What is a perennial plant? Selection and care tips for gardeners

What is a perennial plant?  Selection and care tips for gardeners

Photo: istockphoto.com

Q: I recently moved to a new home and want to start a garden. As I was browsing plants at my local nursery, I noticed that some were labeled “annuals” and others were labeled “perennials.” I realize that an annual plant dies at the end of each growing season and must be replanted the following year, but what is a perennial?

a: I realized the difference between annuals and perennials! While annuals only live for one growing season, perennials are plants that can remain in the garden for at least two growing seasons. They die again in the winter, and then, as if by magic, they return full and renewed, ready for another journey in life. These plants are able to survive because their roots can withstand the winter climate in their harsh areas.

A garden full of perennials requires much less work than one that is mostly annuals. While there is still work to be done in a perennial garden – for example, pruning and weeding – there is no need to replant. Everything every year. (Replanting annuals every year can also be expensive.) While buying and planting perennials can be a larger investment initially, many of them are also easy to divide, which makes sharing free plants with neighbors and friends fun. Read on to learn more about what exactly perennials are, and how to incorporate these plants into your garden.

RELATED: 12 Perennial Plants to Plant for Years of Fresh Produce

Perennial is a hardy plant that blooms once a year.

Unlike many annuals, some of which can bloom all season, perennials bloom once a year, and many at specific times of the year. With their vibrant foliage, these plants still make attractive contributions to gardens even outside of their blooming periods.

  • May, spring flowers: Peonies and oriental poppies
  • June, early summer blooms: Astilbe, the purple coneflower
  • July, summer flowers: Hostas, Russian sage, garden phlox, butterfly weed
  • August and late summer blooms: Black-eyed Susan, the garden mother

The secret to a stunning perennial garden is to choose varieties that bloom at different times, ensuring that your garden will burst with color throughout the spring and summer, and pollinators and other garden creatures will have continuous access to food. Don’t be disappointed if your newly planted perennials don’t bloom right away. You may need to wait a year or two to see them in their full glory.

Related: Upgrade your winter garden with these nine colorful perennials

Various host plants surrounded by red mulch

Photo: istockphoto.com

Know your hardiness zone before choosing perennials for your garden.

Perennials don’t last forever, but many can last for years if cared for properly. The other thing to remember is that not all perennials can survive the winter in every USDA hardiness zone, which is why it’s important to know the zone you live in and choose plants accordingly. Plants that may be perennial in the South may not survive in the windy Northeast. Dahlias, for example, are perennials in the southern United States but will not survive the winter in the north. If you buy a perennial from a nursery, check its label to see if it is a perennial in your area.

It is important to water newly planted perennials deeply and regularly to help them establish a strong root system. Getting rid of weeds is also essential for their well-being. However, fertilization is not a major concern. Most people tend to over-fertilize their perennials, which can prevent them from producing flowers.

Related: 15 Perennial Herbs to Grow in Your Garden

A father helps his young child water the plants using a metal jug

Photo: istockphoto.com

Plant perennials where they will thrive.

Although some perennials only live for 3 to 5 years, many can live much longer. The key to keeping these plants coming back is to plant them in places where they are most likely to thrive. Although perennials may be hardier than their annual cousins, you will still need to choose a location that suits each plant’s needs. Many perennials are happy in partial shade—for example, hostas are excellent shade plants for the garden—but some require a lot of sun. Examples of sun-loving perennials include peonies, roses and Russian sage.

RELATED: 15 Perennials to Plant in Fall for Beautiful Spring Flowers

Most types of perennials must be pruned before they can grow again.

To make room for new growth, many perennials require annual pruning. After the plant has finished blooming, cut it back to ground level. At the end of the season, remove dead foliage and broken branches, and protect the roots from freeze-thaw cycles by adding mulch around the base of the plants.

When the perennial is well established, it’s time to divide it. Dividing prevents overcrowding and controls plant growth, and is also a way to give and receive free plants to expand your garden. Division is best done when the plant is not actively flowering.

To divide a perennial plant, follow these steps:

  1. Dig up the plant you wish to divide.
  2. Lift it out of the hole and gently wipe away any dirt accumulated on the roots.
  3. Carefully separate the plant by separating the roots. Make sure each divided portion has at least three buds and a large root system.
  4. Replant the new plantings in a new area, and be sure to water them well.
A person prunes the pink Sedum flowers with pruning shears

Photo: istockphoto.com

Perennial plants are susceptible to pests and diseases.

Although perennials are hardy, they are still susceptible to competition from weeds and pests. The problem is that you can’t protect perennials from pests by rotating them, as you can with annuals like tomatoes and peppers. Instead, it is necessary to choose perennial varieties that are resistant to diseases and pests. Choosing native varieties can also reduce the chances of insects targeting your perennials. Cleaning up plant material at the end of the season can also prevent foliar diseases from returning the following season.

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