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Good to Grow: Top 10 perennials for your garden

Jane, what are your top 10 perennials? The question was an innocent one, asked casually and off the cuff, with no idea of the tailspin it would create in my mind.

Favorite perennials? I didn’t know where to start when the Charleston Rose Society posed this question as a topic for their March meeting. As I began outlining my remarks I decided to break the topic into three categories: sun, shade and anywhere.

A few qualifiers before I begin this list. I have tried to suggest favorites that are also deer resistant (Note I say “resistant,” not deer “proof.” We know they will eat everything if they are hungry), easy maintenance and readily available in local nurseries. Plus, there are many on this list that will attract and feed bees, butterflies and birds.

The sun

Let’s start with sun. When planting in areas that receive at least six hours of sun each day, I look for blooms that will provide a show of color all summer long.

  • The sweet yellow border plant coreopsis will brighten your beds. This is a light and airy plant, and the pretty little blossoms seem to float above the ground. I use this in my sunny bed boarder, but it works well in containers. You might even see this in hanging baskets, although I doubt if planted in a container or hanging arrangement it will last more than one season unless it is planted in the ground in early fall.
  • I’m skipping right over daffodils and forsythia (yes, l love them) and moving on to Russian sage. This plant grows to a height of 2 to 5 feet and likes the soil a bit dry. The stems have an abundance of blue flowers from late summer through fall. With this plant the stems and leaves are equally attractive. Their blue-grayish color adds interest and is a compliment to the yellows and pink of the summer garden.
  • Bee balm (monarda) is another sun-loving plant that will add height and color to your sunny beds. This flower is often seen in a summer red shade that is attractive to hummingbirds. The blooms resemble a crown with the spikes coming from the base. Bee balm is a member of the mint family which means two things; it has a pleasant fragrance, and it will spread quickly when the roots are given plenty of water, it doesn’t like dry soil.

In the shade

  • For the shady garden spot, you can never go wrong with ferns or hellebores. A plant I have had luck with is Solomon’s Seal. It will grow in fairly deep shade and reach a height of 2 to 3 feet with stems arching to form architectural shapes. In the spring, white bell-shaped flowers appear, then are replaced with purplish berries which are poisonous to humans but loved by birds.
  • Lungwort (pulmonaria) is a pretty plant with a funny name. It doesn’t grow tall, maybe 9 to 10 inches, and although it has a small blue or white flower in the spring, it is the leaves that are what most gardeners enjoy. They are spotted and give the impression of dappling light shining through the shade. This plant likes slightly wet soil, but does nicely when grown under trees. If it’s happy it will grow in clumps and continue to spread.
  • Hardy begonias have a heart-shaped leaf that has red veins and a reddish tint underneath. In the late summer it will give you small pink blooms that appear to be dropping off the stems. It’s a nice shot of color for shady spots. Because this plant also likes the shade and moist soil, it is a good companion for ferns and hostas. Don’t be surprised when it reseeds and you have grouping of these plants coming up next year.

Anywhere

We have talked about sun and shade, but there are a few wonder plants that will grow just about anywhere.

  • For this section I’ll reference mostly ground covers, and I do love a good ground cover. I have had success with bugleweed (ajuga) in both sun and shade beds. Although there is flower, what I love is the leaf. It is sturdy and almost purple in color. It’s hardy and will quickly fill in any area where it is planted.
  • Same goes for creeping Jenny. There are some who would consider this an invasive plant — they say invasive, I say fast growing and spreads quickly. Because of its chartreuse color and ability to spill over the edges, it is often seen in container gardens and stone gardens.
  • Mazus has filled in a spot in my front garden. It is a low plant with a tiny violet bloom in the early spring. This is one hardy ground cover. It has survived deer, a stray lawn mower and the pup. I love this plant.

My all-time fav

Now we are at the final countdown. After three sun, three shade and three anywhere plants, it is time for the big reveal. My No. 1 favorite perennial is the humble cone flower (echinacea). I have always said, you have to be a survivor to make it in the gardens at the little house on a big hill. I need plants that can flourish with very little attention from me. Cone flowers are that plant.

They love sun, grow 1 to 3 feet tall, can take the dry days of mid-summer, and they bloom. Boy, do they bloom! I have the traditional purple-pink, and although there are new varieties on the market, I’m sticking with this one. It has self-seeded to create a beautiful swath of color in my yard. Bees and butterflies swarm the blooms, and the stalks stand up to the pup running through the garden.

Many thanks to the Charleston Rose Society for inviting me to speak and encouraging me to name my top 10. After listing my favorites, I will leave you with my best advice: Grow what you love and what loves to grow in your environment. A happy plant will lead to a happy gardener.

Jane Powell is a long-time West Virginia Extension Service master gardener through the Kanawha County chapter and has a garden with sunny spots and shady beds where she grows perennials, vegetables and herbs. She is also the communications director for a community foundation and a volunteer with several nonprofits in the community. Reach Jane at janeellenpowell@aol.com.

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