Arts and Entertainment

Mad about perennials

My life is filled with plants. In my nursery I have thousands of them. In my garden probably hundreds. They range from trees to shrubs to ground covering perennials, bulbs and annuals. I love them all, some more than others, but they all bring me great joy at various times of the year. It is this late winter, early spring season that I get the greatest joy from my perennials. Here is why.

Perennials are permanent plants that come back every spring. At least that is what they are supposed to do. Some may be short lived and fade away after just a few seasons. Others may multiply rapidly and need dividing after a few seasons. But most of them just keep chugging along year after year after year, gaining a little girth each season and becoming more substantial as time goes on until it is impossible to imagine your garden without them. That is the attraction of perennials. They can't help but grow on you. (No pun intended.)

For me, perennials give me the same kind of excitement I receive from opening Christmas presents. There is the anticipation of what lies inside the wrapping, or in the case of perennials, what lies just under the surface of the ground. You know there is something special down there just waiting to wake up and spring to life. And the really thrilling part of it is that whatever was there last year is going to be bigger and better this year. More shoots, more flowers, more impact than ever before. These plants truly appreciate in value and enjoyment every year they remain in the ground. It's a solid investment that never crashes.

Perennials are such a diverse group of plants that it can seem a bit overwhelming when one first visits the garden center. There are perennials for the shade, the sun, moisture lovers, drought lovers, early, mid and late bloomers, ones with evergreen foliage, ones that melt away at the first frost, ones that have woody stems that almost resemble shrubs, tall ones, short ones, skinny ones and fat ones. In short, there is a perennial for almost any nook or cranny in your garden. The choices are almost endless.

You can find a perennial that blooms every month of the year. No, let me rephrase that. For every month of the year, there is a perennial that blooms. Even in the dead of winter we have perennials that are in full bloom. Don't ask me why, it make no sense to me but it is never the less a fact. Hellebores, both the Christmas Rose and the Lenten Rose are winter bloomers. Likewise, in the heat of the summer or the fall of the year, and of course spring, you will find a perennial (actually many perennials) that has reached its pinnacle of growth and is doing what all plants are programmed to do, namely bloom their freaking heads off in the name of perpetuating the species.

To reap the full benefits of perennials one has to make a commitment to visit the garden center on a monthly basis. The reason is simple. Most perennials only bloom for 5-6 weeks. If you want to see a perennial that blooms in February you won't find it in April. Similarly, if you want a perennial that blooms in the fall, you won't find it in May. Or at least, you won't notice it because chances are that the garden center has it but because you are so drawn to color you simply skip right past it. It takes some effort to get year around color from perennials. But for those gardeners that take the time to do so, the rewards are immeasurable.

The other quality that perennials bring to a garden is change. Unlike a shrub that provides structure but little seasonal variation, perennials can start at ground zero in the spring and be 6 feet tall by September, all the time changing their impact on the overall design of the garden. My "tropical looking" border in my front yard looks like a nuclear waste zone this time of year but by the fall it will resemble an Amazonian jungle. I find this constant motion to be very entertaining. It keeps my interest all through the season and leaves me in a state of constant expectation of what is yet to come. You simply can't get that kind of excitement from a shrub.

So I challenge you, if you aren't already doing so, to start incorporating perennials into your garden. Pick up a few every month of the year and in no time at all you will have a garden that keeps your interest 12 months a year. Guaranteed!

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, a retail garden center that is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. You can reach Steve at 425-334-2002 or online at

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