By Karna Berg, Master Gardener, and Julie Harris, Master Gardener
May is the month when gardeners’ dreams turn to planting. We dream of a garden filled with interesting, colorful flowers all season. And while we can achieve season-long color by planting annuals every year, there is much to be gained by planting perennials that will return year after year. Filling your garden with perennials is more economical than planting annuals every year, perennials – especially native perennials – are beneficial to our environment, and with some planning, perennials will provide a colorful display all season. In order to achieve these benefits, you must pick the right perennial for the right spot in your garden. That means you need to start your selection process at home, before you set foot in your garden center which will be filled with tempting plants that may or may not grow successfully in your garden.
A beautiful plant meant for Arizona or Washington will not like it here in Minnesota. Perennials that are likely to make it through our Minnesota winters need to be identified as Zone 3 or 4. We are all tempted by a Zone 5 plant now and then, and some of them will make it in a sheltered spot or with some babying, but the risk is that just when that plant gets to its mature size, a nasty winter it doesn’t like comes along and it’s a goner.
Then there is the issue of light. If you put a shade loving plant in a sunny spot, it may make it but will require more watering and could disappoint you with burned leaves and wilting flowers. If you put a sun loving plant in a shady spot, it will not be happy. It may live a few years but never look like the picture on the tag that made you bring it home. So, consider the amount of sun in the spot in your garden calling for a new plant. If the tag says full sun, that spot should get 6 – 8 hours of direct sun every day. If the tag says part sun or shade, the spot should get 3 – 6 hours of direct light. Any plant that will make it in less than 3 hours of direct sun a day should be marked for full shade.
Most plants will do well in “loamy” (equal parts sand, silt and clay) soil but most of us in Dakota County will not have such hospitable soil. If you have a lot of clay in your garden, know that it will hold water for extended periods of time. If you put a plant there that loves to have its feet dry out between watering, it may not do well. The opposite is also true, some plants like a lot of water and wet feet. They would probably do better in that clay. As for sandy soil, it will drain quickly, so those water loving plants will not be happy. Get to know your soil and learn which plants are likely to prosper in it. It is also important to know if your soil has the nutrients necessary for plant health. You can get your soil tested at the University of Minnesota and take steps to improve your soil test, if necessary.
Most perennials will bloom for 2 – 4 weeks in a season. If you want to have plants blooming in your garden all season, pay attention to what time period a plant will bloom. You don’t want all the perennials in your garden to bloom in June or July. With a little research, you can plant a variety of perennials that will bloom at different times throughout the season and give you the color show that you desire.
But don’t discount characteristics of plants other than blooms that can provide beauty and interest. Many plants have a beautiful structure or interesting leaves or a different leaf color that can provide interest even when the plant is not blooming.
Resources to Choose the Best Plants for Your Garden
Fortunately, there are easy-to-use resources to help you select the best perennials for your garden site. Try this University of Minnesota Extension site for plants that do well in a variety of conditions. And, check out these award-winning Minnesota-friendly perennials. For a good reference book on Minnesota plants, try – Perennials for Minnesota and Wisconsin, by Don Engebretson and Don Williamson, published by Lone Pine Publishing USA.
We all experiment at times, trying a plant in a spot that’s iffy. Sometimes they make it, sometimes they don’t. That’s part of the fun of gardening. But for a sure thing, it pays to pay attention to the rules! While nothing will make a plant fool proof, at least it then has a better chance of thriving.