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No-Woe Perennials Turn Black Thumbs Into Garden Pros — Here’s the Dirt on These Power Plants

These annuals are in it for the long haul.


With hundreds of plants — and tens of thousands of colors, shapes, and textures — to choose from, figuring out which flowers and plants will meet you and your garden’s needs can be overwhelming. Enter perennials, a power plant that blooms each year and requires little to no work. (Hence their appeal to black thumbs and those with little time for front yard maintenance.) If you think perennials might be right for you, here are the answers to some common FAQs.

What exactly is a perennial?

Simply put, a perennial is any plant that lives longer than two years (annuals live for one year; biennials, for two). In most cases, these plants bloom in the spring and summer into fall, die back once the first frost occurs, and then reemerge the following spring. But some perennial foliage and grasses (sedge, mondo) are evergreen, depending on your climate.

Why do I want perennials in my garden?

Whether you’re drawn to dainty flowers or fantastic foliage, there’s a perennial that will fit the bill. And the beautiful thing is, you can plan a garden featuring an abundance of colors and textures and create a dynamic, ever-changing view from season to season and sometimes, day to day. It’s also fun to play with the different height and width possibilities that perennials offer. Some, like hosta, create beautiful ground cover with large, shiny, gray-green leaves; others, like delphinium, can reach 6 feet tall. Mixing and matching different heights can be as exciting as creating a color palette. Choosing different plants — for borders, fillers, showstoppers, containers, and more — is half the fun.

How long can perennials live?

If you choose the proper plants and treat them right (and Mother Nature cooperates), there are some perennials that can last as long as 15 years. If that happens, think how much money you’ll save after you make that initial investment!

That all sounds great. What are the odds of that happening?

Just as perennials come in a number of colors and textures, they also come with different needs. Sadly, just because they can last for years doesn’t mean they will. While some perennials are naturally pretty much pest-free (foamy bells, balloon flowers) or low maintenance (peonies, hostas, salvias), you can’t just plant and then prop up your feet. You’ll need to learn how to choose plants appropriate for your hardiness zone, get healthy and well-draining soil, and plan for proper sun exposure, watering, mulching, fertilizing, and more.

How long will it take for my perennials to be ready for their close-ups?

Gardening isn’t about instant gratification. It takes many perennials about three years to
fully mature — and depending on how you grow them, some may not produce flowers for a few years. For example, butterfly weed is easy to grow from seed, but you won’t see flowers for two to three years.

I don’t have a yard. How are perennials in pots?

Perennials are great in pots! Give them the proper amount of sun and fertilizer and water them often, and they should thrive. Even better, you can move your pots around and create a dynamic, ever-changing “garden.”

Are perennials more work than annuals?

As mentioned, some perennials require hardly any work at all; others are very high maintenance and require near constant attention. But even then, for most gardeners, the hard work is worth it because of the sense of pride that comes when those plants come back and continue to thrive year after year. It’s worth noting that you can add annuals in with your perennials — both in containers or in your garden beds, where they will help keep weeds at bay.

Are there any poisonous perennials?

Quite a few perennials are unsafe to ingest, including some really pretty ones like artemisia, buttercups, chrysanthemums, delphinium, and irises. If any plant is ingested, and you have questions about toxicity, immediately call your local poison control center.

How much do perennials typically cost?

Depending on what you’re buying, bulbs and plants purchased at nurseries or via the internet can cost anywhere from $5 to $30 apiece, so filling up a new garden can really add up. Luckily, there are cheaper alternatives. Ask friends and neighbors for divisions of some of their more successful plants — most gardeners are delighted to share. Shop garage sales and estate sales for plants. Seeds are also an inexpensive way to introduce perennials to your garden.

Which perennials will attract hummingbirds?

Did you know that hummingbirds can eat up to 50 times a day? In addition to different types of insects and larvae, they also like to eat flower nectar. You can make your garden the hottest spot for hummingbirds to drop by and dine daily by planting flowers like penstemons, fuchsias, red salvias, and bee balms.

If I live in a cold place with a lot of snow, do I have any prayer of keeping perennials alive?

Yes! A layer of snow is great insulation for your soil and actually protects your plants. And when the snow melts in the spring, it adds moisture to the soil, which will kick-start your perennials’ growth.

Are there guarantees in gardening?

You can do everything “right” — pick a perennial that makes sense for your location and soil type, give it plenty of sun and water, dote on it — and that plant may die. Conversely, you can plant a perennial that shouldn’t succeed in your garden, and it may thrive. Figuring out (and keeping track of) what works and what doesn’t is part of what makes gardening so rewarding.

A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, Perennials.

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