Ruth Foster: Puzzling perennials

Ruth Foster

I have lost more perennials than I care to count. However, the "survivors” –– those that have reliably returned each year –– are the ones I have been given.

Many are more than 40-years-old. Some were even my mother's (white hosta and iris). And survivors bring with them garden memories.

Here are some of the dirty little secrets about perennials:

· Some varieties grow better than others: the carefully chosen ones. I planted some years ago in a special choice bed by my window, and they have disappeared.

· A brilliant young scientist who was a great gardener explained the one-third rule of perennials. Of new ones planted, after one year, one-third will die, one-third will live and one-third you won't like.

· Weeds grow better than perennials. So does ivy, myrtle, grass, poison ivy, etc.

· Something always needs clipping, deadheading, cutting back, pulling out. Hence the need to always carry a paper bag and garden shears when you walk through the garden.

· Famous Victorian gardener Gertrude Jeckyl, who introduced the style of exquisite perennial beds, always carried her trusty "secateurs." A servant gardener followed with the pick-up bag.

Here are some survivor secrets for happier perennials:

· Survivors that come up each year are vigorous ones that spread and multiply, and so people give them away to family and friends. My list is very, very long … cousin Ethel's coral bells, Serina Modigliani's columbine, etc. Every day, someone visits me through these plant gifts.

· Many of the delicate perennials and biennials we love survive by re-seeding themselves (columbine, campanula, phlox, mallow, iberis, violets and many others). One can help by dropping the ripe seed heads under the plants to keep them coming along.

· Others plants are easy to re-propagate and spread around in early spring or late august by splitting off and planting the young little vigorous shoots that grow at the outside edges of old clumps. It takes a year or two for seedlings and shoots to establish and bloom.

· Throw some flowering annuals (seeds or plants) in bare spots. Guilt free.

Fertilizer helps:

· When Gertrude planted her lily bulbs, her gardener shot a rabbit and put one in the bottom of each hole for fertilizer.

· A scientist whose garden grows much better than mine just sprinkles bulb fertilizer once in spring and late fall "because it's easier."

· I lightly scratch in something like 10-10-10 (without touching the plant), and then water it in. Soluble liquid fertilizer is even easier, though shorter lasting, so apply once in May and again in June.

· Compost or enhanced organic mulch is good. But depending on its chemical ingredients and composting technique, it may affect the flower/foliage ratio. Too much usually favors more greenery.

Where can one find the survivors? When people share their plants, you know they're tough genetic survivor stock. Otherwise, they wouldn't have plants to spare. The best place to find these good survivors is at garden-club plant sales where people dig up and contribute their hardy favorites.

Ruth S. Foster is a landscape consultant and arborist in Massachusetts. More gardening information can be found on her website: