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Combining several types of perennials adds contrast and extends the blooming season. Dave Wallis / The Forum

Growing Together: Perennials that pack a punch

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variety Fargo, 58102
Fargo ND 101 5th Street North 58102

If I were reincarnated, I’d like to come back as a peony. They quietly go about their business while being rock-solid and long-lived. As a peony, I would require little fuss. Yes, another life as a perennial would suit me.

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Peonies are what being a perennial is all about. By definition, a perennial is a plant that lives from year to year, as opposed to an annual, which completes its lifecycle in one growing season. A hardy perennial has the inner ability to survive our winters.

Peonies are a fine perennial example. Thirty years ago when I traveled the state with North Dakota State University Extension Horticulture, I learned of a peony documented to have been in place for over 100 years on a rural farmstead. It was an old-fashioned pink variety, blooming and healthy.

Unfortunately, not all perennials are as long-lived as peonies. Like people, some by nature have shorter life spans. Long-lived perennials form a stable backbone of the perennial garden. Combining them with an assortment of other types provides seasonlong color since most perennials have a two to six week bloom span.

Because all perennials are not created equal, let’s separate them into categories that will help us choose.

Long-lived perennials

Long-lived perennials can remain in place for years without digging, dividing and resetting – as long as bloom and vigor continue.

In addition to peonies, bleeding heart is an old-fashioned beauty that performs well in part shade. Gas plant (Dictamnus) actually resents dividing, and is best left alone once established. It is well-named because flower stalks emit a gas that will actually flame when a match is held close.

Hosta (pronounced hah-stuh rather than hoe-stuh) is a long-lived staple of the shade garden, although some varieties perform in sun. Hundreds of varieties exhibit foliage from gold to blue to variegated. Some have beautifully fragrant flowers that attract bees.

Daylilies round out our list of long-timers. New varieties with huge, vibrant flowers have made older, weedy varieties obsolete. Although compact Stella d’Oro has become a household name, try some of the taller daylilies with much larger blooms.

Mid-life

Our list continues with perennials slightly less long lived, but still highly recommended. Every three to five years they benefit from dividing and resetting. For example modern iris varieties are best divided every third or fourth year in August.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea) is native in the Dakotas and western Minnesota. Blooming in mid-summer at 3 feet high, it will reseed itself if seed cones are left to ripen.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) blooms from mid-summer onward at 2 to 3 feet. Its golden flowers are beautiful in mass plantings.

Beebalm (Monarda) grows to 3 or 4 feet with mid-summer blooms of pink, lavender and rose and attracts pollinating insects and butterflies.

Similarly, Butterflyweed (Asclepias) is an attractant also with yellow/orange flowers on a 2-foot plant that blooms in mid-summer. While we’re on the subject, Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium) has been called a butterfly magnet with rose-pink flowers and 4 feet height.

Heliopsis has an extended season of bloom from early summer on. Sunny yellow flowers are born on a 3 foot plant. Goats beard (Aruncus) will bloom in partial shade with plumes of white flowers in late spring and a height of 3 feet. Blue blossoms of Russian Sage (Perovskia) plus silvery foliage provides colorful accent from mid-summer onward.

Tall garden phlox (Phlox paniculata) yields pyramidal clusters of white, pink, rose and purple in mid-summer on 3 foot plants. Low-growing creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) is a popular May-bloomer in pastel shades of pink, rose and lavender. 

Balloon flower (Platycodon) has an extended bloom season from mid-summer on. Blossoms are bluish-lavender on plants growing 1 to 3 feet tall. Sedums are available in low-growing ground cover forms plus 18-inch types like Autumn Joy which blooms in late summer.

Short-life

Rounding out our perennial list are those with short life spans often requiring yearly work.

Chrysanthemums (mums for short) flower profusely until hard fall freezes, when most other perennials have called it quits. They bloom nicely the first autumn from spring planting. The centers often die over winter, necessitating digging and resetting perimeter plantlets as they begin spring growth. Allow tops to remain over winter to catch insulating snow.

Included on the list of short-timers are lupines, which are beautiful but struggle with our soil situation. Gaillardia and Coreopsis merit planting, but often need replacement every few years. Delphiniums with their stately tall flower spikes are beautiful but labor intensive with requirements for moist, yet well-drained soil, and resetting every one to three years.

The wide variety of beauty would make reincarnation as a perennial delightful. I’ve no doubt my wife Mary would return as a sweetly fragrant rose. I just hope I don’t come back as quackgrass.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler’s Greenhouse in Fargo. Tune in to his weekly radio show from 10 to 10:30 a.m. Wednesdays on WDAY Radio 970. Readers can reach him at forumgrowingtogether@hotmail.com

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