University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Spring News Article

CHOOSING PERENNIALS, ECOLOGICALLY

Dr. Leonard P. Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

The sustainable way to choose perennials for your garden, that will result in the least maintenance and best success for the plants, is to do so "ecologically" or by habitat.  Another way to say this is, "put the right plant in the right place" as far as its cultural needs are concerned.  This trend has become quite popular in Europe, and is now becoming better known in our own country.

Plants are all native somewhere, to some specific habitat.  This could be sun or shade, dry soil or wet, cool climates or hot, rock or bog gardens.  Placing plants in the habitat they originally came from will result in them thriving with minimal further input from us.  Misplace them, and we'll often battle to keep them growing and prospering.  This might mean higher maintenance such as weeding and pruning, more chemicals to control pests, and more soil amendments to make them drier or wetter.

Considering plant ecology when choosing and combining perennials will also help maintain the natural environment.  It can bring some of the natural world to an urban or suburban environment.  The garden can also be used as an outdoor classroom for the family.

You can have a more traditional perennial border or other gardens, yet base them on ecological principles and habitats.  The true garden based on these, emulating nature, is not for everyone.  Even the traditional garden, if not designed properly, will tend to revert to a more natural state.

So whether you choose the natural or more traditional approach, here are some ecological principles to consider in your designs and plant choices.

· Work with what you've got.  If you have wet soil, don't try and change the soil.  Rather, choose the best plants for it.  Disturb the soil as least as possible, and you'll have less work, and be following a new trend!

· Select plants as possible that are adaptable, disease-resistant, compact or strong-stemmed, and that will compete well with each other.  I've lost more than a few new and less vigorous perennials to their nearby aggressive neighbors.

· Strive for a natural design style.  Try to imitate nature.  This really goes counter to the traditional perennial beds with low in the front and taller in the back, often referred to as the "class photo" just as you had in school.  Bring some taller plants right to the front as you might find in nature.

· Plan to cover all the soil with plants.  I've found nature wants the soil covered, and not with bark mulch!  If you don't put something green there, nature will.  These we usually call weeds!  This doesn't mean you need a plant in every square foot.  Many perennials grow quite large, covering several square feet.  Space such perennials appropriately, and you'll need to buy less, and you can maintain between them easier.

· Nature generally goes for large numbers, so you should too.  Plant in large numbers, swaths, or masses.  Let one group "flow" into another, rather than have in distinct cookie-cutter clumps.

· Let some plants self-sow, and weed selectively.  This will give you more free plants, create a more natural effect, and is one of the keys to having a "cottage garden."

· Plan for year round interest.  This may include choosing plants that bloom at various times.  It also includes leaving some through the fall, not cutting back, for their winter interest.  Some of these provide seeds for birds as well.

If you do choose to go the more natural approach, surround the garden or beds with formal elements such as mown lawn, sharp edges, clipped shrubs, or statuary.  This will let others know your natural areas are managed and maintained, planned to look that way, and not just abandoned and grown wild!


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