By Karna Berg, Master Gardener
It is so much fun to walk into a garden center, look around, and think, I want everything! The urge to buy that beautiful plant often becomes too much, and off you go with a plant you are sure will fit somewhere in your garden. Maybe, maybe not.
Unlike annuals, one of the many wonderful benefits of perennials is they come back year after year. But that only happens if you 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 that garden center.
A beautiful plant meant for Arizona or Washington will not like it here in Minnesota. Perennials meant to make it through our winters need to be marked for 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 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.
And then of course all plants need some water but the question is, how much and how often? 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. If your soil falls somewhere in between clay and sand, most Zone 4 plants will be happy.
Fortunately, there are 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. A good reference book for 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.