergreen perennial, which is nice since it keeps its foliage until the snow comes and just needs to be cleaned up in the Spring.  In a woodland setting you just let the new growth grow out through the previous years growth, and once it is established, it will start to spread nicely.  The flowers come up in the early spring before the leaves and come in yellow, white, pink, red, purple and shades in between, but the foliage is the killer with heart shaped leaves that seem to always be in different greens with red, yellow and bluish tints to them.  These plants also endure poor soil and dry conditions so they are good in those shade condition under trees where not much else grows.  They are rarely more than 12" high and as mentioned keep their leaves almost like an evergreen.

Alchemilla (Lady's Mantle) - This is probably my favorite perennial because it is so versatile, reliable, rugged and flowers for about two months.  The chartreuse flowers really brighten up a shady spot and when they are done, the scalloped leaves are wonderful throughout the year until the snow covers them up.  Like the Epimedium, I call it a semi-evergreen.  Once established it will spread and slowly self-sow, meaning you will have more plants than you know what to do with after a number of years.  Each plant in flower is about 18" high and 18" wide.  I think they are best when in mass or used as edging in a bed.  It can go in full sun but needs a lot of water to keep from browning a little.  It's best in part sun all the way to shade.

Kirengeshoma (Yellow Wax Bells) -  This is a great space-filling perennial for the shade.  It is not very common in the trade so you have to find a good perennial retailer.  It grows 3' by 3' with big maple-like leaves.  If placed in back of the shade bed other perennials will look great in front.  The flower buds in the picture that are just developing now in my garden will open into clumps of yellow bell flowers (click the link for other images) in August and September. Shade gardens tend to mix different textures and leaf shades and these big leaves are a great addition with Hostas, Astilbes and Ferns.  Kirengeshoma can tolerate some sun, but really prefers the back of a bed under a tree in the shade.

Pulmonaria (Lungwort) - How can you not love a plant called Lungwort.  This is one of the earliest perennials to flower just as it emerges from the ground.  Click the link to see some of the flower colors. They range from blues to pinks to purple's and blend nicely with scilla, muscari and early daffodils.  Pulmonaria can tolerate some sun and does best in a part sun location but will also do well in the shade.  While the flowers are nice, the leaves are the best addition to the leaf variety in the shade garden.  The leaves you see can vary in shape and degree of white mottling.  They form a nice mound of leaves about 18" wide and often sprout little extras on the side than can be dug up and planted elsewhere as a new plant.  Also, it can be divided every 5 years or so for more plants.  Division is a great way to increase the density of your plants as well as sharing with friends.

Monarda (Bee Balm) - Bee Balm is a classic old garden perennial, and now there are many different cultivars available of different sizes and colors.  Long stalks develop from 2-4' and on top in July, these wonderful tubular flowers emerge from the top of the stalk and continue to open underneath for a month.  When the top of the stalk is done, flowers emerge on branching down below and are encouraged by pruning off the finished blooms.  This plant can put on a show through the heat of the summer.  I love it in masses of several plants so the color really pops.  It loves full sun to partial shade.  In too much shade the flowering is limited and powdery mildew really covers the leaves.  Many newer varieties resist the mildew. Another fun fact is that Bee Balm makes a wonderful tea, actually, it was the substitute for real tea during the Boston Tea Party.  Those ex-english still needed their afternoon cuppa

These are just a few favorites, and by no means an exhaustive list.  With perennials you have a chance to try anything with relatively little expense.  Once you find some favorites of your own you can provide greater impact by dividing to get more plants (most but not all perennials can be divided).  The best way to provide impact with perennials is to group several plants in threes, fives, sevens, etc, so when they flower their impact can be seen collectively.  Odd numbers help to keep patterns from developing, unless your intention is to create geometric patterns.

This is the dessert of gardening, so have fun and experiment.

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